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Four years ago today: The Luvungi rapes began

Four years ago today, elements of Mai Mai Sheka, FDLR and army deserters started to go on a rampage along the Kibua to Mpofi road in Walikale territory (map). Over the span of just four days, they reportedly raped 387 civilians – 300 women, 23 men, 55 girls and 9 boys. According to a perpetrator handed over to the Congolese army and interviewed by the United Nations Group of Experts, Sheka himself ordered the rapes in order to garner public attention.

“I felt personally guilty and guilty toward the people I met there,” said Atul Khare, the UN Assistant Secretary General for Peacekeeping, who visited Luvungi. “They told me, ‘We’ve been raped, we’ve been brutalized, give us peace and security.’ Unfortunately, I said, that is something I cannot promise.”

Arrest attempts

Despite an arrest warrant issued on 6 January 2011,* Sheka himself enjoys near total impunity. In July 2011, Sheka had visited Goma for medical treatment and escaped an attempt arrest by the Congolese authorities and MONUSCO. Human Rights Watch reported that he was “allegedly tipped off by Congolese army personnel who had a close working relationship with him.” Later in the fall of 2011, Sheka was so bold as to run for National Deputy as well as the re-election of President Kabila. In a video interview with Al Jazeera, Sheka said “If I am guilty of all of these [rape] crimes, why then are all these people here to support me? […]. Just you try it [arrest me] and these crowds will beat you,” he said. Sheka did not win the elections, however.

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Two and a half years later, in April 2014, Sheka mocked the authorities once again, when the North Kivu Governor together with his police chief and the head of MONUSCO in North Kivu met Sheka at his former headquarters in Bunyampuli. Below is a two-minute video of the visit.

In an informal interview, a UN staff said that “[t]he team flew to Walikale to sensitize the community not to talk to Sheka. They never meant to meet him. They knew he was around but they never expected him to come. But then Sheka stormed into the village, calling on them to bring development to Walikale. He even fell down on his knees.”

Cheka & Paluku

Despite the presence of arguably the three most important figure heads in North Kivu and accompanying security forces, Sheka walked away once again. Admittedly, any arrest attempt would have been too risky. Sheka was accompanied by armed men and the village was full of civilians. Nonetheless, the incident was mind-boggling: How can it be possible that authorities have not been able to arrest a rebel leader known for abhorrent human rights violations and designated by the United Nations for targeted sanctions?

In speaking to several high-ranking officials of the peacekeeping mission, it is evident that they are very keen on bringing Sheka to justice. In an interview in May 2014,  Force Commander General Dos Santos Cruz said that “Sheka is a criminal. We must get him.” Earlier in October 2013, Martin Kobler, the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General in the DRC, shared such sentiment: “These atrocities [by Sheka] are unimaginable and are contradicting the values of humanity. This must have consequences. There cannot be impunity for such atrocious acts.”

But MONUSCO is constrained by political realities. During an informal meeting a senior MONUSCO official admitted that “legally speaking, we can arrest Sheka unilaterally but politically speaking, this is impossible. We need the OK from the Congolese government.”

What is Kinshasa waiting for?

For three times now, the Congolese government has tried halfheartedly to arrest him but to no avail. On the political front, the Government of Congo has tried to negotiate with Sheka repeatedly; attempts that have been fruitless at best. As early as 2011, Sheka negotiated with the Government of Congo about a possible integration into the army. (See his list of demands here). Two years later, on 6 November Sheka sent another list of demands to the Government, incl. amnesty and integration into the army or police for all his elements with the recognition of all (self-proclaimed) ranks. Sheka’s claims are ludicrous and should rightly be rejected.

Militarily, FARDC with the support of MONUSCO launched operations against Sheka on 2 July on the axes Walikale-Kibua (Ihanda), Kashebere-Kibua (Luberiki) and Kashebere-Walikale. By 10 July, 20,000 residents had fled the fighting. On the same day, MONUSCO reported that the army had secured the locality of Kibua (47 km east off Murongo) and Sheka’s headquarters at Bunyampuli. On 28 July, MONUSCO’s military spokesperson confirmed that “[t]he Congolese forces are controlling all the [areas] of Hihama and Utunda plus the mining area of Angoa, which was some kind of stronghold for Mai Mai Cheka elements.”

Conclusion

While Sheka has been dislodged from some of his areas, he remains at large. Above all, arresting Sheka does not require so much a military action but a political process. Sheka remains at liberty because among other factors he is protected by very powerful elites in politics, the military and business who have and continue to benefit from his racketeering. At the same time, protecting Sheka ensures their own protection from prosecution.

Arresting Sheka should not be too complicated an endeavor provided Congolese authorities finally sever these ties and are willing to bring him to justice, honoring the 387 survivors that fell victim to gross human rights violations starting today four years ago.

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Background: Who is Sheka?

Mai Mai Cheka – also called Nduma Defence of Congo, or NDC – is led by 38-year old “Gen.” Ntabo Ntambui Cheka, an ethnic Nyanga from Walikale territory. In late 2010, the United Nations Group of Experts concluded that NDC had been “generated by criminal networks within FARDC that compete for control over mineral-rich areas.” The experts argue that the 85th brigade of the Congolese army led by Colonel Sammy Matumo used Sheka to prevent its rival the 212th brigade to take control of the Bisie cassiterite mine in Walikale. At that time, the 212th brigade was made up of former CNDP rebels who were awarded control over Bisie to reciprocate them for their earlier integration into the army.

Prior to becoming a rebel leader, Sheka worked for the miners cooperative COMIMPA (Coopérative minière de Mpama Bisie), and then with the mining company Mineral Processing Congo, which holds the exploration rights to the Bisie mine. He has had no prior military experience.

Objectives

Sheka’s official objectives have changed over time. Initially, he meant to prevent Congolese refugees in Rwanda from returning to Walikale. Later, he claimed to free mines in Walikale from the interference of the army. Then in 2013, a former NDC soldier and NDC cadres told the Group of Experts that Ntaberi’s main objective is to fight against the FDLR, which used to be Sheka’s closest ally (see more below).

In a seeming contradiction, Sheka has extensively exploited natural resources in Walikale territory, especially gold and tin, and attacked key mining sites at Bisie, Mubi, Njingala, Kilambo and Omate. As a case in point, in late 2011, the Group of Experts reported that “NDC controls more than 30 remote gold mines throughout Ihana and Utunda groupements north of the Goma-Walikale axis, where diggers work and produce gold directly for the groups. NDC also imposes an additional production tax of either 10 per cent of output or a fixed amount of gold per an allotted period of time.” Next to gold and tin, Sheka also controlled a number of diamond-mining locations in 2011. In mid-2013, the Group of Experts reported that Sheka is benefiting from taxes on almost one hundred mining sites in Walikale.”

Friends

Sheka has enjoyed good relationships to elements of the Congolese army. As the Group of Experts reported in 2010, Sheka has been supported amongst others by the former Deputy Commander of the 8th military region Colonel Etienne Bindu. In 2011, the Group concluded that Bindu played “an instrumental role in the creation of NDC” and remained a “critical supporter.” In addition, the Group heard of indirect support given to Sheka by Colonel Yusuf Mboneza, then the FARDC 212th brigade commander. In 2011, Sheka reportedly collaborated with Colonel Abiti Albert, who reports directly to General Amisi, then the Commander of FARDC. Moreover, the FARDC battalion Commander at Mubi in the 805th regiment Lieutenant Colonel Nyongo, his colleague Captain Zidane, and the Deputy Sector Commander for Walikale Colonel Ibra were also identified as sympathetic to Sheka.

Next to the army, NDC has received critical support from armed groups, including the FDLR before they fell out and become fierce enemies. The FDLR faction Montanta led by Captain Seraphin Lionso and overseen by Lieutenant Colonel Evariste “Sadiki” Kanzeguhera reportedly assisted NDC in 2010. Other notable FDLR commanders who aided Sheka include Sergeant Major Lionso Karangwa and commander Omega. However, in November 2011, Sheka killed his former ally Sadiki, ending the alliance altogether.

Sheka also received assistance from ex-CNDP elements such as commander Emmanuel Nsengiyumva, who deserted his FARDC post as the commander of the 2,111th battalion in December 2009. In mid-2011, Sheka had allied with ex-CNDP General Bosco Ntaganda. In late 2013, the Group of Experts reported that “NDC had allied with M23 until the March 2013 division of the movement, after which the ties weakened,” adding that NDC had also sided with elements of Raia Mutomboki from Walikale.

As for third-country support, Rwandan government officials have allegedly supported Sheka in carrying out the attack against Sadiki. A NDC deserter informed the Group of Experts that during the M23 rebellion, Sheka “received telephone calls from […] senior Rwandan officials on a daily basis.”

As with regards to support by business elites, the Group obtained “significant evidence” in 2011 that the mining company Geminaco was in bed with Sheka, sharing profits and seeking the rebels’ help to take out a competitor. On the political side, as per one account, the former administrator of Walikale territory Dieudonné Tshishiku Mutoke was among the clandestine supporters of Sheka in 2011. Nyanga politician Willy Mishiki (UHANA) is another  perceived ally. Lastly, NDC received extensive assistance from his relatives, including his uncle Bosco Katenda, the group’s spokesperson, his younger brother Soki Ntaberi, his two wives Francine and Celine as well as his cousin Jerome Katenda.

Enemies

Next to the FDLR, Sheka’s archenemy is the APCLS, a majority Hunde armed group in parts of Masisi territory. On the side of the army, key enemies included Col. Chuma and 803rd regiment Commander Col. Pilipili Kamatimba, who were killed in spring 2012.

Further readings:

The United Nations Group of Experts provide the best and most comprehensive public account on Sheka. Follow the links below and look up the respective paragraphs to learn more about NDC.

S/2009/603, paras. 220;
S/2010/596, paras.34-43, 203 and box 4;
S/2011/345, paras. 33-45;
S/2011/738, paras.190-218, 432, 433, 448-453, annex 42-51;
S/2012/348, paras. 60-63, 93-95, annex 2,3;
S/2012/348/Add.1, paras. 36, 52;
S/2013/433, para. 167; and
S/2014/42, paras. 42-46

For a detailed report of the Luvungi rapes, see the comprehensive report of the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office as well as the account of the Group of Experts (esp. paras. 144-6), a feature by New York Times, and Laura Heaton’s Foreign Policy article “What happened in Luvungi?”

* Apart from Sheka, authorities have unsealed seven other arrest warrants for crimes against humanity committed at Luvungi and surroundings against Sheka’s Chief of Staff Sadoke Kikunda Mayele, FDLR’s Captain Seraphin Lionso and another FDLR commander, in addition to four deserters from the army. From these seven, only two have been arrested. Mayele had been handed over on 5 October 2011 by Sheka but later died under mysterious circumstances in the prison of Goma. An interviewee told me that s/he was threatened when inquiring into the death of Mayele, who allegedly died of an illness. Another suspect escaped from prison in November 2012.

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