The Human Rights Watch (HRW) have said Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo ) authorities have not meaningfully investigated the role of security forces in the killing of at least eight people in ethnic violence outside Goma in April 2021.
“Police commanders and officers implicated in at least three extrajudicial executions and other killings should be suspended, fully investigated, and appropriately prosecuted.
“On April 11 and 12, 2021, ethnic Kumu men who were later joined by local police and military police, raided the Buhene district in Congo’s eastern North Kivu province, killing at least eight ethnic Nande, leaving scores more wounded, and looting Nande-owned houses and businesses. Seven women and ten children were among the wounded.
“The authorities’ failure for over a year to investigate strong evidence of unlawful police killings in Buhene highlights the broader problem of impunity in Congo,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The families of the victims are entitled to justice, which the government seems to have no desire to provide.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 56 people over the past year in Goma and Buhene, including victims and witnesses, local activists, political and traditional leaders, police officers, members of parliament, judicial and medical sources, and journalists.
The killings took place following general strikes and protests across North Kivu, including a four-day general strike by shops and markets known as journées villes mortes (ghost town days). During this strike some people marched for peace and increased civilian protection, particularly in Beni, a predominantly Nande area that has been hit hardest by recent violence. Between April 8 and 11, security forces killed at least five people, including two children, while breaking up protests across the province, Human Rights Watch determined.
On the last evening of protests, April 11, two ethnic Kumu men were killed in Buhene, sparking ethnic tensions with Kumu community members, who immediately accused Nande residents of the killings. These killings were apparently never investigated. Several witnesses said that Kumu men began erecting barricades in the streets on the same night while shouting “tomorrow will be the end of the Nande!”
Tensions escalated overnight as uniformed police officers carrying assault rifles joined scores of Kumu men armed with wooden sticks and machetes, who attacked Nande residents, property, and businesses. The attacks continued through the morning of April 12. Provincial authorities eventually sent security forces from Goma to quell the violence.
Human Rights Watch has confirmed that at least 8 Nande were killed on April 11 and 12, while another 40 people, mostly Nande, were wounded during the attack, including more than 20 from gunshot wounds. At least 40 Nande-owned houses and businesses were burned, and dozens more were ransacked and looted.
Several witnesses said that the attackers asked residents if they were Nande. “A group of bandits and two police officers ran after me and another person,” said an 18-year-old Nande student who was shot in the leg. “When they caught up with us, they asked [the other person] if he was Nande. He said yes and [one of the policemen] shot him in the head – he died on the spot.” The student, who was in school uniform that morning, said his life was spared because he spoke Kinyarwanda, the language of the attackers.
Kumu assailants were typically scattered in small groups and joined by one or two armed police officers. Several witnesses said they recognized their neighbors and members of the local police force – also mainly Kumu – among the attackers.
Following the attacks, security forces arrested about 30 Kumu and Nande youth, and accused them of being involved in the violence. All were eventually released without charge. Although victims and witnesses identified some police officers among the assailants, none were subsequently arrested, suspended, or investigated.
On April 15, North Kivu’s provincial assembly set up a commission to investigate the violence and killings. However, it had not conducted any investigations before President Felix Tshisekedi declared martial law in the province on May 6, handing over powers to the military and suspending all provincial parliamentary work.
Between April 18 and 25, members of the national parliament took part in a commission d’information (commission of information) in Goma and Buhene to “inquire about the very tense situation.” The unpublished commission’s report, which Human Rights Watch has seen, raised “the involvement of some members of the police in the burning of houses and looting of property.” It also recommended the “prompt” establishment by the national parliament of a commission of inquiry “to uncover serious leads of complicity and other wrongdoings to be seriously sanctioned by justice.” However, parliament never followed up.
A North Kivu member of parliament told Human Rights Watch that since martial law came into force in May, the new authorities “[haven’t] shown interest in investigating” what had happened.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the Ministry of Information to present its findings but did not receive a response.
Congolese authorities outside the local police chain of command should promptly conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into the causes of the violence, the role of the police, and everyone responsible for abuses, regardless of position or rank, Human Rights Watch said.
“Allegations of summary executions and other abuses by Buhene’s police force should be fully and impartially investigated,” Fessy said. “There should be no room for criminal offenders within Congo’s security forces, and martial law should be no pretext to leave victims and their families without justice.”
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