Congo: The Bloodiest War

A fragile ceasefire has put a stop to the fighting that has devastated the eastern Congolese province of North Kivu since August. But ceasefires have a poor track record in this troubled hotspot. Spasms of violence in the region's decade-long civil war have left over 5 million people dead, making eastern Congo the deadliest battleground in the world today. A quarter of a million have been displaced in this year's battles alone. To make matters worse, there are now reports emerging that tens of thousands of the displaced have begun to flee the camps set up for them by the United Nations and other aid groups, driven away by soldiers' shooting and looting sprees. "These are people who have really suffered over the last eight weeks or so, and this is just the tip of the iceberg," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, the senior Congo researcher for Human Rights Watch, who is currently working on the ground in Goma. "There are some promising efforts on the diplomatic front right now, in that we're seeing much more senior-level efforts. But diplomacy takes time to work. That's why additional troops are needed, but even they'll take two months to get here. The real question is what to do in the meantime."

For Van Woudenberg's team, the answer right now is to collect as many eyewitness accounts as they can of the pervasive abuse of civilians by various armed groups. Although the war has been fought by a dizzying assortment of different armies and rebels, all have exacted a bloody toll on the region's civilian population. The latest escalation reflects a power struggle between a Tutsi-led rebel group, the CNDP, led by the ambitious Laurent Nkunda, and the undisciplined and indiscriminately violent government troops of President Joseph Kabila. For both sides, the ghosts of the 1994 Rwandan genocide loom large; Nkunda's forces are supported by the present Rwandan government, while Kabila's army is linked to Rwandan Hutu rebels who perpetrated the genocide. Fueled by ethnic power struggles, funded by the sale of the Congo's vast mineral deposits, and constrained only by an insufficient U.N. peacekeeping force of 17,000, the armies and their local militia sponsors have made rape, looting and the forced recruitment of child soldiers key tactics in their fight for power. To document those abuses, Human Rights Watch has deployed a small team of field staffers to conduct fact-finding visits to camps, hospitals, and villages throughout North Kivu. What follows is a small sampling of the testimonials the group's team has gathered since the fighting intensified in August.

Editor's Note: The following stories contain graphic descriptions of disturbing abuses. To protect those who spoke with field workers about their experiences, all names have been changed.

"It all happened very quickly. We saw people fleeing and running towards us, and at the same time, we heard lots of gunshots. The Congolese army soldiers were retreating, with the CNDP advancing behind them. Then the bombs from Rwanda fell around us. I saw the body of woman in the camp who had been decapitated by a bomb. I also saw a 17-year-old boy and a 35-year-old man, the father of six kids, killed by the bombs. Another 65-year-old man was killed by a bullet when the CNDP soldiers arrived in the camp. I was focused on fleeing and didn't have time to check all the bodies. Those who weren't killed were blocked by the CNDP. We don't know if they're still alive today, but the news from there isn't good. We've heard that many of the women were raped and that the young men and boys like me were recruited by force for military service."

"The soldiers told me to carry bananas for them into the hills. When we got to the hill, one of the soldiers pushed me to the ground. He put the blunt side of his machete on my neck and the handle of his rifle on my chest. Then he raped me. When he was finished, he called the other soldier and he raped me too. Then they told me I could go. As I fled, they shot their rifles into the banana plantation. I fell to the ground, pretending I was dead. They then left and I ran back to my family." --Marie

"The Tutsi soldier came inside and told me he was going to have sex with me. I asked how he could sleep with someone my age. To save myself, I told him I had AIDS and I begged him to let me go. But he refused. Later that night, six other women I know were raped. We don't know who was responsible. Since I was raped, my husband has rejected me and I've been weak and traumatized. But what worries us most is hunger and sickness. I don't know how much longer we'll last." --Berthe

"One of the soldiers said he was going to exterminate us all. He then turned to me and put his machete against my ear. He cut at my ear, slowly, slowly, back and forth. He said he would cut me, part by part, until I die. The other prisoners started to cry out, and the soldier left me to hit them on their heads with the back of his machete. He then came back to me and started to cut at the back of my neck. When the others cried out even louder, the soldier brought me and another prisoner outside. They forced the other man to lie naked on the ground while they beat him with wooden sticks and sliced his buttocks with a machete. Eventually one soldier convinced the others to let us go. I ran through the forest, with blood streaming from my neck and ear, until I reached a health center. They do this kind of thing everyday against people who have fled and try to go back to their farms. But we have to go back because we're hungry."

"Five CNDP soldiers stopped me on the road in the middle of the day. They sent me with a large group of other men and boys--some as young as 12, others as old as 40--to Murambi where they said we would transport boxes of ammunition for the rebel soldiers. They beat us badly so we couldn't resist. When we got to Murambi, they didn't order us to transport boxes, but instead gave us military uniforms and taught us how to use weapons. Then after three days, they put us all in an underground prison. We stayed there for four days, and new recruits joined us everyday. On the fourth day, they called us out of the prison and took us to Karuba. That night, I managed to escape with two other recruits, and we ran all the way back to Ngungu. The others who remained behind were sent to Kitchanga for military training. I want to go back to our home in Numbi, but I'm scared. If the CNDP soldiers find me there, they will kill me."

"We were looking for used shoes to buy in the market but the people there accused us of being spies for [Tutsi-rebel leader Laurent Nkunda]. Then the police arrived, and they paraded us through the streets, while the crowds shouted at us: 'You Tutsis are a bad people. You are the flies that we must always crush.' When we arrived at the police station, the policemen there beat us with rubber strips from tires. They made us take our pants off to see if we were circumcised. They pulled at our noses and penises, saying we had elongated penises because we're Tutsi. All night long, the policemen beat us, still accusing us of being spies. In the morning, we were eventually released after our families each paid $50. We want to go back to school in Goma because we can't afford the school fees in Rwanda, [but we] will be killed in Goma."