Piles of disturbed earth covered with nettles and weeds hide the mass graves of Nganza, a neighbourhood in Kananga, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kasai Central region.
Children stroll across them barefoot as if they aren’t even there. A ball rolls over from a nearby football match.
Nobody knows how many bodies are buried here, only that the Congolese soldiers said to be responsible for the killings showed no mercy when they entered the neighbourhood in March, searching for members of a militia known as Kamuina Nsapu.
Among the sandy side-streets and soaring palm trees, they left behind a trail of destruction still visible months later: charred huts, bones poking through the dust, blood-stained walls, and stories of civilians gunned down in their homes.
Machine gun crackle
Kapinga Catheline, 42, fled to a nearby forest when she heard the crackle of machine gun fire early in the morning. When she returned, cold and hungry, three weeks later, her elder brother, Kasong, and her niece, Ntumba, were missing.
“I never found the bodies,” she said, clutching a baby in her left arm.
“Just the blood.”
The mass graves of Nganza are among 87 recently documented by the UN in Congo’s once-stable, now conflict-torn Kasai region.
The conflict pits Kamuina Nsapu, a new anti-government movement, against Congolese security forces, who are accused of indiscriminately killing civilians during raids against the group.
Kamuina Nsapu are also accused of gross human rights violations, including the murder and decapitation of 40 police officers in March.
It comes as the country faces an unprecedented political crisis following President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to hold elections last year when his constitutional mandate expired.
More than 3000 have died in 12 months of violence, according to the Catholic Church, including two UN experts Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan.
About 1.4million people have also been displaced, including 33000 to northern Angola, doubling the total number of internally displaced people in Congo to 3.8million.
“The Kasai crisis has reached an unprecedented scale from both a humanitarian and a human rights point of view,” says Maman Sidikou, head of Monusco, the UN’s peacekeeping mission here, and special representative of the UN secretary-general.
The Kamuina Nsapu phenomenon emerged last year when Jean-Prince Mpandi, a Johannesburg-based traditional doctor, returned to Kasai to claim the title of Kamuina Nsapu, the customary chief of the Bajila Kasanga clan.
The secession of such chiefs - who hold various local administrative powers - has long caused friction at the local level. But with the Congolese government preparing for elections, an informal policy was introduced to replace customary chiefs with choices favourable to Kabila.
Despite being selected by customary elders, Mpandi - considered critical of the government - was rejected in favour of his elder brother, Tshiambi Ntenda, a local member of Kabila’s ruling PPRD party.
In Kasai, a long-standing opposition stronghold and one of the poorest areas of Congo, it proved a dangerous move.
When Mpandi’s house in Tshimbulu was raided, symbols of customary power destroyed, and his wife sexually assaulted following a weapons search by government soldiers, feelings of exclusion and frustration were ignited.
Mpandi called for a popular uprising under the name Kamuina Nsapu and his followers began a series of attacks on police officers, soldiers, and symbols of state authority.
In response, the government sent soldiers to Mpandi’s village, and on August 12 last year he was killed in a raid.
Symbols of customary power were again destroyed and Mpandi’s body was rumoured to have been mutilated.
What began as a local conflict in one small part of Kasai Central then spread like wildfire, with villages from across the five provinces of Greater Kasai mobilising fighters, all under the name of Kamuina Nsapu.
In Kananga, the leader of Kamuina Nsapu and a close relative of Mpandi is André Kabumbu, also known as Khadafi.
He is frail, has a sunken face, and wears an over-sized grey jacket.
He gives his age as 78 when Irin meets him in Nganza.
Asked what motivates him and the group, Kabumbu listed a number of local grievances: a lack of jobs in Kananga, a lack of infrastructure in his hometown of Dibaya, and seeing the body of Mpandi for himself.
When national elections are raised, Kabumbu’s aspirations become more ambitious, however.
“If Kabila was not here none of this would have happened,” he said.
“Kabila must leave power because he does not know how to rule this country.”
Sources working on the Kamuina Nsapu movement said this kind of discourse became increasingly noticeable in October last year, during a political dialogue in Kinshasa between the government and elements of the opposition.
From highly localised demands, the group suddenly shifted its focus onto national dynamics.
It first called for the now-deceased Kananga-born opposition UDPS leader Etienne Tshisekedi to be appointed prime minister and later for Kabila to be removed from power.
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Sources added this shift was not a natural development, but followed direct contact between Kamuina Nsapu chiefs and members of the opposition.
This is thought to include members of the UDPS, the country’s largest opposition party, and the Rassemblement, a multi-party opposition coalition.
While there is no evidence of direct financial or military support, “it is clear they are being instrumentalised”, said one highly-placed source.
Back in Kananga, with a Kasai-wide peace conference on the horizon, Kabumbu is keen to strike a conciliatory tone, despite his lofty, anti-government rhetoric.
“I would like peace to happen,” he said.
The conference follows an agreement back in March between Mpandi’s family, including Kabumbu, and newly-appointed Interior Minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.
The agreement included the return of Mpandi’s body to the family and the appointment of Jacques Kabeya Ntumba as the new Kamuina Nsapu.
For Shadary and others, this marked the end of the Kamuina Nsapu movement. But while a fragile peace has held in Kananga, in other parts of Kasai, around Tshikapa, Dimbelenge, Kabeya, Kamwanga, and Mwene Ditu, fighting has continued.
The original family, it turned out, has little grip on the diffuse, decentralised movement that has since emerged.
“I want everyone to understand that peace must happen but other villages are still active,” Kabumbu admitted. “They don’t want to stop fighting.”
Even in the relative calm of Kananga, large pockets of Kamuina Nsapu resistance remain ready to mobilise. And with elections still a distant prospect, even Kabumbu rules out the possibility of exiting the movement.
“I cannot leave,” he said. “The government has destroyed everything and killed my people.”
Evoking the spirits
Standing in the front yard of a large house in central Kananga, Kayemba Ntumba closed his eyes and bowed his head. In his hands, he clutched a long, brown stick and around his head wore a thin red band tied up in a knot.
One day during battle earlier in the year, the Kamuina Nsapu fighter said he found himself alone on a road surrounded by government soldiers. They had automatic weapons and body armour; he had a stick and a small knife he said he uses to decapitate his victims.
But Ntumba wasn’t scared. Summoning power from the red headband, he said he lifted the stick and pointed it at the soldiers.
“Instead of killing me they started killing each other,” he said.
Magic and mysticism are central to the belief-system of Kamuina Nsaupu, who have sent thousands of children into battle with no training and weapons that are crude at best. According to Sidikou, the Monusco chief, the level of child recruitment in Kasai “has never been so extensive in the DRC”.
Upon initiation, fighters “are given special powers” in a ceremony that takes place around a firepit known as Tshiota. In Kananga, Kabumbu, who is considered the guardian of the family’s traditional powers, is responsible for leading the ceremonies.
“We evoke spirits so our ancestors may help us defeat the people who are against us,” he said.
Accounts of what happens at these ceremonies vary. Some say traditional alcohol is drunk and a hen sacrificed. Others say human blood and finger-nails are ingested and a tattoo made from the ashes of an enemy’s flesh and bones.
When fighters do die, evidence is often hidden. Irin understands that at least some of Kasai’s 87 mass graves have been dug by and for Kamuina Nsapu fighters. Families that have lost loved ones are told their bodies simply “flew away”.
While mystical powers provide children with the courage to fight, those interviewed said they were unhappy in the group.
“The chiefs told us that if we joined we would be rewarded,” said 12-year-old Bilolo*, picking nervously at a black leather sofa.
“They promised me a bank card, a salary and money for school fees. But they gave me nothing.”
Since last year, the Congolese army has sent thousands of troops into the Kasai region. It claims its forces have acted with restraint when fighting Kamuina Nsapu and all the mass graves were dug by militia.
But the evidence suggests otherwise. Jose Maria Aranaz, head of the UN Joint Human Rights Office, said “the majority of violations” across Kasai have been committed by the Congolese army.
“It has consistently applied excessive use of force with deployment of war weaponry in urban areas against its own citizens, including many innocent women and children,” Aranaz said.
In Ngaza, locals said government soldiers went door-to-door in March, looting and killing civilians perceived as sympathetic to the insurgency.
“If we didn’t give them money they would kill us,” said Rosalie Monuque Kajinga, 45. “They took everything we had: pigs and goats, clothes, food, even chairs.”
On two visits to Nganza, Irin was shown five mass graves laid out by the side of a wide dirt-road next to a large communal playing field. A reliable local source who asked not to be named said they had counted as many as 17 similar graves in the neighbourhood.
In one house, locals said 500 corpses had been temporarily dumped by soldiers after the March attack. Bloodstains could be seen on one of the walls and the floor was strewn with clothes, including trademark red headbands.
“The blood was everywhere,” said the home’s owner, Luabu Marie. “Now I have left and have no place to live.”
Many residents of Nganza still bare physical scars from the attack. Kapinga Muleba held out her two-year-old son, Tshiela Martin, whose right leg had been snapped in half by soldiers.
Bakafuta Jean unbuttoned his shirt to show where a bullet had ripped through his chest.
The rise of the Bana Mura
Over the past few months, the Kasai conflict has also developed a new ethnic twist fuelled by access to artisanal diamond mining sites to the west of Kananga.
Following attacks on the population by Kamuina Nsapu fighters and attempts to access these sites, a new militia representing the area’s majority Tchokwe community was formed called Bana Mura - a name also taken by Kabila’s Presidential Guard.
As well as fighting Kamuina Nsapu, the Bana Mura has indiscriminately attacked Luba and Luala civilians who are from the same ethnic group as Kamuina Nsapu and considered sympathetic.
Boko Adolphin, a 24-year-old Luba from Kamako, said her 27-year-old brother, Mgala Mulume, had his throat slit with a machete and his stomach sliced open by Bana Mura in March.
Speaking at the registration centre, she said she counted around 30 dead bodies scattered on the floor as she fled the village.
“Some had been decapitated, some had their arms and legs chopped off,” she said. “Among them were children, even a baby. We heard about foetuses cut out of pregnant women.”
State actors are thought to be fuelling this new conflict.
According to a UN report based on interviews with Luba refugees in Angola, “local state security and defence agents, as well as traditional leaders”, have helped train the Bana Mura and have occasionally led the “militia in fighting the Kamuina Nsapu insurrection”.
John Tshipamba, also Luba, from a village called Cinq, said Bana Mura and Congolese soldiers had attacked his village together one Wednesday evening in March, shooting Luba civilians and setting their houses on fire.
“Bana Mura and Congolese soldiers have become like the same person,” said Tshipamba, 48.
With budget cuts and renewed militia violence in the east, the conflict in Kasai comes at a difficult moment for Monusco.
“Our teams have faced administrative restrictions by the authorities,” said Aranaz, the head of the UN’s human rights office.
“Surveillance, preservation, and protection of the 87 sites of mass graves, which constitute a key element to attribute responsibility for the atrocities, has been a major challenge.”
Some say the mission is caught between competing priories: implementing the December 31st agreement, which commits the Congolese government to organise elections before the end of this year, and investigating war crimes in Kasai.
“To push Kabila into having elections we need to maintain a positive working relationship with the government,” said a Monusco insider. “But if we make progress on Kasai we will antagonise the army, Kabila, and his network, making them even less likely to co-operate. This is the elephant in the room.”
With an increasingly weak central government, the conditions for other Kamuina Nsapu-type groups to emerge “are present everywhere in Congo”, said Kris Berwouts, an independent analyst specialising in central Africa.
Local research by the Congolese Association of Customary Chiefs, suggests there are thousands of similar disputes between the government and traditional authorities ongoing across the country.
“The state has evaporated at the local level in Congo and the authorities are trying to interfere and reinforce their position,” said Berwouts.
While Kabila may not have deliberately fermented the conflict in Kasai, he may use it as another reason to hold onto power, creating a vicious cycle of delayed elections and yet more violence.
* The name of the child fighter has been changed to protect his identity