Dispute over massacre in eastern Congo: many bodies and no certainty

Congo’s government accuses the M23 rebels of a brutal massacre and is reporting more and more deaths. What really happened in Kisheshe?

People hold memorial candles and placards calling for justice

Activists in Congo at a vigil, December 5 Photo: Arlette Bashizi/Reuters

KAMPALA taz | It is possibly the largest massacre in recent years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The government spoke on Monday evening of 272 deaths in the small town of Kisheshe in the east of the country and accused the M23 (March 23 Movement) of “barbarism”. From Saturday to Monday there was three days of national mourning, Congo’s judiciary and the human rights department of the UN mission Monusco are investigating.

What exactly happened on the night of November 30 remains unclear. “We buried three to six bodies in the same hole,” a Kisheshe resident told AFP over the phone. Another said he dug six mass graves. The M23 forced him to bury the young men she killed in it.

Sending investigators to Kisheshe will be difficult. The village is only 70 kilometers as the crow flies from the provincial capital Goma, beyond the active Nyamuragira volcano. But it is right at the front.

The village in the middle of the savannah of the Virunga National Park is the gateway to the territory of the Rwandan Hutu militia FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda)which was founded more than twenty years ago by perpetrators of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda who fled to Congo and has been in charge here for decades.

In the small Adventist Church, where more than 60 bodies are believed to have been found, met the taz 2012 FDLR General Stany, a proven perpetrator of genocide. The senior FDLR commander explained at the time that his headquarters were only a three-hour walk away, on the flank of the volcano. Today he commands the FDLR special forces Planning and executing attacks on Rwanda.

This force, which is only around 150 strong, is considered the spearhead of the Hutu militia’s war, whose goal is to recapture Rwanda from the former Tutsi rebel movement RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) under President Paul Kagame. Rwanda and the M23 claim the FDLR special forces are fighting alongside Congo’s army. Their frontline commander, Colonel Ruhinda, was recently injured in skirmishes between M23 and Congo’s army in Kibumba, a town right on the Rwandan border.

So far, Congolese have lived in Kisheshe itself under FDLR rule and Rwandan Hutu women and their children, all members of the FDLR. The Hutu fighters used their relatives as human shields in the past. Over a week ago, the place was taken by the M23 rebels. They set up a defensive position on the bridges across the river at the entrance to the village against Congo’s army, which is stationed across the river a few kilometers away.

Despite the ceasefire, M23 units then penetrated deep into the FDLR area from Kisheshe. The Hutu militia is estimated to have around 500 fighters in four different Congolese areas. Until a few weeks ago, they still controlled the Ishasha border crossing to Uganda. The M23 has now conquered it, and on Friday it declared that it also had the headquarters of FDLR President Victor Byringiro encircled in Virunga National Park, not far from Kisheshe. Next they would storm the FDLR bastion of Kibirizi, where many FDLR families live.

A massacre with 50 dead

According to information from the taz, M23 troops undertook a special operation against the FDLR on the night of November 30 at the Kisheshe bridge. When they returned early in the morning, they were surprised by FDLR fighters and Congolese Hutu militias in Kisheshe. A fierce firefight ensued.

On the same day, Congo’s government in distant Kinshasa reported a massacre with 50 dead. She increased the number to 120 two days later and now 272, spread across multiple bodies found in multiple locations, citing local residents and militias.

The M23 speaks in a statement of just eight civilians killed by “stray bullets” during the battle, including two children and a woman. The rest of the dead are fighters from various local militias who are not wearing uniforms, M23 said. According to the Tutsi rebels, “many FDLR” died in Kisheshe: “We destroyed them, that’s why Kinshasa is angry,” according to an M23 tweet.

UN investigators and Western intelligence agencies have evidence that embedded in the M23, soldiers from Rwanda’s army also entered Congo. Rwanda’s army specifically wants to eliminate the FDLR leadership in Congo. Such covert Rwandan operations are not new. 2019 became the top one FDLR military leader Sylvestre Mudacumura shot in the stomach at his headquarters not far from Kisheshe.

The FDLR confirmed in a press release that their units and family members were attacked in Kisheshe – but not by the M23, but by Rwanda’s army. Rwandan soldiers forced Congolese civilians to carry away spoils of war and later beheaded them. They demand to negotiate with the Rwandan government.

Rwanda categorically rejects any talks with the genocide perpetrators in the FDLR leadership and only fights the group militarily. Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame emphasized this again on Monday in talks with US Secretary of State Blinken in the run-up to the US-Africa summit in Washington. “Rwanda’s security concerns must be addressed,” said Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta. “Where others may not feel compelled to do so, Rwanda does and will continue to do so.”

Congo’s government is now using the alleged massacre politically. The M23 has accused the government of fomenting attacks on Tutsis in the Congo, to which most M23 fighters belong. Scores of Tutsis have recently been victims of ethnic hatred. The UN special envoy on genocide, Alice Nderitu, visited Congo in November and thereafter warned in a statementthat a similar genocide against the Tutsi as in 1994 in Rwanda could be imminent. The warning was issued on November 30 just as Congo’s government released the news from Kisheshe.

The Kisheshe massacre turned the tide in last week’s Congo peace talks at the instigation of the East African Community (EAC) in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. Congo’s government refuses to negotiate with the M23 – they are “terrorists”. The massacre in Kisheshe now serves as proof.

An M23 delegation traveled to Nairobi on Friday and demanded to meet Congo’s officials. In response, Congo’s government delegation claimed that translation equipment had been rigged by Rwanda and was transmitting every word directly to Kigali. There was also a dispute about daily allowances for conference members: some militia representatives are said to have received $300 a day, others got nothing. Uhuru Kenyatta, negotiator and ex-president of Kenya, was angry during his closing speech on Monday: “This money is not for you,” he scolded the militiamen, “but to create peace in the Congo.” They then left the hall.

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