Attacks on civilians by armed groups have continued in two conflict-ridden provinces of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since the government imposed martial law in May 2021, Human Rights Watch said.
Various armed groups, some unidentified, have killed at least 672 civilians, while Congolese security forces have killed 67 civilians, in Ituri and North Kivu provinces between the start of martial law on May 6 and September 10, according to data collected by the Kivu Security Tracker, a joint project of Human Rights Watch and the Congo Research Group.
A massacre in August, one of several mass killings that month, highlights ongoing insecurity in the region and the inadequate military response. On August 2, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamist armed group led by Ugandans, allegedly killed at least 16 civilians, including 2 women, in the village of Idohu, Ituri province. A dozen Congolese army soldiers were in the village, and more were stationed in a military camp nearby, but they did not prevent the attack.
Other armed groups and some elements of Congo’s national army have also been implicated in attacks in the area.
“The Congolese government may recognize the need for greater security in Ituri and North Kivu provinces, but imposing martial law hasn’t accomplished that,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Despite the government’s efforts to spin its actions as military successes, many people across eastern Congo still live in constant fear of the next massacre.”
President Félix Tshisekedi has asserted that military control would restore security in the region, but the numbers of civilians killed in attacks have largely remained unchanged.
Despite the high civilian deaths, the government spokesman, Patrick Muyaya, while visiting Ituri province on August 21, said the results of martial law to date were “very encouraging.” On August 26, Muyaya told Human Rights Watch that martial law was “shock therapy” that was not intended to be permanent. “We are convinced that the solution cannot be military only, but it must start with the military part,” he said.
Human Rights Watch in August spoke to seven people by telephone who witnessed the Idohu attack, as well as local Congolese activists, national assembly members, security and diplomatic personnel, and United Nations staff, along with the government spokesperson.
Since the declaration of martial law, Kivu Security Tracker data shows no indication that Congolese forces have increased military operations to improve civilian protection in areas most at risk.
“We got information that these enemies [armed groups] were on their way, but [government soldiers] didn’t go after them,” an activist based in Idohu told Human Rights Watch. “In Idohu, there were troops, but they fled back to their camp, which is about a kilometer away. We don’t understand how they operate.”
The ADF’s leader pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2019, but the extent of links between the two armed groups remains unclear. The ADF has intensified attacks against civilians as well as government forces in Beni territory, North Kivu, with at least 18 incidents recorded and 90 civilians killed in July alone.
On August 27, suspected ADF fighters killed at least 19 civilians and abducted several others in Kalunguta, Beni territory, according to the UN. The media reported that suspected ADF fighters on September 1 killed at least four people in an ambush on a large civilian convoy escorted by Congolese soldiers and UN peacekeepers near Komanda, Ituri. Two days later, the ADF allegedly hacked to death 30 civilians in the village of Makutano in Ituri.
Joint military operations involving the Congolese army and UN peacekeepers began in August in Beni territory. The peacekeepers, deployed under the UN stabilization mission in Congo (MONUSCO), provide air and logistical support, intelligence and surveillance capacity, and the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), a combat unit.
Credible reports allege that Congolese troops have recently been using ethnic Banyabwisha from North Kivu, including recent defectors from the ADF, as proxy forces to fight the ADF in Ituri’s Tchabi area. Congolese authorities should urgently investigate the use of proxy forces and demobilize any former ADF fighters, Human Rights Watch said.
The citizens’ movement Struggle for Change (Lutte pour le changement, or LUCHA) on August 12 called on the authorities to end martial law in Ituri and North Kivu provinces. The group said that despite promises from President Tshisekedi, attacks against civilians had not declined, and that the authorities have used martial law to drastically narrow basic freedoms of expression and association.
The government also claimed that martial law was intended to eliminate corrupt military networks. Following an investigation led by the inspector general of the army, Gen. Gabriel Amisi, also known as “Tango Four,” military officials said they arrested several officers allegedly involved in misappropriating funds, embezzlement, and maintaining fake payrolls of non-existent soldiers. The government should ensure that those arrested are fairly prosecuted, and extend investigations to senior military officers who are under international sanctions, implicated in serious abuses or suspected of profiting from illegal activity, including Amisi, Human Rights Watch said.
Congolese authorities with MONUSCO assistance should adopt measures to re-establish trust with civilian populations, including by reinforcing early warning networks and consulting with communities and civic groups about protection needs. Authorities should take all steps possible to protect civilians, including by promptly responding to those who bravely inform them of armed group activity and movements. Congolese army units deployed in operations should be carefully vetted to identify and suspend soldiers and officers implicated in abuses or collaborating with armed groups.
“President Tshisekedi should refocus attention on civilian protection and tighter military oversight in eastern Congo to spare long-suffering communities from further atrocities,” Fessy said.
Allied Democratic Forces and the Idohu Massacre
The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) armed group has been linked to scores of killings and abductions in North Kivu’s Beni territory in recent years, and, more recently, in the neighboring Irumu territory of Ituri province.
In the late afternoon of August 2 outside the village of Idohu, Ituri, alleged ADF fighters abducted and tied up 14 people who were cutting wood on the edge of the forest, and forced them to walk toward the village. Once on the main road, the RN4, the fighters executed the 14 villagers and 2 others they encountered.
Their bodies were laid in a line across the road. Some of the victims’ throats were cut or their skulls cracked, while others appear to have been shot.
“We were cutting trees to make charcoal,” a 40-year-old villager told Human Rights Watch. “I heard noises and got scared so I ran and hid in the forest, but the others stayed back. I heard them scream as they were all taken by the [attackers].” He said he returned the next morning: “[T]hat’s when I saw the dead bodies on the road. Three of those killed were members of my family.”
On August 4, alleged ADF fighters attacked Congolese army positions in the southern Tchabi area of Ituri, over 100 kilometers from Idohu, killing at least 10 soldiers and injuring others. The ADF regained control of several areas, including the village of Mapipa, UN sources said. Government forces had two weeks earlier announced that they had dislodged the ADF from the area.
In July 2019, the ADF leader, Seka Baluku, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, and ISIS claimed responsibility for the August 2021 attacks on Idohu and Mapipa. The United States designated the ADF as an ISIS affiliate in March 2021, calling it the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Between August 13 and September 8, a US Special Forces team visited Congo to “evaluate the future Congolese counter-terrorism team whose focus will be ISIS-DRC.” However, UN experts said in June that they had not found “conclusive evidence of [ISIS] command and control over ADF operations, nor of [ISIS] direct support to ADF, either financial, human or material.”
An ISIS-focused counterterrorism approach to the ADF risks ignoring decades-long factors in eastern Congo’s conflicts, including customary power, land disputes, military support for armed groups and proxy conflicts, access to natural resources, trafficking, and widespread impunity for serious crimes.
While government officials and the media tend to attribute almost all attacks taking place in Beni territory to the ADF, research suggests that other armed groups and some elements of the national army may have been involved.
Congo’s international partners should support credible government efforts to investigate attacks on civilians, hold those responsible to account, and improve protection for vulnerable populations, Human Rights Watch said.
UN-Backed Military Operations and Civilian Protection
ADF reprisal attacks and massacres of civilians have followed previous government military offensives against the armed group, which heightens civilian protection concerns.
The Kivu Security Tracker found that “in all likelihood, the aim of such [ADF] killings is to discredit and put pressure on the Congolese authorities, to divide the forces pursuing them, and to divide society as a whole.” Although Congo army operations did not significantly increase during the first three months of martial law, joint operations with MONUSCO, the United Nations peacekeepers, have begun against armed groups in Beni territory.
Since January 2014, MONUSCO’s Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), created in 2013 as a more robust UN unit, has assisted Congolese troops in various operations in northern North Kivu. Poor coordination between the Congolese army and the FIB have repeatedly undermined such joint operations, though. In late April 2021, President Tshisekedi said the FIB would “support [our] troops to address with most efficacy this issue of terrorism and violence in the east.”
In August, MONUSCO deployed Tanzanian and Kenyan troops to support Congolese forces in offensive operations. The UN has announced that Nepalese and South African soldiers would reinforce the FIB in these operations.
On September 9, the head of MONUSCO, Bintou Keita, speaking from Beni, described martial law as a “very important tool in the fight against insecurity in the east and in both [North Kivu and Ituri] provinces in particular.” She said that “martial law should be accepted at the community, civil society, and opinion leadership levels.”
In 2016, the UN Group of Experts on Congo found that Brig. Gen. Muhindo Akili Mundos, who was responsible for Congolese military operations against the ADF from August 2014 to June 2015, had recruited ADF fighters, former fighters from Mai Mai local armed groups, and others “to participate in the killings.” The Group of Experts found that these recruits were implicated in massacres in Beni territory that began in October 2014, and Mundos was placed on the UN sanctions list. But rather than investigating Mundos, President Tshisekedi promoted him to army deputy inspector general in 2020.
MONUSCO should fully respect the UN Human Rights Due Diligence Policy when supporting Congolese military operations and withhold all support to units or commanders who may be implicated in attacks on civilians or other serious human rights violations. UN peacekeepers should also improve ties with local communities and ensure that protecting civilians is central to all operations.
Demobilization of Armed Group Fighters
For decades, Congo has lacked both an effective demobilization framework that could disarm rebel fighters and militiamen, and reintegrate them into communities, and a vetting system that would enable authorities to identify and investigate those responsible for abuses. Since President Tshisekedi took office in 2019, thousands of fighters have surrendered or shown a willingness to do so, but have not been processed.
As a result, those who laid down their weapons often later returned to their armed groups, and the authorities have struggled to persuade others to surrender.
More than 100 armed groups continue to operate in eastern Congo. In July, the Tshisekedi administration launched a new Disarmament, Demobilization, Community Recovery, and Stabilization program. However, many Congolese activists have publicly raised concerns over the program’s coordinator, Tommy Tambwe, a former leader of major Rwandan-backed rebel groups that have been responsible for countless abuses over the past 25 years. His appointment seriously jeopardizes the program’s chances of success, Human Rights Watch said.
On August 13, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Congo, David McLachlan-Karr, expressed “grave concern for a spike in killings” and lamented “a sharp rise in displacement” from the actions of armed groups and local militias.
North Kivu has 1.8 million internally displaced people and Ituri has 1.7 million, including a disproportionately high number of women and children, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“Many have related horrific stories of targeted killings, rape, and torture,” McLachlan-Karr said. Over five million people are displaced across Congo, one of the largest internally displaced populations in Africa.
Following the ADF attack on Idohu, villagers fled to the town of Komanda, where camps were already housing thousands of internally displaced people. Many of the displaced there have sought shelter and safety within local communities, further taxing local schools, churches, and health centers. Some 2.8 million people or half the Ituri population are severely food insecure, according to the UN.