The massacre that can hopefully turn the tide

‘We must not get used to the horror in eastern Congo’

Gerda Postelmans (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Een spelend kind in Goma, mei 2022.

On 29 November, yet another massacre took place in eastern Congo. The region has been plagued by ruthless violence for decades. Often the perpetrators are known, but they are rarely brought to justice. MO* contributor Kris Berwouts wonders who will stop this impunity.

With the end of 2022 in sight, an important year begins for the Democratic Republic of Congo. A few weeks ago, the Independent Electoral Commission announced that presidential elections, along with those for parliament and provincial councils, will take place on 20 December 2023, just before the constitutional time limit expires. Many factors contribute to the high risk of delays in the bumpy course of Congolese democratisation. The main reason is violence that has again taken over in recent months in the east of the country.

Eastern Congo has been struggling with chronic insecurity for three decades, caused by the combination of armed groups, merciless competition for resources and an explosive regional situation. At the end of the last century, the large-scale violence was dubbed the First African World War because it involved the regular armies of nine countries as well as armed groups, both Congolese and foreign in origin. Eastern Congo was the battleground of this war, and the civilian population the first casualty. After the peace agreements of the beginning of this century, a complex transition and the historic elections of 2006, we no longer speak of an open war but of a permanent low-intensity conflict that still claims many civilian victims. Regularly, that violence nevertheless flared up high enough to bring Congo close to a new implosion and inflame tensions between countries in the region. We have entered again such a period in recent months.

Eastern Congo has been struggling with chronic insecurity for three decades.

In 2021, President Tshisekedi tried to bring the situation in eastern Congo under control through an overall militarisation, including a sort of martial law in the two most affected provinces and inviting the Ugandan army onto Congolese soil on a bilateral basis to fight the ADF, one of the country’s most dangerous armed groups. This militarisation came at the expense of non-armed forms of conflict management, field diplomacy and society building. But the hoped-for result is still not achieved.

In late 2021, M23 became active again on Congolese soil. In 2012, the Rwanda-backed M23 grew into one of the most powerful armed groups in the DRC. In November 2012, rebels took Goma, the capital of North Kivu province. A year later, M23 was neutralised by the joint efforts of the Congolese army and an international military brigade from SADC countries, the multilateral alliance in southern Africa.

For a year now, M23 has been back. A much larger offensive began in March 2022, with M23 capturing several villages. In June, M23 captured Bunagana, a strategic town on the DRC-Uganda border. In late October, the situation escalated further and Goma became virtually surrounded by M23. As in 2012-2013, the rebels are supported by the Rwandan army, which supplies weapons and even troops at key moments. For its part, Rwanda accuses Congo of collaborating with the FDLR and Nyatura, armed groups made up of remnants of the former Rwandan government army and the militias that had carried out the genocide.

In recent months, a solution has been sought mainly within the framework of the EAC, the multilateral alliance of East African countries. Efforts are being made to intervene at two levels. On the one hand, there are the summits between the countries involved, and on the other, there are negotiations between the Congolese government and the armed groups. However, M23 is not involved in those. Both processes are laborious. Nevertheless, an agreement including a ceasefire was reached in the Angolan capital Luanda on 23 November.

Since the massacre, several countries within the international community have been more critical of Rwandan support.

Despite the ceasefire, a gruesome massacre took place in and around the village of Kishishe on 29 November.  Different versions exist about what exactly happened. According to the Congolese government, M23 killed 273 people there, mostly civilians. M23 says it carried out a military operation against FDLR and Nyatura and that unfortunately up to 20 civilians were killed there as collateral damage. The UN mission in Congo, Monusco, puts it at 131 casualties.

Kishishe could tilt the situation. Since the massacre, several countries within the international community have been more critical of Rwandan support. The United States was the first to urge the Rwandan authorities to stop supporting M23. Later, France, Germany and Belgium, among others, followed suit.

For now, it remains business as usual, and the Congolese people are fed up. They feel unheard and protected by no one. Their own authorities are failing to get rid of the legacy of extremely bad governance for which we had to invent the word kleptocracy in Mobutu’s days, daily living conditions remain particularly hard for most of the population, and neighbouring countries, despite the obligatory declarations from Western partners from time to time, have continued to plunder Congolese resources for decades. And above all, the violence continues unabated.

Humanitarian surgeon Réginald Moreels had contacted me some time ago. Whether we could do something together around the horrific conditions in eastern Congo. Friend Ivan Godfroid suggested: ‘We need to keep it as concrete as possible, if we want impact.’ He suggested calling for an independent commission of enquiry to be set up to investigate on the ground exactly what had happened in Kishishe. The commission should be able to talk to relatives and victims in conditions secured for all. We are launching this appeal together with a few friends who, like us, closely follow the evolution on the ground, and are very closely linked to the Congolese people through work and/or private life. It is not just a cry from the heart but first and foremost a concrete proposal to take a real step forward in the fight against violence in eastern Congo in the short term.

The report of such an independent commission can be an essential contribution to the bodies of international justice to end impunity and start restoring the rule of law. Kishishe will unfortunately not be the last massacre in eastern Congo, but hopefully it can still be the crime against humanity that wakes us up and helps us to take action. We must not become accustomed to the horror.

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