(Brussels, July 21, 2008) - The killing and rape of civilians in the eastern province of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo continues at a horrifying rate despite the signing of a peace accord six months ago, Human Rights Watch said today. The agreement was supposed to stop such attacks.
In a recent 10-day mission to the most affected territories of Masisi and Rutshuru in eastern Congo, Human Rights Watch researchers documented more than 200 killings of civilians and the rape of hundreds of women and girls since January by all armed groups, including Congolese army soldiers.
"Six months after the peace agreement was signed there has been no improvement in the human rights situation and in some areas it has actually deteriorated," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "While the parties to the peace agreement attend talks in Goma, their troops continue to kill, rape, and loot civilians."
On January 23, 2008, after weeks of talks, the Congolese government signed a peace agreement in Goma, North Kivu, with 22 armed groups committing all parties to an immediate ceasefire, disengagement of forces from frontline positions, and to abide by international human rights law. Following the signing, the Congolese government set up a peace program, called the Amani Program, to coordinate peace efforts in eastern Congo. Yet the government and international donors have provided limited funds to carry out that work.
The agreement failed to halt the fighting. United Nations officials have documented some 200 ceasefire violations since January 23, the majority between the forces of renegade general Laurent Nkunda's National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) and a loose coalition of combatants from the Mai Mai Mongol, the Coalition of Congolese Patriotic Resistance (PARECO), and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Rwandan armed group whose leaders participated in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The FDLR was not a party to the Goma agreement.
Human Rights Watch also found credible evidence that soldiers from the Congolese national army were supporting the PARECO, Mai Mai Mongol, and FDLR coalition, questioning the government's commitment to the peace process.
Many of the worst human rights abuses were committed in and around the Bukombo administrative area in western Rutshuru, where some 150 civilians were killed between February and May 2008. PARECO and Mai Mai Mongol combatants, many of whom are untrained and poorly equipped, held the area from December to March, supported by FDLR combatants. According to dozens of people interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the fighters repeatedly raided villages for cattle, goats and other goods, raping women and girls, and killing civilians who opposed their activities or whom they accused of being collaborators of their enemies.
For example, on February 9, PARECO combatants raped Marie, a 24-year-old woman from Bukombo who was four months pregnant. "They told me that if I didn't allow them to rape me, they would kill me," she told Human Rights Watch. "They grabbed my legs and cut my lower right leg with a machete to show me they weren't joking." The rape was so violent that she miscarried her child. The attackers then killed Marie's brother, cutting him up with machetes behind the house. After the attackers killed at least two others in the village and raped four more women, they fled to a nearby Congolese army position.
In March and April, CNDP combatants launched a military offensive to dislodge PARECO and Mai Mai Mongol fighters from the Bukombo area killing some 100 civilians as they indiscriminately fired on more than a dozen villages. According to information gathered by Human Rights Watch, many of the dead were the elderly or very young who were unable to flee in advance of the attacks.
CNDP combatants also summarily executed civilians whom they accused of being PARECO combatants. In Gashavu village on April 20, CNDP combatants arrested and tied up four men and a 12-year-old boy and then beat them to death with large sticks. Six other civilians were abducted, including a woman and a 15-year-old girl. Some were later released.
These clashes and more recent ones in Kirumbu, Busoro and Busiye in Masisi territory, where CNDP are fighting PARECO and FDLR combatants, are responsible for the massive displacement of civilians since January and the worsening humanitarian situation. Nearly 100,000 people have been forced to flee in North Kivu since the peace agreement was signed, adding to the 750,000 displaced from the previous fighting.
Despite the ongoing clashes, some combatants have responded to the call to lay down their weapons. In May, hundreds of Mai Mai Mongol combatants surrendered, including 334 in the town of Bambu, and requested to be integrated into the Congolese army. But Congolese government authorities failed to respond promptly to their requests and by July 10 at least 94 of the combatants had left, and some were reported to have gone back to fighting.
As part of the ongoing hostilities, armed groups have continued to actively recruit combatants, some of whom have been forced to enter armed service.
UN peacekeeping troops - more than 5,000 are deployed in North Kivu - have attempted to move into the buffer zones between the fighting factions but they have been thinly spread and have been fired upon. On April 23, during the CNDP attacks in the Bukombo area, a UN peacekeeper was injured, resulting in their withdrawal from the area. On June 11, with little warning, UN peacekeepers pulled out of Misinga, a crucial buffer zone between CNDP and PARECO combatants, leaving hundreds of civilians unprotected who had sought safety around the UN base. Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that FDLR and PARECO combatants attacked soon after the United Nations' departure, killing at least one civilian and causing further displacement of the population.
Jean told Human Rights Watch that in April he fled from his village of Machumbi, in Masisi Territory, after PARECO combatants killed his wife in front of him. "They tied us up and demanded all of our money and our pigs." Jean recalled. "My wife refused to show them where she had hidden the pigs and they hit her with a large stick and stomped on her until she died." Jean, whose father was killed by the FDLR in January, managed to flee with his five children to Misinga camp, near a UN peacekeeping base where he thought he would be safe. In June the UN left the area, forcing him to flee again.
UN human rights officials have documented many of the abuses, but have neither published the information nor made it available to international facilitators from the United States, the European Union, and the African Union who are responsible for facilitating the peace process. Diplomats and Congolese government officials in June agreed to appoint a special advisor on human rights for eastern Congo but the post has yet to be filled.
"The peace process is meaningless if it fails to protect civilians from the worst abuses," said Van Woudenberg. "The parties to the peace agreement should abide by their commitments to protect civilians, and diplomats should urgently appoint a special advisor on human rights to ensure the commitments become a reality."