BUNIA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Thirteen-year-old Birwinyo Rehema was heading home from the Muwalho market where she sold cassava flour this past spring when three men armed with arrows, knives, and machetes leapt from the bush and attacked her.
They demanded money, but when she said that the adults held all the day’s profit, one of the men plunged a knife clear through her inner right thigh. “They were trying to stab her vagina,” her mother later told me. “Luckily they missed.”
But the other man, who tried to slash Rehema’s throat with a panga, didn’t miss. She was lucky to survive.
Rehema was one of thousands of innocents brutalized in a relentless campaign of violence that swept through Djugu territory in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ituri province earlier this year. The wave of terror crested in late February and early March as village after village — sometimes more than one per day — came under attack by men armed with knives, machetes, axes, bows and arrows, and spears. In all, an investigation by VICE News found that about 120 communities were attacked, hundreds of civilians were killed, thousands of homes were destroyed, and more than 350,000 people were displaced by the violence — including more than 50,000 who fled across Lake Albert to neighboring Uganda. The violence bore the hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing campaign; at the time, some local leaders warned it "may be a genocide."
The Trump administration’s “America First” agenda played a role in the disaster: Its sudden cuts to peacekeeping efforts in 2017 helped to create a security vacuum in which hundreds of machete-wielding militiamen were able to kill with impunity.
Though they lack concrete evidence, many Congolese and international observers believe that President Joseph Kabila, whose legal mandate expired in 2016, or his allies orchestrated the attacks in an effort to destabilize Ituri as a pretext to postpone the presidential election. Now, a new wave of attacks in the region is underway, and again, locals and outside analysts alike fear this “strategy of chaos” could irreparably mar Congo’s latest attempt at a free election. On Thursday, amid mounting political turmoil, Congo’s electoral commission announced that Sunday's vote would be delayed for at least a week.
Violence in Ituri ebbed in the late spring after twin deployments, by the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) and MONUSCO, the U.N. peacekeeping mission, but it never fully ended.
Attacks picked up again in late September, when 29 soldiers and civilians were killed in a series of military assaults, according to a fact sheet issued by the Parliamentary Caucus of Ituri Province and obtained by VICE News.
On September 16, coordinated attacks on Congolese military positions in four villages across Djugu left nine soldiers from FARDC and six civilians dead, and resulted in the loss of weapons and ammunition. Two days later, heavily armed men attacked another FARDC position, killing two soldiers while more weapons and ammunition were lost. On September 23, another attack left three civilians dead and four wounded. The next day, an assault on the marketplace in Bule — one of 31 villages where VICE News corroborated an attack this spring — saw four civilians and two soldiers killed and weapons and ammunition seized.
After a brief lull in October, violence again broke out at the end of the month and continued into November, as Congolese soldiers and civilians were killed in nighttime attacks in Djugu and neighboring Mahagi Territory. By November 24, reports emerged that the populations of the Djuguy villages of Torges, Djoo, Muvaramo, Tara, Songa I, Songa II, and Musekere had fled and were now occupied by “armed men.” This month, men armed with rifles, bows and arrows, and knives continued their attacks on Djugu villages, killing more soldiers and civilians and burning homes. A new report by UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, finds that an ongoing FARDC counteroffensive in Djugu has been marked by “attacks on schools, looting of health centers, burning of homes and looting of property.”
“The new face of violence is that of a well-organized armed structure of combatants, capable of attacking soldiers at any moment.”
The violence in Djugu in the spring was predominantly carried out by ethnic Lendu attackers against minority Hema civilians — seemingly to sow terror and drive them from the region. But the current campaign follows different patterns.
“The new face of violence is that of a well-organized armed structure of combatants, capable of attacking soldiers at any moment, with the goal of collecting weapons and ammunition,” reads the the Parliamentary Caucus of Ituri Province fact sheet.
In October, a parliamentary commission, comprised of 16 elected officials from Ituri, conducted a fact-finding mission on the region’s security situation. The commission concluded that the violence was evidence of a new “rebellion” in Ituri. And many local leaders and experts believe the current outbreak is yet another government-orchestrated effort to sow chaos in the region.
Human Rights Watch spoke to three assailants who participated in Ituri's wave of attacks this spring, who said they believed their local chiefs were taking orders from "higher-level government officials," said Ida Sawyer, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Africa division, told VICE News.
“They said they were waiting for new orders to begin the attacks again,” Sawyer said, adding that it remains “unclear whether the assailants involved in the violence earlier this year have played a role in the fighting since September.”
The government’s failure to contain the violence has come at a heavy cost: Almost 100,000 residents of Ituri Province have been newly displaced since September, according to reports received by UNHCR.
In October, Ituri’s Parliamentary Caucus complained about the “total absence of state authority on the provincial level and the silence of the Government of the Republic” and warned that the new violence posed “risks to the election of December 23, 2018.”
Kabila, who has ruled Congo since 2001 and whose legal mandate expired years ago, is no stranger to such accusations. In the past, he’s been accused of using violence as a pretext to delay elections. Human rights organizations have also documented routine use of arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture of activists and political opponents of the regime.
Kabila promised to oversee a peaceful transition of power this time around, but the lead up to the vote has been mired in chaos. Fears of voter fraud in support of the president’s favored successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, abound. (Shadary is currently under a European Union travel ban for his involvement in "planning, directing or committing acts that constitute serious human rights violations.") The government has also barred opposition candidates from running for office and shuttered opposition radio stations. Recently, clashes between opposition demonstrators and Congolese security forces have turned deadly, with violence reported in major cities, including Kalemie, Kindu and Lubumbashi.
Last week, a fire destroyed 8,000 of 10,368 voting machines — the equipment for 19 of 24 polling stations — in the capital, Kinshasa. The government and opposition candidates blamed each other for the destruction. On Thursday, Congo’s Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) said it was “technically unable” to hold the vote on Sunday.
Even if the election is rescheduled, the chances of a free and fair vote in Ituri are slim. “The situation in Djugu remains fragile, complex and too volatile for most internally displaced people and refugees in Uganda to return home,” said HRW's Sawyer. “Organizing and holding elections in such an environment will likely prove very difficult.”
America first, Congo last
The U.S. has taken a special interest in Congo's upcoming elections, with Nikki Haley, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, repeatedly calling on Kabila to move forward with "free, fair and credible elections."
“There is no excuse for failure,” said Haley at the UN Security Council last month. Months earlier, she’d called upon Kabila’s government to permit the UN peacekeeping mission to provide support for the vote. “MONUSCO has already available assets that the mission is ready and willing to deploy,” she said.
But just a year earlier, Haley fought for and won major reductions in funding for peacekeeping troops, including MONUSCO’s forces. Afterward, she hailed the effort as the beginning of an austerity campaign. “Just five months into our time here, we’ve already been able to cut over half a billion dollars from the UN peacekeeping budget, and we’re only getting started,” she said.
Haley’s move to cut peacekeeping funding before calling on MONUSCO to support the electoral process strikes some experts as contradictory, if not reckless.
“Ambassador Haley claims she wants more effective UN peacekeeping operations, but she's also said she wants to slash the amount of money spent on them,” Paul D. Williams, an associate professor of international affairs at the George Washington University, told VICE News. “The fact that she announced how much money she wanted to cut before conducting assessments of each mission suggests saving money was more important to her than ensuring effective peace operations.”
Cost-cutting can be dangerous, said Lauren Spink, the senior peacekeeping researcher for the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), "Those cuts have a real impact on peacekeeping missions’ ability to carry out their mandate to protect civilians and to respond to increasing and complex threats to civilians in places like DRC,” she told VICE News.
Haley’s not alone in targeting peacekeeping missions on the African continent. Just last week, National Security Adviser John Bolton unveiled the Trump administration’s new Africa strategy. America, he said, “will no longer support unproductive, unsuccessful, and unaccountable UN peacekeeping missions. We want something more to show for Americans' hard-earned taxpayer dollars."
But the United States has already been withholding those dollars, according to Williams, and as of September 30, it owed approximately $1.22 billion in unpaid peacekeeping bills. While the U.S. has historically had a complicated relationship with the UN in terms of peacekeeping payments, Williams said the Trump administration has “taken it to a new level — it is unprecedented for a U.S. administration not to pay monies that have already been appropriated by Congress for this purpose,” noting that U.S. debts have reached the stage where they’re having negative impacts on the effectiveness of peacekeepers in the field. (Both the White House and Haley’s office failed to respond to repeated requests for interviews or comment from VICE News.)
“It’s critical for UN peacekeepers to play a more active role in protecting those at risk of abuses in the context of the upcoming elections.”
President Kabila has also taken aim at the UN peacekeeping mission, renewing his call — before the United Nations General Assembly in September — for the withdrawal of MONUSCO, noting that the “economic, security, and political signals” coming from Congo were “so encouraging.” Kabila has shunned outside assistance ahead of the vote.
“The Congolese government has rejected international involvement and oversight of elections, including logistical support that MONUSCO was prepared to offer,” CIVIC’s Spink told VICE News.
Still, peacekeeping efforts are under fire for their perceived failures ahead of the vote. UN troops were not deployed in significant numbers to recent political rallies where security forces fired on peaceful opposition supporters, according to local observers. And human rights monitors worry that UN peacekeepers may not be adequately deployed to handle further violence as the vote nears.
“It’s critical for UN peacekeepers to play a more active role in protecting those at risk of abuses in the context of the upcoming elections, including by deploying patrols to known flashpoints for potential violence,” said HRW’s Sawyer.
Stuck in despair
The growing resistance to peacekeeping efforts comes at a particularly precarious moment for civilians in the DRC. More than 1 million Congolese are estimated to have been internally displaced in 2018 alone. Thousands of households, in Djugu alone, have been displaced more than once this year.
Ituri and neighboring North Kivu have especially suffered, with an estimated 88,000 homes destroyed by violence in 2018 alone.
When VICE News visited Ituri’s capital, Bunia, earlier this year, about 20,000 people were crammed into two austere IDP camps and around 100,000 more were living in town without any aid or support. Today, there are an estimated 40,000 people at Bunia’s camps, and little has changed.
“In IDP sites in Bunia, people received very basic assistance. They live under plastic sheeting,” Andreas Kirchhof, a spokesperson for UNHCR, told VICE News. “Persons living with the host community in Bunia say that they are almost ignored and receive almost no assistance.”
“They live under plastic sheeting.”
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network projects that “crisis” levels of acute food insecurity will affect parts of Ituri, including Djugu, through at least May 2019. “Food insecurity is mostly related to mass displacement due to conflict,” Kimberly Bennett of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) told VICE News. Violence and privation has been compounded by an Ebola outbreak that has led to 505 cases of the disease, including 296 deaths, in Ituri and North Kivu Province.
When I last saw Birwinyo Rehema, she was lying in her hospital bed, the cut across her throat stitched closed, her left eye swollen, as she gasped, while spitting constantly into a plastic bottle. Her parents told me she was like this all day, every day. I watched as they tried rubbing her chest and also covering her face with a cloth, both of which seemed to only make things worse. Eventually, we managed to prop her up, which seemed to provide her with a bit of relief. But Birwinyo Rehema had a long and uncertain road ahead of her. Her parents worried about what might happen when they’re forced to leave the hospital for a nearby IDP camp.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Rehema’s mother lamented, contemplating how to take care of her gravely injured daughter in the weeks and months ahead. Today, many Congolese are grappling with a similar sense of uncertainty, as their hope for a free election once again appears under threat.
Nick Turse is an award-winning investigative journalist who has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Nation, and is a contributing writer for the Intercept. He's reported on DRC for Vice News and the The Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute for the past year.