(Brussels, October 16, 2006) - The Congolese armed forces must immediately end their practice of abducting civilians and using them for forced labor in the country's northeastern Ituri district, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo must investigate and prosecute soldiers suspected of these crimes.
On September 17, nine civilians, including four women and two children, were abducted by government soldiers and taken to the military camp near Olongba village, an area just south of Ituri's capital, Bunia, from where they have since "disappeared." Family members believe that these civilians were killed, and last week held funerals to mark their deaths. In another incident on August 11, soldiers abducted 20 civilians in the nearby town of Gethy and forced them to harvest and transport manioc. Their whereabouts remain unknown.
Congolese army spokesmen say local militia groups are responsible for abducting these civilians, a claim countered by eyewitnesses and local human rights monitors who allege that government soldiers carried out the abductions and have in recent weeks been seen forcing some of the civilians to transport items.
"Congolese government soldiers were sent to Ituri to protect civilians against abuses by local militias, but they themselves are devastating the area," said Alison Des Forges, senior Africa adviser at Human Rights Watch. "Civilians being held without charge to provide free labor to the soldiers must be released at once."
In August and September, Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of victims and witnesses in Ituri, many of whom described a pattern of forced labor by government soldiers who abducted civilians and then forced them to work in local gold mines, to harvest and collect food or to transport goods. One elderly man described how government soldiers in August took him from a displacement camp at Kagaba village for five days and forced him to carry firewood and manioc to their military camp.
On August 9, Human Rights Watch witnessed two government soldiers forcing six civilians, including two women, to carry chairs, benches and corrugated metal roofing looted from a nearby church to their military camp. The soldiers claimed they were "escorting the people for their own safety," a claim contradicted by the victims themselves, who explained how they had been forced at gunpoint to take the metal roofing from the church and to carry the items for the soldiers. The soldiers threatened to kill them all if they failed to obey.
Victims also told Human Rights Watch how, for one month in late 2005, soldiers forced more than 100 men and boys from eight villages to dig gold at a mine near Bavi village. The soldiers threatened to kill the people if they refused to comply. They arrested one of the local chiefs, beat him and put him in a hole used as an underground prison. The victim told a Human Rights Watch researcher, "I had tried to stop what they were doing, to defend the people. They tied me up and hit me. We were powerless against them."
Since 2004, Congolese government soldiers supported by United Nations peacekeepers have conducted military operations against militia groups in Ituri that have refused disarmament and integration into the national army, including the Patriotic Resistance Force of Ituri (Forces de Résistance Patriotique d'Ituri, or FRPI). On October 6 and 7, fighting restarted between FRPI militias and government soldiers supported by UN peacekeepers after a brief lull during the first round of the presidential election. Two peacekeepers were seriously injured.
Combatants from the FRPI and other militia groups have also attacked civilians, killing, raping and torturing those who they considered to be their enemies. In late 2005, FRPI combatants arrested and tortured local authorities suspected of providing support to government soldiers. Some of these local authorities were later killed.
Congolese authorities have failed to act effectively to end abuses by militia leaders and soldiers in their own army. On October 2, government authorities confirmed the rank of colonel to Peter Karim and Matthieu Ngojolo, commanders from the former Nationalist and Integrationist Front (Front Nationaliste et Intégrationnistes, or FNI), a murderous armed group in Ituri responsible for widespread human rights abuses, including ethnic massacres and torture. In October, authorities also promoted Gen. Gabriel Amisi (also known as "Tango Fort") to the head of ground forces - one of the most senior positions in the army - while ignoring serious allegations of his involvement in summary executions and other war crimes in Kisangani in May 2002.
On October 29, Congo is due to hold a presidential run-off election between current President Joseph Kabila and Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba. Voters will also go to the polls to select provincial assembly members.
"The Congolese army has become known as the country's biggest human rights abuser," said Des Forges. "The authorities need to take action against all war criminals, including those in their own ranks. Candidates should make this a key pledge in their election platforms. "