A video has emerged in the Democratic Republic of Congo that shows a woman being publicly raped as punishment for allegedly serving “forbidden food” to a little-known group of rebels. The video is rare evidence of the atrocities being committed in DRC’s Kasaï region.

WARNING: READERS MAY FIND THE FOLLOWING IMAGES SHOCKING

The video, which lasts 7’40, was filmed on April 8, 2017 in the town of Luebo, in the province of Kasaï-Occidental. The events took place in the main square, referred to by locals as the “parking lot”.

The footage shows a naked woman being pushed out in front of a crowd by members of an armed group claiming allegiance to the Kamuina Nsapu rebel movement. The group seized the town, population 40,000, on March 31 and maintained a reign of terror for several weeks before they were ousted by the Congolese army on April 19.

The rebel movement emerged after the death of a local tribal chief named Kamuina Nsapu, who was killed by the Congolese army in August 2016. Armed groups bearing his name have attacked government targets including police and soldiers across the Kasaï region, as well as symbols of the Catholic Church. In recent months, however, the group has lost power and territory.


 
A rebel leader described as the "grand chief" appears for more than a minute in the video. (Screengrab)

At the beginning of the video, Kalamba Kambangoma   a rebel leader described as a “grand chief” by the man who is filming   holds the victim by her hair and explains in the local Tshiluba language that “she must die” for committing what he calls high treason. He then hands the victim over to another woman, who is wearing a pink t-shirt and the red bandanna that marks members of the Kamuina Nsapu movement.

 
At right, a woman wearing a pink t-shirt and the red bandanna that marks her as a member of the Kamuina Nsapu rebel movement holds the victim by the arms to take her to what looks like an altar. (Screengrab from the video)

The woman in pink then brings the victim over to a platform, which was constructed by the rebels when they took over the town. There, the woman and the son of her “rival” [Editor’s note: Her husband’s second wife] are forced to have sex in front of the crowd. The woman in a pink t-shirt whips the pair with branches for several minutes as many people   including men, women and children   crowd up close to the platform. The onlookers film the scene, applauding and screaming. A group of Luebo residents also attend the public punishment, though they maintain a certain distance from the stage.

 
Several dozen residents gathered in the main square, a few metres from the stage, to attend the public punishment (Screengrab from the video).
 
Punished for having served the rebels fish, a forbidden food

The woman owned a small restaurant on the road that connects Luebo and Mweka. FRANCE 24 contacted seven current and recent residents of Luebo about the execution, five of whom witnessed it firsthand. All said that the offense the woman was accused of was serving “forbidden food” to the rebels.

The Kamuina Nsapu have a strong belief in the powers of protection rituals. During periods of fighting, members of the group ritually refrain from eating meat, fish, cassava leaves, vines, cooking oil and hibiscus. They also refrain from washing themselves or having sex, according to Congolese researcher and consultant Anaclet Tshimbalanga, a specialist in local customs in Kasaï, who spoke to FRANCE 24.
 

The woman sold food on the road between Luebo and Mweka. She was near the village of Kabao when she served the “forbidden food” to the rebels. (Screengrab from Google Maps.)

One resident of Luebo told FRANCE 24: "She was accused of serving fish to rebels who were fighting on the frontlines in Kabao. They said she gave them beans that contained pieces of a small, local fish. Convinced that she had broken their protection charms, the council of rebels led by a man named Kabata sentenced both the woman and the son of her husband’s second wife [the young man was also working there that day] to commit incest in public.

The rebels then executed the woman and the young man by hacking them to death with machetes. Some of the rebels consumed their blood, according to several different witnesses interviewed by FRANCE 24.

A resident of Luebo sent the FRANCE 24 Observers team a photograph showing several rebels posing with the severed head of the young man, which was still recognisable. The young man was about 20 years old.

In early September, the video, which shows the forced public rape, started circulating massively on WhatsApp. All of the residents FRANCE 24 spoke to said they condemned the act and were traumatised by it.

"It was shameful, macabre, sickening, disgraceful… I couldn’t stand it and I left,” one said. “We’ve never seen anything like this before.”

"To rebel against the militia would mean death. We had to protect ourselves”

Our Observer Jean (not his real name) is a longtime resident of Luebo. He told us what he saw. For fear of reprisals, he asked to remain anonymous.

Everyone knew this woman. She wasn’t disliked   on the contrary. But many local people are convinced that the members of the militia have satanic powers. So, when the rebels execute people, we applaud and cheer for them. We had no choice: to stand up to them would have meant death. We were left to fend for ourselves against the armed militants. The police fled a week earlier

The two bodies - decapitated and mutilated - stayed there, out in the open, for two days. Eventually, they were buried on the spot. After the village was liberated, the Red Cross moved in and helped move the bodies to a cemetery.

From executions to slow starvation: the horror of the occupation

The militants held the town for about 20 days. During this time, they killed about 10 people, including two police officers and the wife of Luebo’s administrator.

Most of those killed had a family member in the local administration, army or parliament 
which is often reason enough for the militants to go after someone. Some of the victims were killed with machetes; some were shot.
 
In the video, rebels are seen carrying automatic weapons. (Screen grab from the video)

The rebels banned Luebo’s residents from working or going to school. They requisitioned food from local shopkeepers. It was an especially difficult time for people who didn’t have food at home because we weren’t allowed to farm. They also began to recruit local children and teenagers and their numbers swelled to the hundreds. They closely monitored and controlled our telephone usage.
 
Wood was used to feed the ritual bonfire known as "Tshiota", which is used to perform different spiritual and mystical rites, including the rite of passage to join the militia. (Screengrab from the video)

The Kamuina Nsapu torched all the religious buildings in town, except the cathedral, which they pillaged then made into their headquarters. In the nearby town square, they gathered around a big fire where they drank alcohol, carried out rituals, and killed people they had sentenced to death.
 
The main square in Luebo is often just called the “parking lot”. On the left is the cathedral where the militants set up their headquarters. On the right is the stage they built upon arrival. (Screengrab from Google Maps)
 
"When the Congolese soldiers arrived, everyone fled”

When the Congolese army arrived on April 19, all of the local people fled. We were terrified that we’d be accused of being militia members and executed. My family and I hid in the forest during the clashes between rebels and soldiers. We waited three days before returning to Luebo. Some people hid for two months. Others still haven’t returned.

We know that the soldiers killed civilians in a neighbouring village when they were taking it back from the rebels.

"We organised group prayers to ask for forgiveness for ourselves and each other”

Today, about 200 soldiers maintain control in the four different sectors in Luebo. We’ve got back to work and children have gone back to school. In some ways, life is getting back to normal, but we are all extremely traumatised by what happened.

We organised two days of group prayers as a way to forgive each other and ourselves. We were complicit in these crimes because we remained passive and so we all felt guilty. In our prayers, we thanked God for keeping us alive up until this point, and we asked for forgiveness for these poor rebels who acted under the influence of others. many of them  mere children  were killed by the army on the road towards Mweka.

Many people reacted in horror to the video. On September 4, Lifeka, a Belgium-based organisation dedicated to defending the rights of women in Kasaï, posted a video message condemning the crime.

"The first time, I had so many tears and so much anger that I couldn’t watch the full video,” Louise Ngandu told FRANCE 24. “In the entire crowd, not a single person opposed the act. No one said no. The most shocking aspect, for me, is that the person who drags the woman onto the stage happens to be another woman.”


The video shows a large crowd attending the public punishment with apparent excitement.

"These barbaric practices have nothing to do with our culture and traditions”
 

Anaclet Tshimbalanga, a specialist in Congolese customs, spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team about the violence documented on April 8. He said it was the antithesis of the traditional values espoused and promoted by local chiefs like the real Kamuina Nsapu. While the rebel groups that emerged in his name originally denounced government neglect of the region, he added, their activity has degenerated.

 

This is the first time that this kind of punishment has been carried out in the DRC. We didn’t see anything like this even during the war of independence.

When Kamuina Nsapu died, several different armed groups were formed, each claiming to be his legitimate successor. In reality, these are just groups frustrated with the inaction of the state. To say that these rebels are really following in the footsteps of the real Kamuina Nsapu is incorrect because they don’t respect traditional practices. Each of these groups create their own rituals and punishments, which are often unrelated to traditional practices.

The punishment given to this woman, for example, goes completely contrary to local customs, which forbid both the death sentence and incest. These cases of extreme violence are a result of drugs or, sometimes, of people getting caught up in the frenzy and excitement of bloodshed and war. Some of their leaders incite violence shamelessly. The result is that these people did the unthinkable: they took life.

The Congolese government uses weapons to shut down rebellions, but what we really need is a healing process to help the populations move past their trauma and to get child soldiers back into their families and schools. We need to create employment to build up the region.
 
 
Article written with
Liselotte Mas

Liselotte Mas