Still no justice for massacres in western DRC

Published: 17 Dec 2019
By: Thijs Van Laer


Exactly one year ago, hundreds of people were slaughtered in Yumbi, in western Democratic Republic of Congo. On 15 and 16 December 2018, assailants targeted members of the Nunu ethnic group in a deliberate and organised manner. The attack lasted less than 48 hours but left the area in total disarray.

As attention is again focused on the eastern part of the DRC, especially on the troubled responses to the massacres around Beni and the Ebola virus, many seem to have forgotten what took place in this remote area about 300 km north of the capital, Kinshasa.

Yet in the region, the attacks are all but forgotten. Victims are struggling to rebuild their lives and communities. Many survivors interviewed by International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) said that they knew the perpetrators; yet nobody has been convicted so far for organising or carrying out the massacres. That makes reconciliation between the communities difficult.

What happened?

The massacres were sparked by the burial of a deceased customary leader of the Nunu community in Yumbi town on 14 December 2018, which was perceived as a provocation by the Tende community. The two groups have competed over land, leadership and livelihoods for decades. On 16 December, organised groups of Tende attacked Nunu in Yumbi town, and neighbouring villages the next day. Some attackers were armed with guns and wore military clothing.

According to a UN inquiry, more than 535 people were killed. Many were burned alive when their houses were torched, others were killed as they tried to escape. Bodies were dismembered and disembowelled. Some Nunu committed crimes in retaliation. A survivor who lost three children and her daughter-in-law in the attacks told IRRI she heard an assailant in military uniform say: “Our mission is to kill the Nunu. If we shoot at them and they are not dead yet, you have to finish them off with machetes.”

This was not a spontaneous outburst of inter-community violence. Local leaders organised, supported and incited the violence, as they have done in the past. Some Tende alerted their Nunu neighbours. Higher echelons of government failed to respond, even after several military and government officials were killed. After conducting its own inquiry into the events, the government said provincial authorities should have taken measures to prevent the violence. The then-governor of Mai-Ndombe province was questioned, but is currently the governor of Kinshasa, a step up in his political career but a slap in the face of victims. The relationship between the Nunu community and the current provincial government remains difficult because of the latter’s failure to protect them during the massacres.

There have been several round of arrests of people suspected of being involved in the killings, but their trial has not yet commenced. The military prosecution has said it lacks the means to continue investigations, but many suspect the delay is political. The wheels of justice again turn painfully slowly in the DRC. That’s why it’s important that UN mission, MONUSCO, and others monitor and support the proceedings.

What can be done?

Justice remains as important as ever, as many are struggling to rebuild their lives, their homes and the social fabric of their communities. Health centres, schools and fishing boats were destroyed, and efforts to replace or rebuild them have been not been completed. Displaced people were reluctant to return, and struggled to pick up their lives when coming back. While the continuous military presence ensured security in most of the villages, many fear to work on their agricultural lands. That is where most killings took place, and land disputes were at the root of the violence.

More effort will be needed to convince people to take back their place in society. President Tshisekedi’s government  will have to show commitment in the fight against impunity. As a nurse who took care of many of the victims told IRRI: “First, justice has to do its work, if not, no solution will be possible.”

The trial against those currently in detention should take place soon and be complemented by additional prosecutions against those who instigated and organised the violence. Crimes which may rise to the level of crimes against humanity cannot go unpunished.

Because many perpetrators live alongside the victims, national prosecutions should be complemented, when communities express their readiness to do so, by local forms of transitional justice, allowing for truth-telling, reconciliation and compensation. Authorities should put more effort into reconstructing social services and the social fabric in Yumbi. Failing to do so will only increase the risk of renewed violence.

Programmes: Resolving Displacement
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Democratic Republic of Congo
Type: External Article