‘I’m a Civilian. I’m Innocent’: Who’s in Congo’s Mass Graves?

Congolese refugees who fled the violence in the Kasai waited for their daily food ration in Kikwit.CreditJohn Wessels/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

They are everywhere. Here next to a house, where a woman is hanging clothes to dry. There in a field, where children are playing.

They are graves, filled with hundreds of bodies.

In the town of Nganza, in the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the dead have been decomposing for months. Now it may be too late to identify them. The ground that covers them has turned almost smooth again. The only sign that there are people buried here are the government soldiers in red berets and aviator sunglasses, posted nearby with AK-47s.

They are deployed not for protection but to stop anyone from investigating witnesses’ claims that the security forces went door to door here in March, gunning whole families down in their homes and then closing the doors behind them.

The slaughter in Nganza was part of a wider conflict that has engulfed the Kasai, a region in the center of this vast country, where government forces are fighting a militia opposed to President Joseph Kabila. The violence, rooted in political and economic grievances, was ignited last August when troops killed the group’s leader, a hereditary chief who went by the name of Kamwina Nsapu (pronounced ka-MEE-na SA-poo) meaning “black ant.” His followers, many of them children, retaliated, and the conflict spread like wildfire.

The Roman Catholic Church, one of the few institutions in the country that provides reliable statistics, estimates that at least 3,300 people have been killed in the region since October. More than 1.4 million people have been displaced internally or are flooding into Angola.

“It’s the worst humanitarian and human rights crisis in a decade, when both sides have committed serious crimes,” said Jose Maria Aranaz, who leads the human rights division of the United Nations mission in Congo, called Monusco. There is a pattern of prosecuting rank-and-file individuals but not commanders, he said. Unless military and political leaders are held to account, he said, “the cycle of impunity will continue.”

On Wednesday, the United Nations human rights chief named three international experts to investigate reports of the killings in the Kasai, and he called on Congo’s government to cooperate. That coincided with the release of a report by the human rights office in Congo that for the first time accused “elements” of the Congolese Army of digging most of the mass graves it has identified.

The violence is feeding into a worsening national political crisis, in which Mr. Kabila is delaying elections in an attempt to cling to power. The government cites violence in the Kasai as one reason not to hold a vote this year, but critics accuse the president — who has already been in power for 16 years — of trying to buy time to allow him to change the Constitution and run for a third term.

The government has sent thousands of troops to crush the rebellion here, bringing in commanders from eastern Congo who are notorious for their brutality. It even enlisted the help of a former warlord whose methods are so violent that the government, battling him in the past, once sentenced him to death.

Congolese women walked by a mass grave, in the background. The United Nations has so far identified 80 mass graves in the Kasai region since violence erupted last year. The government has denied having a hand in the massacres. CreditKimiko de Freytas-Tamura/The New York Times

The mayhem and lawlessness have spawned other armed groups, based on ethnicity. Many of them are backed by government forces as they try to quash the Kamwina Nsapu militia.

United Nations representatives have so far discovered 80 mass graves in the region. But they cannot exhume the bodies; that is the responsibility of the national authorities, which the United Nations is mandated to support, Mr. Aranaz said. In March, two United Nations experts were killed trying to investigate the graves. The identities of their attackers are disputed.

The Congolese government says the graves are those of militia fighters, buried by fellow members, and were not meant for civilians. If any are in them, it says, they are victims of recent cholera and yellow fever outbreaks, not government-sponsored killings.

It is possible that at least some of the graves contain militia members. But the government has consistently refused access to independent investigators and has barely carried out its own examinations. (There is only one qualified forensic analyst in Congo, a country the size of Western Europe, according to Mr. Aranaz.)

In Nganza, a commune of Kananga, the capital of the Kasai, recent interviews with witnesses and residents painted a picture different from the government narrative.

In late March, soldiers and police officers, directed to flush the town of militants, went door to door, hauling away valuables such as television sets, cellphones and even farm animals, the witnesses said. They extorted large sums of money from residents, many of whom live on less than $1.25 a day, and shot them dead if they did not offer enough.

Newborns, the elderly, and people with disabilities were slaughtered in their beds and living rooms.

More than 500 civilians are thought to have been killed in Nganza during that three-day period, an unprecedented level of violence that residents call, simply, “the war.”

During clashes with militants, rocket attacks destroyed houses. A family of 12 burned alive after one struck their home. Its walls were blasted away, and on a recent visit, black traces of smoke on the remains hinted at the intensity of the flames.

The place was swarming with so many soldiers, residents said, that some even climbed up avocado trees to gain a better vantage point to shoot at people. The United Nations accuses the army of using disproportionate force.

These skulls are believed to be from victims of the fighting between soldiers and the Kamwina Nsapu, a rebel militia. CreditAaron Ross/Reuters

Ntumba Kamwabo, 29, was out washing in a nearby river when she heard gunfire. She rushed home, where her two daughters, 7 and 10 years old, had been with her brother-in-law, who was disabled.

“When I arrived, a police officer kicked open the door of the house, and soldiers rushed in, shooting,” Mrs. Kamwabo said. When she tried to stop them, one of them knocked her down. A bullet hit her right eye, then she was shot again in her arm. She re-enacted the scene during a recent interview, a dark cavity where her eye used to be.

“I don’t understand why they did this,” she said, hugging her surviving child on her lap. She said: “I thought soldiers were fighting the militia. I’m a civilian. I’m innocent.”

Her husband, Mwamba Konyi, buried their two children and his brother outside their home. “I am suffering,” he murmured, before falling silent.

Jean-Pierre Kapinga, another Nganza resident, buried 10 of his neighbors at the request of a local priest. The smell of death had become unbearable. In his neighborhood alone, he and other residents recorded 53 deaths; each person had been shot.

The list of victims includes Michele Betu, 2 years old; Mujinga Ntambue, 3 months; and Paul Kenakudia, 78.

When the massacre was over, a military official, Brig. Gen. Asumani Issa Umba, who soon afterward was named by President Kabila to lead security operations for the entire Kasai region, paid a group of men to bury the bodies in graves. The men said in interviews that hundreds of people were buried in at least nine different areas.

One of the men, speaking on the condition of anonymity for his safety, said he and the other men had been given around $50, spades, gloves and lime powder to sprinkle on the bodies. They went house to house, guided by flies and the stench of rot, pulling out bodies that had been decomposing for days. Most of the victims had been shot, and some had their throat slit. Others had been partially eaten by pigs.

The man pointed out a stark, sandy patch in the middle of a field where he said there were 120 bodies buried. Children were playing there.