About 1,300 civilians have been killed in separate conflicts involving armed groups and government forces in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) over the past eight months, with the violence forcing more than half a million people from their homes, the United Nations has said.
UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned on Friday some of the killings and displacement “may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes”.
The number of victims has soared in recent weeks as conflicts have spreadin three eastern provinces – Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu – “with disastrous repercussions” for the civilian population, according to the UN.
“I am appalled by the increase in brutal attacks on innocent civilians by armed groups, and by the reaction of the military and security forces who have also committed grave violations, including killings and sexual violence,” Bachelet said in a statement.
“These are not only reprehensible and criminal acts, but they also break the trust between people and the state representatives, both security and political,” she added.
“In the absence of effective protection by state security forces, there is a serious risk that these communities will feel compelled to form self-defence groups, which would most likely exacerbate an already dire situation,” Bachelet said.
According to the UN Joint Human Rights Office in the DRC (UNJHRO), between October 1, 2019 and May 31, 2020, at least 531 civilians have been killed by armed groups in Ituri, 375 of them since March.
Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) and police (PNC) also allegedly killed 17 civilians during the same period.
In Ituri, violence spread into new areas after the main armed group, CODECO, splintered following the killing of its leader, Ngudjolo Duduko Justin, on March 25.
A UN human rights report published in January and updated last week stated that since 2017, CODECO and other Lendu fighters have pursued a strategy of slaughtering local residents – mainly the Hema, but also the Alur – in order to control the natural resources in the region.
Other groups, including the Ndo Okebo, Nyali and the Mambisa, have been involved in the violence more recently.
Bachelet, who visited Ituri in January and met people maimed and displaced during the attacks by CODECO, said that the targeted communities have so far refrained from retaliating, however this could change.
In North Kivu, military operations by the government forces in November 2019 led to retaliatory attacks against civilians by the main armed group, the ADF, which by May 31 had killed at least 514 civilians using machetes, axes and heavy weapons, according to the UN.
State defence forces such as the FARDC are reported to have killed 59 civilians and the PNC to have killed 24. More than 400,000 people have been displaced in North Kivu.
FARDC operations have resulted in the ADF moving into areas previously unaffected by armed conflict, the UN warned. Like Ituri, there is a risk that self-defence groups will form, with civilians being caught in the middle.
Bachelet called on the Congolese authorities to establish authority in both conflict areas, including by introducing security forces and ensuring that they “protect civilians rather than prey on them”.
“Protection of civilians is the responsibility of the state, and when the state leaves a vacuum, others tend to fill it. In DRC, past experience shows this can have catastrophic results. The generalised and systematic nature of some of the attacks on civilians in both Ituri and North Kivu may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes,” she said.
In South Kivu, at least 74 people have been killed since October and at least 36 women and children raped in a resurgence of ethnic-based violence between the Banyamulenge and the Bafuliro, Babembe, and Banyindu communities, the UN said.
More than 110,000 people, most of them women and children, have been displaced by the violence, which is being fuelled by hate speech disseminated through the media, social media and in public discourse, it added.
FARDC soldiers have killed at least 15 people and have committed sexual violence against 13 women.
Violence and killings have also been taking place in Kongo Central and Kinshasa. Between March 30 and April 24, at least 62 civilians were killed and 74 injured during seven operations conducted by the PNC and the FARDC against members of the politico-religious group Bundu Dia Kongo (BDK).
BDK followers have threated to expel foreigners from Kongo Central, and reportedly physically attacked some of them. They also reacted violently against the security forces, killing one police officer and wounding nine others.
The UN noted, however, the response of the security forces was “clearly disproportionate”, with police officers systematically using live ammunition to disperse unarmed crowds.