Three months of massacres that have left 62 children dead could escalate into wider ethnic cleansing in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN has warned.
A total of 250 people have died in targeted killings with government forces and militias made up of children among those being blamed as complicit by international investigators.
The accounts of almost 100 survivors who managed to escape from the Kasai province into neighbouring Angola form the basis of a report published by the UN Human Rights Office.
Interviews with 96 refugees, many bearing horrific injuries and scars, show how local security forces “actively fomented, fuelled, and occasionally led, attacks on the basis of ethnicity”, according to the report.
Survivors include a seven-year-old boy whose fingers were chopped off, a woman raped just after giving birth and a woman who hid from her attackers in a forest following a vicious assault in which she lost an arm.
A team of human rights investigators said they were able to confirm from the accounts that a new militia group, called the Bana Mura, had been formed in April this year with the apparent backing of the government.
This group was responsible for 150 of the 251 murders carried out between 12 March and 19 June this year and documented in the report.
“Survivors have spoken of hearing the screams of people being burned alive, of seeing loved ones chased and cut down, of themselves fleeing in terror,” said UN high commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein.
“Such bloodletting is all the more horrifying because we found indications that people are increasingly being targeted because of their ethnic group. Their accounts should serve as a grave warning to the government of DRC to act now to prevent such violence tipping into wider ethnic cleansing.”
According to the witnesses, Bana Mura militia carried out well-planned attacks aimed at “eliminating the entire Luba and Lula populations in the villages they attacked” with officials from the national army sometimes seen leading the groups, the report found.
In the village of Cinq, 90 patients and staff who had taken refuge in a health centre were either shot or burnt alive inside the surgery. Others were beheaded.
Among the survivors was a mother who was raped four hours after giving birth and her newborn baby who was injured by flying bullets.
The woman said: “I did not end up like the others because I lay on the ground pretending to be dead … and I hid my baby under my body.”
Another woman who escaped from the village of Mwakapenga, attacked by the Bana Mura in mid-May, lost her whole family. “Two attackers entered my house, shot dead my husband, my 13-year-old daughter and my 17-year-old son. My youngest daughter was hacked by machete … she was only three-years-old.”
Violent unrest has been escalating in the region since August 2016 when security forces killed a local chief called Kamwina Nsapu, spawning the militia group of the same name. Thousands have been killed in the ongoing feud and the UN identified 80 mass graves in the region in the last year.
The Kamwina Nsapu was reported to have been accompanied by children as young as seven while carrying out the atrocities. Witnesses said groups of girls called “Lamama” went with the groups and were ordered to drink the blood of victims, an act believed to be part of a magic ritual that would render the group invincible.
All the refugees interviewed by the rights investigators said they were convinced by the magic powers of the group. The report said: “This generalised belief, and resulting fear, by segments of the population may partly explain why a poorly armed militia, composed to a large extent of children, has been able to resist offensives by a national army for over a year”.
But since April the violence has taken on a more pronounced ethnic dimension. The refugees described how the Kamwina Nsapu militia attacked military, police and public officials and the report claimed the group were responsible for 79 deaths.
As part of the findings 22 murders were attributed to soldiers from the national army.
The UN has urged the government in the DRC to ensure “those who organised, recruited and armed the Bana Mura or other militias are identified and prosecuted”.