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Congo: Deadly violence in a national park

Mariel Müller
April 6, 2022

Rangers at the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo are said to have raped and killed indigenous people with the aim of driving them out. The park is largely funded by Germany.

Demokratische Republik Kongo, Angriffe auf die Batwa-Bevölkerung
Image: Mariel Müller/DW

The green hills of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo lie peacefully. Known as the last reserve of the eastern lowland gorillas in the world, the park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980 – largely funded by the German government.

The park is also home to the indigenous Batwa population. They are descendants of the original rainforest inhabitants and today a disadvantaged and impoverished minority. Some 6,000 of them were expelled from their land in 1976, six years after the park was established. There have been repeated conflicts since.

NGOs have documented that since 2019 there have been targeted attacks on the Batwa: houses burned to the ground, gang rapes and killings – even of children. According to witnesses, the alleged perpetrators of these atrocities are the park rangers and Congolese soldiers. Is there a systematic terror campaign with the aim of chasing the Batwa out of the park – financed by German aid funds?

Two children burned alive

Kibibi Kaloba lives with her children on the building site of an unfinished hospital a few kilometers outside the borders of Kahuzi-Biega National Park. She is one of about 200 Batwa who have found refuge in this improvised camp in recent months. In November 2021 her life was turned upside down.

At the time, the 30-year-old was working in her field when she heard about an attack in her village of Bugamande. Worried about her five children, she ran home as fast as she could. "My house had already burned down, only smoke was rising." With a stick, she searched the charred remains. "I took a stick and poked in the ashes and then I saw the skull of one of my children in it."

Kibibi Kaloba
Kibibi Kaloba: two of her children died during an attackImage: Mariel Müller/DW

Two of her children – aged four and five – perished in the fire. The attackers had tied the door with a rope, so they could not get out.

Kibibi Kaloba took her remaining three children and fled.

Villagers say the attackers were park rangers and soldiers of the Congolese army. Chief Mbuwa Kalimba Bachirembera is convinced that the park administration wants to drive the Batwa people out of the park – although it includes their ancestral land.

"The attackers were sent by the ICCN [Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation]. Since 2019, they have come to attack us every year. When they kill people, they cut off their arms and show them to the others and tell them to leave the fields or they would all be exterminated."

Chief Mbuwa Kalimba Bachirembera
Chief Mbuwa Kalimba Bachirembera: "They say, if we don´t leave, we will be exterminated"Image: Mariel Müller/DW

Now the Batwa have found refuge on a construction site. But the conditions here are bad: there is hardly any food, no access to clean drinking water and no medical help. And, according to the chief, there was another attack a few days ago.

The NGO Minority Rights Group (MRG) has investigated the violent incidents over the past three years. In a nearly 100-page report, it concludes that park rangers and Congolese army soldiers killed at least 20 Batwa, gang raped at least 15 women, and forcibly displaced hundreds after their villages were burned down.

"We are witnessing a policy of state violence aimed at terrorizing an already highly marginalized indigenous community to leave a park created on its ancestral homeland," says Agnes Kabajuni, the MRG Africa Regional Manager.

Women and children around a fire in the remains of a brick building
Batwa refugees are staying in the shell of a hospitalImage: Mariel Müller/DW

This is also confirmed by another woman who wants to be named only as Namondokolo. Three park rangers came to her house and kidnapped her. "They took me with them, they tied my feet and hands, they blindfolded me and then they raped me and said, "Why didn't you leave the field when we told you?"

A group of people
"Namondokolo" does not want to be recognizedImage: Mariel Müller/DW

Two park rangers in Bikavu, the provincial capital of South Kivu, confirm the villagers' reports. They want to remain anonymous because a colleague who had previously criticized the park management had been found dead. Let us call them Emanuel and Pascal.

"I was there when they built their villages three times, and we destroyed them every time," says Emanuel. They usually carry out the attacks together with soldiers of the Congolese army, he says. But their orders are said to have come directly from park director De-Dieu Bya'Ombe.

A blurred image of a park ranger DRC
Park ranger Emanuel: "We burned down the houses"Image: Mariel Müller/DW

His colleague Pascal confirms: "The order came from our leader, De-Dieu Bya'Ombe. We were 75 people and our mission was to burn down these houses." The goal is to terrorize the population so that they will not return.

When they attack, they use AK-47s, armored fists and mortars, he says. In an interview with DW, both park rangers deny having committed or witnessed rape themselves.

Park director De-Dieu Bya'ombe Balongelwa denies all allegations. In a written response to DW, he said that there has never been targeted violence in the park and that he has never ordered such attacks. He sees himself as the victim of a conspiracy aimed at ousting him as park director.

The remains of a wooden house
The remains of a burned house in the destroyed viallge of BugamandeImage: Mariel Müller/DW

Serious allegations against the national park

The most important donor to the national park is the German government. On behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and in close cooperation with the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ), the Credit Institute for Reconstruction (KfW) is financing projects in six nature reserves in Congo, one of them in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

Since 2008, a total of €66 million ($72 million) have been disbursed, according to KfW.

According to Minority Rights Group, donors have been informed about the violent attacks against the Batwa in 2019.

"These international supporters of the park have been repeatedly informed that their financial and material support led to massive abuses against the civilian population," says Robert Flummerfelt, author of the MRG report. "The evidence uncovered during this investigation clearly indicates that they were complicit in abuses that are likely to constitute crimes against humanity." 

In addition, the NGO writes, the money was also used to finance paramilitary training of park rangers, which violates the UN arms embargo against the Democratic Republic of Congo, as the UN Security Council was not previously informed.

Neither the BMZ, nor the GIZ or Congo's nature conservation authority, ICCN, had responded to DW's inquiries at the time of publication. Only the KfW replied. In a written response it stated that it was informed about the attacks on the Batwa and has asked the ICCN to investigate the allegations. "KfW condemns the acts described in the strongest possible terms, provided that they are justified. KfW rejects any form of violence as absolutely unacceptable."

Neither weapons nor ammunition would be financed and the only training funded by KfW is "for the non-military purpose of protecting the national park as a public good". KfW stresses that it shares the German government's conviction that nature conservation must pursue a human rights-based approach.

In 2019-2020, a series of articles in German daily taz newspaper about misconduct by the park led to the BMZ discontinuing all financial support to the nature conservation authority. In May 2020, however, payments were resumed.

A torched area
The remains of the school in BugamandeImage: Mariel Müller/DW

Return despite fear

Meanwhile, the Batwa from Bugamande have decided to return to their village. The fear is great that they will be expelled again. Therefore, they hope that the reports on the violations in the media will help draw attention to their fate and protect them. In the words of Namondokolo: "We will stay here, whether they shoot or not. We are ready to die on this land."

Update, 06.04.2022: In a press release following the publication of this article, the German government announced that it condemns the reports of human rights violations in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and demands swift clarification from the Congolese government. Jochen Flasbarth, the State Secretary in the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) said in a written statement: "I expect that the information on the ground will be vigorously pursued and that all partners will credibly commit themselves to the protection of human rights." Over the question of ongoing funding, Flasbarth continued: "Nature conservation can only succeed sustainably if the local — especially the indigenous population — is involved and their human rights fully respected."

Edited by: Benita van Eyssen

Mariel Müller, DW Ostafrika-Büroleiterin
Mariel Müller DW East Africa Bureau Chief@_MarielMueller