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Hope for justice in DR Congo Yumbi massacre tribunal

Jonas Gerding
December 17, 2021

Over 500 people were killed three years ago in a region considered peaceful in the conflict-ridden DR Congo. As Jonas Gerding reports, a highly political military trial has begun to look into the cause of the massacre.

Military officers sitting in a row
Image: Jonas Gerding/DW

His wife and four children, no one can bring back the lives of his loved ones, says Clovis Boyanga. As if he still has to protect himself today, the 31-year-old sits on a plastic chair in his backyard in the Limete district of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with his arms stiffly crossed and his head bowed.

On December 16 and 17, 2018, armed men believed to be from the Batende ethnic group went house to house in his home village of Bongende with machetes, spears and rifles, killing anyone who identified as an ethnic Banunu.

Boyanga survived the killings because he was not at home on the morning of the attack. But the rest of his family, including a nephew, were butchered by the attackers. Nothing could make up for that loss. Yet, he is filled with some hope that he might after all get justice.

Just a few kilometers away, in Ndolo prison, the long-awaited trial of what is now dubbed the 'Yumbi massacre' began earlier this year. "I think the process will enable us to find answers to our questions," says Boyanga. "Only the state and the judiciary can find out the political leaders behind this massacre."

Clovis Boyanga
Clovis Boyanga lost his four children, wife and nephew in the massacreImage: Jonas Gerding/DW

A questionable trial

The United Nations estimated that 535 people died in just three villages — 345 in Boyanga's village alone. Yumbi is located on the Congo River in Mai-Ndombe Province, hundreds of kilometers from the ongoing civil unrest in the country's eastern provinces. Mai-Ndombe Province is a region usually at peace. To this day, a lot of questions remain unanswered and the reasons for the sudden outbreak of violence remain disputed.

The Kinshasa High Military Tribunal did not indict people for war crimes, but rather for "crimes against humanity" — inscribed within the framework of international laws. The court opened proceedings on May 25 of this year, but immediately postponed them to November.

A mammoth trial underway

November 26, 11:55 a.m., behind the walls of Ndolo prison: all 79 people charged are men. The prisoners appear in their wide blue shirts with yellow stripes. One after the other they walk across the lawn past an armed soldier into a large tent that opens to the sides facing the makeshift courtroom.

The chief justice questions three of the defendants in front of him, sitting by a wooden desk, seeking the details of a severed hand of a victim that was presented to a village chief. Step by step, the court aims to get closer to the truth about who planned the massacre, who carried it out and who only found out about it afterwards.

Many fear the task before the court of seeking justice for the victims of the massacre is too much for the its mandate and could drag on for years. There are only eight people named as allegedly responsible for the killings. Among them are prominent national and local politicians.

Lawyers holding court documents
The prosecution claim the massacre was carried out to influence the outcome of the 2018 presidential and parliament electionsImage: Jonas Gerding/DW

The prosecution claims that the massacre took place a week before the 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections to sway its outcome in the interest of the politicians backed by the Batende leaders. After the massacre, the national polls were delayed by a week, in Yumbi by three months. According to the prosecuting lawyers, the two candidates, who were in charge of the provincial administration, then won seats in parliament. These lawmakers were also indicted in the tribunal, but not kept behind bars.

Did the elections play a role?

The armed ethnic Batende men allegedly carried out the killings a day after the ethnic Banunus buried their traditional leader at night in the city of Yumbi, a territory claimed by the Batendes, whose members saw the night burial as an affront in their long-running conflict.

Claude Kaniekete Boba is one of the prosecuting lawyers. "The traditional head is always buried at night. Besides that, it was next to his father, his predecessor," says Kaniekete describing the night-time burial tradition as not unconventional among the Banunus. "Is that really supposed to be a reason to massacre the Banunu?"

According to Kaniekete, the Batendes had planned the massacre well in advance. "What do you have to do to win elections?" asks the lawyer. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, people often vote along ethnic lines. So it is conceivable that the leadership of a group decides which local candidate gets the most votes. "That is how it all started," he says with conviction. However, he does not provide any evidence and points out that, for tactical reasons, this can only be done during the trial.

A lawyer writting on paper
Defense lawyers attribute the attack to the long-running conflict between the two ethnic groupsImage: Jonas Gerding/DW

A long-running conflict

Alain Nsele Ngomba is a coordinator with the defense team. He rejects the notion of election victory due to a massacre. "The conflict between the two groups did not just start yesterday," he says, citing outbreaks of violence in 1963, 2006 and 2011. He also points out that there were deaths on the part of the Batende during the days of the massacre. He does not give exact numbers. "The two groups are forced to live together. Responsibilities have to be clarified," says Ngomba.

It is not yet clear whether the tribunal can create the basis for reconciliation. "Unfortunately, none of the attackers I identified are in prison," says Boyanga, whose family was killed. "They live free and undisturbed in their fields and in various villages."

Prosecutor Kaniekete agreed they missed some names on the indictment list, but was now doing everything to ensure that they too are brought before the judge. "That is our wish," he said.

Long road to reconciliation

According to Kaniekete, victims could face reprisals if not all of those involved in the attack are prosecuted. He believes that the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the villages could also continue. Around a thousand Banunus have still not returned to their devastated villages and are living on the other side of the Congo River in refugee camps in the neighboring Republic of the Congo.

The victims are demanding extensive compensation and help with reconstruction. Boyanga also wants to be compensated. He mourns the times when he and his family lived from fishing, when weddings and friendships developed between the Batende and Banunu. "After everything that happened, I decided to leave my village," says Boyanga, who now lives in Kinshasa, where he gets by with odd jobs and family money. "I want to try to forget the atrocities. I can't stand the suffering these memories cause," he says.

This article was originally written in German and adapted by Abu-Bakarr Jalloh.