Satellite images, amateur footage document Congo’s hidden massacres
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Over the past few months, a series of massacres has taken place in Ituri province, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The survivors have flooded into already overcrowded camps for internally displaced people. However, very few images and very little information from the area reach the outside world, so it is hard to know exactly what happened. Over the past few weeks, our team has painstakingly interviewed survivors, and studied amateur images and satellite photos to reconstruct what happened in Tche, the site of one of these massacres.
WARNING – GRAPHIC CONTENT: This article contains images and information documenting violence. We have published a minimum of the least disturbing images, blurring where necessary to obscure graphic content.
Ituri province has been the scene of rivalry between two ethnic groups, the Lendu and the Hema, for years. It led to a conflict in 1998-2002 that left more than 50,000 people dead, many of them killed during massacres of civilians. The violence flared up again in the province’s Djugu area in May.
On July 2, President Félix Tshisekedi promised that that the army would maintain a presence in the area “until the day when no more shots are fired”. But the violence continues and the outside world seems to show little interest in the unfolding nightmare.
On Aug. 28, a local Hema community group called for the creation of an international tribunal to investigate the ongoing massacres, which they estimated had killed about 5,000 people since December 2017.
Numerous residents of the province contacted the FRANCE 24 Observers team about the massacres, but few had any documentation or direct contact with eyewitnesses.
But over the past few weeks, our team was able to interview 12 direct witnesses and examine photos, videos and satellite images of the massacres. The photos and videos document horrific violence: villages looted and burned, elderly people killed with arrows, women raped and killed, and young children dismembered. We are publishing only a small selection of the least violent images.
What satellite images told us
By speaking to sources on the ground and digging through articles published by local media outlets, we were able to establish a list of villages where massacres reportedly took place during the summer of 2019.
We then used a tool called fires.ru that analyses satellite data to detect and track large fires around the world. We cross-referenced the coordinates for the fires in the region with a list of villages where massacres had been reported. We noted that there were major fires in the cluster of villages in Tche on June 11, 12 and 13.
This image shows data from the fire-monitoring site fires.ru superimposed on Google Earth satellite imagery of Ituri province in the DR Congo.
On June 16, Congolese radio station Radio Okapi reported that a community group had uncovered scores of bodies in Tche and the surrounding villages, and that around 150 people had been killed in an attack that took place the night of June 11-12.
“I wasn’t hit so I started running as fast as possible”
Thirty-six-year-old Jean Claude Madye Dhelo, a farmer who lives in Tche, survived the attack.
On the morning of June 11, I was headed to work in the fields with six other people. In the distance, we saw the attackers coming towards us. They were armed with guns and arrows and they started shooting at us. By sheer luck, I wasn’t hit. I started to run as fast as possible. My neighbor, my friend and I all hid in the bush together. We were the only survivors of our group of seven.
We remained hidden there for the next two days. Finally, we made our way to Largu [Editor’s note: a nearby village]. Thankfully, my wife and my nine children also managed to escape. They spent four days hiding in the bush before they were rescued by soldiers. They joined me in Largu and then we went and stayed together in Drodro for a few days. After that, I sent them to go stay in Bunia, the largest town in the province.
But eight members of my family weren’t so lucky. I lost three of my paternal uncles, their wives and two of their children.
I went back to Tche to help the soldiers bury the dead. There were around 190 bodies.
On June 17, Jean Claude Madye Dhelo, a survivor of the June 11 attack, went back to Tche to help bury those who had been killed. According to Dhelo, who took this picture, they buried about 190 people. His photos and others taken that day show bodies already in an advanced state of decomposition.
What’s terrible is that I actually moved to Tche a year ago to get away from the violence in my home village, Maze [Editor’s note: Maze is located 15 kilometres northeast of Tche]. There was another attack in Maze in March of this year. I went back there to help dig mass graves and bury those who were killed, like my six-year-old nephew, who was killed by blows from a machete, and my 87-year-old father, whose body was riddled with arrows.
Villagers from Maze bury the bodies of those killed in the massacre on March 2, 2019. (Photo: Jean Claude Madye Dhelo)
“I’m getting on in years, so I couldn’t run very far; I hid in a bush”
Seventy-four-year-old Jean B., who has lived in Tche since 2000, was at home when the attack began.
I live over by the shopping centre. In my neighbourhood, we heard the first shot around midnight. I had a feeling that there would be an attack so I packed my suitcase that night. Around 5am, we heard a second gunshot-- that was the starting shot.
I grabbed my suitcase and left immediately. I’m getting on in years, so I couldn’t run very far. I hid in a bush about two kilometres from my home. I heard a lot of gunshots and heard people screaming. I saw so many people fleeing. The attackers chased them, yelling. I saw them set fire to the home of a man I know.
I came out from my hiding spot about four of five hours later, when I saw the soldiers arrive. That’s when I saw the first body-- an older woman who had been hacked to death with a machete. I knew her; her name was Marie.
A large group of us-- made up of hundreds of survivors-- walked north together towards the town of Drodro.
This person’s body was found by the side of a road on the outskirts of Tche on June 17, 2019.
I’ve been back to Tche four times since the attack, mainly to dig up potatoes from my fields. It’s a desolate landscape. All the homes were burned down. The shopping centre was looted and set on fire. My two small houses were reduced to ashes. Many people who I know were killed, including my brother, who was a pastor, my cousin and the children of another cousin.
Now I’m living in Drodro, like many other people from Tche who found refuge here. I’d like to return home but it’s still not safe. That said, I’m lucky to be staying at my son-in-law’s house. Most of the other people who fled Tche are living in the camp for internally displaced people [IDPs] and it can be really difficult there.
Tens of thousands of displaced people
Many villages in the region have been deserted by their former inhabitants, whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed during the attacks.
This screengrab of a video filmed in August 2019 shows the road between the villages of Kalo and Pimbo. (Video: David Kiiza)
The town of Drodro has been overwhelmed with people fleeing violence-- more than 77,000 have come since June, according to Bienvenu Ngadjole, the local representative for the charity Caritas. Most of these people now live in one IDP camp, which initially had only 50 toilets and 50 showers. Over the past few months, aid organisations including the World Food Programme, the Danish Refugee Council and medical charity Doctors Without Borders [Médecins sans frontières] have been working to improve living conditions in the camps and provide people with medical care.
This photo shows the IDP camp in Drodro in June, after the arrival of tens of thousands of displaced people. The buildings in the background are used as dormitories but many people still have to sleep outside. (Photo: Bienvenu Ngadjole).
This woman fled Tche and is now living in the IDP camp in Drodro. (Photo: Bienvenu Ngadjole).
The medical teams have treated 59 victims of rape since June. “These women were raped by the men who attacked Drodro, Maze and other locations. Many of the women were attacked when they were alone, coming back from the market or the river. We treat them for STDs and help them prevent pregnancies. If they want, they can speak with a psychologist,” says Édith B., a nurse in Drodro.
“We don’t have enough to live on in Bunia”
Many displaced people have also gone to Bunia, the largest town in Ituri province. That’s where Jean Claude Madye Dhelo, the farmer from Tche, is living with his family.
We are suffering here. We don’t have enough to get by. We try to get odd jobs doing cleaning or gardening but it isn’t enough. We haven’t been able to enroll our children in school. I think that soon we’ll go back to Drodro where it is easier to access aid. I also hope to get back to Tche so I can harvest some sweet potatoes and cassava from my field. It’s sad to lose everything in this way and to find ourselves in this situation. Just a few years ago, I had more than 300 cattle
Our Observer Jean Claude Madye Dhelo posed for this photo with his herd of cows several years ago.
In Bunia, there are several IDP camps where tens of thousands of people live in difficult conditions.
This IDP camp is located near Bunia’s general hospital. (Photo taken Aug. 7, 2019 by Roméo Bahigwa Djombu).
Why are these attacks happening?
The violence in the Djugu area has targeted members of the Hema ethnic group. There have been longstanding tensions over land and resources between the Hema and Lendu in Ituri province, which have boiled over into conflict in the past, notably in 1998-2002.
Debon Mwisa, a civil affairs officer with MONUSCO [the UN stabilization mission in the DRC], has been working to promote dialogue between these two communities as a way to reduce the violence.
There is constant tension between these two communities and sometimes an event will serve as a trigger point, causing the tension to explode into violence.
For example, back in April 2017, a Lendu priest died in what were deemed to be suspicious circumstances. The Lendu blamed the Hema for his death and the region descended into violence.
After a few months, the tensions died down when it became clear that the Hema were not going to carry out reprisal attacks [Editor’s note: In 2007, the Hema turned over 15,000 weapons as part of a demobilization process and promised not to rearm. On Aug. 28, 2019, they pledged to uphold that position]. International organisations also did huge amounts of work to educate the population and ease tensions.
However, in April 2019, four Lendu traders were killed. That stirred up the old demons and Lendu militia groups regrouped and set out to attack Hema villages.
The tensions are fueled by economic disparities between the two groups. The Hema have a reputation for managing their land well and making money from it, while Lendu are much more likely to live in poverty
“These wars need to stop”
According to local leaders interviewed for this article, the massacres are the work of a militia group called Codeco, which they say recruit unemployed Lendu youths as members. The Congolese government has also blamed the group. Codeco stands for “Cooperative for Development for Congo”. It started as an agricultural cooperative, but according to some accounts has morphed into a militia group and cult.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Lendu chief Joel Mande (from the Walendu Tatsi area) who said that the Codeco militia and its actions “are not representative of the Lendu people".
I know some young people from my area who were recruited and who are now dead. It's an incredibly sad situation for them and for our community; it troubles us deeply. We hope that someone will put a stop to this group, soon. These wars need to stop. Each time they occur, we fall farther and farther behind in terms of development.
Article by Liselotte Mas (@liselottemas).