At the beginning of December 2022, allegations of massacres committed by the M23 rebels in Kishishe, Rutshuru territory, in the eastern DR Congo began to surface from different sources.
First, from Congolese military and civilian authorities who issued several statements about the situation in Kishishe with an ever-growing number of victims, and then from UN investigators who alleged that an estimated 131 civilians, including women and children, had been killed by the M23 rebels.
For a careful observer, as horrifying as the different allegations were, one thing about them remained problematic: no investigation on the spot had been conducted to confirm these allegations.
On the one hand, the Congolese government had lost control of Kishishe, which had fallen under the control of the rebels. On the other hand, the UN claimed that their investigators could not access Kishishe due to security concerns – indicating that the UN did not trust the rebels to provide security for their staff.
Fortunately, one independent team made of two investigative journalists and a human right lawyer made a different choice and decided to trust the M23 to guarantee their safety. They travelled to Kishishe and what they discovered confirmed an old saying: the first casualty of war is the truth.
During the fact-finding mission, which lasted five days, investigative journalists Marc Hoogsteyns and Adeline Umutoni, and human rights lawyer, Gatete Nyiringabo Ruhumuliza, were able to establish, among other things, that:
- Residents of Kishehe, including aggrieved families, and the M23 agree that precisely 19 people were killed during the fighting that took place in the locality on the November 29, 2022 in two neighbourhoods of Kishishe – avenues Kirama and Sukuma.
- No children, minors, or women were killed during the fighting.
- No kidnaps were conducted in Kishishe and in the neighbouring Bambo locality.
- No rape or any other form of sexual abuse was perpetrated in Kishishe.
These findings contradict the statements made DR Congo authorities and UN investigators. This should not be surprising since no investigation on the spot was conducted by either of these entities.
The question remains however as to why the discrepancy between these findings and those statements is so huge. One could argue that members of the team which are all based in Rwanda were fulfilling Kigali’s agenda (especially since Congolese authorities accuse Rwanda of backing the M23) and that the objective of the mission was to deny the atrocities committed by the rebels.
Such an argument, however, does not hold water if we take into account the interviews conducted on camera in which Congolese civilians speak their minds freely, even going as far as accusing the M23 of having killed members of their families. In other words, the findings of the team appear to be credible.
Thus, we have to consider other reasons that could explain the discrepancy between the findings of the research team and the statements made by the DR Congo government and UN investigators.
In the current context of renewed fighting in eastern DR Congo, accurate information is hard to access. Predictably, as a party to the conflict – especially one that seeks re-election in the coming months and portrays the M23 rebels as terrorists – the Tshisekedi government has not refrained from playing the populist card and steering tensions by overinflating the numbers of victims.
Its latest figure, which was advanced on December 5, 2022, by government minister Julien Paluku, stood at 300 civilians killed in Kishishe, considerably more than the estimates put forward two days later on December 7, by UN investigators. One can safely assume that the Tshisekedi government inflates victims’ figures as a means of justifying its refusal to negotiate with the M23 despite mounting pressure from regional leaders who favor a peaceful settlement to the conflict.
It is also worth noting that none of the journalists who have government accreditation in DR Congo dared to visit Kishishe and verify the information provided by Kinshasa. This is surprising as one would have expected the Tshisekedi government to encourage journalists to report from the ground even at the cost of reputational damage for having lost territory to the M23.
If the Tshisekedi government was telling the truth about these massacres, the reputational damage would appear a small price to pay compared to the political victory of removing the M23 from any consideration as a legitimate partner in the search for peace. Indeed, reports from the ground conducted by foreign correspondents who work for news agencies from every corner of the world would serve as a means of furthering the government’s case that the M23 is a terrorist organization that cannot be invited on the negotiation table.
Clearly, if the Tshisekedi government does not trust its own statements to be truthful, then everyone else should take them with a grain of salt.
While the DR Congo government’s behaviour is not surprising and can be easily explained, the pronouncements of UN investigators, who base their conclusions on interviews conducted in Rwindi, that is 20km away from Kishishe, is more disturbing.
Why would UN investigators advance a figure of 131 killed solely on the basis of hearsay? Why would they decline the invitation of M23 rebels to visit Kishishe and conduct an investigation on the spot? In response to these legitimate inquiries from the research team, the Monusco/UNJHRO spokesperson suggests clearly that there are security concerns for their investigators so long as the M23 controls Kishishe.
But these concerns are baffling, to say the least, when confronted with earlier pronouncements made by UN officials, including the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Gueterres, which indicate that the M23 rebels behave more like a modern conventional and professional army.
This begs the question: if security concerns are not the real reason why UN investigators do not wish to travel to Kishishe as long as it remains in under rebels’ control, then what else could be the reason for their reluctance?
Here again, context matters. We have to keep in mind that at the time of the alleged massacre in November 2022, the UN peacekeeping mission in DR Congo, MONUSCO, was seeking an extension of its mandate which was granted on December 20, 2022.
This extension occurred in a heightened context following the August 2022 protests against MONUSCO’s presence which resulted in the deaths of several peacekeepers and protestors. Shortly after this incident, the DR Congo government decided to expel MONUSCO spokesperson for making “indelicate and inappropriate remarks” and announced that it would re-evaluate the withdrawal plan of the UN peacekeeping mission.
In such a context, it is safe to assume that UN investigators, just like journalists and foreign correspondents working in DR Congo, did not wish to attract the wrath of the government by visiting an area controlled by the rebels, a move which would discredit the government’s position that the M23 is a terrorist organization.
At any rate, the findings of the research team provide much needed and critical information which must be complemented by the work of regional and continental bodies. Sadly, by circulating unverified allegations, UN investigators have abused public trust and must be seen as parties to the conflict. As the research team notes in its conclusions:
It is not the first time that “massacres” are invented out of thin air in eastern DRC and broadcasted by prominent figures and major news agencies, then disproved after investigation has been conducted on the ground.
However, once the truth is found, no similar fervor is put in bringing it to the fore. In the so called “Kipupu Massacres” in South Kivu: “the figure of 220 victims initially announced by provincial members of parliament, was taken up by Congolese politicians, then broadcast by international media.
The number of victims was finally brought down to 15 after a joint MONUSCO – DR Congo government mission visited the site on July 29, 2020.
This time seems to be no different. It is our hope that the truth will prevail in the end. In the meantime, any reasonable person would agree with the research team’s assessment that “supranational bodies (the UN in this case) should refrain from circulating unverified allegations that might exacerbate tensions, and infuse ethnic stigma, especially among populations being wrongly assimilated to “the enemy of the state”.