Human rights monitors say Allied Democratic Forces have been involved in killing more than a thousand civilians.
Beni, Democratic Republic of Congo – Fifty-year-old Maseke Alexandre was sitting in her mud hut in Rwangoma, in the Beni territory, when two men with military fatigues entered. They asked if there were any men living with her. She lied, saying no, in the hope of protecting her son.
The two men debated if they should kill her, but decided against it and left. Moments later, she heard a volley of gunshots. When she rushed out, she found her son, Jack Kambale, had been killed.
“When I came outside, he was dead and other houses were on fire,” Alexandre told Al Jazeera outside her home in Rwangoma.
Her son was a motorcycle taxi driver in the town, he left behind a wife and two children, and an inconsolable mother. Theirs is just one of many stories of violence perpetrated against civilians in the region.
In another part of Rwangoma, Nanon Mbula found his brother Kany Mbula cut up by a machete and lying dead in a pigsty.
“It is difficult. I feel very sad because losing a family member … to lose such a person …” he told Al Jazeera, holding up a photo of his brother. “It is so difficult to understand …”
At least 64 people were killed in the Beni territory over the weekend of August 13 and 14. It is a massacre that has left a nation in mourning and raised difficult questions about the ability of the Congolese army (FARDC) and the UN peacekeeping force, MONUSCO, in the area to protect the population from the rebel group, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which is believed to be behind the attacks.
Following the incident, hundreds of people took to the streets of Beni over the next two days to express their outrage against the killings and to demand prompt government action.
But by night, they retreated into their homes, in compliance with an army-imposed curfew.
“Everything has calmed down, the protests have ended,” Felix Prosper Basse, a spokesman for MONSUCO, told Al Jazeera. “But it is still very tense”.
The incidents on August 13-14 are the latest in a string of attacks repeatedly blamed on the ADF. In October 2014, more than 80 people were murdered in 10 days of grotesque violence in the territory
Between October and December, some 35 villages around Beni were attacked (PDF) : Civilians were beheaded, their limbs hacked off or they were simply shot dead on the streets. The death toll according to local authorities is up to nearly 700 since 2014.
But, Fidel Bafilemba, an independent field researcher based in Goma, told Al Jazeera the number is probably closer to 1,300.
The group believed to be responsible, the ADF, was formed in 1995 by Ugandan rebels – many of whom were Muslim – with the ambition to take over the country. After battling to make inroads in Uganda, the group fell back into the forests of eastern DRC, where they have remained since.
The group has never claimed responsibility for these attacks.
Officials and locals have identified them as the perpetrators, but experts and researchers say that it would inaccurate to attribute every attack in and around Beni to the ADF.
Stephanie Wolters, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, in Pretoria, South Africa, says one of the reasons the attacks continue to take place, “is precisely because it is not completely clear who the perpetrators are”.
“Nobody seems to have enough information. Sometimes they are identified as ADF, sometimes Congolese army officers,” Wolters said.
In May, a UN Group of Experts on the DRC report (PDF) detailed how a Congolese army officer, Brigadier General Muhindo Akili Mundos, in charge of the offensive against the ADF, helped finance the group’s activities. Despite the report submitted by the UN, the officer was not charged.
“The complicity of some elements of FARDC has also allowed these attacks to continue taking place,” Wolters said.
Likewise, Bafilemba says that many of those who have repeatedly attacked Beni are often seen to be wearing FARDC uniforms and carrying weapons and ammunition.
“When are they going to raise these questions about who is really responsible?” he asked.
Locals of Beni, such as Nenos Mbula, blame the ADF, but equally pin responsibility on the Congolese government.
“These are the ADF because it’s been at least two years that they have been coming with machetes and guns and killings. [But] the fault always lies with the government because they have military and police, and they are supposed to protect us,” Mbula said.
Lieutenant Mak Azukai, a spokesman for the Congolese army, refuses to accept the blame for the absence of security in the villages.
“It took us a long time to adapt to the asymmetric warfare. It’s not something you can study at the military academy,” Azukai said.
MONSUCO spokesman Basse also denied allegations that FARDC were not taking the matter seriously. ADF attacks on civilians were in retaliation for gains made against the group in FARDC’s Sukola operation.
“This is a war. This is not a game. The FARDC have lost soldiers and have made many gains against the ADF over the past months.” he said.
Regarding the accusations made against General Mundos in the UN report, Felix said he wouldn’t comment on the “expert report”.
” … If he has done these things, why hasn’t he been arrested? Are you saying the FARDC is encouraging impunity?” Felix asked.
The obscurity around the identity of the perpetrators has allowed key actors in the conflict to manipulate the narrative to suit their agenda, said Wolters.
For instance, over the past two years, there have been a series of attempts to brand the ADF as having “Islamic terror” links. According to Wolters, it was Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni who first made these claims.
“Museveni has an interest in trumping up the links of the ADF to groups like al-Shabab , but there is no proof or substantiation for his claims,” Wolters said.
A FARDC spokesman repeated the claim on Wednesday, arguing that the country was “dealing with Islamist fundamentalists who have one goal to destabilise the Beni region, to install their headquarters and Islamise the entire region.”
Lambert Mende, a spokesman for the Congolese government, told Al Jazeera that the army had stumbled upon “documents” that proved the ADF’s links to al-Shabab. He described them as correspondence between the two groups. Mende refused to provide more details about these documents, saying all would be revealed once the court cases against suspects were concluded.
But observers disagree with the government. Indeed field researcher Bafilemba told Al Jazeera that the Congolese government has merely resorted to labelling the attackers as “Islamist terrorists” in a bid to mask their own “incompetence as well as their complicity in the crimes in Beni”.
In March this year, researchers at the Congo Research Group (CRG) think-tank also refuted the claim, arguing that “rather than a foreign Islamist group driven by revenge, CRG research points to a group that has forged strong ties with local interest groups and militias over the course of 20 years of insurrection around Beni,” the organisation, based in New York University, said.
Similarly, the CRG has accused the Congolese army of frequently failing to react in time to protect the population during and after events – and MONUSCO “has demonstrated a similar lack of initiative”.
Mende, the government spokesman, described these allegations as “rubbish”.
“These are words of opposition parties. It is stupid. Also, some UN officials think they should be making the decisions for us, and this is where some of these comments are coming from,” he told Al Jazeera.
The DRC’s army has a chequered and complex history in the eastern half of the country. Over the course of a brutal civil war in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the army merged into multiple units, some with competing interests, some reporting to others outside the state.
This has forced MONUSCO to navigate a fine line of cooperation because their work as peacekeepers is incumbent upon good relations with the Congolese army.
So much so that Daniel Fahey, a former coordinator for the UN group of experts on Congo, describes MONUSCO as “complicit” in lying to the Congolese people about who was really behind the massacres in Beni.
Wolters adds that there have been reports that MONUSCO repeatedly fails to respond to calls for help from civilians, deciding to stay away from incidents until they are over.
“The population has lost trust in the peacekeeping force because they have ceased to be a deterrent to such attacks and criminality.”
Basse, the MONUSCO spokesman dismisses these accusations. He said that observers and so-called experts “who come here for a short while and leave” do not give the peacekeepers due credit for their efforts.
“The ADF have been operating in these mountains and in the harsh thick forests for more than 20 years, operating asymmetric war,” Basse says. “It is not easy and we are doing our best.”
This is precisely how FARDC’s spokesman said the group manages to carry out attacks with such temerity: “The [foreign] enemy has been operating in the forests for 25 years.”
But while the armed forces debate over blame and responsibility, the territory remains in mourning as civilians in and around the Beni territory search for answers.
Farming has ceased and families are terrified to let their children and their elders out of their sight.
In a heartbeat, their lives and their livelihoods have been taken away without even so much as an explanation.
Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @azadessa