Even before full-scale war erupted in 1996, the Zaire (country later renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo) was in crisis. President Joseph Mobutu’s kleptocratic rule and a failed transition to multiparty democracy had devastated the country’s economy. Violent clashes between migrant and indigenous communities flared up in North Kivu province in 1993.[i] In 1994-5, the mass influx of Hutu refugees as well as former Rwandan Armed Forces (ex-FAR) and militia from Rwanda in the immediate aftermath of the Rwandan genocide further exacerbated existing local tensions.[ii]
Large-scale war broke out in 1996, when Rwanda’s post-genocide government decided to militarily intervene against the ex-FAR and former genocidaires that had congregated in refugee camps across the border and launched a series of low-level attacks back into Rwanda between 1994 and 1996. In September 1996, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL), a loose coalition of rebels led by Laurent-Desiré Kabila and backed by Rwandan and Ugandan forces, launched an armed campaign from the country’s east. The AFDL initially targeted refugee camps along the Zaire-Rwanda border that housed thousands of Hutu civilians. However, the rebels did not stop with the clearing the camps. Within six months they had captured most of the country’s territory and ousted long-time president Mobutu Sese Seko. In May 1997, Laurent-Desire Kabila was installed as the new president, and the country was renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo.[iii]
Atrocities,1996 – 1997
Inter-group tensions and violence long predated the refugee crisis of 1994 – 1996 and the war that followed. Human Rights Watch reports that already in 1993, “some 6,000 people were killed and some 250,000 displaced in clashes that pitted the Nande and Hunde (considered to be indigenous to the region) against the Banyarwanda,” a term used to describe Rwandan and Burundian immigrants in Zaire, many of whom had been in North Kivu for several generations.[iv] Autesserre (2010) cites the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo as reporting “at least one thousands deaths on both sides and the displacement of more than 130,000 people.”[v] This initially spike in violence was primarily rooted in micro-rivalries over land, resources and local power, exacerbated by Mobutu’s promotion of the principle of “indigeneity.”[vi]
Atrocities spiked following the outbreak of armed conflict. The conflict pitted the AFDL (backed by Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Angola and other neighboring states) and the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) against a coalition of former Rwandan Armed Forces (ex-FAR), Rwandan Interahamwe militia, then President Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zairian Armed Forces (FAZ) and mercenaries.[vii] The majority of deaths during this period resulted from the strategies of the AFDL and RPA, who deliberately targeted Hutu refugees from the eastern refugee camps. Not only did they target civilians while dismantling the camps, but chased refugees as they fled, killing them at multiple locations across the country. The AFDL also intentionally blocked humanitarian assistance to civilian refugees.[viii] At the same time, Zairian armed forces targeted and deported Tutsi civilians.[ix]
In the later stages of the conflict, deserting soldiers of the former Zairian army also looted supplies, destroyed villages and raped civilians in their flight. The ex-FAR and its militia further targeted civilians to prevent other refugees from repatriating to Rwanda and used unarmed refugees as human shields.[x]
The size and difficult terrain of the DRC, coupled with the highly complex nature of the conflict, have confounded efforts to capture and summarize its catastrophic impact on civilians. The Mapping Team of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights and published in 2010 provides a strong, illustrative (not comprehensive) cross-country examination of the worst incidents of killing, but was limited by resources, time and a standard of proof that required multiple sources before including information.[xi] The report documents 39,248 violent deaths and forced disappearances without release or return between 1993 and 2003—and this is surely an undercount. The vast majority of these documented violent deaths were civilian deaths, as well as a smaller number of out-of-commission soldiers killed while seeking treatment at hospitals or after having laid down their weapons. The confirmed deaths likely comprise only a small number of the actual people killed during the conflict. For example, the number of deaths for the most part does not include the thousands of child soldiers forcibly recruited during the conflict. The Mapping Team also did not include any reported killings that could not be corroborated by more than one source.
In many cases, the team was unable to confirm specific cases due to the remoteness of the atrocity sites, time restrictions, or a lack of surviving witnesses. As a consequence, the report states that the numbers of recorded violent deaths capture some of the many incidents of killing that took place in certain areas and during the time periods they prioritized. The report also cites larger numbers, while stating that the Mapping Team was unable to confirm the totals. For example, in Orientale province in 1997, a militia member reported seeing over 1,000 executions each week. The Mapping Team records only 1,835 violent deaths and disappearances without return for the whole year.[xii]
Notes on sources: PITF data from 1995 to 2012; UCDP data from 1989 to 2014; ACLED data from 1997 to 2014; WPF data from 1993 to 2003. This chart is illustrative of patterns of killing as recorded by several datasets, it is not a record of the total number of people killed which is likely considerably higher.
The original source of the WPF dataset is the UN Mapping Report, which does not provide annual totals, but rather groups fatalities in relation to phases of the conflict. We divided their totals evenly into annual spans, but this introduces some distortion. Their data is grouped into March 1993-June 1996 [1231 killed]; July 1996 – July 1998 [30,178 killed]; August 1998 – January 2001 [8239 killed]; and January 2001 – June 2003 [6861 killed]. Coding reflects acceptance of the higher figure where a range was included, but used zero as the number wherever the number of civilians killed was reported as unknown.
1993 – 1996
One estimate for the total number of people killed in ethnic violence in North Kivu between 1993 and June 1996 is between 70,000 and 100,000 individuals, but the number has proven impossible to verify.[xiii] Similarly, a local NGO cites a total of 50,000 killed during the entire campaign of persecution against Kasaian civilians carried out by JUFERI and Governor Kyungu wa Kumwanza in collusion with President Mobutu in 1994.[xiv] The United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants suggests 6,000 to 40,000 lives were lost in the densely populated Masisi zone of North Kivu province in eastern Zaire during 1993-96, but does not offer a specific source for these estimates.[xv] During this same time period, the UN Mapping Team documents only 560 violent deaths.
However, there seems to be some consensus that a spike in violence occurred in North Kivu in 1993. Human Rights Watch reports that 6,000 people were killed in clashes between indigenous and Banyarwanda groups in 1993.[xvi] Similarly, Medecins sans Frontieres estimated that between 6,000 and 15,000 people had died at the provincial level between March and May of 1993.[xvii] Autesserre (2010) cites the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo as reporting “at least one thousands deaths on both sides” for the same time period.[xviii] For the same period, the OHCHR Mapping Team recorded between 110 and 586 confirmed deaths.
1996 – 1998
The UN Mapping report recorded the greatest number of violent incidents for this period in the whole decade under examination (238 confirmed incidents).[xix] The UCDP One-Sided Violence Dataset records a high estimate of 1,746 fatalities and a “best estimate” of 1,253 fatalities in 1996; a high estimate of 5,083 and best estimate of 4,160 fatalities in 1997; and a high estimate of 1,666 and best estimate of 1,291 in 1998.[xx]
Other sources provide more imprecise estimates. For example, Amnesty International in a 1998 report stated that during a seven-month period in 1996-97, “tens of thousands of unarmed refugees and Congolese citizens were massacred by members of the AFDL and other combatants, particularly members of the Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA), the Rwandese government army.”[xxi] ACLED records 25,573 deaths in 1997 and 1,696 in 1998, with a total of 27,269.
The conflict ended when Rwanda and the AFDL overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko’s government. Subsequent violent began in 1998, and is treated as a separate case.
This case ended as planned, when the primary perpetrators, the Rwanda Army and ADFL won the war.
Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, accessible at: http://www.acleddata.com/.
Amnesty International. 1996. “Zaire: Violent Persecution by State and Armed Groups,” 1 January. Available at: http://web.amnesty.org/library/pdf/AFR620261996ENGLISH/$File/AFR6202696.pdf
Amnesty International. 1998. Democratic Republic of Congo: A Long-standing Crisis Spinning Out of Control, 3 September. AFR 62/033/1998. Available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/45b9a2a72.html.
Autesserre, Severine. 2006. Local Violence National Peace? Postwar ‘settlement’ in the Eastern D.R. Congo (2003 – 2006).” African Studies Review 49 (3): 1 – 29.
Autesserre, Severine. 2010. The Trouble With the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding New York: Cambridge University Press.
Human Rights Watch. 1996a. “Forced to Flee: Violence against Tutsis in Zaire,” 1 July. A802, Available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8200.html.
Human Rights Watch. 1996b. Human Rights Watch World Report 1996 – Zaire, 1 January, Available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8ac14.html.
Human Rights Watch. 1997. “What Kabila is Hiding: Civilian Killings and Impunity in Congo,” Human Rights Watch Report 9, no. 5 October.
Human Rights Watch 1998. Human Rights Watch World Report 1998 – The Democratic Republic of the Congo (Formerly Zaire), 1 January. Available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8a328.html.
Human Rights Watch. 2003. “Covered in Blood: Ethnically Targeted Violence in Northern DRC,” New York: Human Rights Watch. July.
Médecins Sans Frontières. 1995. Populations in danger 1995. London: Médecins Sans Frontières.
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). 2010. Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1993 – 2003: Report of the Mapping Exercise documenting the most serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed within the territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo between March 1993 and June 2003, August.
United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. 1997. U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1997 – Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), 1 January. Available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8a70.html.
UCDP. 2015. One-sided Violence Dataset v 1.4-2015, 1989-2014, accessible at: http://www.pcr.uu.se/research/ucdp/datasets/ucdp_one-sided_violence_dataset/.
[i] Human Rights Watch 1996.
[ii] Autesserre 2010, 47-48.
[iii] Autesserre 2010, 48.
[iv] Human Rights Watch 1996.
[v] Autesserre, 141.
[vi] Autesserre, 133.
[vii] Human Rights Watch 1997.
[viii] Human Rights Watch 1997.
[ix] Amnesty International 1996.
[x] Human Rights Watch 1998.
[xi] Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 2010.
[xii] Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 2010, 110.
[xiii] Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 2010, 64.
[xiv] Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 2010, 55-56.
[xv] United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants 1997.
[xvi] Human Rights Watch 1996.
[xvii] Médecins Sans Frontières 1995.
[xviii] Autesserre 141.
[xix] Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 2010, 8.
[xx] UCDP One-sided Violence Dataset v 1.4-2015.
[xxi] Amnesty International 1998.