The Human Rights Watch has said that criminal gangs have kidnapped for ransom at least 170 people near the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo between April 2017 and March 2020.
In a report the rights group said “small groups armed with guns and machetes have beaten, tortured, and murdered hostages, raping women and girls, who make up more than half of them, while using threats to extort money from their families.”
The group is asking Congolese law enforcement to “take steps to dismantle the criminal gangs and arrest those responsible for the kidnappings and sexual violence in the Bukoma area of Rutshuru territory in North Kivu province.”
“The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUSCO, which has a field base within a 10-kilometer radius of the agricultural fields and areas where most kidnappings have occurred, should protect civilians by actively patrolling in high-risk areas, consistent with its mandate,” the report added.
“Criminal gangs have demanded crippling ransoms from families and brutally raped scores of women and girls in Virunga National Park over the past three years,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Fessy added that “The Congolese government needs to end these gangs’ reign of terror while providing survivors – who face trauma and stigma – post-rape care and all the help they need.”
The Rwandan RUD-Urunana rebel group – a splinter faction of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – controls much of the area around Bukoma.
This armed group has been involved in abductions in recent years, and although the involvement of current or former fighters cannot be ruled out, Human Rights Watch said it has not established their involvement in these recent cases or whether they respond to a chain of command.
The rights group said “From December 2019 through June 2020, Human Rights Watch interviewed 37 people about the kidnappings, including 28 female survivors of sexual violence, 5 of whom were children at the time of the abuse.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed local activists, government and park officials, and UN staff members.”
According to Survivors “they were abducted, sometimes with their infants, while working in the fields or on the way home, near the town of Kiwanja.”
The rights group said “their abductors would force them to walk, hands tied, for several hours into nearby Virunga National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Survivors said that the kidnappers would often tie men’s hands and feet and beat them.
Women and girls said the captors methodically raped the female hostages, except prepubescent girls and older women. Many were also badly beaten.”
“The kidnappers told us that no woman would come out of there untouched,” said a 28-year-old survivor.