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 symbols of state authority. The army responded with a brutal crackdown involving thousands of troops. During this year of violence, 1.4 million people have been displaced and thousands killed.
Many of the dead have been buried in at least 87 mass graves scattered across the five provinces of greater Kasai. Who are in them remains disputed. The Congolese government claims that the graves contain the bodies of Kamwina Nsapu fighters and their victims. But the UN, which the central government in Kinshasa has repeatedly blocked from investigating the violence, believes that many of the dead are civilians and that Congolese soldiers killed them.
MASS GRAVES AND VOODOO MAGIC
On a recent afternoon in Nganza, where elements of Kamwina Nsapu are still based, residents spoke of the atrocities they had experienced at the hands of Congolese soldiers, whom they say killed civilians with rocket launchers, grenades, and automatic weapons.
Miran Mulumba, 30, said that soldiers kicked down her front door and executed her brother, 32-year-old pastor Arelie Lusamba as he prayed in his bedroom on March 19. “They didn’t ask him any questions,” she said. “They just killed him.”
Bijou Kanku, 33, lost three family members—Nicholas Kapinga, Mputu Kayembe, and Kablos Muamba—when a grenade was tossed outside her house during the same attack. “There were bodies everywhere,” she said of the carnage. “It was impossible to count how many.”
Emery Mutshipayi, 28, said that his partially paralyzed grandfather, Leonard Pongo, was unable to run when the rest of the family fled. “When I returned to Nganza [to find him], I opened the door and he was gone,” Mutshipayi said. “All I could see was a trail of blood from the bedroom to the front door.”
With no central command and control structure, Kamwina Nsapu is more of a movement than a single militia. From a small group representing Mpandi’s Bajila Kasanga clan, it rapidly expanded across the five provinces of Kasai, where its grievances resonated with young people and village chiefs. Carrying crude weapons and donning red head bands, which members believe give them magical powers, Kamwina Nsapu groups have committed gruesome abuses. Last March, fighters ambushed a police convoy travelling to Kananga and beheaded 40 officers.
“Murderers entered the movement and were killing for no reason, doing things that Mpandi did not tell them to do,” said Balex Kabamba Balanganayi, a former leader of Kamwina Nsapu in Kananga. “It did not help us achieve change.”
Kamwina Nsapu groups have also done untold damage to their own communities, closing and torching hundreds of schools and forcibly enlisting thousands of child soldiers. Its members are put through blood-curdling initiation ceremonies; many hold seemingly unshakeable convictions in their magical powers, which include invisibility, flying, and redirecting bullets.
Standing outside the home of a Kamwina Nsapu leader in Nganza, 14-year-old Marie Mpongo (her name was changed to protect her from reprisal) could barely muster a whisper. She is a niece of Mpandi, but that didn’t stop her from being used as cannon fodder. In battle, she said, Kamwina Nsapu chiefs told her to stand right at the front, facing down Congolese soldiers with nothing but a red dress and a broom, which members believe can absorb and neutralize bullets.
“I was not afraid,” she said, “because the spirits protect me.”
THE CONFLICT TURNS ETHNIC
The crisis in Kasai has sparked major ethnic conflict that could take years to resolve. At a registration center in Kananga, people who were displaced by the violence continue to arrive almost every day, dazed and hollow-eyed, waiting in long lines to register for aid. Most are from the Luba and Luala ethnic groups, from which Kamwina Nsapu draws its members and support. They have fled retaliatory attacks by a new, rival ethnic militia called Bana Mura, which is composed of fighters from the Tchokwe ethnic group and backed by local Congolese security forces.
Pasua Nzambi, 30, said that Bana Mura fighters chased his family as they tried to flee their village in Kasai Occidental in June. He managed to escape, but a bullet struck his wife, Anny Mbuyi, killing her and their six-month-old child, whom she was carrying. “In our lives, we have never seen anything like this,” Nzambi said.
In the nearby village of Cinq, Richard Mudeba tied a flimsy rope to trees on either side of the Kasai River to help people escape the militia. Some were too weak to cross, he said, and drowned. Others, including his brother, were killed by the Bana Mura.
“In total, 50 people tried to cross,” Mudeba said. “Only 12 succeeded.”
At a checkpoint en route to Kananga, Mudeba said, Kamwina Nsapu militants accused the group of travelers of being government spies. Some were murdered on the spot. By the time Mudeba finally reached Kananga in August, the 12 had become just four. “Here it is a place of mourning,” he said. “Everybody has lost someone.”
Although the violence has abated in recent months, internally displaced persons returning home now face a second crisis: hunger. Because of the violence, there have been few farmers to tend to the fields. In some areas, three crop cycles have been missed, leaving 3.2 million people with scarce access to food. Without aid, hundreds of thousands of malnourished children could die in the coming months, David Beasley, the head of the UN World Food Program, has said.
The conflict comes amid a political crisis that is enveloping the central government in Kinshasa. Kabila, who has been president of Congo for 16 years, refused to step down and hold elections after he reached his constitutionally mandated two-term limit last year. An agreement between the government and the opposition, reached last December, stated that Kabila would leave office and hold elections by the end of 2017. But Congo’s electoral commission now says that a vote will not be held until December 2018, and Kabila shows no signs of planning to leave even then.
As Kabila digs in his heels, the army is battling new uprisings in Congo’s conflict-torn east, where coalitions of local Mai-Mai groups have threatened to remove the president by force. Meanwhile, on the streets of Kinshasa and other urban centers, discontent is mounting as soaring inflation eats away at the purchasing power of an already impoverished population.
Hoping to halt the conflict in Kasai, Kabila flew to Kananga in September for a peace conference. “There can be no peace or true reconciliation without justice,” he said. The government reached a tentative agreement with the Kamwina Nsapu chiefs in attendance, but many of them expressed dissatisfaction in private. “The conference was not a solution to our problems,” said one. “They can only be solved by development in the region.”
In Nganza, where the decomposing bodies may never be exhumed and identified, Kabila’s words rang hollow for some. “It was a conference for the politicians,” said Mulumba, whose brother was killed and whose house was looted by government soldiers. “The victims were not invited. We are still waiting for justice.”