In Nganza, a sleepy neighborhood in Kananga, the largest city in Congo’s central Kasai region, graves are everywhere. There are large pits by the dusty field where children play and countless smaller mounds scattered across front yards and side streets. Bushila Luboya, a 50-year-old carpenter, knows his son is buried in one of them, but he is unsure which one.
Luboya does know this, however: the Congolese soldiers who came marching into town last March, claiming they were there to hunt members of the Kamwina Nsapu militia, were responsible for his son’s death. According to multiple witnesses who survived the attack, the soldiers went door to door, indiscriminately killing civilians and looting homes. Ntanga, Luboya’s boy, was one of their victims. And his body was disposed of in a mass grave.
“I cannot explain how sad I am,” Luboya said, searching for his words.
Until recently, Kasai was a relatively peaceful part of Congo, a country worn down by decades of war. That changed in August last year, when government security forces killed a traditional chief called Jean-Prince Mpandi. Mpandi had called for an uprising against the state a few months earlier after then-Interior Minister Evariste Boshab refused to name him Kamwina Nsapu, the title given to the head of Kasai Central’s Bajila Kasanga clan. Boshab had instead chosen Mpandi’s elder brother, Tshiambi Ntenda, a local member of President Joseph Kabila’s ruling party.
Boshab’s decision was part of a government policy to appoint local chiefs favorable to Kabila. The idea was to build grassroots support ahead of the presidential elections, which were supposed to take place in 2016 but which Kabila has repeatedly delayed. In Kasai, an opposition stronghold, the rebuke of Mpandi had the opposite effect, galvanizing residents to fight a government that they argue has no right to interfere in local, customary affairs.
Mpandi’s death roused his followers into open rebellion. Under the name “Kamwina Nsapu,” they murdered police officers and attacked
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