A series of leaked audio recordings, images and documents obtained exclusively by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit (I-Unit) appear to show the failures of a German government-funded investigation into reports of killings in Kahuzi-Biega National Park. in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The Commission of Inquiry, which investigated claims that Congolese rangers and soldiers killed members of the indigenous Batwa community in the park between 2019 and 2021, reported on June 1 that no widespread atrocities had taken place.
The investigation was launched in April after a report published by the London-based human rights organization Minority Rights Group International (MRG) documented a deadly campaign to evict indigenous Batwa from their homeland in the park.
The report concluded that at least 20 members of the indigenous Batwa community were killed in the park by “joint contingents” of Congolese park rangers and soldiers in three waves of violent attacks.
An investigator and the journalist who wrote the MRG report say that since the report was published, they have been forced to go into hiding after receiving a tip that armed men had been sent to kill them.
A series of photos obtained by journalist Robert Flummerfelt and shared exclusively with I-Unit appear to show the bodies of villagers in the park after alleged attacks by Congolese park rangers and soldiers.
The photos show several people who appear to have been fatally shot and stabbed in the park after what Flummerfelt says were violent raids between July 2019 and December 2021.
The footage, which Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify, also shows a body that appears to have been mutilated with a series of deep machete cuts to the torso.
The journalist, Robert Flummerfelt, says he believes Congolese rangers and soldiers carried out the raids as part of a coordinated campaign to drive indigenous communities out of the park and make the area more attractive to foreign conservationists and tourists. foreign. He alleges that at least 20 villagers were killed and that Batwa women were gang-raped.
The Kahuzi-Biega National Park, which receives most of its funding from the German government, is home to the critically endangered eastern lowland gorilla and is one of the most important tourist attractions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Controversy over events in the park intensified on June 1, when the German government-funded Commission of Inquiry into the alleged murders dismissed Flummerfelt’s claims and found that Congolese rangers and soldiers had not committed widespread atrocities.
The commission said that rangers had been forced to defend themselves against “armed” Batwa villagers, and that some Batwa had been killed in crossfire when used as “human shields” in clashes between rangers and poachers.
The commission’s findings were condemned by Flummerfelt as “a cover-up.” “It cannot be characterized in any other way,” he told Al Jazeera.
“There are circumstances of direct intimidation of witnesses, the treatment of Batwa victims with open contempt, literally laughing at reports that Batwa women were subjected to gang rape.”
“I was there with the commission,” said Flummerfelt, who was invited as a commission participant. “There were no first-hand, or even second-hand, accounts of the Batwa being used as human shields. and yet this [claim] it is used as a kind of weak justification to evidence the fact that the Batwa were killed”.
Flummerfelt and his investigator, who wishes to remain anonymous for security reasons, compiled accounts of the alleged atrocities for the report commissioned by MRG.
“[We] spoke to eyewitnesses who described park guards opening fire on civilians, killing several Batwa, sometimes execution-style,” Flummerfelt said.
“Sometimes members of the community [were forced] to watch while their relatives were executed,” he added.
“[Witnesses also described park guards] subjecting Batwa women to gang rape at gunpoint.”
Recordings of ‘intimidation of witnesses’
The report compiled by Flummerfelt and his Congolese investigator led to the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry to investigate his claims.
The investigation was led by a senior official from the Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), the Congolese government agency that manages the park.
“In effect, the ICCN was investigating itself, a huge conflict of interest,” Flummerfelt said.
In audio recordings obtained by I-Unit, commission chief George Muzibaziba can be heard appearing to intimidate witnesses recounting violence against Batwa villagers.
In a recording from mid-April, Muzibaziba is heard telling a Batwa leader, Chief Mbuwa Kalimba Bacirembera, that he must “take responsibility” for his community to be attacked by militia groups should ICCN guards and Congolese soldiers have to leave the area as a result. of the testimony he had given.
In another interview, conducted in mid-April, Muzibaziba is recorded informing a witness that the information provided would be “dangerous” for the witness. Another commission member interrupts Muzibaziba and says, “George, don’t bully him.”
In the recordings, ICCN lawyers can also be heard laughing at the mention of the gang rape and death of a Batwa woman.
Due to fears for his safety, the Congolese investigator working with Flummerfelt had not disclosed his full name to the Commission of Inquiry. However, the limited personal data he provided was leaked, providing enough information to identify him.
“Within three days, the highly specific information provided to the commission about the identity of my colleague is available to the people of the Congolese government,” Flummerfelt told Al Jazeera.
After receiving information about credible threats to their lives, Flummerfelt and the investigator fled and went into hiding.
One witness, who asked not to be identified, told Al Jazeera that the ICCN guards “will not tire until they arrive.” [Flummerfelt] Y [the Congolese researcher]. Killing someone is not a problem for them.”
The head of the Commission of Inquiry, George Muzibaziba, dismissed allegations that ICCN rangers were targeting Flummerfelt and the researcher, describing the claims as “very wrong”.
Chief Mbuwa Kalimba Bacirembera and another Batwa leader, Chief Gonzalo Malenga Majafa, are also in hiding because they believe their appearances before the investigation have put their lives in danger.
“They received credible threats that they were being persecuted by people working for the Congolese government institution, ICCN, to punish them for reporting to the commission the fact that members of the community were subjected to gang rape and killed and attacked. and so on,” Flummerfelt said.
‘Massive human rights violations’
Since the publication of the commission’s report, a German member of parliament has described the events inside the Kahuzi-Biega National Park as “massive violations of human rights.”
Deborah Düring, the Greens’ parliamentary spokesperson for International Cooperation and Development in the German Bundestag, said: “The Batwa must be heard and their rights must be respected.”
“I think it is clear that we are dealing with structural problems, not isolated incidents,” Düring said.
He said the German government and international donors needed to ensure that “crimes and allegations are thoroughly investigated and those responsible are held accountable.”
In response to a question about whether park staff were involved in killings, mass rapes and the forced removal of Batwa villagers, Muzibaziba suggested that Al Jazeera “refer to the published report.”
Muzibaziba said he believed Flummerfelt had made “false claims” about the violence in the park. He described Flummerfelt’s investigation as “reductive…evasive and not thorough”, and said that his report in which he alleged atrocities against the Batwa was “highly biased”.
Muzibaziba denied intimidating witnesses who testified before the Commission of Inquiry. He also denied leaking the identity of the Congolese investigator. He described the commission’s work as “fair and objective.”
A spokesman for the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), which funds most of the park’s running costs, told Al Jazeera that they are “deeply disturbed by accounts of threats and intimidation allegedly directed at witnesses and sources.” by members of the Commission.
However, the ministry has “confidence” in the commission’s methodology. In light of the accusations of atrocities committed, the BMZ will “reflect on its continued support for Kahuzi-Biega”.