By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
NAIROBI, Oct. 23 -- A variety of armed groups, including the Congolese military, have routinely terrorized civilians across eastern Congo in the past year, with killings, massacres, rapes, abductions, looting and other brutalities perpetrated by all parties in the conflict, according to a report released Tuesday by New York-based Human Rights Watch.
About 370,000 people have been displaced since November, when the latest fighting began between forces loyal to renegade Congolese Gen. Laurent Nkunda, the Congolese army and various militia groups left over from a civil war that officially ended in 2002, the report said.
An estimated 143,000 people have fled their villages in the past four weeks alone, including at least 8,000 who have crossed into neighboring Uganda in recent days, according to U.N. officials.
The Human Rights Watch report, based on dozens of interviews with witnesses, documents a pattern in which civilians are frequently accused of supporting one side or another in the conflict, then cruelly punished or killed for it.
"I found the body of my son behind the school at which he taught," said one man whose son had been accused by Nkunda's men of supporting a militia called Interahamwe, according to the report. "I only recognized him by his clothes as he had been shot in the head and his face was unrecognizable. I was in such grief when I found him. How could they say he was Interahamwe? He was not. He was a schoolteacher."
The report details attacks on more than 50 villages in Congo's North Kivu province, by Nkunda's soldiers, the Congolese army or the so-called Interahamwe, or FDLR, which is made up largely of Rwandan Hutus who fled into eastern Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
In some villages, more than a dozen civilians were massacred at once, according to the report. In other instances, people were tortured with electric shocks or hammered to death.
Rape has become a routine weapon of war, with girls as young as 5 among the victims, the report said.
The crimes have been carried out in an atmosphere of almost complete impunity.
National elections last year -- the first multiparty vote in four decades -- had brought a spark of hope to eastern Congo, which has suffered successive civil wars and fighting often linked to the region's considerable mineral resources.
But the government of President Joseph Kabila has so far failed to assert authority over the vast country, much less disarm the FDLR militias or subdue Nkunda, a charismatic leader who has had close ties to the Rwandan government and who claims to be protecting Congo's Tutsi minority from the FDLR.
With his weak, ill-trained and mostly unpaid army, Kabila has had to decide whether to go after the FDLR, as his Rwandan neighbors would prefer, or deal with Nkunda's relatively well-equipped and disciplined force.
In recent months, he seems to have made a decision to go after Nkunda, and the fear now is that a wider war could engulf eastern Congo once again.
The Congolese army has built up its forces in the east and battled sporadically with Nkunda's men, often with logistical support from the U.N. mission in Congo, currently the largest peacekeeping operation in the world.
"We have transported Congolese troops, evacuated their casualties, and we are assisting commanders at all levels in planning operations," said Maj. Prem Kumar Tiwari, a spokesman for the U.N. mission in North Kivu. "The situation is very volatile and it's difficult to say where it will lead."