Tense electoral period in Yumbi risks another outbreak of violence: survivors bear witness

Press release
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Kinshasa, Kisangani, Paris – 29 March 2019. Legislative and provincial elections are set to take place on Sunday, 31 March in the territory of Yumbi, with a tense atmosphere still reigning due to the massacre which took place last December. Our organizations went to Yumbi to investigate and the testimonies gathered suggest that these attacks, which affected over five hundred civilian victims, were probably premeditated and supported by certain local authorities. Our organizations call upon the Congolese authorities to redouble their efforts to shed light on the circumstances of these crimes in order to identify and prosecute those responsible. They must also take measures to improve security and ease tensions to prevent further violence in Yumbi during Sunday’s election and beyond.

During our mission from 23 February to 1 March, our organizations were able to collect a dozen testimonies from victims, witnesses, religious and civil society leaders, and local authorities. The goal of the mission was to identify the types of crimes committed during the attacks, identify the alleged perpetrators, and assess the current political and security situation.

Large scale attacks, possible crimes against humanity

From 16 to 18 December 2018, grave crimes were perpetrated in the city of Yumbi, as well as in Bogende, Nkolo I, and Nkolo II in the territory of Yumbi. These violent crimes were committed in a context of recurring rivalries and tensions between the Batende and Banunu communities living on this territory. In December 2018, these tensions were exacerbated after the death of Mantoma Fedor, leader of the Banunu community, due to disagreements over his burial site. In three days, three attacks were carried out on three villages and the city of Yumbi, mostly inhabited by the Banunu community, by alleged attackers from the Batende community who targeted civilians from the Banunu population. The evidence collected locally by our organizations echoes the results of an investigation carried out by the United Nations. [1]

The abuses identified were committed on a large scale and possibly constitute crimes against humanity: the murder of at least 535 people, mutilation (including sexual), acts of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, looting, and burning of buildings—mostly of homes. Most of these crimes were committed because of actual or perceived affiliation of targeted individuals to the Banunu community.

The testimonies collected in Yumbi speak to the overwhelming violence.

"I watched, helpless, as an indelible scene of carnage unfolded before my eyes. I saw my biological mother, my niece, my colleague and his wife, my sister in faith and her two-month-old baby, all shot to death at close range. A young woman and I were saved only because we were identified as being close to the Batende community."

One of the witnesses

"Arriving at the riverbank, I saw several beheaded corpses lying on the ground and another thirty floating bloodily in the current of the river. It was then that I noticed two men armed with rifles and machetes, hooded, with blackened faces. I recognized them as boys from the Batende community whom I know perfectly well, since I’ve seen them around the neighborhood several times. One of them called out to me by name, wanting to know where I was going. I told him that I wanted to cross the river to get to Brazzaville and escape death. He replied that I should pray to God [and] prepare to take my last breath. Without further ado, he fired point blank at my baby and we toppled over next to a canoe. While I pretended to be dead, he fired three 12-caliber bullets at my left collarbone and then headed on his way [...]."

Another survivor

Attacks were likely premeditated and supported by certain local authorities

While the provincial authorities had been alerted to the imminence of an attack, no specific measure was taken to prevent or manage the violence. [2]

According to the information gathered by our organizations, the extent, speed, intensity and coordination of these abuses demonstrate their premeditated nature. Several testimonies collected describe the presence of former members of the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) among the attackers and the use of fire arms and of camouflage techniques. They also shed light on the tactical organization of the attacks, which were identical across all locations targeted, suggesting that those giving the orders had military experience. Finally, most interviewees reported that some of the attackers’ comments indicated an intention to destroy the Banunu community by attacking solely members of that group.

Several testimonies mention that the attackers, when unsure if someone was Batende or Banunu, would ask the persons in question to specify their family name and/or community to which they belonged. Other witnesses describe how some assailants reassured the Batende who were trying to protect their Banunu relatives, by clearly stating that they would only attack Banunu people.

According to the results of our investigation, it appears obvious that the disagreement concerning the burial place of Mantoma Fedor, leader of the Banunu community, was merely the trigger of already planned attacks. [3] These attacks occured against the backdrop of recurring rivalries between the two communities, including customary rights over access to land and resources in the area. Furthermore, the father of Mantoma Fédor, Bompinda Tambo Molomi Wabaniama was himself buried in the family compound years ago and there had been no trouble at that time.

National investigations are incomplete and uncertain

The statement made by Marie-Ange Mushobekwa, the Congolese minister of human rights, on Radio France International (RFI) recognizing the involvement of local political and administrative actors is a positive sign. [4]

While national authorities have opened investigations, the state of their progress is unclear. The authorities have arrested 14 individuals, mainly on the basis of testimonies gathered from survivors or witnesses to the violence. However, according to information gathered by our organizations, none of the alleged sponsors behind the attack were among those arrested.

Our organizations encourage the Congolese authorities to continue and expand their investigations in order to prosecute alleged sponsors of these attacks. We reiterate our call to the Congolese authorities to make the fight against impunity one of their top priorities, identifying and prosecuting the perpetrators of these serious crimes, including those who hold positions of power within the state.

Measures to ease tension are crucial

"We lost everything because of this unfortunate incident. My wife and I, having miraculously survived, are currently housed here at my in-laws’ house. It will take time to rebuild ourselves socially and physically. Especially if the central government does not take real action for the victims of the atrocities that befell our city of Yumbi."

A displaced person's testimony during our discussions

In addition to crucial investigations and prosecutions, the authorities must take stock of the tensions between the communities and discuss with the populations in question what measures can be taken to calm tensions and contribute to rebuilding ties between the communities.

The violence has also had serious consequences for the economic, social and humanitarian situations in the Yumbi territory. Nearly 16,000 people were forced to flee to the Republic of Congo, while more than 3,000 others were displaced in neighboring villages as well as in Equateur province. These population displacements and the destruction of homes and property have serious consequences for the availability and access to food, aggravated by the interruption of trade between the two communities concerned.

Elections will be highly risky without preventive measures and deployment of security forces

Holding parliamentary elections in this environment of impunity, tensions and rancor between the communities may trigger new acts of violence, especially given the great mistrust towards representatives of local authorities. If the elections are held as scheduled this Sunday, 31 March, participation will likely be very low and disproportionate, at the expense of the Banunu community which would be greatly underrepresented. According to the testimonies we gathered, many fear possible exacerbation of tensions, or even resumption of attacks, if representatives of one or the other of the communities were to win both seats, the electoral district of the territory of Yumbi having only one seat for the legislative elections and one seat for the provincial elections.

We urge the Congolese authorities, and in particular the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), to take all necessary measures to ensure that displaced persons and refugees can participate in the elections, if they so wish, without fearing for their safety.

The violence in Yumbi targeted defenseless civilian populations, including many women and children, in the midst of an electoral season. The economic and social links between the Banunu and Batende communities have critically deteriorated, making it difficult to live together peacefully. In light of this situation, and in view of the scale and severity of the killings which took place three months ago, Congolese authorities should urgently reinforce the ongoing investigations and legal proceedings in order to fight against the impunity for the crimes committed.

If elections take place on Sunday as scheduled, it is crucial that Congolese authorities put in place preventive measures to deter further violence and protect the civilian population if necessary.

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