The Catholic church in the Democratic Republic of Congo has accused security forces and local militias of killing almost 3,400 people and destroying 20 villages in the central Kasai region.
On Tuesday, the church’s detailed report into the violence, which began last August and has created one of the world’s biggest refugee crises, was partially corroborated by Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN’s human rights chief. Mr Hussein gave details at a meeting of the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva of some of the atrocities committed by both sides in the fighting.
The Catholic church, one of the most respected institutions in the sprawling resource-rich country, said in a report issued in the capital Kinshasa that 3,383 people had been killed, 20 villages “completely destroyed”, 3,698 other houses destroyed and 34 houses of worship damaged or closed. The UN had previously put the death toll at 400.
Ten of the villages were destroyed by the security forces, four by militias and six by “unknown actors”, the church said. It added that the figures were based on “credible ecclesiastical sources” but cautioned they were “not exhaustive” and only date from October 13.
No one from the DRC military or government was available to comment on the report.
The country is also mired in a political crisis, triggered by President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down after his constitutional mandate ended last December.
The fighting erupted in August after Kamwina Nsapu, the leader of a militia he named after himself, was killed by government soldiers. UN staff have found 42 mass graves in the Kasai region. They estimate some 1.3m people have been displaced by the fighting, with hundreds now pouring into neighbouring Angola every day.
Mr Hussein said the authorities created and armed the Bana Mura militia to fight the Kamwina Naspu, but that the group has carried out “horrific attacks against civilians from the Luba and Lulua ethnic groups”.
“The Bana Mura have in the past two months shot dead, hacked or burnt to death, and mutilated hundreds of villagers, as well as destroying entire villages,” Mr Hussein said, citing refugees’ accounts to UN staff.
“My team saw children as young as two whose limbs had been chopped off; many babies had machete wounds and severe burns. At least two pregnant women were sliced open and their foetuses mutilated.”
Two UN experts investigating the violence, American Michael Sharp and Zeida Catalan from Sweden, were killed in March, prompting international outrage.
Mr Hussein said that since then the situation “has deteriorated dramatically and various actors are fuelling ethnic hatred”.
He accused the government of failing to either protect civilians or hold perpetrators to account and called for an independent international investigation into the violence. “The DRC cannot be permitted to become a free-fire zone, where members of the security forces, armed groups and militias can kill with impunity,” he said.
Alexis Thambwe Mwamba, DRC’s justice minister, rejected an independent probe. “Carrying out an investigation that excludes the Congolese authorities would be unacceptable,” he told reporters in Geneva. “It would be as if we were not an independent country.”
Ulrika Blom, the DRC country director for the Norwegian refugee council, described the international response to the crisis as “pitiful”.
“The DRC is experiencing one of the largest displacement crises in the world today,” she said. “Despite this, we’re seeing a woefully inadequate number of aid agencies on the ground responding.”