THE STOLEN CHILDHOODS OF KASAI, DRC

The genesis of the Kasai crisis

The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has a poor record of addressing local conflicts. President Joseph Kabila, who came in power in 2001 after the assassination of his father, has failed to guarantee protection of civilians. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in some instances the DRC government and its security forces have fuelled local tensions and collaborated in crimes and violations against civilians by some militias.

In April 2016, tensions escalated in the central Kasai province when the national government refused to recognize Jean-Pierre Mpandi, known by his hereditary title [Chief] Kamuena Nsapu, as the traditional chief. Over the following weeks, the Kamuena Nsapu’s followers began attacking state buildings, the police and other symbols of state. The violence intensified after Chief Kamuena Nsapu was shot dead during an army operation on 12 August 2016.

The international community and African leaders cannot afford to continue ignoring this desperate and dangerous situation.

Amnesty International

CHILDREN USED AND ABUSED

The Kasai crisis in the centre of DRC has been characterized by the appalling brutality of the parties towards the civilian population. Little has been said about how the crisis has stolen the dreams of hundreds of thousands of children. According to a UNICEF report published in May 2018, 60% of members of armed groups are children.

Our researchers interviewed people in Kasai’s Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in September 2017 and found that children started joining the armed group as early as June 2016. Some were lied to or encouraged to join the Kamuena Nsapu insurgency by their parents or relatives.

Aaron*, 16, said his father pressured him to join the armed group in 2017. “He told me that my friends are joining this movement to liberate the country. Go do the same.” Vera*, at only 15 was forced to join the Kamuena Nsapu by her grandfather who was also a chief of a Tshiota (an initiatory centre).  

Constant* was told by his friends in 2016 that the Kamuena Nsapu was a new movement formed to liberate the country through war and it paid a lot of money. He also thought he could get free education by joining the armed group. He was 15 at the time.

THE ORDEAL CHILDREN WENT THROUGH IN THE KASAI

After an initiation ritual (during which children were forced to drink secret potions, alcohol, eat live insects… ostensibly to make them impervious bullets), children were sent to kill and also used by adults as human shields.

Bertine*, a 13-year-old girl stated that: “When we went to fight, we [girls] were put on the front line and the men came behind. We were armed with machetes and knives.”

Another girl, Marine*, 14, told us: “We went to the battle with mops… Papa Dieudo, one of the Kamuena Nsapu leaders, told us if we shake the mop in front of a soldier, their head [would] be cut off. I did shake the mop several times, but I never saw any soldier dying.”

We met Christelle* in September 2017 when she was 17. She told us that young girls who were not virgins were raped by the leaders of the initiation centre every night.

In September 2017, Amnesty International found that 34 children were detained due to their affiliation to the Kamuena Nsapu.

STOLEN CHILDHOODS

Sophie was sent into battle by the Kamuena Nsapu armed group. She thought that she would get everything: education and a better future. She believed them and ended up witnessing awful levels of violence that no child should ever see.
© UNICEF/UN0120292/Rose
Albert was just 11 years old when he was inducted into the Kamuena Nsapu. He was made to drink ‘magic potions’ , including molten rubber so as to be able to change shapes and avoid detection in battle.
© UNICEF/UN0120292/Rose
Tshiela*, 10, sits in what was once her school before residents fled the fighting, in Mulombela village, Kasaï region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Thursday 25 January 2018.
©UNICEF/UN0162330/Tremeau
Dr Elvis Badianga Kumbu examines Merveille Ntumba, 13 months old, who was suffering from malnutrition, at the Presbyterian Hospital in Mbuji-Mayi, Kasaï region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sunday 28 January 2018.
©UNICEF/UN0162276/Tremeau
At 14 years of age, Joseph joined Kamuena Nsapu because they provided him with protection and a special status. He was baptized into the mystical cult of this armed group and he was told because he drank red ants and magic potions that he was invincible.
©UNICEF/Patrick Rose

They told us to not react if our Tshiota was attacked. They told us to evoke the name of the Grand Chief [Kamuena Nsapu] to vanish and disappear.

Sarah*, born in 2002, lost her mother in January 2017.

SEND AN URGENT MESSAGE TO THE DRC PRESIDENT TO PROTECT CHILDREN IN KASAI

As the violence in Kasai continues, children continue to suffer the most, being exposed to horrid violence.

Thousands of children have been either forcibly recruited or tricked into fighting in the armed conflict by armed groups such as the Kamuen Nsapu. A military campaign launched by the government against the Kamuena Nsapu insurgency has cost thousands of lives and has displaced more than a million people, some within the Kasai region and others crossing into Angola.

Children, as young as 11, who spoke to our researchers in 2017, told stories of gruesome abuses including being forced to participate in the combat, sustaining injuries from bullets. They also said they were forced by Kamuena Nsapu leaders to drink mystic fluids, supposedly in order to protect them against bullets during combat.

According to United Nations agencies, the humanitarian crisis resulting from the conflict is worsening as more than 700,000 children are malnourished and need urgent assistance to recover from acute malnutrition.

The DRC government must act now to protect children from use in armed forces and other abuses by all parties involved in the conflict.

THE KASAI REGION

Map courtesy the United Nations
Map courtesy the United Nations

The Kasai region is composed of five provinces: Kasai Central, Kasai, Lomani, Sankuru and Kasai-Oriental

THE CRISIS IN NUMBERS

Since 2016, the people of the Kasai region have been exposed to attacks from armed groups, militias and government forces. The crisis in the region has left thousands dead. Instability has led to one of the most severe humanitarian situation in the world.

+3000
According to a report by the Vatican’s Representative in DRC, 3,383 people had been killed as of June 2017.
3.8 MILLLION
According to the UN, 3.8 million people need humanitarian assistance, including 2.3 million children.
900,000
An approximate number of internally displaced individuals since the Kasai conflict began in 2016.

MORE ON THE KASAI CRISIS

Amnesty International has on a number of occasions raised concerns over the crisis in Kasai calling for inquiry into the violations and abuses and for accountability. In addition to reporting by human rights organizations, Radio France International also conducted an in-depth investigation into the crisis in the Kasai. Here are three broadcast episodes on the genesis of the crisis, the military’s brutal response and the UN reaction.

DRC authorities conducted a joint operation (Army, the Intelligence service and the National Police) at Kamuena Nsapu’s home over accusations against him of possession of weapons.
©RadioOkapi/Ph. John Bompengo
Kamuena Nsapu followers carry out first planned attack against Ntenda, a rival of Chief Kamuena Nsapu, killing at least six people and destroying hundreds of huts.
©Private
Chief Kamuena Nsapu is killed by DRC security forces at his house after negotiation for his surrender fail. Several children were killed in this attack.
©Particular
Security forces filmed themselves killings Kamuena Nsapu followers armed with batons in Tshimbulu. At least 19 mass graves were later revealed by the UN in the Tshimbulu area.
©REUTERS/Aaron Ross
Zaida Catalan and Michael J. Sharp, two UN experts investigating human rights violations, are kidnapped and killed in the Kasai.
©Private

JOSEPH, 13, RECRUITED TO KILL

In six months, Joseph is suspected to have killed seven soldiers. He is 13. Thousands of boys and girls in the Kasai have been subjected to this by Kamuina Nsapu since 2016.

  Video courtesy UNICEF                                                                                     ©UNICEF 2018

PROTECT CHILDREN IN KASAI NOW

In July 2018, the UN Human Rights Council’s team of experts on the Kasai found that armed groups and the DRC forces have committed violations that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. They found that armed groups continue to forcefully recruit children and the DRC forces’ response continue to violate international humanitarian laws.

The stories that we heard from children as young as nine years old depict a gruesome and appalling picture of what has happened in the Kasai. We denounce the ongoing violence in the Kasai region, in particular the abuses and human rights violations against children.

The DRC government must take effective measures to protect children from forced or voluntary recruitment or use in armed forces and other abuses by all parties involved in the conflict in this region; and to ensure that former child soldiers have access to programs that cater adequately for their long-term support and reintegration into the community.

STILL THEY DREAM FOR A BETTER FUTURE

Students attend a class in a temporary tent school set up by UNICEF in Mulombela village, Kasaï region, Democratic Republic of the Congo. © UNICEF/UN0162334/Tremeau
Students attend a class in a temporary tent school set up by UNICEF in Mulombela village, Kasaï region, Democratic Republic of the Congo. © UNICEF/UN0162334/Tremeau

We joined that movement because of poverty. Here we are promised things for school and care. I want to start school and become a mechanic or an MP.

Francis*, 16-year-old.