Child soldiers as young as 7, ritualistic killings in Congo: UN report

A militia group blamed for atrocities in Congo is largely composed of children, while a militia formed to defeat it is suspected of a campaign of ethnically-based massacres and rapes, UN investigators said on Friday.

WARNING: This story contains graphic details some readers may find disturbing

Vendors and passersby walk along a street in the 3Z neighbourhood on July 28, where confrontations between Kamuina Nsapu militia and security forces are known to have taken place, in Tshikapa. (Junior D. Kannah/AFP/Getty Images)

A militia group blamed for atrocities in Congo is largely composed of children, while a militia formed to defeat it is suspected of a campaign of ethnically-based massacres and rapes, UN investigators said on Friday.

Their report, detailing violence that the UN said may amount to crimes against humanity, shines a light onto the role of children in a disturbing conflict that has killed thousands. It was based on testimonies from people who had fled from the violence in Democratic Republic of Congo to Angola.

"Their accounts should serve as a grave warning to the government of the DRC to act now to prevent such violence from tipping into wider ethnic cleansing." U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said in a statement.

The report documented 251 killings over a three-month period in an area that covers only a fraction of the 152,800 sq km diamond-rich Kasai region.

One militia group, the Kamuina Nsapu, has been fighting Congo's government for a year, and has summarily executed at least 79 people, the UN report said.

"A great majority of the Kamuina Nsapu elements are children [girls and boys], some as young as seven," it said. The refugees were convinced that the Kamuina Nsapu had magical powers, and militia members believed their magic — including young girls drinking the blood of decapitated victims — would make them invincible, the report said.

'Sacred fire' killings

"This generalized belief about the powers of Kamuina Nsapu and the fear it triggers among segments of the population in the Kasais may partly explain why a poorly-armed militia, composed to a large extent of children, has been able to resist offensives by a trained national army for over a year."

There were no corroborated cases of Kamuina Nsapu committing large-scale killings based on ethnic identity, the report said. Typically its members would execute a government official and decapitate them, removing the head to put it in "sacred fire."

Undated photo provided by the OHCHR in Geneva, shows a wounded child in June 2017. UN human rights investigators have issued a new report documenting killings and violence in central Congo over three recent months that could devolve into a wider ethnic cleansing. (OHCHR via Associated Press)

A second militia group, the Bana Mura, was formed in March or April, allegedly armed and supported by local leaders and officials from the army and the police, to attack the Luba and Lulua ethnic groups, to which Kamuina Nsapu fighters belong.

"While the Kamuina Nsapu are reported to have conducted targeted killings — mostly of State agents and individuals suspected of practicing sorcery — since April 2017, the Bana Mura allegedly undertook a campaign aimed at eliminating the entire Luba and Lulua populations in the villages they attacked," the report said.

The Bana Mura were often accompanied by Congolese soldiers, who were responsible for atrocities including firing rockets into a church in the village of Djiboko on 10 June, killing 60-90 people attending a religious service, the UN report said, citing three separate witnesses.

In one attack on a village, the Bana Mura shot, chopped up and disembowelled people. Many were beheaded or burned alive, including the patients in a health centre, the report said.

A woman still bleeding from childbirth was raped with the barrel of a rifle.

After a Bana Mura attack on another village, one witness claimed to have buried 45 decapitated bodies, the report said.

"Some elements of the Bana Mura militia were reportedly chosen and used by State agents for their alleged magical powers in order to neutralise the sorcery used by the Kamuina Nsapu," the UN report said.

The UN has identified 80 mass graves in the Kasais region.

Responding to the report, a spokesman for the Congo government said it would investigate and punish crimes.