The Cable

The U.N. Uncovers Dozens of Mass Graves in Central Congo

Turmoil and violence threaten Joseph Kabila’s grip on power.

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United Nations investigators have unearthed scores of mass graves in a conflict-plagued region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that top U.N. officials describe as a scene of “horror.”

The U.N. says the Congolese military dug the mass grave after killing more than 100 people last month, a sign that the DRC’s violence and political turmoil will almost certainly get worse before it gets better.

On Wednesday, the U.N. announced that its investigators have confirmed the existence of 17 new mass graves sites in the DRC’s Kasai region, bring the tally up to 40 mass graves discovered in the past nine months. The most recent batch was unearthed after the Congolese military killed at least 114 people, including 41 children, in its campaign to uproot an insurgency by the Kamuina Nsapu militia.

Most civilians were reportedly killed in their homes as soldiers went door to door hunting militia members. The U.N. also recounted reports of government forces raping women and girls. The U.N. accused the Kamuina Nsapu militia of carrying out their own atrocities and forcibly recruiting hundreds of child soldiers into their ranks.

The discovery sheds new light on a deadly conflict in the Kasai region that has displaced hundreds of thousands and morphed into a serious threat to embattled DRC President Joseph Kabila’s grip on power. While the Kamuina Nsapu rebellion is rooted in local grievances, it quickly ignited a nationwide political powder keg as grievances pile up against Kabila. Kabila refused to step down after his constitutional term limit expired in December, prompting mass protests and political turmoil, while exacerbating the country’s dire economic situation.

“The discovery of yet more mass graves and the reports of continued violations and abuses highlight the horror that has been unfolding in the Kasais over the last nine months,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. If the national government isn’t serious about investigating the crimes, Hussein added, he would urge the International Criminal Court to take up the matter. The Congolese government denied any involvement in the mass graves, and instead blamed militias.

Since 1999, the U.N. has maintained a peacekeeping mission — MONUSCO — in the DRC. With some 22,000 personnel, it’s the U.N.’s largest. But given the sheer expanse of the country, it “has only minimal capacity to respond to civil unrest of widening conflict,” said Hans Hoebeke, a Congo expert with the International Crisis Group.

The Kasai conflict garnered international attention last month after militias abducted and killed two U.N. experts, one American and one Swedish. Since the conflict first escalated in August 2016, more than 400 people have been killed.

Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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