”Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth.”
On March 3, in a prescient last Twitter message sent by United Nations expert Zaida Catalan before she disappeared in the Kasai region of Democratic Republic of Congo, Catalan passed along this ancient proverb often attributed to the Buddha. Now, with reports Saturday of more than 40 new deaths in this central part of the country – all of them police officers decapitated by rebel fighters – have come more international appeals and a renewed urgency to get at the hidden truth behind the violence and abuses.
Catalan and American colleague Michael Sharp remain missing since their March 12 abduction, along with Congolese interpreter Betu Tshintela and driver Isaac Kabuayi, and two unidentified motorbike drivers. They were investigating human rights abuses near the remote village of Bunkonde, south of the provincial capital, Kananga, when they were abducted by an as-yet unidentified armed group. They have not been located – and they remain among the latest victims in the violent Kasai region.
Behind the deaths of hundreds of people, the troubling discoveries of mass graves, and the videos that appear to show Congolese forces shooting civilians in their battles against militia forces in Kasai, is the widening regional conflict. It is exacerbated by the national political crisis in DR Congo, and the refusal of President Joseph Kabila’s government to move forward with elections and democratic reforms.
Just days ago, Congolese authorities said in addition to soldiers, there had been 67 police deaths since fighting erupted last year. In this latest attack on police officers, the militia fighters let just six of them go, and that was because they spoke the local Tshiluba language and were not considered outsiders.
Kasai and the Kamuina Nsapu
Kamuina Nsapu is the title for the traditional chief in Bajila Kasanga, a territory encompassing several villages about 70 kilometers southeast of Kananga. While it’s common in DR Congo for the traditional office to be nominally recognized, that was not the case for Jean-Pierre Mpandi, who Congolese officials say had taken an anti-government stance dating back to 2013. International Crisis Group notes that he was considered close to Rassemblement opposition leaders – Etienne Tshisekedi, who died in February, was from Kananga – and the region was a Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) stronghold. The Kasais have long resented lack of representation in leadership and a lack of economic investment.
In April 2016, angered by his sense of interference by government authorities, Mpandi began a public campaign against them and called on insurgents to fight Congolese “occupation” and foreigners alike. Congolese security forces killed Mpandi in August 2016, sparking a violent backlash that has spread to five provinces and is viewed, both politically and from a security standpoint, as a direct threat to Kabila’s regime. Since Kabila’s December refusal to step down, the violence – and atrocities – have escalated.
Negotiations that originally focused on the demand to return Kamuina Nsapu’s body and release militia members, or to make a wider commitment to regional economic development, have changed. They now reflect a demand to end Kabila’s regime and reinstitute traditional leaders that borders on secession.
Prior to the new deaths reported Saturday, there have been at least 400 people who have died in Kasai and the surrounding affected provinces. Another 225,000 people have been displaced by the fighting.
Investigating the hidden truths
In a March 22 statement, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said its investigators had visited at least two mass graves with the limbs of the dead sticking up out of the soil. Some of the bodies are believed to belong to people reportedly killed by Congolese military (FARDC) during actions in February against the Kamuina Nsapu militia in Kasai.
“This brings to 10 the total number of mass graves confirmed in the context of this crisis, and there are allegations of at least a further seven mass graves that our teams are seeking to verify,” the OHCHR said. The Human Rights Watch organization estimates there are more than two dozen in Kasai since January.
There are also at least five new videos implicating the Congolese military in the shooting of civilians, following the release of one in February that has led to the arrest of seven soldiers for war crimes. The videos and grave sites have led some Congolese lawmakers and civil society leaders to call for an independent international panel to investigate – yet that’s been difficult to achieve with a lack of Congolese support. Other DR Congo officials dispute UN and humanitarian group findings, and frequently have created barriers for observers and investigators in the country.
“I am particularly concerned by reports of the excessive use of force, human rights violations and the presence mass graves in the Kasai provinces,” said Maman Sambo Sidikou, the UN special representative and secretary-general for DR Congo and the MONUSCO mission, during last week’s UN Security Council meeting. “I have encouraged the Government of the DRC to conduct thorough investigations and to ensure that the perpetrators of these acts are held to full account.”
Both the Congolese government forces and the Kamuina Nsapu stand accused of engaging in human rights violations some observers see edging into genocide. An investigation into these hidden truths was exactly what Sharp and Catalan, the missing UN experts, were on a mission to achieve, and theirs is the first recorded disappearance or abduction of international workers in the Kasai provinces.
“The missing UN team reflects a bigger picture of violence and abuse in the Kasai region,” says Ida Sawyer, the Central Africa Director at Human Rights Watch. “The Human Rights Council should establish a commission of inquiry into abuses in the region as soon as possible. Concerted efforts are urgently needed to address this increasingly desperate situation.”
Image: Human Rights Watch