Clovis Boyanga, the 31-year-old, sits on a plastic chair in his backyard in the Limete district of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with his arms stiffly crossed and his head bowed, knowing that no one can bring back his wife and four children.
On December 16 and 17, 2018, armed men believed to be from the Batende ethnic group went house to house in his home village of Bongende with machetes, spears and rifles, killing anyone who identified as an ethnic Banunu.
Boyanga survived the killings because he was not at home on the morning of the attack. But the rest of his family, including a nephew, were butchered by the attackers. Nothing could make up for that loss. Yet, he is filled with some hope that he might after all get justice.
Just a few kilometers away, in Ndolo prison, the long-awaited trial of what is now dubbed the ‘Yumbi massacre’ began earlier this year. “I think the process will enable us to find answers to our questions,” says Boyanga. “Only the state and the judiciary can find out the political leaders behind this massacre.”
The United Nations estimated that 535 people died in just three villages — 345 in Boyanga’s village alone. Yumbi is located on the Congo River in Mai-Ndombe Province, hundreds of kilometers from the ongoing civil unrest in the country’s eastern provinces. Mai-Ndombe Province is a region usually at peace. To this day, a lot of questions remain unanswered and the reasons for the sudden outbreak of violence remain disputed.
The Kinshasa High Military Tribunal did not indict people for war crimes, but rather for “crimes against humanity” — inscribed within the framework of international laws. The court opened proceedings on May 25 of this year, but immediately postponed them to November.
November 26, 11:55 a.m., behind the walls of Ndolo prison: all 79 people charged are men. The prisoners appear in their wide blue shirts with yellow stripes. One after the other they walk across the lawn past an armed soldier into a large tent that opens to the sides facing the makeshift courtroom.
The chief justice questions three of the defendants in front of him, sitting by a wooden desk, seeking the details of a severed hand of a victim that was presented to a village chief. Step by step, the court aims to get closer to the truth about who planned the massacre, who carried it out and who only found out about it afterwards.
Many fear the task before the court of seeking justice for the victims of the massacre is too much for the its mandate and could drag on for years. There are only eight people named as allegedly responsible for the killings. Among them are prominent national and local politicians.
The prosecution claims that the massacre took place a week before the 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections to sway its outcome in the interest of the politicians backed by the Batende leaders. After the massacre, the national polls were delayed by a week, in Yumbi by three months. According to the prosecuting lawyers, the two candidates, who were in charge of the provincial administration, then won seats in parliament. These lawmakers were also indicted in the tribunal, but not kept behind bars.
The armed ethnic Batende men allegedly carried out the killings a day after the ethnic Banunus buried their traditional leader at night in the city of Yumbi, a territory claimed by the Batendes, whose members saw the night burial as an affront in their long-running conflict.
Claude Kaniekete Boba is one of the prosecuting lawyers. “The traditional head is always buried at night. Besides that, it was next to his father, his predecessor,” says Kaniekete describing the night-time burial tradition as not unconventional among the Banunus. “Is that really supposed to be a reason to massacre the Banunu?”
According to Kaniekete, the Batendes had planned the massacre well in advance. “What do you have to do to win elections?” asks the lawyer. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, people often vote along ethnic lines. So it is conceivable that the leadership of a group decides which local candidate gets the most votes. “That is how it all started,” he says with conviction. However, he does not provide any evidence and points out that, for tactical reasons, this can only be done during the trial.