Tit-for-tat massacres kill hundreds in eastern Congo

While the M23 rebellion is taking up most of the Congo news in Congolese and foreign press, a series of largely unconnected massacres has been taking a far larger human toll in the area of Bunyakiri and Ufamando. According to United Nations reports, over 200 civilians – and possibly many more – have been killed in tit-for-tat massacres between the Rwandan FDLR rebels and the Raia Mutomboki militias since the beginning of the year.

These retaliatory killings go back to at least 2011, when the Raia (a profile will come in another post) was revived through the regimentation process of the Congolese army, which led to their withdrawal from rural areas in Shabunda territory. The Raia militia, which had initially been formed in 2005 and then slipped into dormancy, filled the void left by the army in Shabunda. They were led by former Mai-Mai commanders and deserters from the Congolese army, and were made up mostly of local youths.

The spate of killings accelerated sharply in October 2011, when Raia attacked FDLR camps in northeastern Shabunda, allegedly killing 49 people, mostly Hutu refugees. The retaliation was slow to come, but in the first days of January FDLR troops entered the villages of Luyuyu and Ngolombe, killing 58 people, according to local military and civil society sources.

This pattern persisted, with military casualties overshadowed by the civilians who were the principle focus of the revenge attacks. Since these killings, however, the attacks have been moving slowly northwestwards. Between March 1-4, 2012 Raia conducted another attack against FDLR dependents in Bunyakiri, Kalehe territory, killing 32 civilians. This movement was surprising, given the local nature of the Raia – these killings took place around 80-90km away from the home turf of the Raia and outside of their Rega community.

The retaliation killings were in the same area, and came around two months later. Between May 7-15, the FDLR reportedly killed 51 people in the Bunyakiri villages of Kamananga and Lumenje. The United Nations peacekeepers, who have a base 3 kilometers from Kamananga, were mobbed by the outraged local population following the massacre, injuring 11 blue helmets.

Now, in the past weeks, the violence seems to have migrated even further to the northwest. Initial reports from Ufamando groupement, in southern Masisi territory, suggest that several people were killed by the FDLR on May 9, including four people who were burned alive in their houses. Local chiefs from the same area told me that the Raia retaliated by attacking Congolese Hutu civilians in the same area, allegedly killing 48 civilians.

The total of just these, the largest massacres, could be 242 people, if the figures are correct. That does not include numerous smaller incidents.

We should be careful to note that the Raia, while still poorly understood, do not appear to be a cohesive force, or even one group. As one of my colleagues suggested, they operate as a franchise, with separate local militias in different areas adopting the name and the sentiment of – as their name suggests – outraged civilians.

This still raises the question of how the group has been able to spread so far so quickly against the battle-hardened FDLR. Groups that identify themselves as Raia Mutomboki can be found in Kalehe, Kabare, Shabunda and Masisi territories. They have been able to push the Rwandan rebels out of some areas of Shabunda, and when Major Idrissa, an FDLR commander in Shabunda, deserted recently, he was “scared out of his wits” by the Raia, according to a UN official who spoke with him.

Unfortunately, more often than not, the Raia’s violent tactics have only bred more violence.

(The red blotches on the map are areas where Raia have clashed with the Congolese army or FDLR in the past 18 months)