More than 40 people died and dozens were injured while protesters from a religious sect gathered in the Congolese city of Goma, national authorities said.
Congo’s communications ministry said violence related to planned protests led to 43 deaths and 56 injuries, raising the preliminary death toll of seven announced by the army on Wednesday.
Dozens were being treated for severe injuries in nearby hospitals, and the UN human rights office said Friday more than 220 people were arrested.
“People have a right to express themselves freely and to assemble peacefully, even if in protest at the United Nations and other actors,” UN human rights office spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said on Friday.
The protest was organized by a sect called the Natural Judaic and Messianic Faith Towards the Nations and known colloquially as Wazalendo. Its supporters were demonstrating against the regional East African Community organization and the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, called MONUSCO, which is in the process of being drawn down by the end of the year.
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Goma’s Mayor Faustin Napenda Kapend had banned the protest on Aug. 23 soon after it was announced. Congolese security and defense forces had amassed at major intersections in anticipation when violence broke out around 4 a.m. Wednesday.
Wednesday’s events were “an apparent massacre” according to Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group. “Security forces used live ammunition seemingly to break up a gathering of people preparing to demonstrate in the streets of Goma,” said Thomas Fessy, a senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The unnecessary use of lethal force is callous as well as unlawful,” Fessy said, calling on authorities to carry out a thorough investigation into senior military officials who ordered the use of unlawful lethal force.
U.N. peacekeeping missions began operating in Congo in 1999. Three decades of conflict in the northeastern region have displaced over 6 million people, according to the U.N., with the crisis intensifying since 2021.
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“The Wazalendo don’t have a problem with the authorities; they’re people who just want peace in their country,” said protester Nsimire Sifa on Wednesday. The religious sect and other critics say the U.N. peacekeeping mission MONUSCO, which was the target of deadly protests in July 2022, has done little to help protect civilians from overlapping conflicts in eastern Congo.
“MONUSCO remains concerned by the threats of violence made prior to the demonstration and reiterates the importance of the peaceful resolution of disputes and concerns through inclusive dialogue,” the mission said in a statement Thursday.
Red Cross surgical coordinator Max Maietti said men, women and children, the majority of whom had bullet wounds in the chest and stomach, overloaded the capacity of CBCA Ndosho hospital in Goma on Wednesday.
“It was a very complicated case because our hospital has 64 beds, but by the end of the day we had 90 patients,” he said on Friday at the hospital. Maietti said a bullet struck the hospital gate near where injured civilians were waiting to seek treatment.