By Sam Colvett
“When we arrived in the area, we found thousands of people living in deplorable conditions, without shelter, access to drinking water or sanitation,” said Dr. Dieya Papy, a medical officer on Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF’s) emergency team.
His team of MSF medical professionals had arrived in the community of Kwamouth in the Mai-Ndombe province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on 24 August, 2022 in an emergency response to local conflict that continues to the present day. “This week, we saw with our own eyes villages burned down and people massacred, in a very worrying pattern of attacks and revenge attacks,” he later explained.
The conflict is still ongoing, even as local efforts persist to assuage the violence.
The DRC has experienced high levels of internal violence in recent years, particularly concentrated in its eastern provinces. Indeed, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) states that “as of the end of the year, 5,339,000 people remained displaced due to armed conflict and violence”.
Due to this, the government has declared martial law in some provinces in an attempt control the situation.
IDMC’s visualization of conflict in the DRC, 10/21-10/22
Kwamouth, however, is located in the western part of the DRC, just above the capital city of Kinshasa. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that conflict began in this region in June of 2022 between the Teke and Yaka people over “customary taxes and agricultural land use,” which then intensified into the current violence.
The IDMC estimates that between August 19th and 29th, 6,000 people were displaced in the surrounding areas due to the ensuing conflict. Displaced people are largely destined for the provincial capital of Banduku or the Ngabé district of neighboring Republic of the Congo (right across the river from Kwamouth).
This area of the DRC has been the site of other incidents of conflict spurred by land and ethnic disputes in the recent past, with a notable example being the conflict in 2018 in Yumbi, just north of Kwamouth. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), this conflict was spurred by conflicts surrounding the burial of a Banunu chief on Batende land. Demonstrating the ties between ethnic and territorial conflicts, HRW finds that “the fight over land is often a top issue during elections in rural areas, with constituencies largely voting for members of their own ethnic group” and that Batende attackers targeted those associated with the Banunu as they moved from community to community. The perpetrators of this conflict have yet to be held to justice in the region.
As a result of Mai-Ndombe’s previous experience with violence, local leaders and international monitors have been concerned that the current conflict in Kwamouth might also carry over into surrounding communities, causing even more displacement. MSF has already noted that the conflict spread to Kwamouth’s neighboring community of Bandundu in mid-September.
The conflict is still ongoing, even as local efforts persist to assuage the violence. The Congolese Press Agency (ACP) reported on September 24th that around 80 people had been killed in the villages of Bibonga, Engweme, and Bisiala in northern Kwamouth. The next day, Landry Kangundu, the elected deputy of Mai-Ndombe’s neighboring province of Kwilu, expressed his concern at the growing violence, calling for a return to historical peace between the peoples of the area, per L’Agence congolaise de presse.
A local organization known as the Citizen Coalition for the Congo has expressed plans to deploy "local peace arbiters" in each village of Kwamouth to handle the conflicts between the Teke and Yaka locally and responsibly. OCHA also states that humanitarian actors are still developing a response to the situation, even with some actors (like Papy’s MSF team) already on the ground to provide emergency support.
Nevertheless, the situation remains tense in the area, and the success of local and international efforts in mitigating the conflict remains to be seen.