Murder, rape and torture — those are just some of the abuses United Nations investigators say were committed during massacres that occurred in December in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and may amount to crimes against humanity.
“The report details the horrors documented, such as a 2-year-old reportedly thrown into a septic tank, and a woman reportedly brutally raped after her 3-year-old child was decapitated and her husband killed,” Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, told journalists on Tuesday in Geneva.
The investigators found that at least 535 men, women and children were killed and more than 100 others were injured in inter-communal violence in western Congo, according to their report, which published this month.
But those numbers are likely an underestimate, Shamdasani said.
“The number of casualties is believed to be much higher, as the bodies of some who died are believed to have been thrown in the Congo River,” she said. Shamdasani added that it wasn’t possible to confirm the number of missing because an estimated 19,000 people were displaced during the attacks and 16,000 of them crossed the river into the Republic of the Congo.
Witnesses told investigators that the attacks, which took place over three days in four villages in Yumbi territory, were sparked by a conflict between the Banunu and Batende communities over the burial place of a Banunu chief, reportedly on Batende land.
Batende villagers carrying “hunting rifles, machetes, bows and arrows, and gasoline” attacked Banunu villagers in their homes and on the streets as they tried to escape, according to Shamdasani’s account of the U.N. report. She said police were absent during the massacres.
A preliminary U.N. investigation in January found the attacks were carried out in an “organized and planned manner” that left “little time for the populations to flee.” The early inquiry also discovered almost 60 burial sites in two towns.
The United Nations defines crimes against humanity as certain physical assaults, including murder, torture, enslavement and rape, that are committed “as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.” According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the crimes can be connected to an armed conflict or can happen during times of peace.
Shamdasani said the violence could have a lasting political impact: “[T]here are going to be elections held in this territory on the 31st of March. But of course these people who’ve been displaced and who’ve had to flee across the border to the Republic of Congo, will probably not be able to vote because of ongoing fears of violence and … the impossibility for them to get back to their homes.”
According to a U.N. statement, both Shamdasani and Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, are concerned that more violence could erupt and have called for a program of truth and reconciliation between the Banunu and Batende communities.