Fighting between two ethnic groups led to hundreds of deaths in the area of Yumbi, a town in western Democratic Republic of the Congo, in mid-December. People were shot, stabbed and, in some cases, burned to death; hundreds of homes were destroyed. The UN announced on January 16 that at least 890 people had been killed. The France 24 Observers has interviewed eyewitnesses and local authorities. Here is what we discovered.
The massacre took place in Yumbi, a town on the banks of the Congo River, and in several surrounding villages. Most of the people in this area are from the Batende community. The largest minority group is the Banunu. According to Gentiny Ngobila, the governor of Mai-Ndombe province, an estimated 200,000 people live in and around Yumbi, with about 40,000 living in the town itself.
In late December, several photos, seemingly taken in Yumbi during the massacre and in the days following, started circulating on social media. However, it was difficult to verify their origin, especially because there was an internet blackout in the country, which lasted from December 31 – the day after the presidential election – through January 19.
What sparked the massacre?
Everyone who we interviewed was in agreement about the origin of the violence: It was sparked by the burial of a Banunu traditional chief in Yumbi, on the night of December 13. The Batende, the majority group in the area, saw this as a provocation because they consider Yumbi their territory.
According to Governor Ngobila, after the chief’s burial a group of young Banunu men started provoking passing Batende in the street. He said this took place on the morning of December 16.
There is a long-standing rivalry between these two tribes, which stems from a land dispute. According to Ngobila, who is from the Batende community, these tensions began in the 1940s, when the DR Congo was still under colonial rule.
“In 1963, hundreds of people died in clashes between the Banunu and the Batende,” Ngobila said. “In this area, all you need is a spark to set off violence.”
December 16: Yumbi attacked
According to all of the eyewitnesses interviewed by our team, the violence in Yumbi began sometime in the early afternoon of December 16, when a group of Batende men arrived in the town armed with guns and knives.
“I saw them kill children who hadn’t been able to keep up with their fleeing parents”
Jean P. (not his real name), age 27, grew up in Yumbi, though he is now studying in Kinshasa. In December, however, he was back home, staying with his parents in Yumbi. Jean is Banunu and is related to the traditional chief whose burial kicked off the violence. He witnessed the violence firsthand. For fear of reprisals, he has asked to stay anonymous in this article.
It was about 2:30pm and I was at home, near the town centre, when we first heard shooting. It sounded like it was coming from the outskirts of town. We saw people fleeing and houses that were going up in smoke. My entire family and I gathered inside and shut all of our doors and windows. We have metal doors and windows with locks, and that’s what saved us.
From the windows, I could see some of what was going on. I saw a group of four of the attackers. They were tall and athletic. They were dressed in black and had their faces covered. They all had guns and they were shooting men and boys.
Behind them, there was another group of men. These men didn’t have their faces covered. They were destroying houses, setting them on fire. They were using machetes to finish off the people who had been shot. I also saw them kill children who hadn’t been able to keep up with their fleeing parents.
Most of the people they shot were men, though I did see some women who were injured, as well. It seemed to me like the women hadn’t been targeted, though.
The attack lasted about an hour and 45 minutes. When I went outside afterwards, I saw about 20 dead bodies in the street.
From the people who I spoke to after the attack, I’ve gathered that there were about a dozen groups like the one I’ve described. In total, there were about a hundred attackers who ravaged the town of Yumbi. I heard that many people were killed near the Congo River, while they were trying to escape. Lots of bodies fell into the water and were carried away by the current.
Jean’s description of how the attackers operated was corroborated by Colonel Olivier Gasita, who has been serving as commander in chief of operations and as interim administrator of the territory of Yumbi since December 20 (the previous administrator was killed in the attack). The colonel and his team interviewed many of the survivors of the massacre and their descriptions matched the one that Jean gave.
“We saw people with burns, people who had been shot and people who had been injured with machetes”
Michel B. (not his real name) is a doctor at the General Hospital in Yumbi. He was working there when the attack took place. He has also asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons.
I was in my office when the attack started. I didn’t hear or see anything, though, because our offices are about three or four kilometres from the area where the massacre started.
When the attack began, some people took shelter in our hospital. After it was finished, about a hundred injured people were brought here [Editor’s note: 82 people were brought to the hospital, according to the president of the civil society in Yumbi]. We were cruelly lacking in space, but our entire staff was mobilised.
We saw people with burns, people who had been shot with hunting rifles and people who had been injured with machetes. About a dozen of the people we treated didn’t survive, including women and children. Some of them had terrible burns, while others had lost a lot of blood. Some of the people brought here were pronounced dead upon arrival.
Some people also sought refuge on church grounds or in the health centre run by Catholic nuns. Others headed to islets in the Congo River.
In a reprisal attack on the night of December 16, a group of Banunu men targeted the Batende living in Yumbi. They burned homes and a Batende cemetery, according to Governor Ngobila.
December 17 and 18: Attacks on villages on the outskirts of Yumbi
On December 17 and 18, the neighbouring villages of Nkolo, Bongende and Kambandi were also attacked by armed Batende men, according to Governor Ngobila. He added that the administrator of the territory of Yumbi was assasinated near the offices of the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI). A week after the attack, the governor announced that the men who had killed the administrator had been arrested.
On December 18, 30 soldiers were sent from the capital Kinshasa to restore order in Yumbi.
“The town of Yumbi was ravaged when we arrived, but we didn’t see any of the bodies because they had apparently already been buried by the families,” said Colonel Gasita, who is overseeing operations in Yumbi. “However, when we went to Bongende, we did see many bodies that had been left out in the open.”
One of members of civil society who spoke to the France 24 Observers team said that the bodies in Bongende were later buried by the Red Cross.
Death toll and damages in the wake of the attack
Hundreds of dead
The exact number of people killed in the attack is still not certain, as different sources have given different counts. According to Governor Ngobila, “more than 90% of the dead were Banunu”.
Colonel Gasita said that 534 people died. He said that 415 bodies were found, including 230 in Bongende, 166 in Yumbi, 12 in Nkoko and seven in Kambandi. He added that a further 119 people were killed, according to local chiefs, but that their bodies have not yet been found. A member of the Yumbi civil society provided similar figures.
The UN Human Rights Office said that at least 890 people were killed and another 82 were wounded, though they added that the number of victims is “probably higher”.
Our Observer, Jean P., agrees that the death toll was almost certainly higher, as does Father Norbet Longota, a priest from Bongende who was interviewed by RFI. They pointed out that some victims were burned, while others drowned or were thrown into the Congo River.
During the course of our investigation, our team examined many photos showing dead men, women and children. Other photos showed men, women and children with burns or other injuries. All of these photos appear to have been taken on December 16 or 17 in Yumbi, though we haven’t yet been able to identify all of the victims. Sophie Sabatier, from international medical charity Médecins sans frontières (also known as Doctors Without Borders), who went to Yumbi on December 22, and Michel B., the doctor at Yumbi’s General Hospital, both said that they saw people who had been stabbed and shot, as well as people with burns.
Hundreds of homes burned to the ground
The attacks also caused serious material damage.
“When we were in Yumbi, we saw huge numbers of homes destroyed in the neighbourhoods of Bolu and Moyi, located to the south of the city,” said Sabatier of Médecins Sans Frontières. “We are talking about 400 destroyed homes.”
This number corresponds with the figure put forth by the UN Human Rights Office: “Around 465 homes and buildings were burned or looted, including two primary schools, a health centre, a clinic, an office and an elections bureau (CENI).”
A member of Yumbi’s civil society who spoke to our team said the number was much higher. He alleged that 698 homes had been burned in Yumbi, while 270 were burned in Bongende and a further 235 were burned in Nkolo.
What has happened in the month since the attacks?
These massacres caused many people to flee. According to the UN Human Rights Office, about 16,000 people fled to neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville, after having crossed the Congo River.
Sabatier, from Médecins Sans Frontières, cited similar figures:
“We estimate that between 20,000 and 30,000 people were internally displaced or have become refugees. Some of them are living on islands in the river, while others are out in the countryside.”
Both Médecins Sans Frontières and doctor Michel B. said that these people are living in unsanitary conditions and are exposed to numerous health risks, including malaria (especially those living by the river), respiratory infections, diarrhea and malnutrition.
Some people have started returning to their homes in Yumbi. “But we think that scarcely half the population is living there now,” said Sabatier, who returned to Yumbi in January, and left just last week.
Tensions remain high between the Banunu and the Batende, according to all of our interviewees. Governor Ngobila said that he has started to try to think of ways to address these issues, as “the hate has taken on incommensurable dimensions”.