Forensic investigators hope to bring victims closer to justice in the DR Congo


The Technical Assistance Team excavating a mass gravesite in Tshisuku (Kazumba territory), Kasai Central province, DR Congo, June 2009. MONUSCO/UN Joint Human Rights OfficeThe splatter on the walls painted a gruesome picture.

“It is blood,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Michel Ngalamulume Kadugu, Chief Judicial Inspector of the Senior Military Prosecutor’s office (Auditorat Militaire Supérieur) of the former Kasai Occidental province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). “And here we can see bullet holes and heavy weaponry impacts.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Michel is on a field mission in Nganza, in the Kasai region of the DR Congo, with the UN forensic Technical Assistance Team for the Kasai, to investigate a suspected mass grave. On the way, they made a halt at what was believed to be a traditional ritualistic initiation house, also known as ‘tshiota’ in the local Tshiluba language.

A mandate to investigate serious human rights violations and abuses

In March 2017, the Human Rights Council expressed its concerns at the human rights crisis in the Greater Kasai and the need to bring the perpetrators of serious human rights violations to justice. The violations committed in the region included massacres of civilians who were buried in numerous mass graves documented by the UN – at least 80, for which there has been little accountability and that resulted in mass displacement of the population.

In June that same year, a Technical Assistance Team was set up by the Council and was deployed to Kananga, Kasai Central, with a specific mandate to provide assistance and advisory services to the military prosecutor of Kasai provinces. The team supports the military prosecutor’s investigations into allegations of serious violations and abuses committed in the province.

“We have already been on two missions here. The first forensics team came here to take blood samples. At that time, it was still quite fresh," said Achille Tiem, Coordinator of the Technical Assistance Team. Tiem is also in charge of the protection of victims and witnesses.

The team had suspected that the ‘tshiota’ had been used as a place of detention and summary execution, but they had not pushed their investigations further. However, the military prosecutor wanted to come back to corroborate allegations made by returnees who had fled to neighbouring Angola during the massacres.

“We spent three months in the bush before we returned. The mayor of the city pleaded with those who had fled to return,” said one witness, guiding the team during their visit.

During one of its first visits to the village, the investigative team was made aware of a possible mass grave not far from the ‘tshiota’. Under the bamboo trees in a ravine, they had found two human skulls and during their latest visit, one of the witnesses of the massacre said that the Kamuina Nsapu militia had disposed of some of the bodies of their civilian victims in that ravine.

Years of anti-government conflict in the Kasai

The situation in the Kasai region deteriorated significantly during 2016 following a conflict over chieftaincy between the central Government of Kinshasa and supporters of the traditional leadership system. In April 2016, the refusal of the central authorities to recognize Jean-Pierre Mpandi – alias Kamuina Nsapu - as hereditary chief of the Bajila Kasanga chieftaincy in Kasai Central, and the decision to replace him with a Government-appointed chief, provoked an insurrection by Kamuina Nsapu.

Kamuina Nsapu had instructed other traditional rulers to join him in the revolt against all symbols of the State, and ordered that every village send him groups of young people to be initiated and trained to form a militia that would take actions aimed at destabilizing the Government.

The killing of Kamuina Nsapu on 12 August 2016 by soldiers of the FARDC during operations against the insurgency marked a turning point in the crisis.

The UN Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) in the DRC reported serious abuses by the Kamuina Nsapu militia in the context of the rebellion, as well as serious human rights violations by State agents, mainly FARDC soldiers, during operations against the militia. Since August 2016, the conflict has caused thousands of victims, including two UN experts who were summarily executed in Kasai Central while investigating the violations in March 2017.

Precision as an imperative

“During our previous missions, we discovered bones not far from [the ‘tshiota’], but we cannot conclude before investigating that these are mass graves or people who were killed during the period of the violence since the town was completely emptied of its inhabitants,” said Tiem. “Some talk of bodies that were presumably eaten by animals.”

“We have to understand that people may not remember clearly the exact location of graves. In Tshisuku, for example, during our last intervention, many places where we dug turned out to be empty, but we later found bodies buried just three or four meters away,” added Pierre Perich, Forensic Doctor in the Technical Assistance Team. “In addition, witness testimonies are often conflicting, and the incidents happened three years ago, minimum.”

The team manage to find the steep path that led them to their gruesome discovery. Looking at the terrain, Colonel Michel remarked that there must have been much heavy rain since his last visit. One of the witnesses ventured to say that the bodies may have been dug up and moved to another resting place. Perich stressed once more the importance of precision.

“We would like to see what is down there because we like to be exhaustive. The problem is the vegetation and time - the time that has passed,” Perich said.

“What we need to do is to try to explore and find out whether there are any remains because, in fact, this is not a burial site but rather a mass grave, a place where bodies were disposed of,” he added. “These bodies have quickly deteriorated because they were left outside, of course, and with the rain, the gullying, everything must have fallen to the bottom [of the ravine]. It would still be worth confirming all of that.”

That day, the team was unable to descend to inspect the bottom of the ravine. However, since February 2020, it has been able to explore at least seven sites in Nganza and has identified 13 suspected mass graves there. An estimated 789 people were buried in those mass graves, allegedly killed by the security forces during five days of violence in March 2017.  

Hope for Kasai’s victims

The forensic work done by the Technical Assistance Team to support the investigations by the judicial authorities, particularly the mass grave exhumation process, is the first of its kind in the DRC. It has proven essential, given the lack of expertise in that domain in the DRC.

Considering the number of cases to be investigated and the number of mass graves to be exhumed, it has become clear that the Technical Assistance Team needs additional experts, resources and significantly more time to complete its gargantuan work.

“The work focuses more on emblematic cases because we cannot document all the serious human rights violations that have taken place in the DRC. Based on the degree of gravity of the main violations and crimes committed, the military justice, in partnership with the UN Joint Human Rights Office, defines investigative priorities,” Tiem said. “But roughly speaking, the work of the Technical Assistance Team here could take several years.

“We hope that forensic work will provide the evidence that the authorities need for the investigations they are conducting here.”

Tiem expressed the wish to see all of judicial investigations supported by the team lead to trials, in particular through mobile courts, which would have an educational impact and informative value for the populations that have suffered in the region, as they could see justice being done.

“Advocacy must also be carried out with the goal of securing reparations for the victims,” he added.

The Technical Assistance Team will remain in the DR Congo to carry out its essential work following the request by the Human Rights Council, on 7 October 2020, for the High Commissioner to continue providing technical assistance to the Congolese Government.

26 October 2020


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