Overnight attacks Saturday left 36 people dead in the volatile North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The victims — all civilians — were hacked to death with machetes and axes, or burned alive.
At least 250 civilians have now been killed in the last two months in the volatile region, which is in the northeast corner of the country near the border with the Rwanda and Uganda. The latest attacks occurred in the villages of Ahily, Manzanzaba, and Moulobya.
Congolese officials and locals in North Kivu have long believed these types of attacks are the work of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel group from neighboring Uganda that has terrorized the region for years. The ADF has not claimed responsibility for the recent massacre.
Established in 1995 by opponents of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, the ADF is an Islamist group that has been blacklisted by the the United Nations Security Council. The group — which has largely relocated from Uganda to the DRC — is allegedly responsible for the abduction of more than 900 civilians in recent years.
In November, the Ugandan rebels killed more than 100 people in a spate of machete attacks near Beni, a mining town in North Kivu. The victims included women and children. In mid-October, the rebels broke into houses under the cover of night and killed at least 30 people.
Speaking to VICE News, Julien Paluku, governor of North Kivu, said that 30 Ugandan and 23 Congolese suspects in the attacks have been arrested since mid-October. Paluku's claim contradicts earlier reports that the attacks were carried out solely by Ugandan ADF militants. The ADF often seems to commit atrocities for no apparent reason, leading to speculation over the group's aims and demands.
According to Paluku, the recent massacres are the work of "a new rebellion, one that does not yet dare speak its name."
The governor believes the killers are attempting to to undermine the central government in the capital city of Kinshasa, as well as the Congolese army and MONUSCO, the UN's peacekeeping mission in the region. Local politicians and residents of the region long ago lost faith in the ability of domestic and international institutions to stop the killings.
"Their aim is to bring desperation and death, to mentally exhaust the local population, so that when they swoop in, later on, they will be perceived as liberators from the government," Paluku said.
"The DRC is struggling to fight terrorism," he added. "But we will go out with all guns blazing and we will succeed."
Speaking to VICE News, Clovis Mwambutsa, Oxfam's coordinator in North Kivu, described a mass exodus of civilians seeking refuge in safer regions. According to Mwambutsa, the ADF's terror campaign has displaced some 90,000 people.
The region has suffered several waves of displacement since the start of 2014. Early in the year, government officials launched "Operation Clean-up," a military campaign to end ADF attacks in the province. Mwambutsa said the operation displaced a number of villagers as a "preventive" measure. Since then, Mwambutsa said, "the situation has spiraled out of control."
"People move when they are scared," he said. "They don't think the MONUSCO army is capable of protecting them. Residents flee to the big cities."
Up until now, the rebels have only ever attacked villages to the east of Highway 4, a road that runs parallel to the Ugandan border. The latest attacks were the first that have occurred west of the highway. Locals now fear that nowhere is safe anymore.
Mwambutsa pointed out that these most recent attacks have two drastic humanitarian consequences. First, they hit a key agricultural area that produces food for major cities in the region. Second, they are hindering humanitarian workers' access to the region.
"There is much uncertainty. We don't know which village will be the site of the next massacre," Mwambutsa said. "Aid workers can't travel safely in the region to assess the situation."
According to Oxfam, there have been three attacks against NGOs in the region over the last few weeks. On November 24, a Congolese aid worker from the International Rescue Committee was killed in an ambush.
Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @meloboucho
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