On 31 January 2020, Nyatura Domi rebels plundered a village in North Kivu’s Walikale territory and claimed five civilian lives. A day earlier, seven independent incidents across North and South Kivu took 20 civilian lives. For inhabitants of eastern DRC, these events do not come as a surprise. With over 100 armed rebel groups operating across the provinces Ituri, and North and South Kivu, the Kivu Security Tracker (KST) has accounted for 125 clashes and 300 civilian deaths in the Kivus this year alone. The frequency and severity of attacks have particularly peaked in the territory of Beni in North Kivu, and Ituri province in recent months.
Clashes in Beni are primarily between national military forces (FARDC) and the Ugandan armed group, Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Incidents have spiked since 30 October 2019, when FARDC launched a major offensive against ADF. Force Commander of the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), General Augusto Neves, met with FARDC’s General Fall Sikabwe on 4 February 2020 to discuss joint civilian protection measures, MONUSCO’s Radio Okapi reports. This cooperation is in response to an independent assessment of ADF attacks in the latter months of 2019, which incited violent civilian protests against the DRC government and UN forces. The assessment team determined that ‘the high number of civilian casualties was one of the main triggers of violent demonstrations against MONUSCO in North Kivu’. The team accounted for over 260 deaths during November and December 2019 alone.
In Ituri province, FARDC has predominantly fought insurgents of the Cooperative for Development of Congo (CODECO), against a backdrop of deep-rooted ethnic conflict between the Lendu and Hema communities. Investigations by the UN Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) recorded over 700 deaths and a minimum of 142 cases of sexual violence in Ituri province since December 2017. The report further highlights the ‘barbarity’ of attacks by militant groups, which ‘could contain some elements of crimes against humanity’. Whilst Congolese President, Felix Tshisekedi had pledged to crack down on what he called an ‘attempted genocide’ in Ituri, UNJHRO’s report condemned national security forces for committing similar abuses.
The DRC has been plagued with conflict since its independence in 1960. Though the Second Congo War came to a formal end in 2003, ethnic tensions, hostile regional relations and subversive rebel activity continue to impede peacemaking efforts. The International Crisis Group (ICG) warned of the particularly volatile atmosphere in the Great Lakes region as of 23 January 2020, given allegations that Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda are all entwined with militia activity in the DRC, and could pursue military activity in the DRC if endorsed by President Tshisekedi.
The reality of fear, violence, abuse and senseless death for civilians in eastern DRC is dehumanising. Whilst resolutions to a conflict of this complexity and historical depth are difficult to envision, Tshisekedi should persevere in diplomatic negotiations with stakeholder states, in the interest of the peace and stability for the civilian population, instead of turning to military action.
With close to 2.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ituri and North Kivu provinces alone, in addition to over 250,000 refugees across eastern DRC, persistent rebel attacks exacerbate desperate circumstances. Attacks have also forced foreign medical teams, including Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF), to withdraw, having been deployed to respond to the DRC’s tenth and largest Ebola epidemic, concentrated in the same eastern provinces. The consequences of militia violence in the region are evidently catastrophic. It is imperative for DRC authorities, regional and international actors to act together now if peace and security are ever to prevail in the region.