‘ They came to purge the forest by force ’
— Mutwa man interviewed on 27 October 2020
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, indigenous Batwa people living on their ancestral lands are being killed, maimed and raped by park guards of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park.
Trigger Warning: Violence and sexual assault
We documented human rights violations committed by park guards against Batwa community members in at least six villages inside the park.
Our report draws from almost 600 sources, including more than 550 eyewitnesses of the violent attacks, as well as physical evidence such as burnt homes, spent ammunition and gravesites.
A Batwa home, burnt and destroyed.
Prior to their eviction, the Batwa sustainably occupied and shaped the Kahuzi-Biega forest for millennia, cultivating and safeguarding one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.
- Park authorities have engaged in a highly organized, violent campaign to expel Batwa communities from their ancestral lands.
- Between 2019 and 2021, park guards and army soldiers jointly attacked Batwa villages inside the national park.
- These attacks brought death and destruction to Batwa communities, with at least 20 killed, 15 raped, 2 burnt alive, several mutilated bodies and hundreds forcibly displaced.
- The attacks were planned and approved by park leadership, aided by the financial and material support of foreign governments and international organizations.
- The systematic and widespread nature of the violence may constitute crimes against humanity under international law.
- Key international partners had knowledge of alleged human rights violations in the park, but continued to fund and train park guards, often in violation of the UN arms embargo.
Since the creation of the national park, most displaced Batwa have led an impoverished and landless existence in villages outside the park, where they suffer severe discrimination and lack access to basic social services. This has resulted in in high rates of malnourishment, disease, and death.
Desperate after years of broken promises and ongoing human rights abuses, several Batwa communities returned to their ancestral lands and began constructing villages inside the boundaries of the national park.
‘We’ve been stuck in this process that has given us no solutions for decades. When we saw that no solutions would come of it, we decided to return, all of us, to our home.’
— Mutwa man interviewed on 27 October 2020
‘[The Park Director] wanted to convey a message to the pygmies: “If you enter the park, you are looking for war.”’
— Interviewed PNKB park guard
Their return to the forest was met with swift and devastating violence by park leadership and the internationally funded paramilitary unit of park guards under its control. The independent investigation unearthed harrowing accounts from Batwa survivors, who recounted serious abuses across the three-year campaign of violence.
Across multiple attacks, heavily armed park guards, with the support of the Congolese army, indiscriminately fired upon Batwa villages with machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Those who survived the initial onslaught were forced to flee as their homes were burnt and their villages destroyed.
Aerial photograph of the village of Muyange immediately after the July 2021 attacks showing burnt out homes, structures and charred ground.
The Park Director issues an ultimatum to Batwa, threatening to remove the communities from the park by force. Park guards described receiving an effective authorization to ‘shoot-to-kill’ Batwa inside the park.
The Warning Letter
International supporters of the park receive an urgent letter describing park guards shooting Batwa inside the park and warning of imminent violence against them.
Foreign private military contractors conduct paramilitary training sessions with park guards, including on the use of the same heavy weapons used against Batwa civilian villages weeks later.
Park guards and soldiers conduct attacks across three Batwa villages (Bugamanda, Buhoyi and Masiza). Several Batwa are killed or maimed in the attacks, and others flee into the forest with their fates unknown.
Arrests and Intimidation
Park authorities arrest dozens of Batwa mostly on charges such as ‘illegal occupation of the park’, whereafter they experience miserable conditions and dehumanizing treatment in custody.
At least three villages (Muyange, Maruti and Tchibwisa) are attacked by park guards and soldiers who shot and kill two Batwa men and group rape at least fifteen Batwa women, two of which later die from their injuries.
Four Batwa villages (Muyange, Bugamanda, Maruti, Tchibwisa) are burnt to the ground. At least five Batwa are killed, and at least 20 women are group raped.
This violence is unlikely to have taken place without the substantial support provided to the park by foreign governments and international organizations. Donors and partners have played an integral role in promoting an aggressive, militarized form of conservation and were instrumental in funding and shaping the paramilitary guards responsible for these abuses.
The violence of the past three years stems from the theft of Batwa lands and resources in the name of nature conservation. The creation and ongoing operation of Kahuzi-Biega National Park is rooted in an inherently violent ideology which mandates clearing natural landscapes to create an ‘unpeopled wilderness,’ void of the very people who safeguarded such ecosystems for generations.
The conservation projects are inherently violent and colonial, rendering them incompatible with the physical and cultural survival of indigenous peoples like the Batwa.
With several communities resolute in their commitment to remain on their ancestral lands, violent attacks by park guards against Batwa civilians are ongoing.
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Read more about Fortress Conservation in our related publication: ‘Fortress Conservation and International Accountability for Human Rights Violations against Batwa in Kahuzi-Biega National Park‘