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The “untold” DR Congo massacre that still haunts survivors

More than 500 members of the Banunu community were slaughtered on December 16-17 in Yumbi

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A member of the Congolese armed forces walks past the office of the electoral commission which was destroyed during tribal clashes in the Yumbi region. - AFP

Wounded in the head and chest and with her children in tow, Miniunga Bonkita fled to the haven of an island in the Congo River, a sliver of land between two nations.

“I stumbled across the assailants as I was returning home,” the young mother told AFP. 

“They shot at me,” she said. “I fell and then they started beating me.” 

More than 500 fellow members of the Banunu community were slaughtered on December 16-17 in Yumbi, a remote region in western DR Congo – a massacre whose full details are only now emerging, almost two months later.

Bonkita found refuge with her children and about 100 other Banunus on Moniende island in the river that has given its name to countries on both banks: the vast Democratic Republic of Congo, once ruled by Belgium, and the smaller Republic of Congo, a former French colony.

Yumbi, located in Mai-Ndombi province, lies about 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Kinshasa, reached by a difficult two-day boat trip from the capital.

At least 535 people were slaughtered, according to a UN toll based on a count of the bodies.

Almost all the victims were members of the Banunu ethnic group, hunted down by armed men from the Batende community.

Authorities have presented the killings as an act of spontaneous violence — tensions between rival communities that exploded in a dispute over the burial of a Banunu tribal chief.

But several sources in the area told AFP that the bloodbath was carefully planned using military-style tactics, and some assailants wore army uniforms.

At least 16,000 people have fled over the river to the Republic of Congo, many of them seeking shelter in the district of Makotimpoko, according to authorities in Brazzaville.

“They came in dugout canoes, some of them paddling with their hands because they had no oar. They were bare-chested, without clothes,” said Father Gicquaire, the priest at Makotimpoko.

Bosukisa Montole, cradling a son who had been wounded in the neck, said: “We rushed to the river to try to escape. We were lucky because we didn’t run into people with weapons on the way there. But when we were making our way across in the canoe, my child and my wife were shot at.”

Survivor Lobota Lifuna said: “As we fled, we could see the Batende chopping children into pieces on the river bank.”

AFP reached Bongende, the worst-hit of four villages in Yumbi, with at least 339 residents slain.

Almost two months after the attack, the fishing village was almost completely deserted.

The houses have been burned down, looted and destroyed, and the silence is heavy.

No one is there apart from a contingent of naval troops deployed to guard the area, and Beladi Kaninda, a local villager who acts as a sort of macabre tour guide for the rare visitor.

“There are nearly 100 bodies in this common grave — in the other one over there, nearly 70,” said Kaninda.

Photos and amateur videos made in the days after the massacre show that mutilation, including the genital mutilation of women and young girls, was carried out almost systematically.

“We are worried about the psychological repercussions” for survivors, said Fabrizio Andriolo of Doctors without Borders (MSF), one of the very few medical teams in the area.

“They have no wish to go home. They are afraid,” a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) official said in Makotimpoko.

The slaughter also meant the postponement in Yumbi of the December 30 presidential election, long awaited in the vast country with a huge mineral heritage and a history of bloodshed.

The killings have been blamed officially on the row over the burial of a tribal chief, but local people say there is a deep-rooted rivalry over resources.

The Batende lay claim to ownership of the land in Yumbi. 

“The Banunu came here after us. They don’t want to respect our traditional rights. They exploit our land, our fields, our water sources. Normally they are obliged to pay tribal duties each month. That’s the reason for all this conflict,” said Ejekiel Mabiala, head of the Batende community at Molende, south of Yumbi.

Eyewitness accounts and evidence seen by AFP suggests that the attacks were not only premeditated but had support from local authorities and elements within the security forces.

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Ex-health minister arrested for embezzling Ebola funds in DR Congo

Ilunga, who resigned as health minister in July, was detained while hiding in an apartment in Kinshasa

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DR Congo's health minister resigns after removal from key Ebola response role
Former DR Congo health minister Oly Ilunga. (AFP)

Former DR Congo health minister Oly Ilunga has been arrested over allegations he embezzled public funds to tackle the Ebola epidemic, police said on Saturday.

Ilunga, who resigned as health minister in July after being removed as head of the country’s Ebola response team, was detained while hiding in an apartment in the capital Kinshasa ahead of a bid to flee the country, officers said.

He is in custody due to “misdemeanors of the mismanagement of funds allocated to the Ebola response,” police spokesman Colonel Pierrot-Rombaut Mwanamputu told AFP.

Ilunga will be referred to prosecutors on Monday, he added.

It comes after Ilunga was questioned in August as part of an inquiry into the management of funds to fight the outbreak, which has claimed more than 2,000 lives since August 2018.

Ilunga, 59, had already been banned from leaving the country.

He stepped down after criticising plans by the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) to introduce a new, unlicensed vaccine to fight the epidemic.

His lawyer told AFP in September that some payments had been made to local chiefs after the killing of a WHO doctor in April.

More than 200,000 people have been vaccinated during DR Congo’s tenth and most serious Ebola epidemic.

It is the second-worst Ebola outbreak in history after more than 11,000 people were killed in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia between 2014 and 2016.

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Dozens feared dead in DR Congo train derailment

Witnesses at the scene and local media feared a hundred people could have been killed

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Dozens feared dead in DR Congo train derailment
(File photo)

A freight train derailed in southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo early Thursday, killing stowaway passengers who were riding on it, in the latest rail tragedy to strike the nation, officials said.

But in a chaotic situation, estimates of the death toll varied widely, from 10 to a hundred.

“Another disaster! Derailing at 3 am (01:00 GMT) in Tanganyika (province) near Mayibaridi. Provisional toll: 50 dead and several injured,” the minister for humanitarian action, Steve Mbikayi, said in a tweet.

In contrast, the provincial governor, Zoe Kabila, who is the brother of former President Joseph Kabila, issued a tweet that said, “Correction… provisional toll 10 dead, 30 injured and three railcars overturned.”

But witnesses at the scene and local media feared a hundred people could have been killed.

READ: 24 dead in DR Congo train derailment

Victor Umba, the union head of the national rail company SNCC, said the freight train was travelling from the town of Nyunzu to the town of Niemba when two railcars fell on their sides, crushing many people underneath.

“Those who died in this derailment were stowaways. It is impossible for the SNCC to provide any kind of toll,” Umba told reporters.

He added that the SNCC’s chief was in the provincial capital of Kalemie trying to find a way to raise the carriages.

“It seems that many stowaways are trapped under the derailed carriages”.

Railways in the DRC have a poor record for safety, hampered by derelict tracks and decrepit locomotives, many of them dating from the 1960s.

In March, at least 24 people were killed and 31 were injured Sunday when a freight train carrying illegal passengers crashed in the central region of Kasai.

In November last year, 10 stowaways were killed and 24 injured near the eastern town of Samba when the brakes failed on a freight train.

In November 2017, 35 people were killed when a freight train carrying 13 oil tankers plunged into a ravine in southern Lualaba province.

Like many state companies in DR Congo, the SNCC is on the brink of bankruptcy.

READ: Train collision kills 13, injures others in Congo

After Kabila stepped down in January, its employees urged his successor, Felix Tshisekedi, to pay months of back wages. Its former head Sylvestre Ilunga is the country’s current prime minister.

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2 journalists arrested in Equatorial Guinea for interviewing a suspended judge

Melanio Nkogo and Ruben Dario Bacale were picked up a week ago after broadcasting an interview with a judge, Nazario Oyono

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2 journalists arrested in Equatorial Guinea for interviewing a suspended judge

Two journalists working for a private TV station in Equatorial Guinea are being held by police after they interviewed a suspended judge, sources told reporters on Wednesday.

The country has one of the world’s worst records for media rights, ranking 165th out of 180 on the 2019 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Raul Obiang, head of news for Asonga TV, said journalists Melanio Nkogo and Ruben Dario Bacale were picked up a week ago after broadcasting an interview with a judge, Nazario Oyono.

Oyono was suspended on August 21 by the President of the Supreme Court for “irregularities.”

The pair are being held in the central police station in the town of Bata, Raul Obiang said.

He quoted the deputy head of security there as saying the two were being held because “they did work they shouldn’t have done.”

RSF called on the authorities to free the pair, adding that their arrest “shows the extreme vulnerability of journalists” working in Equatorial Guinea.

It recalled the case of noted cartoonist Ramon Nse Esono Ebale, who was jailed for five months before being released in March 2018.

Asonga is the only privately-owned TV and radio station in Equatorial Guinea, which has been run by iron-fisted President Teodoro Obiang Nguema for 40 years.

The station’s owner is his son, Teodorin Nguema Obiang, who many say is being groomed for succession.

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