A lot of ink has been flown about what really happened in Kishishe and Bambo between the 21st and the 29th of November last year. The M23 rebels clashed with an FDLR-Nyatura and Mayi Mayi force in and around those villages. Immediately after the fighting the government in Kinshasa started accusing the rebels to have killed dozens of innocent villagers.
Julien Paluku, the former governor of North-Kivu and current minister in Tshisekedi’s government, came up with a figure of 300 killed. The international press jumped on the occasion and started even to accuse the Rwandan army of atrocities, copying the narratives of the Kinshasa blindfolded. Shortly after that the UN started asking questions to villagers who fled Kishishe to Nyanzale and to Bwindi to conclude that approx. 120 innocent people died there.
So, what happened there exactly?
How many people died there and how many of them were militiamen? We asked the M23 rebels to bring us to Kishishe, to interrogate the locals who were still living there and who did not flee, to look for tombs of buried civilians, etc. They accepted without any hesitation. After a long walk and a long ride trough this freshly ‘liberated’ area we reached Kishishe where we could freely talk with the locals.
We concluded that approx. 11 militiamen and 8 civilians died during the fighting in the village, contrary to the declarations of the government nobody was executed in the local church, the houses in the village were untouched and only one civilian died in Bambo.
The M23 told us that they chased the FDLR out of Bambo and Kishishe and that dozens of them were killed during that process. But those died in the fierce fighting that followed their retreat out of the two localities and they could therefore not be labeled as ‘civilians’. We interviewed several villagers on camera and put the edits online and we also wrote a report in which we detailed most of our findings. We even forwarded a list with the names of most of the casualties.
Just after entering this zone, it became clear that the Congolese authorities had not counted on a couple of journalists and researchers to conduct research on the spot. They responded immediately by accusing us to have entered their country without visa’s, we were falsely accused that we had bluffed and had told the locals to work for Al Jazeera, as we were all living in Rwanda they accused us to work for the Rwandan government and that we were trying to cover up the cruelty of the M23.
Al Jazeera even contributed to that propaganda cinema with a written and stamped communique that we were not working for them and that they refrained from using our footage. They did this without calling us first to check these allegations. And by neglecting this they made a very big professional mistake: it even went so far that the FDLR tried to ambush us on the road between Bwiza and Tongo, when we returned from Bwiza. The M23 intercepted an FDLR ambush party of 10 militiamen, they killed most of them and the ones who survived told them that they had received orders to kill us. By bringing out this communique Al Jazeera had given weight to the allegations that were thrown on the Kinshasa propaganda mill and therefore they had brought our lives in extra danger.
During our research on the spot, we were never chaperoned or told by the M23 what to ask or not to ask, most of our local contacts spoke freely. It is possible though that some of them tempered their testimonies due to the presence of M23 soldiers. But others told us bluntly what happened and that they regretted that the FDLR had to vacate the region because of the fact that they were actually living well under their umbrella. We phoned them a couple of days ago and the M23 had not done them any harm after telling us this.
Another factor that is of very big importance in this discussion is the fact that the region around Kishishe and Bambo was the heartland of the radical factions of the FDLR for more than 20 years. This region produced millions of dollars via agriculture, taxation of vehicles and motorbikes on road blocks, mineral trade, etc.
Loosing this jelly cake and being chased from their homes must have been a very bitter pill for them to swallow. FDLR extremists had manned positions in the surrounding hills, their wives and parents worked on the plantations they controlled, they married local Congolese citizens and they paid off FARDC officers to be left alone.
Just outside Kishishi they controlled a gigantic concession where all kinds of vegetables were cultivated, the so called ‘Domaine’. Most of the local civil society members went along in this scheme. The walls of their castle crumbled down when the M23 chased them out of the region. Their families fled to nearby villages such as Nyanzale or Bwindi.
The FDLR had also forged alliances with local Mayi Mayi groups and local defense groups of the Congolese Hutu community (Nyatura). Some of them were of Nande origin and linked to people such as Julien Paluku. Those of Congolese Hutu origin were linked to f.i. Eugene Serafuli, another collaborator of President Tshisekedi.
As the FARDC integrated most of them into their ranks (to be used as cannon fodder) the FDLR suffered heavy losses. But they were able to leave sleepers behind to stage ambushes and to inform them about the M23’s movements. For the moment the M23 is in the process to identify and to neutralize them. The FARDC and its allies are making their last stand now just outside Sake and the city of Goma is already completely surrounded by the M23.
As I already told you most of the FDLR and Mayi Mayi related families fled villages such as Bambo, Tongo, Kishishe and also Kitchanga to nearby places such as Nyanzale and Bwindi. Most of the local société civile members followed them as they were also entangled into the local FDLR projects.
These FDLR heartlands provided a foundation for the whole Rwandan opposition: its military wings as well as its political outlets such as the different FDU parties in Europe. If this situation prevails the FDLR might be beaten up completely in a couple of months.
UN & HRW research on Kishishe
It is exactly in this surrounding that the UN conducted its research on what really happened in Kishishe. Without making a difference between military and civilian casualties and without providing names of victims. They were fishing for info a pawn that was full of fish that was related to the FDLR and the local Mayi Mayi and in which the local société civile had its own interests.
That same société civile had already provided lies to Kinshasa to start with, several weeks ago. It had dressed up a picture of completely destroyed villages, destroyed churches and mass graves believing that nobody would be able to go and check facts on the spot. The fact that the UN came up with a second report a couple of days ago is also to be considered to be another doubtful splash in a big lake that fails to make bigger waves. This time they claimed more than 170 civilian deaths in Kishishe.
Again, they had conducted research in Nyanzale and Bwindi, in camps where the FDLR and the Mayi Mayi were pulling most of the strings. No visual evidence was provided and just one day before Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report that only 22 civilians were killed during the fighting in Kishishe. So, who killed the remaining 150 victims?
HRW is known for its rabiate anti-Kigali attitude. They rarely pay attention to the actions of other Congolese militia’s such as CODECO, FDLR and ADF-Nalu. Some of their researchers are afraid to row against the current of their anti-Tutsi attitude in order to keep their jobs.
They finance research groups such as the “Barometre de Securite des Kivus” that was placed under the wings of Jason Stearns, an American academic who conducted a lot of research in the region in the past but whose anti-Kigali attitude is also becoming more and more visible. Other funds are going to groups such as Lucha, youngsters who wanted to out their discontent about the ongoing problems in the region. It all started with good intentions but recently Lucha was involved in inciting the local population in the Kivu’s against the Tutsi’s, in hatred campaigns, etc.
HRW was amongst the first groups to market Tshisekedi’s propaganda about the events in Kishishe. Its former boss Kenneth Roth broadly smeared this on Twitter and on other social media. Roth is not in charge of the organization any more but his shadow is still lumbering over it: worse Kigali haters like him can only be found in circles of die-hard Hutu extremists in Canada and/or in Europe.
In their short report they mentioned that the M23 took men outside their house to execute them. We only received one testimony of a woman who told us the same thing, in Kishishe. Most of our witnesses told us that the cross fire between the M23 and the other militias caused most of the killings.
Nobody is perfect and their numbers are slightly higher than ours but they didn’t make a difference between killed militia-men and civilians. They were unable to come up with the names of the diseased as well. And most probably they had been fishing for info in the same pawn as the UN. The UN and HRW probably didn’t coordinate their research, otherwise HRW would probably gladly have used their finding to beef up their figures about Kishishe.
HRW and the UN did not use our findings in their reports as they probably did not consider us as a credible source. They might have done that anyway to check their testimonies in a more professional way. Their findings can be countered with very simple and valid arguments: they were the result of questions being posed to a ‘a priori’ hostile population that had to abandon its life under the FDLR umbrella and that was highly anti-Tutsi.
Neither the UN or HRW was able to provide names of victims and their reports were very unprecise about the exact locations of the so-called executions they are accusing the M23 off. Both reports did not give precise information if the figures they provided contained armed FDLR and Mayi Mayi fighters, they lacked the remark that both of these groups were fighting the M23 in civilian clothes.
We are asking ourselves if the international community is aware of the fact that, as we write this paper, the FARDC and their FDLR and Mayi Mayi are shelling several villages in Masisi and also in the Rutshuru plains with heavy artillery causing several also innocent villagers to die and to destruct their houses. This forces the M23 to advance to clear out these artillery positions. Very soon the M23 might start shelling back with the heavy artillery pieces that are falling into their hands as the FARDC withdraws.
M23 did not have the intention to take Sake but they might have to do this anyway to stretch the firing range of the heavy FARDC guns to far behind Sake. Bombarding civilians with heavy guns is a war crime, hiring Wagner style mercenaries too. When HRW stipulates that the FARDC should stop arming the FDLR and use them as their main fighting engine they never mention the havoc and the misery those groups cause. Their analysis is very one sighted and their narratives are being used by extremists to justify their acts.
The UN is failing big time to be of any use in the DRC: with 19000 troops on the ground in the DRC and a budget that is rocketing sky high they allow things to get out of hand. They keep on supporting an institution that is collaborating with the FDLR.
In the meanwhile, their passivity also encourages more than 100 other groups of bandits to commit crimes. The lack of common sense and the unwillingness to react to protect people in need can be classified as a war crime. The clock is ticking for Goma….
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