DRC: in Kishishe, after the departure of the M23, residents recount the massacre

“They told them to sit on the edge of the hole and they started shooting them

DRC: in Kishishe, after the departure of the M23, residents recount the massacre

“They told them to sit on the edge of the hole and they started shooting them. Of the Kishishe Adventist Church massacre, Michel* has seen it all. Terrorized, locked in the outhouse, he prayed that the rebels of the March 23 Movement (M23) would not discover him. It was November 29, 2022. In this village of a few thousand souls lost in the middle of the hills of North Kivu, more than 170 civilians were killed by the M23, according to the UN.

That morning, the rebels descended on Kishishe, a town in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which they had seized a week earlier after fighting against the Congolese army and local militias. Bullets crackle. Mai-Mai militiamen attack the column of rebels and run to hide in the houses. The slaughter is about to begin.

For a year, the M23, a predominantly Tutsi armed group, has been advancing in Congolese territory, taking control of main roads, seizing towns and border posts. The capture of Kishishe is also part of a fight by the M23 against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a mainly Hutu armed group founded by former leaders of the genocide in Rwanda exiled in the DRC. The latter have for years installed one of their bastions in the immediate vicinity of the village.

The M23 has withdrawn in recent weeks from several of its positions. Three days after leaving Kishishe, an AFP team was able to visit the martyred village on April 5 and interview witnesses there.

Manhunt

On November 29, the rebels embarked on a manhunt. They search houses and shoot any male individuals they find. Neither Congolese security forces nor United Nations blue helmets intervened.

"They started killing all over the place," says Michel, hands clasped, at the edge of one of the mass graves dug in a banana plantation, a stone's throw from the church where dozens of people had taken refuge: They said that all the men who were here must disappear from the Earth. The 40-year-old farmer remembers the killing of his neighbors. "Even the pastor and his son...they killed them," said Michel, who considered Father Jemusi his friend.

"Up there are other bodies!" exclaims a resident. At the top of a hill, a fortified position of the M23. Between the trenches dug by the rebels and their observation posts, casings are strewn on the ground. A hundred meters further, two pits seem freshly dug in the middle of the cassava plants. "There are four people buried here," says a farmer.

A little further, by the side of the road, a first body in decomposition, then a second, then two others. "These two are Mai-Mai, they had charms," ​​says a resident, covering his nose. These deaths do not date from November. They seem to have been killed a few weeks ago. The smell of putrefied flesh is unbearable, the man vomits. A small group of women and children pass by, without looking. They return after a day in the fields.

Fabrice* claims to have witnessed, "with certainty", the death of 33 people, whom with other survivors he was forced by the M23 to bury. Some bodies were those of their relatives. He also speaks of a house where “they piled up tree trunks on the people they had killed: they poured gasoline and set fire to it”.

Gaping wounds

The UN mentioned at least 171 deaths. A village notable listed 120 dead from November 22 to 29, whose names he recorded on a three-page handwritten list, which he extracted from a hiding place. "The Mai-Mai wore civilian clothes over military uniforms, that's why they [M23 members] started entering every house," the man continued. If they found a boy over 14 or a man, they killed him, even if he had no weapon. This is how people were killed in Kishishe! »

Another list circulated in the village, which included only 18 names of victims. A witness says that it was written in the presence of the M23 during the visit, at the beginning of December, of three people from Rwanda and presenting themselves as journalists. The findings of their "investigation" were later aired in media close to the Rwandan regime. Experts from the United Nations, the European Union and the United States denounced Kigali's support for the rebellion: supply of arms and ammunition, presence of Rwandan troops on Congolese soil.

Around one of the schools used as bases by the M23, a dozen children play among the debris of their burnt classrooms and the packaging of mortar shells. Classes ceased on November 22, the date of the capture of the village. Since the departure of the rebels, life has reinvested the streets of Kishishe, but the wounds are gaping.

Neither the Congolese army, nor the East African regional force being deployed in the region, nor the blue helmets came to ensure the safety of the battered inhabitants and to fill the void left by the departure of the M23, now stationed in about twenty kilometers southeast of the village. Left to their own devices, the inhabitants of Kishishe try to resume the course of their lives and to deceive the fear of a possible return of the rebels.