The increasingly brutal nature of fighting in central Congo between the army and local militia is on vivid display in the village of Tshienke, where bodies of rebel fighters were dumped into a mass grave last month following intense clashes.
A visit to this site recently was the first time journalists have seen the toll the Congolese military has exacted on fighters of the Kamuina Nsapu militia, whose insurgency poses the most serious threat to the rule of President Joseph Kabila.
Reuters was unable to determine the exact number of bodies in eight mass graves dug in January and February in DR Congo’s Kasai-Central province. The graves were also confirmed by nine local witnesses.
The United Nations said it suspects Congolese forces killed 84 militia members close to the town of Tshimbulu between February 9 and 13.
Government denies its soldiers used disproportionate force and says they have recovered automatic weapons from militia fighters after clashes.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende told Reuters the bodies in the mass graves were those of Kamuina Nsapu fighters and it was the group who had buried them, not the army.
“I don’t see why the soldiers would hide the fact, that after clashing with the terrorists, the terrorists died,” he said, confirming the army killed militia fighters in the clashes.
Leaders of Kamuina Nsapu could not be reached for comment.
At one grave site at Tshimbulu, a human femur poked out of the dirt and shards of bone dotted the perimeter.
“We saw arms and legs. There were people who were entirely exposed because they hadn’t been buried well,” said a man who found the mass grave last month with fellow farmers.
He, like about a dozen witnesses Reuters interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the army.
Two km away in Tshienke, another farmer pointed out two more mass graves she said contained bodies dumped by an army truck between 8 and 11 pm on the night of February 12, following intense clashes two days before.
A red headband of the kind worn by members of the Kamuina Nsapu militia was wedged in the grass near the graves.
In a statement to Reuters, the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo said it informed government earlier this month of three alleged mass grave sites in Tshimbulu and, in December, of seven more in the village of Nkoto, about 150 km north-west. Government says the graves were dug by the militia.
Kabila’s decision not to step down when his presidential mandate expired in December was followed by a wave of killings and lawlessness across the central African nation.
Kabila said he is committed to respecting the constitution but an election to choose his successor cannot take place until a lengthy voter registration process is completed.
The rebellion that began in Kasai-Central has spread to five of Congo’s 26 provinces and resulted in hundreds of deaths.
Kabila’s opponents used violence to exploit the uncertainty caused by his decision to stay on. Last August, a local chief known as Kamuina Nsapu after his native village, was killed in a clash with soldiers.
He rejected the authority of the central government in Kasai-Central and demanded government forces leave. Since then, Kamuina Nsapu militants do not appear to have a leader and some of the latest violence appears to be ethnic score-settling.
They have also demanded government move to implement a deal signed on December 31 requiring Kabila to step down after an election this year.
“It has taken on a political dimension because the aim is now to see Kabila no longer at the head of the country,” said Alphonse Mukendi, a human rights activist in provincial capital Kananga.
More than 60 local leaders connected to the militia, including Kamuina Nsapu’s brother, began arriving in Kananga on Sunday for negotiations with government, provincial vice governor Justin Milonga told Reuters.
Government hopes conciliatory gestures, including suggestions it is prepared to return Kamuina Nsapu’s body to his family, can ease tensions, Milonga cautioned many in the decentralised rebellion hope to see it continue.
Kamuina Nsapu’s tactics have alienated many, according to local residents, who say it uses child soldiers, some as young as 10.
It has attacked schools and churches, institutions it sees as oppressive and executed police officers, soldiers and rival chiefs.
Mende, the government spokesman, said Congolese forces also suffered casualties at the hands of the group, including about 30 police officers killed last August.
But in battles with the military, the militia has faced machine gun fire while its fighters are armed with machetes, batons and home-made rifles.
After a video appearing to show soldiers massacring militia members was posted on social media, the United Nations called on Congo’s government to end “human rights violations, including apparent summary executions, by the armed forces”.
The military’s top prosecutor, Major General Joseph Ponde, announced on Saturday seven soldiers had been charged in connection with the video, including for the war crimes of murder and mutilation.
Ponde also said investigators plan to exhume two graves discovered near where the video was shot in Kasai-Oriental province.