It started off with a murder. A year later, about 3 300 people have been killed and around 1.3 million displaced.
This is Kasai province, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and if experts, researchers and UN investigators are to be believed, this is the beginning of new, protracted conflict in the DRC.
A new UN report said the bloodletting in Kasai, in central DRC, has spawned at least 80 mass graves. If not stopped, the region is on track to become a new site of ethnic cleansing.
The UN report, based on interviews with 96 survivors living as refugees in neighbouring Angola, found that about 250 people were killed between March 12 and June 19 this year, among them 62 children. UN investigators found children whose fingers had been chopped off and their faces mutilated. Pregnant women were stabbed, others raped.
“Survivors have spoken of hearing the screams of people being burnt alive, of seeing loved ones chased and cut down, of themselves fleeing in terror,” said UN high commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein.
Like much of the sporadic and feverish violence across the eastern parts of the DRC, the violence gripping Kasai is entangled within a larger context of political uncertainty and rising authoritarianism.
The Kasai region has been haunted by raids and extra-judicial murders ever since Kamwina Nsapu, a local chief, was sidelined by the Congolese government by a new set of laws implemented in August last year. As an ardent critic of President Joseph Kabila, Nsapu’s discontent with the administration resonated with the public.
When his popularity was deemed a threat to Kabila’s administration, he was shot dead outside his home.
Azad Essa is a journalist and co-founding editor of The Daily Vox.
Responding to the assassination and government interference in traditional affairs, a new rebel group bearing the same name as the slain chief emerged to take on Congolese troops stationed in the region.
As has been the natural resolve of the Congolese state in the face of militia threats over the past decade, it created a militia group of its own, the Bana Mura, to fight the new group on its behalf.
The consequences for the communities caught in the middle of the conflict has been catastrophic. In March, two UN experts sent to investigate the troubles in Kasai were found buried in a mass grave.
The communities seen as accomplices to Nsapu, in particular the Luba and Lulua ethnic groups, have been targeted by the Bana Mura, prompting the UN to warn of ethnic cleansing in the region.
If the government’s role wasn’t damning enough, the UN report found that the Congolese army was seen leading Bana Mura militia during attacks on civilians, and even in the extermination of the Luba and Lulua communities.
The bodies of farmers, children and pregnant women have been turned into a battleground for two groups of contract killers.
The DRC’s Catholic Church said in June that some 3300 people had been killed and a million others displaced since October last year. It also warned that malnutrition and disease would come to haunt those living without food or shelter.
Last year, more people were displaced in the DRC than any other part of the world, primarily as a result of the turmoil in Kasai.
The UN has called for the DRC government to prosecute those involved in the fighting, especially those involved in contracting mercenaries.
There are dozens of militia groups operating in the DRC, and nothing of the sort is likely to happen any time soon.
The violence in Kasai is just another manifestation of the growing dissent and dissatisfaction with Kabila’s presidency. Kabila, the president since 2001, continues to find any excuse to stay in power.
He and his lackeys blame logistical issues, a lack of funding and incomplete voter registration for the postponement of elections last year, when his mandate expired.
Meanwhile, those who claim to be friends of the DRC, and influential mediators, like Jacob Zuma’s administration, have chosen to turn a blind eye to the disaster unfolding in the country.
At the height of the violence in Kasai; in fact, in the same month the Catholic Church reported the death tolls and scale of displacements, Zuma and Kabila met for bilateral meetings in Pretoria. In a series of remarks following their meeting, Zuma described the DRC as “politically stable” and said “the security situation has improved”.
Unsurprisingly, just over a week later, Corneille Nangaa, the country’s electoral commission head, raised the ire of international observers and opposition parties when he said the elections were unlikely to take place later this year as planned.
In other words, Kabila needs more time to plunder the country’s wealth before leaving office. The meeting in June was precisely the endorsement Kabila might have been seeking.
South Africa is the DRC’s biggest supplier of foreign goods and services, with investments in mining, finance and communication. According to the Presidency, 20% of the country’s imports are from South Africa.
We, or at least certain members of the South African political elite, benefit from Kabila’s rule.
The DRC is a complex story, with multiple actors and a myriad foreign interests that continue to interfere, intervene and enjoy the lucrative fruits of anarchy.
As the year unfolds, the dissent against Kabila will spread to other parts of the DRC.
It will manifest in protests, raids and crackdowns. But the next time you read of a massacre or political interference, know that we are very much part of the story, too.
* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founding editor of The Daily Vox
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Med