Congo - 2002 Civil Disturbances
On 29 March 2002, less than three weeks after the presidential elections, a militia group launched a series of attacks around the Pool area and on 2 April 2002 the same militia killed two passengers during a raid on the Pointe Noire-Brazzaville rail service. Fighting between the Ninjas and the government army (Forces Armees Congolaise - FAC) escalated to encompass large areas of the Pool province (the province surrounding, but not including, Brazzaville) and even parts of Brazzaville.
On 9 April 2002, a FAC operation in Brazzaville caused tens of thousands of people to flee their homes in the city. On 10 April 2002, the UN estimated that at least 65,000 people were displaced from Brazzaville, with a further 15,000 displaced from the interior. On the same date, however, the Mayor of Brazzaville appealed for calm, after which the situation there stabilised. The government forces removed many of their roadblocks and most international flights to the capital were unaffected by the situation.
Despite government claims that the situation was under control and that the army were doing nothing more than routing out bandits, on 20 April 2002, reports emerged that Angolan reinforcements were arriving, and being deployed in the Pool region. Much of the Pool region was inaccessible to anyone but the military, raising concerns amongst aid agencies for the welfare of the people there.
By 25 April 2002, the army claimed that it had secured the rail link from Brazzaville to Pointe Noire, the country's main port. While the rail link was in jeopardy, fuel and other goods, became scarce in Brazzaville.
Fighting continued, however, in the Pool region, and as a result, on 15 April 2002, UNICEF stated that there were up to 250,000 internally displaced persons in the country. On 17 April 2002, other UN sources put the figure at the much lower number of approximately 80,000. A French news report stated that by 21 April 2002 the flow of refugees into the capital seemed to have stopped.
The Angolan army, who helped Sassou-Nguesso come to power, supported the FAC in their military operations. By mid-May 2002, the UN estimated that at least 22,000 people were still displaced, but thought the actual figure to be higher. Aid agencies were allowed to visit Kinkala, were 4 government displacement camps had been established on 5 April 2002, but closed 9 days later. Previously, no aid agency had been able to reach Kinkala since 9 April. When the UN gained access to Kindamba, another town in Pool, on 2 June 2002 they found the situation was not as serious as they feared. UNICEF identified 8 cases of malnutrition in children and noted that people had been eating irregularly and lack proteins found in fish, chicken and red meat.
By 4 June 2002, the Government claimed that it had liberated the Pool region, and that the population were able to go about their business as usual. This claim included the town of Vindza, where the Ninja headquarters are located. However, on 14 June 2002, the Ninja launched an attack against Brazzaville, focused on the area around the Maya Maya Airport. It is thought that the primary objective of the Ninjas was to destroy the attack helicopters that the Congolese Government forces employed against them. Government sources stated that they were unsuccessful in their attempt. Sporadic artillery and small arms fire at 04:00 signalled the start of the offensive. Residents of M'Filou, a northern suburb of Brazzaville where the initial attacks occurred, fled to the south of the capital. Government tanks formed a line around the airport, which is located 6 kilometers north of the city center.
The Ninjas were seen to be topless, wearing charms around their necks, in the belief that these charms would ward off bullets. Their attacks were described as determined. Heavy shelling was again heard on the 15 June 2002. Also on 15 June, a police station in Kinsoundi was attacked and burned by the Ninjas. Despite this, locals reported that the Ninjas said that they were “not against the population but against soldiers”. The Ninja allowed people to flee their homes. The UN coordinator in Brazzaville stated that although many people were leaving their homes, the situation was not as bad as the 9 April 2002 situation, because the wards that were affected by this battle were not as populous as those affected on 9 April. Ten thousand people were believed to have fled.
Some 60 Ninja rebels and 13 government soldiers were believed to be dead by the evening of 15 June 2002. Six civilians were also thought to have died. Some reports put the number of dead at 100. On the same day, the airport reopened and thousands of people who had fled returned to their homes. However, the army's heavy weapons could still be heard firing some 12 miles to the west of the city as the army pursued the rebels. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) evacuated 12 people who were seriously wounded and 5 serious medical cases to Brazzaville's hospitals and moved 19 bodies to the morgue, without hindrance from the authorities.
By 30 July 2002, the UN estimated that 66,000 people were still displaced as a result of the fighting since March 2002. One third of this number were being assisted by the UN and its partner agencies in and around Brazzaville. The remainder were most likely living in Pool. This is in addition to the 30,000 Congolese who, by the end of 2001, had sought refuge outside of the country. The number of displaced people had risen to approximately 150,000 by January 2003.
Fighting continued, despite pleas from NGOs to use dialogue to end the hostilities. Eleven people were killed in clashes between the army and the Ninjas in Mpayaka, Pool region in early August 2002. Two soldiers and a civilian were killed on 1 August 2002 in a suspected Ninja attack on the Pointe Noire - Brazzaville train. Another attack on the same train line on 24 August 2002, wounded 30 and killed an unconfirmed number of people. After pillaging what goods the train was carrying, the Ninjas reportedly took hostage a number of soldiers who were acting as escorts. The Government claimed that the train was bringing in food, medicine and fuel to the capital, but the Ninjas refuted this, claiming it was carrying weapons brought from Europe.
Train services between the two cities were suspended for over a week, resuming on 3 September 2002, although passenger services remain suspended as they have since the first attacks in April, earlier in the year. The Ninja continued to target the rail link, derailing a train again on 30 September 2002, killing 9 soldiers and wounding several others, including civilian stowaways. The central area of Pool, including Mayama and Kimpello were sealed off by government forces.
Also, in August 2002, there were still reports of displaced people fleeing from the Pool region. In that month, 42 families arrived in Djambala, Plateaux region escaping fighting in Mpangala, Pool. Other displaced persons have fled to the Plateaux and Bouenza regions, which border Pool, to the north and west respectively.
On 13 May 2002, rape survivors from the 1997 and 1998/9 civil wars were taking their cases to court with the assistance of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). It was reported that over half of the 3,000 rape survivors were children or adolescents. Of the 332 rape victims that have gone through MSF's rehabilitation centres, 178 were minors. MSF claim that 64.3 percent of the rape victims have not pressed charges against their attackers. Victims had difficulty in identifying their attackers, as attacks mainly took place in forests, abandoned houses and jails and they were sometimes raped by more than one person. Rebecca Oba, director of human rights at the Congolese Ministry of Justice, encouraged women to pursue their claims stating that the amnesty for former militia fighters does not provide immunity in the case of rape.
The Government was criticised by the UN Co-ordinator in Brazzaville for its use of MI-24 helicopters against villages in the Pool region. Each helicopter can carry 23 mm heavy machine guns and rocket pods. No one knows how many people had been killed or injured in these raids.
Joining the UN in their condemnation of the tactic of using helicopter gunships, the Bishop of Brazzaville claimed that their use is ineffective against the Ninjas, but the people most likely to be hit are women and children.
4.43 Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees at the time, expressed grave concerns on the issue. Ms Robinson stated that an unknown number of civilians were being killed and wounded in these indiscriminate attacks. Mary Robinson also remarked on other reports of human rights abuses. Ms Robinson commented on reports that dozens of females had been raped and that a number of young men have been abducted from camps for internally displaced persons and whose current whereabouts were unknown.
Again, the UN Co-ordinator, William Paton, stated on 30 May 2002 that women were raped in Kindamba. The site was protected by government forces and accommodated 2,000 people. Mr Paton stated that soldiers entered the site, took women out, raped them and then brought them back later in the day. The Government's own figures estimate that some 3,422 women were raped between 1998 and 2002, according to a survey carried out in the southern regions of Kinkala, Nkayi, Sibiti, Dolisie and Pointe-Noire.
In May 2002, 5,000 civilians who had fled the Pool region claimed that they had been forced from their homes in Mbanza-Ndounga, Goma Tsé-Tsé and Boko, by the Ninjas. Those who refused to leave were reportedly killed.
Allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by its staff caused the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to launch an investigation on 20 May 2002. In addition to these allegations, UNHCR staff were also accused of selling travel documents and refugee cards. In September 2002, Jacques Diouf, head of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation announced the initiation of a major nationwide food security program. Pilot projects, to run with the assistance of 34 Vietnamese experts, commenced in September 2002. It was estimated that 32 percent of Congolese suffered from hunger. On 14 January 2003, before the announcement of the repatriation of internally displaced people, the World Food Program announced that it urgently required 4,000 metric tonnes of food aid to feed 30,000 until mid-2003.
In November 2002 the United Nations said that it was assisting 8,000 refugees on the outskirts of Brazzaville after they had fled the Pool region. The displaced people said they were fleeing from the lawless condition in the region that was evident in October. The UN said that there were no severe health problems but the lack of sanitation remained a cause for concern.
In late November 2002, it was reported that government forces extradjudicially killed 9 people from Moutampa in the Mbanza-Ndounga district of Pool. The victims included a 17 year old male. Prior to being shot dead, the victims were allegedly severely tortured by the soldiers.
On 4 December 2002, a government spokesman claimed that Ninja rebels had killed 17 civilians in the Pool province over the past four days. The incidence occurred in four different locations. This particularly spate of attacks started on 28 November in the village of Mfouati where five people were killed and a baby was set on fire.
The Internal Human Rights Federation (FIDH) accused the rebels and government forces of committing numerous human rights abuses. In a statement made on 6 December 2002, FIDH claimed that the civilian population had endured summary executions, rapes, looting and had their villages devastated. The human rights body continued to say that no one had been tried for these crimes.
The UN reported in January 2003 that 60,000 people had fled their homes in Pool as a result of “bombing, banditry and attacks on villages”. Clashes between the Ninjas and government forces continued through the end of 2002. The UN provided aid for approximately 84,000 of the 150,000 persons who were displaced at the time, but the remaining 60,000 were beyond the reach of the aid agencies.
At least 10 people were killed in an attack on the village of Yamba in the Bouenza province, on 10 February 2003 according to the authorities. They claim that 40 Ninjas attacked the main police station, killing the police commissioner and approximately 10 civilians. The Ninjas looted shops before fleeing to Loulombo and Kimbedi in the Pool province. Other reports put the number of Ninja militia who participated in the attack at just eight.
Amnesty International reported that over 170 people had been killed in Brazzaville in early 2003. Most of these were unarmed civilians. In light of the peace initiative, on 7 April 2003, the Government announced an agreement with humanitarian aid agencies, concerning the return of internally displaced people (IDP) to the Pool region. Emilienne Raoul, the Minister for Social Affairs said that the Government agreed to provide transportation for the returnees, who were assured of their “security and dignity”. Sory Ouane, the interim co-ordinator of the UN aid agencies, said the UN agencies would provide food and non food items, as well as youth training to start the reconstruction of the province. The aid agencies said that a rapid return of displaced people to their homes was necessary, as the conditions in the IDP camps were deteriorating.
The continuation of violence in the Pool province forced the Government into the establishing a buffer zone around Brazzaville in an attempt to prevent Ninja infiltration of the capital city, which borders the Pool province. The zone also prevented fleeing civilians from reaching the city.
In November 2002, a plan was presented to the Government to end the hostilities. A committee established at the President's request issued a ten-point peace plan. Amongst these points were the replacement of army units in Pool, which were mainly comprised of ill-disciplined conscripts, with gendarmes, a withdrawal of all foreign troops, a general amnesty for surrendering Ninjas and full access to Pool for NGOs. The committee also offered to act as mediators between SassouNguesso and Pasteur Ntoumi.
On 19 November 2002, President Sassou-Nguesso ordered the military to create a humanitarian corridor to enable Ninja rebels to leave the forests of Pool and pass safely to Brazzaville in order to disarm. The President guaranteed their safety, but added that there was a one-month ultimatum to take up his offer or face the consequences.
A breakthrough in the drive for peace came on 17 March 2003, when the Government and the Ninjas issued a declaration in Brazzaville. The Ninja spokesman agreed to end hostilities, disarm his fighters and enable the state to restore authority in Pool. The Government, in turn, agreed to guarantee an amnesty offer to rebels, including provisions for integrating ex-combatants into the army. Les Depeches de Brazzaville reported that on 23 March 2003 the Minister for the Co-ordination of Government Activities, Isidire Mvouba, welcomed a delegation of 100 Ninja militiamen to Brazzaville.
The Ninja delegation, lead by Prosper Miyamou, also known as Pistolet, entered the city on foot through the Kinkoula humanitarian corridor from Bouenza province. On 26 March 2003, the Government and Ninjas exchanged prisoners as part of the agreement to restore peace to the country. Some 21 Ninjas and 16 government soldiers as well as two women who had given birth in captivity were exchanged. The process was facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
By April 2003 over 2,000 rebel Ninja soldiers had surrendered with their weapons in Congo's Pool region. this followed a peace agreement reached on 17 March 2003 between the government and Ninja leader, Rev. Frederic Bitsangou (Pastor Ntoumi). The disarmed Ninjas, who had been guaranteed amnesty by the government, were awaiting either integration into the military or assistance in returning to civilian life. Conflict erupted in Pool between government forces and Ninja rebels loyal to Ntoumi in late March 2002. An additional 600 Ninja rebels were reported to have surrendered in May 2003. The Republic of Congo was within reach of a durable peace.
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