In the past few weeks, away from international headlines, the Democratic Republic of Congo has seen a stolen election and a horrific massacre in a remote region. Steve Shaw reports.
By Steve Shaw
A site for Internally-displaced persons in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Photo credits: UN)
In the early afternoon of December 16th, a burst of gunfire echoed through the remote town of Yumbi, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Not long after that, dark plumes of smoke began rising as homes were set alight. It was the start of a two-day massacre that saw attackers, armed with rifles and machetes, sweep through Yumbi and its surrounding villages shooting dead hundreds and finishing off others with machetes. Some were burnt to death. Churches, schools and health centres were also either looted or destroyed.
Yumbi is located in a region so remote that it took more than a month for a team working for the United Nations (UN) to reach it. The team’s report concluded that “at least 535 civilians were killed in four attacks”. Other estimates, however, have put the death toll as high as 900, with reports of at least 339 killed in Bongende alone — a village the UN says was “completely destroyed”. Florence Marchal, a spokesperson for the UN’s mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), told Ceasefire:
“In total, these four attacks resulted in the death of at least 535 men, women and children, and 111 injured. Furthermore 967 sites, including 14 churches, 17 schools and five health centres were either looted or destroyed. At least 363 boats were also destroyed.”
The UN team found 59 mass graves with at least a dozen bodies buried in them. However, Marchal says, “this does not cover all burial sites” and more are likely to be found. No one has claimed responsibility for the atrocities, and a full investigation is yet to be carried out, but it has been alleged that the spark was lit in the country’s capital, Kinshasa, where a tribal chief belonging to the Banunu ethnic group recently passed away. His body was sent to Yumbi so that he could be buried, next to his father’s grave, by members of the Banunu community — the largest ethnic minority in the region. Tensions between the Banunu and the majority Batende community had been simmering for some time and the burial on the night of December 13 was the final straw.
However, another report, from the news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP), indicates the burial may have been used as a pretext for something far more calculated: a carefully planned massacre with the support of members of the military. Investigators for AFP visited the site and claim they were told that the attackers had used military-style tactics. Some of them, according to the AFP investigators, were dressed in army uniforms. The territorial administrator, Colonel Olivier Gasita, told AFP that “between 3,000 and 4,000 men attacked the area” and that they used tactics that show “military men, either deserters or demobilised men, were involved”.
The local chief of the National Intelligence Agency was arrested and is currently being investigated, while Yumbi’s police chief has been on the run since the bloodshed. The UN is now calling for a full independent investigation to piece together what has happened.
Meanwhile, aid agencies are now scrambling to help the estimated 16,000 people who have fled from the region. This includes around 7,000 people who, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), sought refuge by crossing the river into the Republic of Congo. Nicolas Doire, a spokesperson for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said:
“The majority of the refugees are in the Makotimpoko District of the Republic of Congo, while Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are spread over the islands on the Congo River, among host communities in villages on the Yumbi-Bolobo axis, as well as in the Lukolela territory. Most of the wounded have been treated locally in hospitals and some were transferred to Kinshasa for further treatment. An NGO partner has been conducting mobile health clinics in order to reach the internally displaced and provide basic health care. The IDPs are in a critical situation as most of them have lost their homes — it is estimated that 1,000 homes were destroyed — and their belongings. They have no means to meet their basic needs.”
The bloodshed meant thousands of people were left unable to vote in the presidential elections that were held days later, and which saw the departure of the country’s long-running President, Joseph Kabila.
Kabila had been in charge of the DRC for 18 years, during which he has been widely accused of enriching himself and his family while leaving his people to suffer in poverty. Transparency International ranked the country 161 out of 180 in its 2017 corruption index. That corruption is believed to have extended into the 2018 elections, which were plagued with irregularities and even resulted in the Government briefly shutting down internet connections and SMS services to avoid “rumour-mongering” about the outcome.
Kabila has now handed over power to Felix Tshisekedi, a man who many observers claim won just 19 per cent of the vote and who has since discussed forming a coalition government with Kabila. Despite independent analysts callingTshisekedi’s win a “huge fraud”, the US has given the new leader its full backing, declaring the result a “peaceful and democratic transfer of power” while also denying visas to people involved “in significant corruption relating to the election process”.
Historically the US has played a significant part in causing and enabling the corruption at the root of many of the problems in the DRC and because of this it has a particular responsibility to only endorse a genuinely democratic process. In 1960, the DRC celebrated the election of Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first Prime Minister since it gained independence from Belgium. Lumumba’s policies aimed to transform the region by eliminating ethnic divisions and using the country’s vast natural resources to lift people out of poverty.
But like so many other leaders who have declared their intention to use their own country’s resources to serve the people of the DRC, this was seen as a threat to western interests. Just one year after he was elected, Lumumba was arrested, tortured and executed with the support of the CIA, the UK’s MI6 and the Belgian government. He was replaced by the western-backed Joseph Mobutu, a dictator who created a massively corrupt totalitarian regime and presided over the country for three decades until he was overthrown by Kabila’s father.
The post-Mobutu period led to two decades of war and saw the country’s vast natural resources plundered by international companies, who have been siphoning-off profits while leaving the country’s population in complete poverty. The most recent Human Development Index, produced by the UN in 2015, ranked the DRC as the 176th poorest country (out of 187) in the world.
If the US and other countries fully endorse the flawed election of Tshisekedi, they will effectively be endorsing the continuation of the cycle of corrupt politics and violence that has plagued the DRC in the decades since Lumumba’s murder. Unless the world acts, the horrific scenes at Yumbi might prove to be merely the ominous start of much bleaker things to come.
Steve Shaw is a UK-based journalist whose writing has been featured in New Internationalist, The Diplomat, Global Comment, The Tibet Post and others. He has also contributed to several stories featured on BBC Radio and local news publications across the UK. He has lived and worked among exiled Tibetans in the foothills of the Himalayas and Burmese migrants in Thailand. His global reporting has covered major human rights issues ranging from state surveillance in the UK and human trafficking in Nepal to the genocide of the Rohingya people in Burma.
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