Kambere Kahendo was cooking cassava leaves when the rebels arrived in her village in the northeast part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) one August afternoon. She hurriedly gathered her children inside the house and locked the door, praying the fighters would move on.
Moments later, gunshots erupted in the street. Her door was smashed from its hinges, and the rebels entered her home. Paralyzed by fear, Kahendo watched as the men began to slit her children’s throats with a machete, one by one, smiling and singing as they killed. Then she passed out.
“Since then I’ve been having nightmares,” the 52-year-old says. “I am troubled in my mind.”
The massacre in the village of Mayi-Moya, about 30 miles north of the town of Beni, went largely unreported; in the region around Beni, which is located in the conflict-wracked province of North Kivu, little was remarkable about the assault. Since late 2014, the area has suffered a series of attacks, largely attributed to a Ugandan rebel group known as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). The violence has left nearly 700 civilians dead, according to Human Rights Watch, but local sources put the figure considerably higher.
Eastern DRC has been riven by conflict since 1994, when a massive influx of Hutu refugees fled across the border from neighboring Rwanda, fearing persecution by the new Tutsi administration in that country. Among them were many of the génocidaires accused of participating in the killing of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the spring of 1994.
Two years later, Rwanda invaded, attacking the refugee camps that had become the temporary homes for Hutu militia groups. The Rwandan forces also toppled Congo’s infamously corrupt dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.
The militias never entirely disbanded, however, and the next decade saw a spiral of messy conflicts that drew in nine African states and myriad rebel groups. The war was fueled by the region’s immense natural riches, which include gold, diamonds, tin, timber and coltan, a mineral essential to the manufacture of smartphones and other consumer electronics. By 2008, the International Rescue Committee estimated that the conflict had cost about 5.4 million lives, mostly from disease and malnutrition.
In late 2013, the defeat of the M23 movement, a major Tutsi-dominated rebel group, raised hopes that the cycle of violence could be coming to an end. Hopes were boosted by the creation of a Force Intervention Brigade within the long-running U.N. peacekeeping force MONUSCO, with a mandate to aggressively take on armed groups.
A series of offensives in the first half of 2014 succeeded in splintering the group, but three years on, with the massacres in Beni continuing unabated, locals are increasingly frustrated about the inability of both the army and MONUSCO to control the violence. The ADF, they point out, is currently thought to number only a few hundred fighters.
The people of Beni are also angry and afraid. When the government donated coffins to the families of six people hacked to death in early November, irate youths burned them in protest against what they believe is the government’s failure to protect them. After each new massacre, people gather at the crime scene and the morgue to check that their loved ones are not among the dead. In August, a dozen people were crushed to death in a panicked stampede after a drunken off-duty soldier fired four rounds into the air. Later that month, rioting broke out after 50 people were killed during a massacre in the Rwangoma suburb of the town.
“This [ADF] conflict has been going on since 1996, but this is the worst it’s ever been,” says Kasereka Vivuya, a secondary school teacher whose aunt and uncle were kidnapped during a raid in 2013 and have not been seen since.
The government blames the attacks almost exclusively on the ADF, an Islamist-inspired group whose original goal was to topple the government of neighboring Uganda and replace it with an Islamist one. In the face of military pressure in their home country, the rebels quickly established the mountainous border region between the DRC and Uganda as their base, from which they carried out low-level attacks in both countries. Analysts say that their actions have shown little if any adherence to their professed religious goals and that a range of local and regional interests are driving the recent surge in violence.
A report published earlier this year by the U.N.’s Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo alleged that elements of the military were in fact supporting the ADF by providing the rebels with arms and ammunition. In earlier reports, the U.N. group suggested army officers were benefiting from timber felled in the rebels’ jungle strongholds.
Some of Beni’s residents suspect the government is using the chaos in the east as a distraction from a bitter political row over the postponement of elections until 2018. (President Joseph Kabila’s legal mandate ran out on December 19.)
Others argue that Rwandan Hutus are driving the violence in the hopes of snatching land traditionally owned by the ethnic Nande group, while others say that neighboring countries are stoking the violence so they can continue to benefit from the flow of gold through ADF areas. The presence of an active jihadi organization has also proved a useful bargaining chip for nearby states looking to bring in foreign military aid.
In a report published last March, the nonprofit Congo Research Group said it had found “extensive evidence indicating that members of the FARDC [the armed forces] have actively participated in massacres.”
Many survivors of the killings speak of fighters dressed in the uniform of the national army. Others question why some of the attacks have been allowed to take place within minutes of army bases.
“The soldiers are becoming rebels, and the government is not telling us the truth. They just fire in the air,” says Vivuya, echoing a common belief in the town: that the army has been ordered not to fight the rebels.
Beni’s mayor, Nyonyi Bwanakawa, denied that the group was receiving support from the government. When Newsweek visited him at his office in downtown Beni, he was surrounded in the atrium by a group of around 40 women, widows of soldiers killed by the ADF who were demanding their unpaid pensions.
Bwanakawa insisted that no members of the military have taken part in the attacks, saying ADF fighters have been stealing uniforms from the soldiers they kill, leading to confusion among the public. He added that the government changed the design of its soldiers’ uniforms in August to help avoid false identification of soldiers.
For Kahendo, sitting in a friend’s living room on the outskirts of Beni, the identity of the men who killed her children barely matters. She now lives in permanent fear.
“The government should prevent these attacks. Living on the outside of town, we are always afraid,” she says, her hands trembling. “And they should support the victims. But they have done nothing.”