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Mass graves in DR Congo oppostion stronghold Kasai

Gwendolin Hilse
April 21, 2017

Kasai is a major trouble spot in Democratic Republic of Congo. Over the last eight months, 400 people have died in clashes between militia and government troops. UN investigators have registered 40 mass graves.

UN peacekeepers on patrol in armoured personnel carriers in Tshimbulu
Image: Reuters/A. Ross

It was the discovery earlier this week of 17 mass graves that brought the total number of such sites recorded by UN investigators in Kasai Central and Kasai Oriental provinces since August 2016 to 40. 

UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein urged the DRC government "to ensure that there is a prompt, transparent, and independent investigation to establish the facts and circumstances of alleged human rights violations and abuses" in the country. If the government refused to comply,  Zeid said he would "not hesitate to urge the international community to support an investigation by an international mechanism, including the International Criminal Court."

Government reaction 

When asked by DW about allegations that DRC government troops had raped and killed, Lambert Mende, DRC government spokesman, said a "media war" was being waged against his country.

"Do you really believe that UN investigators can draw any conclusions at this stage? What means do they have at their disposal? They must be supermen! Even our judges haven't been able to convict a single defendant. Even the terrorists who have been arrested are still waiting to be sentenced," he said.   The Democratic Republic of Congo has been exposed to successive conflicts between government troops and armed groups since independence in 1960. Kasai was relatively peaceful but this changed abruptly in July 2016 when the government in Kinshasa refused to recognize the nephew of traditional leader Kwmina Nsapu as the rightful successor to his uncle and sought to install a loyal government supporter in his place. This triggered the rebellion in Kasai - the intervention by the government was perceived as manipulation designed to tighten its control over the region. Belgian author and journalist Colette Braeckmann told DW that local residents in Kasai "are full of solidarity and have a lot of respect for traditional rulers."

Displaced Congolese on the outskirts of Goma fleeing clashes between M23 rebels and government in 2012
Displaced Congolese on the outskirts of Goma fleeing clashes between M23 rebels and government in 2012 - one of the many conflicts in DRC since independence Image: Getty Images/AFP/P. Moore

The conflict escalated when the nephew was killed by government troops and a new militia named after the traditional leader Kwamina Nsapu was born. They were determined to wreak revenge for the nephew's death and the region plunged into chaos. Kinshasa sent in more troops who launched a brutal crackdown against civilians, mostly young men, whom they suspected of being members of the militia. There have been repeated clashes between troops and militia ever since, often descending into mass slaughter and executions. 

Blue helmets

More than 400 people have been killed in the unrest since August 2016 and many of the victims are women and children. "This conflict is symptomatic of everything that has been going wrong in the DRC for a long time," Thiery Vircoulon, Congo expert at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI), told DW. "The government is merciless in its repression of the opposition and is trying to outwit the traditional rulers."

DRC government forces hunting rebels from the Ugandan ADFNalu group in North-Kivu province in 2013
DRC government forces hunting rebels from the Ugandan ADF-Nalu group in North-Kivu province in 2013Image: Reuters/Kenny Katombe

The situation in Kasai is difficult to envisage or comprehend. Various militias and splinter groups are battling against government troops across an area that is as big as Tunisia. The blue helmets from the UN's MONUSCO mission are caught in the middle. The UN estimates that 1.7 million Congolese are directly affected by the violence and that some 200,000 have been internally displaced. More than 12,000 have fled across the border to Angola, the Portuguese news agency Lusa reported.

Kasai is an opposition stronghold. It was the home of the late opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi and the loyalty displayed by local residents to his Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UPDS) is one reason why the region has been systematically neglected in government development projects for better infrastructure, electricity and water supplies.

Loss of faith in politicians

There is a deep sense of frustration among local people and they are joining the militia. At the beginning of January when longtime President Joseph Kabila announced talks on the formation of an interim government and appeared to agree to the holding of fresh elections, Kasai entered a brief period of calm. It ended with the death in February of Etienne Tshisekedi. "People have lost all their faith in politicians and all hope of fair government," Braeckman said.

Gates to the MONUSCO mission
MONUSCO has accused the Kwamina Nsapu militia of atrocities including the recruiting and use of child soldiers and condemned DR Congo forces for a disproportionate use of forceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

In March, two UN investigators in Kasai were kidnapped and killed. They were probing arms smuggling and violence in the region. Their mutilated remains were found two weeks later in a mass grave. Four Congolese, who were accompanying them, have disappeared without trace. "I believe they were on to something big and that's why they had to die," said Braeckman.

Jason Stearns led a UN investigation into violence the DRC in 2008. "Of  course there are people, parties to conflicts, who are not well disposed towards the UN investigators and their work and live in fear of being exposed," he told DW. His group come under pressure from the government and armed groups but the incident in March was the first time that UN investigators had been killed. "It is all very tragic," he said.

Calling the government to account

The DRC government said last week that it had detained two suspects in connection with the kidnapping and killing of the investigators but one of them was able to escape from police custody. The UN has also launched its own investigation. The remaining members of the investigative team are continuing with their work and will published their findings in July. Stearns is convinced that their report will contain plenty of information about the murders and mass graves in Kasai. "Should it transpire that there is a link between government and the mass graves and that government troops used excessive force against the militia, then were are talking about war crimes and crimes against humanity for which the government must be called to account," he said.