"They chased me and the children in the bush," said Nyine Richard, 37, sitting among a dozen other machete attack survivors inside a camp for internally displaced people in Bunia, Democratic Republic of Congo.
“They killed my wife and my three children.”
Two deep cuts from a machete blade ran across Richard’s forehead and lower back. His voice quivered as he talked about his pregnant wife, who was hacked to death by a machete, and his youngest daughter, Rachele, 2, who was cut across her face and head.
Weeks earlier he’d fled Tche village with his three surviving children and hundreds of other Hema villagers after it was attacked by a Lendu militia. The attackers set fire to homes and massacred the women and children.
“Their aim is just to finish us. We are so scared for our lives,” he told VICE News.
Richard’s fear is shared by the thousands of other Hema survivors who have escaped gruesome violence in DRC’s Ituri province in recent months.
Since December, fighting between neighboring ethnic groups the Hema and Lendu has flared across Ituri province in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. But the victims have overwhelmingly come from the Hema community, raising fears that an ethnic cleansing campaign is underway. Hundreds of villages have been burnt to the ground, 200,000 have been displaced and at least 250 people have been killed, according to Human Rights Watch.
Now, the U.N. says the surge in violence could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe.
“This may be genocide,” Hadji Ruhingwa Bamaraki, the president of the Hema community’s cultural association, told VICE News in March. “The government should tell us why Hema are being killed.”
The wave of violence in Ituri has drawn comparisons to an earlier “ethnic” war between Lendu and Hema that ended in 2003. But leaders of both communities say this time is different, and place the blame on unseen political forces. In February, the local Catholic diocese published a report stating that paid mercenaries were deliberately fueling conflict between the Lendu and Hema.
Survivors told the diocese that assailants appeared to be highly organized and were speaking in outside languages, one of which was Lingala — the language spoken 2,000 miles away in the country’s capital.
The military has also faced scrutiny for its failure to stop the violence. Survivors of recent attacks told VICE News that the National Police and the Congolese Army were in the surrounding area during the attacks but did nothing to stop them. We witnessed this firsthand days later when we were escorted by the Congolese army back from Maze village, the site of one of the worst ethnic massacres. The army sped past a burning village nearby — seemingly too afraid or too helpless to stop the attack. Flames could be be seen for miles. Hundreds of villagers were seen streaming alongside the only working road in the area, looking for safety and carrying all their belongings on their back.
The government has repeatedly denied these charges. “Those are false allegations,” Lt. Jules Tshikudi, spokesperson for the Congolese army, told VICE News. “Whenever there is a massacre, every time we have the information about the attacks, we arrive to defend the population.”
The violence in Ituri comes as the country faces a constitutional crisis roughly 2,000 miles away in the capital of Kinshasa. DRC’s longtime president, Joseph Kabila, is under mounting pressure to relinquish his post after 17 years in power. He was expected to step down in December 2016 after reaching the constitutionally mandated two-term limit, but he has repeatedly postponed elections, citing instability and violence outside the capital as cause for the delays.
In response the Catholic Church has organized monthly rallies across the country urging Kabila to step down. Since December, hundreds of protesters have been taking to the street demanding “Elections without Kabila!” and “Kabila must go!”, but the Kabila government has responded with deadly force — 47 protesters have been killed by security forces in the last year, according to the U.N.
“We don't ask for much. We just want elections!” a protester told VICE News outside Notre-Dame Cathedral in Kinshasa during the Feb. 25 rally held by the Lay Coordination Committee. “All we want is elections. We don't want anymore excuses.”
VICE News traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo in March to document the many crises facing the country firsthand. This is one part of a continued series investigating the unfolding crises in the DRC. Read our previous installment by Nick Turse here.
This video segment originally aired May 2, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.