The town of Beni, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, saw a hesitant return to normal on June 30. It was the end of the 48-hour curfew announced by local authorities three days earlier, after a series of bomb blasts, including a suicide bombing, rocked the city in the province of North Kivu over the weekend. The attacks marked a grim turning point in a region terrorised by insurgents for more than twenty years.
A rebel group made up of primarily Ugandan fighters, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), is said to be behind the attacks. One person was killed on Sunday evening in Beni’s Mabakanga neighbourhood. According to a Congolese army spokesperson who spoke to AFP, a Ugandan suicide bomber blew himself up near a bar.
Hours earlier, a homemade bomb went off in the Saint Emmanuel Catholic Church in the Butsili neighbourhood, marking the first time a Catholic building has been targeted. Two women were injured. The attacks have not yet been claimed.
'This attack is a real disaster'
Josué Musanzalire, Butsili neighbourhood leader, was not present when the bomb went off, but heard the explosion from his home, which isn’t far from the church. He immediately went to the site to see the damage.
The explosion happened at around 6 o’clock in the morning. Some worshippers were already in the church for a mass that was due to take place. The two women who were hit by debris during the blast were preparing the church for the service. It was set to be an important day for the parish. Several worshippers were going to be confirmed.
Everything inside the church was damaged. The windows were smashed and the benches and the PA system were destroyed. We thank God because the victims’ lives are not in danger. They were only injured – one in the legs, the other in her mouth. They were taken to hospital but will be discharged in the next few days.
This terrorist attack is a real disaster for our area. We haven’t had attacks since 2014. We’re very worried. This is the first time that a church has been targeted in Beni. We’re wondering if markets and schools might be targeted next. We’re very frightened because of the danger. We’re terrified of reliving the atrocities of 2014 [Editor's note: the year that ADF attacks began in Beni, killing more than 200].
Despite that, we trust our army, which has already taken measures to ensure residents’ safety.
The Allied Democratic Forces are Ugandan rebels, predominantly Muslim, who oppose the Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni. They started to group in the east of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1995. It’s one of the most violent armed groups in the region, and has been accused of massacring thousands of civilians in Beni since October 2014.
To anticipate other attacks, authorities have increased the number of checkpoints along the roads leading into Beni and are fastidiously checking IDs. The town’s residents have also been told to notify security forces if they see any suspicious behaviour or a suspicious object.
“You should never get close to an object that you can’t identify. […] We often say that if you haven’t put something down yourself, you should never touch it because it can sometimes be booby-trapped,” explained Jacob Bedidio, the head of operations at the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in the region, speaking to Radio Okapi, the radio for the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Suicide bombing: a new modus operandi?
These attacks occurred almost two months after the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo Félix Tshisekedi imposed a state of siege in the provinces of Ituri and North Kivu to combat the many armed groups operating in the mineral-rich region. As part of the measure, civil governors were replaced by military governors and civil courts replaced by military courts.
Pierre Boisselet, a coordinator at Kivu Security Tracker, told Deutsche Welle that the use of a suicide bomber and the attack on a church indicated a change in strategy on the part of ADF.
“They’re trying to scare the population in order to win a political victory. It appears that they’re deliberately trying to bring about the end of military operations against them. We’ve seen in the past that every time military operations have been mounted against them, they’ve responded with an increase in attacks on civilians. It would make sense that the announcement of the state of siege has only reinforced their desire to terrorise the local population,” he explained.
Boisselet, referring to a United Nations report published in December 2020, said that the rebel group had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group – “even if we don’t yet have enough proof that the Islamic State group supports them directly.” The use of suicide bombings is one of the results of this new partnership.
A state of siege with few results
According to a report by Kivu Security Tracker (KST) in collaboration with Congo Research Group and Human Rights Watch, the state of siege did little to improve security in the east of the country.
“Since the state of siege was decreed by President Félix Tshisekedi on April 30, civilian security as a whole has, in fact, gotten worse in North Kivu and Ituri provinces. KST has recorded the deaths of at least 223 people there in May, compared with 198 in April,” Pierre Boisselet wrote in a blog post on the organisation’s website.
He continued, "The killings in Boga and Tchabi, in Irumu territory, which led to 55 civilian deaths, during the night of May 30 to 31 (the deadliest day ever recorded by KST), were largely responsible for this upswing. However, from one month to the next, the death toll also increased in Beni territory (74 civilians killed in May, compared with 47 in April) and in Mambasa territory (35 civilians killed in May, compared with 3 in April)."