United Nations-backed Congolese armed forces conducting intensified military operations in eastern and northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have failed to protect civilians from brutal rebel retaliatory attacks and instead are themselves attacking and raping Congolese civilians, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Thursday.
The attacks on civilians from all sides have resulted in a significant increase in human rights violations over the past six months.
"The Congolese government’s military operations have been a disaster for civilians, who are now being attacked from all sides," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW, on a visit to eastern Congo. "Congo and the U.N. need to take urgent measures to protect people and keep this human rights catastrophe from getting even worse."
Since January 2009, nine HRW fact-finding missions to frontline areas found a dramatic increase in attacks on civilians and other human rights abuses in Lubero, Rutshuru, Masisi and Walikale territories in North Kivu, Kalehe and Shabunda territories in South Kivu, and Haute Uele district in northern Congo.
Eastern DRC has been unstable for some 15 years, with various militias battling each other. These include ethnic Tutsi and Hutu groups, some of whom have come across the border from Rwanda.
The Congolese army initiated military operations against the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in December 2008 in northern Congo, followed a month later by the launching of operations in eastern Congo against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the Rwandan Hutu militia.
Since then, the rebel forces and Congolese army troops combined have reportedly killed more than 1,500 civilians, raped thousands of women and girls, abducted hundreds of adults and children, and burned to the ground thousands of homes, sometimes entire villages.
According to the U.N., more than a million people have been forced to flee for their lives from these conflict areas, adding to the tens of thousands of others displaced from earlier waves of violence. Many of those newly displaced have limited or no access to humanitarian assistance.
FDLR and LRA combatants are deliberately terrorizing and punishing civilians and attacking their property as a military tactic in retaliation for Congolese government military operations. They are responsible for the great majority of killings of civilians documented by HRW.
On May 10, for example, FDLR combatants brutally massacred at least 86 civilians, including 25 children, 23 women, and seven elderly men at Busurungi, in the Waloaloanda area of Walikale territory, North Kivu, HRW says.
Twenty-four others were seriously wounded. Some of the victims were tied up and executed; others were shot or their throats were slit by knives or machetes as they tried to flee. A number of people were burned to death when FDLR combatants deliberately locked them in their homes and torched the village, the rights group says.
One witness who lived near the village outskirts took four of his children by the hand and ran, calling on his wife to take the other children. "I was the first out the door holding the children behind me and calling on my wife to follow," he told Human Rights Watch. "But she was too late. The FDLR pushed her back in the house with my daughter and brother and then set it on fire. We heard their screams as we ran away."
HRW found that at least 403 civilians were killed by the FDLR since January 2009.
The LRA, whose leaders are wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Uganda, are currently in northern Congo and continued their brutal attacks against civilians, bringing the death toll to more than 1,000 civilians since December.
According to HRW, abductions of children and adults have increased, indicating that the LRA may be seeking to replenish its ranks. In two attacks in early June in Dakwa, local sources reported that the LRA abducted some 135 adults and children.
The Congolese army’s operations against these two cross-border groups were initially supported by Ugandan forces in northern Congo and Rwandan forces in eastern Congo, and since March by U.N. peacekeepers in Congo (MONUC). These forces have provided only limited protection for civilians from the deliberate and brutal rebel attacks.
"Rebel atrocities against civilians in eastern and northern Congo seem boundless," said Roth. "The Congolese army should recognize by now that offensive military operations need to include effective measures to protect vulnerable civilians from these predictable retaliatory attacks."
Congolese army soldiers have also committed war crimes against civilians, HRW said. Soldiers have deliberately attacked civilians whom they accused of collaborating with the FDLR, raped women and girls, looted, unlawfully forced civilians to act as porters, and torched homes in villages that they claim harbored FDLR supporters.
In an attack on an FDLR position in Shalio, near Busurungi, in late April, Congolese army soldiers killed an unknown number of FDLR family members and Rwandan refugees.
Rape cases have also dramatically increased in areas of Congolese army deployment. In nearly all the health centers, hospitals, and rape counseling centers visited by HRW, rape cases had doubled or tripled since the start of military operations in the Kivus in January. While all sides continue to use rape and other sexual violence as a weapon of war, the majority of the rape cases investigated by HRW were attributed to soldiers from the Congolese army.
Salary arrears, limited food rations, and an unclear chain of command following the integration of more than 12,000 former Congolese rebel combatants into the army’s ranks in early 2009 have contributed to the rise in abuses against civilians.
"The government’s failure to feed and pay its soldiers regularly is a virtual invitation for them to prey on the civilian population," said Roth.
The U.N. peacekeepers began an initiative in early 2009, known as joint protection teams, to act as an early-warning system in areas where civilians might be at risk of attack. While these teams have gathered important information and sometimes contributed to reducing abuses, their recommendations to U.N. peacekeepers and Congolese forces have rarely been followed.
Although the U.N. peacekeepers in Congo have provided logistical, planning, and other support to the Congolese army’s operations, HRW said they have not exerted adequate pressure on the Congolese army to stop brutal abuses.
"U.N. peacekeepers should not support Congolese armed forces that are committing war crimes and failing to protect civilians and refugees," said Roth. "By continuing to back such military operations, the peacekeepers risk becoming complicit in abuses."
The MONUC’s Madnodje Mounoubai conceded that "there are some elements who are behaving like Human Rights Watch is describing."
"We are working with the government to start to improve this situation by pushing the government to put more discipline within the armed forces," he told the BBC, adding that the U.N. was encouraging the government to arrest and try soldiers accused of atrocities.
(Inter Press Service)