NAIROBI, Kenya — Mbandaka is a town on the southern bank of the Congo River. Inaccessible, hidden, lost deep inside the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is far from its neighbor Rwanda.
Yet according to a draft United Nations report seen by GlobalPost it was there, more than 1,200 miles from their home, that Rwandan soldiers and their allies killed hundreds of refugees on May 13, 1997.
According to the leaked report compiled by a team of researchers from the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rwandan troops “opened fire on refugees at the port for five to ten minutes, killing an unknown number."
“The commanding officer then ordered the soldiers to stop firing and told the refugees to leave their hideouts," the report continues. "Some jumped into the Zaire [now Congo] River, hoping to escape. [The] soldiers then took up position along the river and opened fire. Around two o’clock in the afternoon, the soldiers began to sort the refugees, then clubbed them to death.”
Accusations of atrocities have been leveled at Rwandan rebel-turned-president Paul Kagame’s forces before but never in such detail and never by an organization carrying the authority of the U.N.
The researchers spent seven months examining a decade of violence between 1993 and 2003 across the entire country. To conduct the "mapping exercise" they consulted more than 1,500 documents and interviewed over 1,280 witnesses insisting on double sourcing of all allegations.
Of the 617 incidents included in the 500-page draft, 104 are attributed to Kagame’s troops and their allies.
Kagame’s forces invaded Congo in 1996 to hunt down the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide two years earlier in which around 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by Hutu extremists.
The invasion triggered a violent years-long maelstrom that drew in six more countries and led to the deaths of millions, mostly because of resulting sickness and disease. Observers have dubbed the conflict “Africa’s World War.”
While every side involved in the fighting is accused of killing civilians, it is the Rwandans who come off worst.
The U.N. report says that Rwanda and its allies made “no effort” to distinguish between civilians and combatants, between innocent and guilty, in the “relentless” pursuit of Hutus across Congo’s vast territory.
“Probably several tens of thousands” were killed, the report says.
In numerous examples, Hutus were rounded up under some pretext or another — perhaps to be registered for a return to Rwanda, or to be given food — only to be shot, hacked or clubbed to death and flung into mass graves, hundreds at a time.
“The numerous deaths cannot be attributed to the hazards of war or seen as equating to collateral damage,” the report says. “The majority of the victims were children, women, elderly people and the sick, who were often undernourished and posed no threat to the attacking forces.”
Most controversially the report states that if proven in a court of law some of the incidents “could be classified as crimes of genocide.”
The Rwandan government is outraged over the report, especially because Kagame’s moral authority rests on his reputation as the man who stopped the Rwandan genocide. The report is “immoral and unacceptable” according to Kagame's spokesman, Ben Rutsinga.
In a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon written before the leak, Rwanda’s foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo threatened to withdraw its peacekeeping soldiers from the joint U.N. and African Union mission in Darfur if the report was published in its current form.
“It is patently absurd for the U.N., which deliberately turned its back on the Rwandan people during the 1994 genocide, to accuse the army that stopped the genocide of committing atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” she wrote in the letter obtained by GlobalPost.
Following Rwanda’s outcry, publication of the report had been delayed until next month.
“We have decided to give concerned states a further month to comment on the draft and I have offered to publish any such comments alongside the report itself on 1 October,” said Navi Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, based in Geneva, Switzerland.
Sources say the “genocide” allegations are expected to remain in the final report and although the Rwandan government will have its right to reply the damage might already have been done.
Recent presidential elections in Rwanda were widely criticised for the stifling of dissent, banning of newspapers and political parties and the mysterious murders that preceded the poll.
Kagame went on to win a landslide victory but his reputation took a knock. The leaked U.N. report is a still deeper scratch in Kagame’s carefully burnished image.