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Kamuina Nsapu - An Army of Bewitched Children

Witchcraft is reported by interviewees as being a fundamental element of the attacks by Kamuina Nsapu. The men, women and children recruited by the Kamuina Nsapu militia are reportedly convinced that their magic rituals prevent them from being killed in battle. When the Kamuina Nsapu execute someone, usually in public, they reportedly frequently decapitate the body, taking the heads away allegedly to expose them in the Tshota, meaning “the sacred fire” in Tchiluba. The refugees interviewed by the team, stated that they were convinced that the Kamuina Nsapu had magical powers.

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.

A large number of the Kamuina Nsapu were boys and girls, some as young as seven. Tchokwe and Pende refugees interviewed reported that Luba families would often offer their children to fight for the militia. In one village, Lubamimanga, dozens of Luba children were allegedly recruited by Kamuina Nsapu. Groups of girls called “Lamama”, often wearing skirts made out of straw and red bandages tied around their heads and arms, reportedly accompanied the militia. The Lamana reportedly practiced rituals considered as magic, such as shaking their skirts to repel bullets and drink the blood of victims which is believed to render the group invincible. The victims were reportedly told to lie on the ground and the Lamama (aged approximately 13) sat on their chest. A militiaman would then decapitate them. The Lamama reportedly drank the blood of the victims while the other assailants inserted a stick into the heads before placing them in a fire.

One of the first requests of the Kamuina Nsapu as they entered a village, was for the inhabitants to hand over their children to be “baptized” and join the group. Some of the chiefs and other individuals killed by Kamuina Nsapu, were targeted for resisting the recruitment of children by the militia. The Kamuina Nsapu were reported to have used boys and girls, many aged between seven and 13, as fighters. Witnesses also said groups of girls called “Lamama” accompanied the militia, shaking their straw skirts and drinking victims’ blood as part of a magic ritual that was supposed to render the group invincible. All the refugees interviewed by the UN team said they were convinced of the magical powers of the Kamuina Nsapu. This generalised belief, and resulting fear, by 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 national army for over a year.

Kasai Central province, in remote, heavily forested central Congo, has been riven by clashes between security forces and the Kamuina Nsapu Movement (Mouvement Kamuina Nsapu: MKN), a local tribal militia, since July 2016. The militia members were reportedly armed mainly with machetes and spears. Its members wear red headbands or armbands, and like the Mai Mai groups operating in eastern DRC they undergo rituals and carry amulets that are believed to bring invulnerability.

The Luba people are of Bantu origins and mostly live in the eastern part of the DRC and in different provinces of the Greater Kasai region and Katanga. Baluba-Bakuba peoples between Kasai and Sankuru are singularly superstitious, and wizards, occult practices, mysterious guilds and brotherhoods abound in this fertile, rankly forested region. The Baluba sorcerers (baloshi, bena mifongo, batempeshi, etc.) believe, amongst other tenets, that they can make themselves and their adepts invisible by means of certain charms. Once invisible (or believing themselves so), they can indulge in horrible ghoulish practices or in disgusting immoralities.

The Luba, who form the majority of the population in the province of Kasai, consist of many sub-groups that include the Lulua. Despite a major conflict between the Luba and Lulua during the independence period from 1959 to 1961, both communities are generally perceived as belonging to the same ethnic group by the three other main ethnic groups living in the province of Kasai, on account of both groups speaking the Tchiluba language.

The Tchokwe, the Pende and the Tetela, who speak distinct languages, form a minority of the population in the Greater Kasai region. All five major ethnic communities of the Kasai province are also present in the Angolan province of Lunda Norte, which borders the Kasai province to the south. However, the demographics are distinct in Lunda Norte where the Tchokwe make up the largest number of inhabitants, whilst the Luba and Lulua constitute a small minority of the population.

The Kamuina Nsapu is almost exclusively composed of members of the Luba ethnic group. It is primarily an anti-government militia, which initially aimed at eliminating State authorities in the Kasai provinces, including police officers, military, intelligence agents and public officials, as well as symbols of the State, mainly administrative buildings. The Kamuina Nsapu members are reported to be primarily armed with machetes, sticks and hunting rifles and, to a lesser extent, semi-automatic weapons which, interviewees claimed, were stolen from the FARDC and PNC.

As pressure for democratization increased in Zaire in the early 1990s, Mobutu and regional politicians linked to his regime manipulated resentments against Luba residents of the Shaba region in order to weaken and undercut democratic opponents of Mobutu - particularly Etienne Tshisekedi, a Luba from Kasai who was prime minister in 1992-93, and to force Luba residents from the Shaba region. The conflicting populations are fighting for arable land. These conflicts often cause loss of life, enormous material damage and even impede economic momentum in this part of Central Kasai.

In April 2016, the refusal of the central authorities to recognize Jean-Pierre Mpandi as Kamuina Nsapu [meaning "black ant"], the hereditary chief of the Bajila Kasanga chieftaincy in Kasai Central, and the decision to replace him with a Government-appointed chief, provoked the Kamuina Nsapu insurrection.

In the DRC, traditional chiefs are integral to public administration. They administer villages and many perform important spiritual functions. Chiefs are appointed per local traditions and on a hereditary basis, and are then recognized by the State. In principle, traditional chiefs are apolitical, but they are often pressured by the State for political allegiance, which in turn helps them to secure their position.

The Kamuina Nsapu instructed other traditional rulers to join him in the revolt against all symbols of the State, and ordered that every village send him groups of young people to be initiated and trained to form a militia that would take actions aimed at destabilizing the Government. Many young people and some traditional leaders in his region, including leaders from Kayasampi, Mindula and Kabundi villages, responded favorably to his instruction.

The Kamwina Nsapu's death on 12 August 2016 sparked months of fighting with the military that has left more than 400 people dead in the country's Kasai Central province. His family had been asking for the late leader's body, and the government returned and buried his body on 14 April 2017. The family declared an end to fighting, saying further violence will not be carried out by its members. The Kamwina Nsapu militia, named after the title of its chief, appointed Jacques Kabeya Ntumba as its new leader. By 2017 violence had expanded to Kasai, Kasai Oriental and Lomami provinces, and the insurgency posed the most serious threat yet to the rule of President Joseph Kabila.

Hans Hoebeke noted 21 March 2017 that "Kamuina Nsapu is the hereditary title for the chief of Bajila Kasanga, or Bashila, a groupement containing several villages in Dibataie sector, Kasai-Central province, approximately 70km south east of Kananga. Since colonial times, the Bajila Kasanga chieftancy has spread and established several other groupements in the region, extending into Angola. In the DRC, traditional chiefs are integral to public administration, receiving a salary and managing villages....

In 2016, the state refused to recognise the traditional appointment of Jean-Pierre Mpandi as Kamuina Nsapu, and the provincial governor reportedly refused to meet him. This was considered an insult, and put the chief and the state authorities on a collision course, further aggravated by the state recognition of lower-ranked Bashila leaders. Subsequently, Mpandi criticised the regime in a nationalist diatribe using xenophobic language, decrying the presence of foreign mercenaries and what he called a government of occupation. Like many radical critics of the regime, he focused on its supposed Rwandan origin.... the decision not to recognise Mpandi as chief was prompted by the then Interior Minister Evariste Boshab, because Mpandi was considered close to the opposition and refused to support the presidential majority. ... "

At least 400 people had been killed and 200,000 had been displaced since the fighting broke out when police killed a customary chief (after whom the Kamuina Nsapu militia is named). The Kamuina Nsapu was killed by the armed forces on 12 August 2016 in an attack on his house. Kasai, which was split from two into five provinces in 2015 in a policy known as découpage, is one of the DRC's poorest.

The militia of Chief Kamwina Nsapu, killed nine people on the night of Sunday to Monday 8 August. Chief Kamwina Nsapu had taken a resolution over the previous two months to "rid Kasai Central of all the services of order" which according to him, had inflicted all kinds of harassment against the population. The national and provincial governments’ legitimacy in the region was particularly weak.

Kamwina Nsapu, who had fought against the police at the beginning of the week, was killed on Friday (August 12th) in Tshimbulu (Central Kasai) in new battles with the security forces. The official report said 19 were dead, according to governor Alex Kande. Among the victims were 11 policemen and 8 bandits loyal to Kamwina Nsapu, including himself, whom the Governor called "terrorists". Four police officers were missing. The head of the provincial executive added that 40 other men from the Kamwina Nsapu militia were captured, including "14 minors aged 5 to 12 years". Several weapons and munitions of war, the number of which has not been specified, have been recovered.

As for the circumstances of these confrontations, Alex Kande explains: "Following a police intervention to secure and protect the peaceful citizens on Friday, August 12, the latter were dangerously attacked by the terrorists of the customary chief Kamwina Nsapu. Thus they were obliged to resort to self-defense".

The Congolese military regained control of the capital of the territory of Dimbelenge in Kasai-Central on 01 October 2016. The militiamen of the traditional chief Kamuina Nsapu had occupied him for several days, destroying in particular police stations and offices of the public administration. Afraid, the population continued to take refuge in the bush.

On December 21, 2016, clashes took place between a FARDC patrol and assailants carrying weapons of war. Militants marched on Mbuji-Mayi successively in the villages of Mwana Lemba, Katengayi and Katende at 25 kilometers from Mbuji-Mayi. After two days of clashes, the assailants stalled and fled after thirteen of them ere wounded, two of whom died.

The Kasai-Central Provincial Security Council reported 09 January 2017 that twenty-six people were killed in a week in January in clashes between police and militiamen of the traditional leader Kamuina Nsapu. Particularly, since 9 February 2017, there have been ongoing clashes between Kamuina Nsapu militia and Congolese security forces within the area of Tshimbulu (160 kilometers South East of Kananga) with unconfirmed reports of 30 to 50 deaths resulting from these clashes.

On 11 February 2017 the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo expressed its concern about the persistent conflict in the Kasai provinces where violent atrocities are being committed by the Kamuina Nsapu militia. The militia was recruiting and using child soldiers while targeting symbols and institutions of State authority, according to the UN Stabilisation Mission in the African country (MONUSCO), which also cited the disproportionate use of force by Government security forces known as FARDC in their response to the situation. MONUSCO deployed one of its mobile monitoring response team in the area covering Tshikapa, Dibaya, Bunkode, Tshimbulu and Luiza to possibly prevent, investigate and document human rights violations in line with its mandate.

At least 101 people were reported to have been killed by soldiers in clashes between military forces and members of the Kamuina Nsapu militia in central Democratic Republic of the Congo over the last five days, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said 14 February 2017. Some 39 individuals among those killed in the violence between 9-13 February were women, caught in the shooting, when Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) soldiers opened fire indiscriminately with machine guns when they saw militia fighters. The reported high number of deaths, if confirmed, would suggest excessive and disproportionate use of force by the soldiers in their response to violence from members of the Kamuina Nsapu militia.

A film supposed to cover atrocities attributed to the elements of the Armed Forces of the DRC engaged against the militia of Kamwina Nsapu in Mwanza Lomba in the Kasai Oriental circulated on social networks. The video showed a small detachment walking on a path to a group of people singing in Tshiluba (one of the national languages of the DRC, spoken in Kasai) "Our land, our land". Then an order burst forth: "Go on! PULL ! ". The platoon then opened a fierce fire and progresses without needing to shelter: no one replied in front. The fire ceased, and the men advance and finished several people lying on the ground, starting with a woman, and insulting the corpses, making obscene remarks while contemplating the sex of two women lying on the ground. The camera lingers long on one of them agonizing. "You die for nothing, for nothing," said one man.

By 22 February 2017 the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) continued to monitor the situation in the Kasaï provinces, where there had been a resurgence of clashes between Congolese national security forces and the Kamuina Nsapu militia. MONUSCO was trying to secure access to areas where the human rights violations reportedly took place. The Mission and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations called on the Government to exercise restraint and launch a credible and independent investigation into the reported human rights violations.

The UN Mission was adapting to this evolving situation within the limits of its existing resources and had reinforced its military, civilian and police presence in Kananga and other areas of concern to support its monitoring and investigation efforts. It was also working with national and provincial authorities to address local disputes through peaceful means. MONUSCO, the UN's largest peacekeeping mission, has only minimal capacity to respond to civil unrest or widening conflict.

Clashes erupted between suspected militiamen Kamuina Nsapu and the security forces on 12 March 2017 in Mwene-Ditu. As a result of these fights, the mayor's office had decreed a curfew between 8 pm and 6 am. Two UN officials of American and Swedish nationality have been kidnapped in Congo's Kasai Central province, the Congolese government said on 13 March 2017. Its statement said Michael Sharp, a U.S. citizen, and Zaida Catalan, of Swedish nationality, had "fallen into the hands of negative forces not yet identified", along with four Congolese they were with near the village of Ngombe. Sharp and Catalan were among a U.N. panel of experts investigating the conflicts that have been simmering in Congo since the mid-1990s, when the civil war spawned dozens of armed groups and drew in half a dozen neighboring armies.

For the notables of Kasaï-Central, the return of his body to his family was one of the solutions to promote the return of peace to the Central Kasaï. The body of the traditional chief Kamuina Nsapu, killed in August 2016 during the clashes with the police, will be exhumed to be buried according to customary rites. Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary told the press in Kananga on 17 March 2017 that he found the compromise with the family of the deceased. The two parties also agreed on the procedure for nomination by the ruling family of a new leader of a group. But on the ground, nothing changed.

The Kamuina Nsapu militant group ambushed a group of police officers traveling between Kananga and Tshikapa 24 March 2017. The militants captured the police officers and decapitated 42 of them, but freed six of the officers because they could speak the local Tshiluba language. The attack marked the deadliest encounter between security forces and the militant group since summer 2016, when security forces killed the group’s leader, sparking the insurrection that had spread to five provinces throughout the country.

The Kamuina Nsapu began conducting targeted attacks on individuals due to their ethnic identity from March 2017. These attacks included the killing of Tchokwe and Pende inhabitants in the villages of Lupemba, Mayanda and Mwaango. During attacks, the Kamuina Nsapu combatants were also reported to have picked up earth from the ground and thrown it in the air while shouting “this land is ours”, which was interpreted by Tchokwe and Pende refugees interviewed as an affirmation that the Kasai was a Luba territory.

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Page last modified: 13-08-2017 09:48:25 ZULU