Who gave the order? When and why did the army shoot civilians? After two weeks of a turbulent trial, questions remain over the deaths of more than fifty people on August 30 in Goma, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The witnesses called to the bar of the military court of North Kivu, which has been trying six soldiers including two officers since September 5, have so far undermined the official version on the circumstances of this massacre, which has caused a resurgence of tension in Goma, in the heart of a region plagued by armed violence and rebellions.
After an on-site visit by several ministers, the government quickly announced arrests of soldiers and promised that justice would be done. But the Minister of the Interior in particular, Peter Kazadi, indicated that the Republican Guard had intervened in retaliation for the lynching of a police officer by followers of a sect who had called for demonstrations that day against the presence of the forces of the UN and East Africa.
However, these witnesses, including two colonels, affirm that the operation was launched in the middle of the night, before the death of the police officer. They said an assault was carried out around 3 a.m. (1 a.m. GMT) against the sect's radio premises, where at least five people were executed by "hooded soldiers." Most of the deaths were then recorded in the sect's church.
“Additionals” of the M23 rebels?
When the troops were heading towards the church, “the policeman was not yet dead,” assured the first witness, a colonel from the military intelligence service. A few days after his hearing, the court learned that he had been hospitalized for “poisoning”. The witnesses for the civil parties presented themselves with their faces masked by a type of hood made of green and yellow fabric, in order to protect their identities. Most are followers of the sect or residents of the neighborhood where the shooting took place.
Everyone agrees on one point: before the killing, negotiations between the army and the faithful were progressing well, without particular hostility, and four emissaries had been identified to submit a memo to the UN mission. But in the middle of the negotiations, the military opened fire on the unarmed followers.
The question remains whether Republican Guard Colonel Mike Mikombe, one of the accused, gave the order to shoot and whether he did so in response to orders or acted on his own.
At trial, he suggested that he had been misled by an "operational order" from the 34th military region (North Kivu) presenting the sect's followers as "supplements" of the M23 and Rwandan army – who occupy entire sections of the province – responsible for “facilitating the infiltration of the enemy” by “sowing unrest in the city”.
Access to the morgue prohibited for two weeks
During the military operation of August 30, more than 140 civilians, including around thirty minors, were arrested “for participation in an insurrectional movement, criminal association and murder.” According to a mother still trying to see her 17-year-old son detained in Goma prison, soldiers took the teenager "by force", accusing him of being a rebel, while he and his family were at home them. She “begs the authorities to release him”, so that he can “return to school”.
The tension was also aggravated by the treatment reserved for the victims of the massacre. For almost two weeks, their relatives were not allowed access to the morgue of the military hospital, where the bodies had been transported pell-mell in army trucks.
On September 12, the families were finally able to enter the morgue courtyard to identify them. Around fifty corpses were placed on the ground in body bags, “in a state of very advanced putrefaction”, “unrecognizable”, according to the brother of one victim. Their funeral took place Monday in a cemetery on the outskirts of Goma, after dark and in pouring rain. The trial is expected to resume on Wednesday, after a two-day recess.