Congo Justice: What Happened in Fizi

This series of dispatches chronicles the work of a mobile court in the town of Kamituga in eastern Congo, a region riven by conflict that has witnessed an appalling epidemic of rape and other sexual violence. The court, supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative, will try ten rape cases involving soldiers and policemen over the course of a two-week session.

A lawyer representing rape victims at the Kamituga mobile court pulls the document from his briefcase and places it on one of the plastic tables in the tent. The document—a judgment—consists of forty-three finger-smudged, water-stained, letter-size photocopies, held together by a staple fast losing its grip. But the words on its pages are clear. They represent the high-water mark in the struggle to restore rule of law to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The words resonate throughout the work of the Kamituga mobile court and courts elsewhere in this war-ravaged country. Judges, prosecutors, teachers, doctors, nurses, psychologists, military officers, police officials, priests, human rights advocates, pastors, and tribal kings and politicians working to halt the spate of rapes in Congo cite this  judgment to warn soldiers, police officers, and civilian men not to assume it is acceptable to violate women. And they cite this judgment, issued by a previous mobile court, to encourage women and girls to step forward to press rape charges.

The title page reads:

In the Interests of Justice and
in the Name of the Congolese People,
The Military Court of Sud-Kivu, Bukavu,
is Seized of the Case of

The Military Prosecutor, the Ministry of Public Security, and Civilian Parties
v.
Kibibi Mutuare Daniel, et al.

The Kibibi judgment, and the incident that led to it, took place near the shores of Lake Tanganika, far across the mountains from Kamituga. It did not involve individual rape cases, like those being tried here. It involved rape as humiliation, rape as an act of retaliation, rape as a weapon of war.

***

On the afternoon of New Year’s Day, 2011, a gunshot sounded in the center of the town of Fizi. One Petro Ndaisaba, a corporal in the army of the Democratic Republic of Congo, had shot a merchant named Faizi Kabiona. The gun discharged at the climax of a quarrel over a woman and an act of disrespect.

Corporal Petro was the body guard of a certain Lieutenant Kifaru Alexis, who had asked Petro to approach Faizi and inquire about introducing Lieutenant Alexis to a young woman he had seen in Faizi’s shop and wished “to woo.” Faizi refused.

This is not surprising. In the craggy highlands of the Fizi Territory, bad blood has long existed between the majority Bembe people and another ethnic group known as the Banyamulenge, who are Congolese or Rwandan Tutsis and speak the language of the Rwandans. The military contingent in the town of Fizi is a mixture of members of former irregular and rebel militias, including the CNDP, the Congrès national pour la défense du peuple, a Banyamulenge militia secretly backed by the Tutsi-dominated government that has ruled Rwanda since the 1994 genocide.

The CNDP left a swathe of human rights abuses in its wake as it sought to control territory and lucrative mines in Congo. In 2006, the International Criminal Court indicted one of its commanders, Bosco Ntaganda, for war crimes. In 2009, however, the CNDP was absorbed into the army of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2009 under a shaky peace agreement. Bembe residents of the town of Fizi had already clashed in April 2010 with soldiers garrisoned there.

The names of Corporal Petro and Lieutenant Alexis are recognizably Tutsi. So is the name of the sector’s acting commander on New Year’s Day, a hard-nosed 46-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Kibibi Mutuare—a man who had graduated from the country’s national military academy before the overthrow of the dictator Mobuto Sese Seko, when Congo was still called Zaire. Kibibi became a CNDP officer during the wars in eastern Congo before his re-integration into the army in 2009.

Despite the simmering of ethnic antagonisms and bad memories, soldiers stationed in the town of Fizi wondered why young Bembe women were ignoring their overtures. Lieutenant Alexis did not, apparently, take offense at Faizi’s refusal to act as an intermediary for him. He invited Faizi to have a beer. Faizi declined. Corporal Petro was hotter-headed and, on the afternoon of New Year’s Day, drunk. He took Faizi’s refusal to be an act of disrespect toward his superior officer, if not all the other soldiers in his unit. A bitter quarrel ensued.

Lieutenant Alexis heard the commotion and hurried from down the street to intervene. He removed the loaded clip from Petro’s weapon, but neglected to clear the one round in the chamber. A few minutes later, Petro fired the bullet into Faizi’s right side. The gunshot transformed curious bystanders into an enraged mob. Lieutenant Alexis fled for his life. The crowd beat, kicked, and stoned Corporal Petro even after he had slumped to the ground. Neighbors rushed Faizi to a nearby hospital.

Word of the mob violence reached Lieutenant Colonel Kibibi. He immediately ordered officers and soldiers to rush to the scene. They found Corporal Petro alive and wrestled him from the ground onto the saddle of a motorbike, which sped off toward the hospital.

At that moment, a rumor spread that Faizi had died of his bullet wound. Local men now rushed toward the hospital, overtook the motorbike conveying Corporal Petro, and stoned him to death on the spot. Army officers and soldiers soon arrived at the scene of the stoning and delivered Petro’s body to the military camp, again on a motorbike. Kibibi then went to assess the scene of Petro’s altercation with Faizi.

During Congo’s wars, civilian attacks on military personnel have many times triggered retaliatory mass rapes. In 1998, in the town of Kasika—on National Road 2 between Kamituga and the town of Bukavu—local Mai Mai irregulars killed several officers of a Rwandan Tutsi-controlled militia. In response, the militia killed a thousand people and committed wholesale rape of the town’s women. In retaliation for more Mai Mai attacks, the same militia gang raped women and buried some alive in the town of Mwenga in November 1999. In September 2009, elements of the army of Congo stationed about 75 kilometers from Bukavu in a village called Katasomwa, carried out a retaliatory mass rape of 24 women, abducted a four-month-old infant, destroyed two schools, and looted property. There are too many more cases from the South Kivu Province to mention; and there are many more instances in other provinces. Fizi was about to follow the pattern.

Kibiri gathered officers and instructed them to have their men search every house and shop near the scene of the attack on Petro and to arrest every man they found. “If any of them run, shoot them,” he said.

From about 7 p.m. until 4 a.m. on January 2, soldiers ran riot through the town of Fizi. They looted and ransacked stores and houses. They beat and confined men in a jail. They raped scores of women, some of them before the eyes of their children. More than a hundred soldiers took part in the orgy of violence.

***

It took the government of Congo and its military only six weeks to investigate the Fizi incident and to arrest Kibibi and 10 other officers and soldiers, the only men whom the victims had identified. A mobile court—United Nations officials say the mobile military court system was the only tool the government had to react quickly and decisively to the Fizi mass rape—was organized in a village a few miles from the town. The trial opened on February 10.

Fifty-five women, ranging in age from 19 to 60, joined the criminal and civil case against Kibibi. Forty-nine of them stood before a panel of five judges to testify in public that they had been among the scores raped in Fizi on that New Year’s Day. One witness testified that she had met Colonel Kibibi before the Fizi violence and that, during the military riot, Kibibi himself entered her house and raped her while elements of his security escort waited outside. Members of Kibibi’s escort testified that they had, indeed, waited for him outside the victim’s house.

All but one of Kibibi’s officers testified that Kibibi ordered the operation and instructed his subordinates to kill anyone who tried to run. Before the court, Lieutenant Colonel Kibibi testified that his bodyguards were part of a plot against him, but admitted that he had been enraged by the attack on his solider. During the years when Congo was still Zaire, Kibibi explained, “if a soldier was killed by civilians, we would mark out fifty meters square and kill everyone inside. For one killed soldier, more or less, a hundred civilians would pay.”

Prosecutors sought the death penalty against Kibibi and several others and twenty-year sentences against officers and soldiers accused of lesser crimes.

The mobile court applied the law of the International Criminal Court, rather than the law of the Democratic Republic of Congo, to convict Lieutenant Colonel Kibibi of crimes against humanity. He and three of his officers received twenty-year prison sentences. Five more officers received less lengthy sentences. Another was acquitted. The remaining defendant was found to be a minor and his case was transferred to a civilian court.

A reporter described how onlookers jeered, booed, and shook their fists at the defendants as guards led them away in shackles.

Some army personnel were angry about the Kibibi trial. A United Nations official said the authorities feared that Tutsis would mount an armed attempt to break Kibibi out of Bukavu central prison, the scene of a similar bust out in 2006. Kibibi and the other officers were transferred to a more-secure prison in far-off Kinshasa.

***

Television and radio stations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo broadcasted updates of the Kibibi trial far and wide and quoted the 43-page judgment. Word spread through the officer corps and ranks of the military about the consequences of committing the crime of rape. Just three weeks later, eleven more officers were tried and convicted by a military court for the mass rapes at Katasomwa in 2009 and a lieutenant-colonel and a captain received life sentences.

Congo’s women have not suffered an incident of mass rape since the mobile court handed down the Kibibi verdict on February 21. Perhaps the hiatus will hold.

Madame Tabena-Isima Mikongo, who works for a local nongovernmental organization that attends to victims of sexual assault, has cited the Kibibi case in her efforts in the town of Mwenga to educate men and women about rape. “The conviction was the best thing that happened until now,” she says. “Soldiers are now afraid. After Kibibi was sentenced, people saw that the government could react even against a colonel. Soldiers are even beginning to contact protection agencies to preempt any effort their wives may make to inform on them. They worry that the wife will come and tell lies.”

Army captain Matata Nsanda from Bas-Congo said that, among themselves, soldiers are discussing Kibibi and what he did. “He violated the law. He failed to fulfill his military mission. He was sent to Fizi secure people and property. He did the opposite, and he was tried, convicted, and sentenced.

“As a result, many soldiers are now afraid to rape, though some of them smoke dope and forget their fear. Civilian men are even more afraid than the soldiers, now that the mobile court comes.”

But mobile courts are few and Congo is massive. Many of Congo’s soldiers—men, some of them illiterate, stationed in distant mountain hollows or deep within the country’s forests—have never heard the name Kibibi or about the mass rape at Fizi. Nor have they heard about the new law prosecutors are using to imprison them for years for having had even consensual sex with anyone under the age of 18.

Street cops here in Kamituga had never heard of Kibibi or the Fizi trial or Katasomwa or the law on sexual violence. Neither had some of the soldiers within earshot of the tent where the Kamituga mobile court is taking place.

Chuck Sudetic will be reporting from Kamituga for the duration of the trials.

1 Comment

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Good post, but a few quite important details on the armed groups are wrong:

- the CNDP is not a Banyamulenge group. Originally it is a group formed from the Rwandaphone community of North Kivu, who are not Banyamulenge.

- While the Banyamulenge (the Rwandaphone community in the south of South Kivu) largely self-identify as Tutsi, this is not the case for the CNDP and the Rwandaphone community in North Kivu.

- The Rwandan government almost certainly supported the CNDP (though not the Banyamulenge and their militia, which is the FRF) until 2008 but it is not clear that they have supported the CNDP since 2009 (and the arrest of Laurent Nkunda).

- Calling the Banyamulenge "Congolese and Rwandan Tutsis" is misleading - there is no evidence of recent Rwandan migration to Banyamulenge zones. The Banyamulenge have been in South Kivu largely since the 19th century or earlier, and do not identify themselves as Rwandan.

These may seem like minor details but conflating the different Rwandaphone communities, their militia and calling them Rwandan feeds into the dialogue of "Congolese vs Rwandans" that is often used politically in the Kivus to deliberately stokes inter-group divisions, so it's important to get right.

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