A United Nations investigation has found that the tribal massacres in western Democratic Republic of Congo that claimed over 500 lives last December could amount to crimes against humanity.

This was revealed in the report of a special UN investigative mission into the Yumbi territory in the Mai-Ndombe Province which found that 535 men, women and children were killed and over 100 more injured in clashes between the Banunu and Batenda communities.

The extended attacks were carried out between December 16 and 18 last year.

In January, the UN cited credible reports of at least 890 deaths in the tribal violence but the latest report confirmed that 530 Banunu villagers and just 5 Batende were killed. Spokesperson in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani.

“These figures are most likely an underestimate. The number of casualties is believed to be much higher, as the bodies of some who died are believed to have been thrown in the Congo River. It’s also not possible to confirm the number of people who are still missing. As an estimated 19 000 people were displaced by the violence, 16 000 of whom crossed over into the Republic of Congo.”

According to the investigation, the violence was triggered by a dispute over the burial of a Banunu chief, reportedly on Batende land.

The investigation found that Batende villagers attacked with extreme violence and speed in a coordinated fashion, decapitating and maiming people who had little time to escape.

In some instances, the UN says victims where asked first if they were Banunu before they were killed.

“The report details the horrors documented, such as a two-year-old reportedly thrown into a septic tank and a woman reportedly brutally raped after her three-year-old child was decapitated and her husband killed. The investigation concluded that the crimes documented in Yumbi may amount to the crimes against humanity of murder, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as persecution.”

Batende villagers were equipped with firearms, machetes, bows and arrows and gasoline. Police, who were aware of tensions in the region, were not in place when the attacks happened.

“There were clear indications that there were rising tensions, especially after the burial of this customary chief. There were police that had been deployed, but they left before the attacks actually took place, so there was a clear absence, I mean, of preventive action being taken by the authorities on this instance.”

The High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has called for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission between the Banunu and Batende communities to prevent further violence while reiterating the importance of holding perpetrators to account.

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