In late March, residents of the municipality of Maluku in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, began to notice the foul stench of death emanating from a freshly dug up patch of ground near their homes. Trucks and workers had arrived under the cover of darkness on a recent evening. When a human rights group was summoned to investigate, they determined the location appeared to be a burial site.
The United Nations mission in Congo investigated and asked the Congolese government to provide an explanation. On April 3, the government confirmed that local authorities buried more than 400 bodies on the night of March 19, but claimed the corpses were stillborn fetuses and unidentified or unclaimed bodies from the morgue. Activists, however, have raised concerns that the missing remains of protesters killed in January may have been buried at the site.
According to Reuters, the government said each body was buried separately, not in a mass grave, but Ida Sawyer, the senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, told VICE News that locals were still shocked by the mass burial.
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"That's a pretty huge number of bodies and a number of people also raised concerns about whether people killed by security forces were among those buried in the mass grave," Sawyer said from Kinshasa, referring to the government's crackdown on demonstrations at the end of January.
The protests, sparked by a proposed law that likely would have delayed the country's 2016 elections and extended the rule of President Joseph Kabila by requiring the completion of a national census, escalated on January 19 in Kinshasa and the eastern city of Goma. In a swift and brutal clampdown, police fired on demonstrators at the University of Kinshasa and took similar action in Goma.
"Dozens were killed and in many cases the bodies of victims were taken away by police or republican guard right after they were killed, so some families still haven't been able to locate the bodies of loved ones," Sawyer explained. "We don't have proof that people killed during the demonstrations are among the bodies in the mass grave, but it raises questions. It's highly unusual that there would be so many unidentified bodies, or abandoned bodies or stillborn babies buried at the same time in a mass grave by the government."
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HRW has also highlighted a 2013-2014 anti-gang mission known as Operation Likofi where dozens of young men were killed and some 40 others disappeared. Police allegedly collected the bodies and told families they were not allowed to hold burials or retrieve the corpses.
Congolese judicial authorities opened an official investigation this week into the graves. Sawyer said it was important to continue pushing for answers. "We can't leave it here, we need to know more," she said.
Justice Minister Alexis Thambwe told Reuters on Friday that the government would exhume the mass grave if anyone had the "slightest doubt" about the origin of the bodies. On Monday, however, a government spokesman said bodies would not be exhumed and that no one had the ability to request such an action.
"It's not clear whether they are going to exhume the bodies," Sawyer said. "If they follow through with the commitment, that might shed more light about whether those people in the mass grave were killed by bullet wounds."
The mysterious mass burial has drawn attention to the Congolese government's repression ahead of the 2016 vote. In addition to the complaints lodged by the families of the missing protesters, opposition leaders and activists have been detained in double digits over the last month.
Security forces detained some 40 people on March 15 following an event organized by Filimbi, a pro-democracy youth platform in Congo, and the US Embassy. Several foreign journalists and a US diplomat were taken into custody and released. On Tuesday, DRC Congo police officers detained five members of the Lucha youth movement as they demonstrated against the March arrests in Kinshasa.
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB