BY CALEB KAZADI, IN KINSHASA (DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO)
An important trial in the “Mulombodi” case opened in Kinshasa on March 20, more than six years after the events. This religious site near Kananga airport was the scene of atrocities in September 2016. Two top Congolese police and army officers are on trial for their alleged role in the violence.
The events took place nearly 1,000 kilometres from the Congolese capital Kinshasa in late September 2016. They followed an attack on the airport at Lungandu, on the outskirts of Kasai-Central’s capital Kananga, by the Kamwina Nsapu militia – supporters of traditional leader turned rebel Jean-Prince Mpandi Kamwina Nsapu, who was killed in August the same year. In retaliation, the security forces launched a raid on the site of Christ the King church in Mulombodi, where the militiamen were said to have taken refuge. The site housed the church, members of the congregation and its spiritual leader, known as the “Mulombodi”, or “guide” in French.
On the night of September 23-24, 2016, elements of the Congolese National Police and the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC), who had gone in pursuit of the militiamen, broke down the doors of the religious site one by one. According to the prosecution, they raped, several dozen women and killed at least 11 people. Witnesses also reported that men were abducted and taken to the Kananga military academy camp, commonly known as the “EFO camp” after its former name, the Officer Training School. Some never returned home, according to the testimony of their relatives. These illegal arrests could constitute “a crime against humanity”, in the words of the prosecutor general.
Troop leaders implicated
Since March 20, two senior officers have been on trial for these acts: Brigadier General Emmanuel Lombe Bangwangu, 66, and Deputy Divisional Commander Gilbert Vumilia Tendilonge, 72. At the time, they were commander of the 21st military region and provincial police commissioner respectively. Both men are at large, but only General Vumilia, who has retired, appeared at the hearing. As for General Lombe, he was absent “for administrative reasons,” according to a source close to the case. Currently stationed at the Kitona military base in Kongo Central, about 600 kilometres southwest of Kinshasa, he did not obtain authorization to travel.
In the High Military Court, Lieutenant General Lucien-René Likulia Bakumi, the FARDC’s auditor general, accused them of rape, murder and imprisonment or other forms of severe deprivation of liberty as crimes against humanity. According to the indictment, more than 260 women were raped, either collectively or individually, during this “widespread” attack by Congolese security forces.
This is the beginning of a long-awaited judicial process, for several reasons. The Mulombodi case is one of 23 “emblematic” cases identified in the aftermath of the armed conflict between the Kamwina Nsapu militia and the security forces in a region previously considered a haven of peace. This trial is the first for serious crimes committed in Kananga itself. It is also the first to directly implicate officers of this rank for crimes related to the conflict, which has claimed an estimated 3,000 lives, according to the UN. To date, there have been four trials in the Kasai region with convictions for war crimes against Kamwina Nsapu militiamen: in the village of Mayi Munene (Kasai province), in Kongolo Moshi (Kazumba territory), Bana Ba Ntumba (Dimbelenge territory), and in Kananga concerning the murder of two UN experts in Kasai Central. For various observers, this trial of the security forces is a test of the authorities’ willingness to fight impunity in Kasai. According to our information, the defendants could face more than 400 victims in this trial.
Military justice “relaunching itself”?
The opening of this trial is a “good surprise,” says the Association of Victims of Grand Kasai president Mhyrrand Mulumba. He speaks of a military justice system that is “relaunching itself”, whereas it seemed to have been put on hold both by both Kinshasa and the United Nations, as jurist Luc Henkinbrant wrote a year ago in Justice Info. “This is a reason for satisfaction for all the victims of Grand Kasai. Justice should play its role, that of the church in the middle of the village. Let all the perpetrators answer for their acts and let all the victims be restored to their rights so that things don’t go back to how they were. We are asking for the rule of law to be effective,” Mulumba insists.
Human rights organizations have high expectations of this judicial process. “This trial must send a strong message. It must serve as a lesson so that the evil that plunged Kasai into mourning is averted and we can never go back to that,” says Dominique Kambala, director general of the Kananga-based Société congolaise pour l’État de droit (SCED). “We are waiting for justice to be done in terms of convictions of the accused and the granting of fair reparations to victims,” adds this former president of the Kasai-Central bar.
Mobile court hearings in Kananga?
The trial is being held in Kinshasa, the seat of the High Military Court, which is the only court that can try generals. However, the CSED is asking that mobile court hearings be held in Kananga for this trial. “Kananga is where the victims are. The 410 victims, even 500, how are they going to be transported to Kinshasa, who is going to pay for their stay?” asks Mulumba. “Victims need to see their executioners face to face; this will bring relief and will be much more symbolic.” Military justice has already adopted this method in previous trials for international crimes in Kasai, notably in Kongolo Moshi and Bana Ba Ntumba. But these mobile court hearings require logistical and financial resources, for which the state must find support from various partners – including UN agencies and international NGOs.
As a reminder, in July 2021, human remains were discovered at the religious site of Mulombodi. The High Court of ex-West Kasai and the forensic police conducted an exhumation, which should be examined in this trial. In addition to this case, Kananga is awaiting another trial that is not yet scheduled. This is the case of the violence committed in Nganza, which along with that of Mulombodi and Tshisuku was one of three priority cases referred to the military prosecutor, according to a SCED communiqué from 2020, but has suffered “inexplicable delays. The violence was also attributed to the security forces, who carried out an operation in Nganza in March 2017 similar to the one in Mulombodi.
The next hearing in the Mulombodi trial, whose calendar has not been officially announced, has been set for May 8.