The video opens with a squad of soldiers walking down a sandy, sunlit road toward a group of people who are chanting.
Then the soldiers — who appear to be uniformed members of the national army of the Democratic Republic of Congo, accompanied by a heavy military truck — raise their weapons.
They start firing.
One by one, the figures in the road drop. Oddly, several of the people do not make any attempt to run from the advancing soldiers.
The soldiers then saunter up to the wounded, blasting them in the head with assault rifles from a few feet away. Many of the victims look young; several are women.
None carry guns.
These images are part of a battlefield video that was shared with The New York Times on Friday and that, thanks to Congolese human rights activists, has begun to make the rounds on Facebook and other social media.
Several analysts said that the footage revealed a government-sponsored massacre of civilians and that the video could be used as evidence of war crimes.
Human Rights Watch, Western diplomats and United Nations officials said they were investigating the video, which was consistent with United Nations reports this week of Congolese government soldiers ruthlessly crushing a local militia in the Kasaï-Central Province.
“The video shows shocking footage of killings and executions of civilians by uniformed personnel,” said a statement by the United Nations peacekeeping department. Peacekeeping officials said they were trying to verify the source of the video and whether it was linked to the recent clashes in the Kasaï area.
Congo has a sordid history of government-led atrocities, including gang rapes and the slaughtering of civilians. The country is nearly lawless, and the government forces are known to be brutal, underpaid and among the most dreaded.
But it is rare to have such powerful, graphic evidence of the blasé taking of human life.
“Look, they are dying,” the soldiers said in Lingala, the language of central Congo, as they blasted the civilians. “Watch how they get killed like animals.”
Human rights activists said that the video was filmed by a Congolese government soldier who was part of the execution squad and that the soldier may have felt bad about what happened and leaked it to assuage his conscience. The camera was right behind the soldiers as they raised their rifles.
The soldiers did not even take cover when they opened fire. Analysts said it was clear that the soldiers knew that their targets posed no threat. At least 13 bodies could be seen in the video.
The unrest in Kasaï is only one of many self-inflicted crises that the Congolese government faces. A religious cult in the west of the country is seeking to revive an ancient kingdom.
A rebel army called the M23 is agitating again in the east, along with several dozen other rebel groups.
The commodities-based economy continues to nose-dive.
And great uncertainty hangs over the teeming, beleaguered capital, Kinshasa, as Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, seems to retreat deeper into the corner he has put himself in, with no plan to leave.
Just this week, the government announced that it did not have the money to hold an election in 2017, after the ruling party agreed a few weeks ago to do just that. Under Congo’s Constitution, Mr. Kabila should not even be in office now. His second and final term was over in December. He is deeply unpopular, increasingly isolated and suspected of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars through fraudulent mining deals.
“None of these conflicts are directly related to each other, but they are proliferating around the country because the government is weak and contested,” said Jason Stearns, the director of the Congo Research Group, a research project based at New York University.
“The government is also paranoid, which is why it feels it needs to take a hard line toward any movements,” he added.
The video appears to have been filmed within the past 10 days, analysts said, during the government’s military operations to quash the Kamuina Nsapu militia. The militia is an offshoot of a local movement in Kasaï whose followers have challenged the government over local autonomy. Some of the group’s followers believe in traditional magic.
It seems the video was filmed as the government soldiers were approaching about a dozen Kamuina Nsapu followers who were standing together in a rural road, chanting.
“They are not scared to die, so we will show them,” one of the soldiers says.
Several of the victims were wearing garlands of leaves. Analysts said they might have believed the leaves — or the chanting — would protect them from bullets. That may be one reason the people did not run or dive into the bushes when the first gunshots rang out.
This week, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Liz Throssell, said as many as 101 people, including 39 women, may have been killed in clashes in the Kasaï area.
“We are deeply concerned at the reported high number of deaths, which if confirmed would suggest excessive and disproportionate use of force by the soldiers,” the statement said.
Lambert Mende, Congo’s information minister, said the video was not filmed in Congo, but possibly another African country, and that it was an attempt by nongovernmental organizations “to destroy the image of the D.R.C.”
(c) 2017 The New York Times