Mystery Killers Spread Terror, Fuel Tensions in East Congo

  • Sporadic raids have left more than 500 people dead since 2014
  • Violence is stoking ethnic tension, threatening stability

When the men with machetes came to Maseka Alexandra’s thatched mud-hut on the edge of the Congolese town of Beni her age may have been the only thing that saved her.

Clad in military uniforms, they called her “mama” and asked where her husband was, then left, the 55-year-old recalled in an interview. Moments later, screams filled the neighborhood and people fled as more than 50 men and women were hacked to death, including one of Alexandra’s two sons and her brother-in-law.

“They all look alike,” she said of the assailants as she sat outside her sister’s home near the town center, a purple blanket draped over her frail shoulders. “I don’t know whether they were government or rebel forces -- when I look at their uniforms, they are all soldiers.”

The Aug. 13 attack was the latest in a series of raids that have claimed more than 500 lives in the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo since 2014, thwarting United Nations-backed efforts to restore stability to a region rich in timber, coltan, tin and gold that’s home to more than 60 rebel groups. While both the government and UN blame fighters from the Allied Democratic Forces, Congolese authorities have linked their actions to a global wave of Islamist-inspired violence -- a theory questioned by the acting chief of the peacekeeping force in the central African country.

“We don’t know who is committing these atrocities,” said Kakule Musongya, 45, as he waited outside a public trial in Beni of suspected members of the ADF, a group active along Congo’s border since the late 1990s. “Someone is killing us like goats.”

Public Interrogations

The trial that began Aug. 20 was intended to allay the fears of Beni’s residents, as military prosecutors publicly interrogated alleged ADF fighters. Among them was Sempela Muswabo Toyota, a Ugandan in his 20s who said he’d had to convert to Islam and was trained in Congolese forest camps -- a testimony that seemed to back the government narrative.

Trial of ADF members Aug. 24.
Trial of ADF members Aug. 24.
Photographer: Tom Wilson/Bloomberg

UN experts, however, say the ADF is no longer a single, cohesive group of foreign fighters and that the origins of the violence are more complicated. Congolese recruits and other local militias, sometimes supported by Congolese army officers, have also been involved in the killings, the experts said in a June report to the UN Security Council.

“This is not jihadism, it is pure local terrorism,” the UN’s acting force commander, General Rakib Ahmed, said in an Aug. 18 interview, while acknowledging that details on the group’s membership and motivations are limited.

President’s Visit

President Joseph Kabila visited Beni in August, before meeting his Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni, to discuss a plan to share intelligence on the ADF. Meanwhile, the UN peacekeeping force, which comprises 19,000 soldiers, says its joint offensive with the Congolese army is making progress against the rebels.

“They have lost one of their strongholds and are on the run,” General Phiri, a Malawian commander, said Aug. 26 during a guided visit to an ADF forest camp located about 35 kilometers (21.7 miles) northeast of Beni that had been captured two weeks before, on the morning of the massacre. But these victories haven’t stopped the killings.

A new, “more effective” strategy must be adopted to end the violence, the civilian head of the UN mission, Maman Sidikou, said Monday during a visit to Beni, without giving further details.

UN and Congolese soldiers climb hill at captured ADF camp on Aug. 26.
UN and Congolese soldiers climb hill at captured ADF camp on Aug. 26.
Photographer: Tom Wilson/Bloomberg

Some members of the local Nande ethnic group blame the attacks on members of the Hutu community who fled unrest further south over the past two years, allegations that could stoke further violence.

Women Lynched

“How are people continuing to arrive in Beni at the same time that people are being massacred?” the city’s mayor, Bwanakawa Masumbuko Nyonyi, said in an interview. That same day, while the trial continued in Beni, two Hutu women were dragged from a minibus by a mob in the town of Butembo, 55 kilometers further south. They were lynched and their bodies set on fire, Butembo’s mayor, Sikuli Uvasaka Makala, told local radio.

Some members of the Nande community say they will fight back if the killings continue. They blame the government, which they say wants to use instability to justify delayed presidential elections. While Kabila is due to step down in December, he will probably now remain in power until a new date for the vote, previously scheduled for November, can be set. Congo, which is almost the size of Western Europe and has never had a peaceful transfer of power, is the continent’s largest copper producer.

“The government wants to create disorder,” said Mumbere Matata Samir, a 37-year-old Nande motorbike-taxi driver in Beni. “We will have to protect ourselves.”

Government spokesman Lambert Mende called the allegation “senseless” and “irresponsible.” Authorities are deeply concerned by the killings and the apparent rise in ethnic tensions, while the notion that displaced Hutus are responsible is false, he said by phone from the capital, Kinshasa.

“The government will mobilize the nation to protect the population” of Beni, he said.

MAP: Democratic Republic of Congo
MAP: Democratic Republic of Congo
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