On New Year’s Eve, a gang of militia left its jungle base and swept across Beni, a forested north-eastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, looking for Nande people to kill.
Locals alerted the Congolese army but they were ignored. In small farms in Tingwe, a few kilometres from a DRC army base, the gang found 25 people – men, women and children – out harvesting food. One by one they hacked them to death with machetes and axes.
Rarely over the past six years has a month passed that I have not received gruesome images of people killed in Beni. Almost 300 people were killed – most of them women and children – in just three months in November 2019–January 2020. Forty were killed in May. In July, the UN said that 793 civilians have been killed, 176 wounded and 717 others abducted in attacks in the preceding 18 months, which UN investigators said may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Dozens more were killed in September, October and November.
Massacres on this scale usually prompt a strong response from the US, EU and UK, as they should. UN peacekeepers are sent to the region; communiques are issued; the government opens an investigation. In DRC’s case, none of this has happened.
Since 1996, we Congolese have been killed in a multitude of ways: by our former president, Joseph Kabila, and his generals. By the use of rape as a weapon of war to punish, displace, destroy and humiliate Congolese women and their families and communities (an estimated 1,200 women are raped every day and this has been going on since 1996). By Rwandan and Ugandan armies. By famine and disease.
Now we are being killed by mortars and machetes. The first massacre in Beni happened in 2014; exactly a year after Congolese and UN forces defeated the M23 – a militia gang in DRC allegedly supported by Rwandan president Paul Kagame. We have now entered the seventh year of these massacres.
Yet an indifferent international community has allowed the killings to go on, claiming more and more lives each week. How many more must die before action is taken?
The government in Kinshasa blames the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel group for the deaths; a theory believed by few Congolese. Besides, a UN security council report has accused General Muhindo Akili Mundos of financing and supplying militia to do the killings.
Another report found the recruits were allegedly promised up to $250 for each kill. Instead of facing justice, our new president, Félix Tshisekedi, has instead promoted Mundos to the rank of deputy army inspector, leaving Beni’s Nande population to their fate. They are now on the brink of being wiped out because of their land.
The US and EU have denounced the violence – their ambassadors in Kinshasa often tweet their revulsion and sympathy – but that’s it; giving the world the false impression that something is being done to stop the killings, as if they are shielding someone from justice.
This might be why the US has been blocking the creation of an international criminal tribunal for DRC to end the impunity fuelling the violence in Beni and elsewhere in the country, while six million more Congolese people are now in displacement camps, unable to return to their homes because of violence and starvation.
When I heard about the latest massacre I wrote to Joe Biden, pleading with him to send in UN lawyers. Peacekeepers are clearly failing – a UN report has already documented more than 600 war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Yet not a single one of those the UN named has been brought to justice.
However, I cannot shake the feeling that nothing will change, that the Congolese people have been abandoned. The death and destruction we have suffered – the more than 5.4 million killed between 1998 and 2008 – half of whom were children under 5, the wholesale wasting of villages, towns and communities, the relentless use of rape and machetes and axes in Beni and elsewhere in DRC seem not to matter.
But this is not a humanitarian appeal: it is a call for solidarity and compassion. I believe what is happening in Beni in eastern DRC is genocidal – and the UK, US and EU stance on the impunity fuelling these killings is shameful. Even complicit.
• Vava Tampa is a community organiser, a freelance writer focusing on Africa’s great lakes, decolonisation and culture, and a social worker in London