As a new UN report into the most appalling atrocities committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo is released, Lindsey Hilsum looks into the details of “the worst war in the world”.
The United Nations report on the Congo looks at more than 600 of the worst human rights abuses which happened in the country between 1993 and 2003, when tens of thousands of people were killed and many others raped and mutilated by both armed Congolese groups and foreign forces.
Over the period, the region was torn apart by political crises, wars and conflicts.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ report examines the actions of a number of foreign countries, including Uganda, Burundi and Angola, in the region, but singles out Rwanda as having committed alleged potential “acts of genocide” in the Congo.
The Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) took power in Rwanda by bringing an end to the genocide of the Tutsi people in 1994. However the new report suggests the RPF then committed appalling atrocities in the neighbouring Congo as they pursued Hutus who had committed the Tutsi genocide.
The report suggests these acts, in the forests of the Congo, may have constituted a second genocide.
All of the countries involved have reacted angrily to the report and condemned its contents. Rwanda described the report as “flawed” and said it could threaten regional stability.
In a statement, the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the evidence points to potential crimes against humanity, war crimes and acts of genocide. However, he stressed that these definitions could only be addressed by a court.
'Worst war in the world'
The worst war in the world - five million dead, countless others forced to flee, rape, torture, left destitute, writes Channel 4 News International Editor Lindsey Hilsum.
The peace deal in 2003 which brought Africa's worst war to an end, led to the withdrawal of Angolan, Zimbabwian, Rwanda and Ugandan forces, but remnants of militia groups and the Congolese army still commit atrocities today.
Here, peace is relative and incomplete. Until it's total there will be no end to the rampant sexual crimes and looting which continue as armed men fight over minerals and land.
Read more from Lindsey Hilsum on the Congo
The UN Congo report, which was first leaked last month, documents the most serious human rights violations in the country between 1993 and 2003.
The report covers ten years and the entire territory of Congo, not just the war-torn east – and details more than 600 incidents in which tens of thousands of people were killed. Most of the victims were civilians, and mainly women and children.
While the Rwandan accusations have caught the international eye, atrocities committed by many different groups and governments are documented.
Mr Pillay said: “[The report] does refer to the presence of foreign forces which were involved in the conflict in the DRC, and it does point to the responsibility of those forces for human rights violations…Having said that, it is still principally a report about the DRC, the enormous suffering in that country, and about the capacity of its justice system to respond.”
One Rwandan refugee's story
"The next thing we heard was bursts of gunfire – which lasted for four long hours. When all became quiet again, we tied white cloths on our heads as a sign of non-resistance and ventured in the street. I was a curious little rascal back then, so I jumped out but couldn't go further than the gate of our house: there were dead bodies of Rwandans all over the street."
Read more from Rwandan refugee James Mahoro [not his real name] speaking to journalist Yoletta Nyange.
He said the report would “reveal the suffering that years of instability and conflict have inflicted on the country”, and added that he hoped it would “honour the memory of victims of the conflict” as well as help “reiterate the importance of ensuring accountability for past human rights abuses”.
“While we cannot undo human rights violations, we can try to ensure that they do not re-occur,” he added.
More than 1,280 witnesses were interviewed for the report and 1,500 documents collated in the two years it took to write.
The UN Office for Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville told Channel 4 News: “This report is about the past, but it’s geared towards improving law and order in the future.”
Its publication now has added impact because of evidence of mass rape committed recently in the country.