A series of leaked audio recordings, images and documents obtained exclusively by Al Jazeera’s Investigation Unit (I-Unit) appear to show the failures of a German government-funded investigation into reports alleging killings in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The commission of inquiry, which investigated allegations that park rangers and Congolese soldiers killed members of the indigenous Batwa community in the park between 2019 and 2021, reported on June 1 that no widespread atrocities were reported. had taken place.
The investigation was launched in April after a report by 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 concludes that at least 20 members of the indigenous Batwa community were killed in the park by “joint contingents” of park rangers and Congolese soldiers in three waves of violent attacks.
A researcher and the journalist who wrote the MRG report say that since the report was published, they have been forced into hiding after receiving a tip that gunmen had been sent to kill them.
A series of photographs obtained by the journalist, Robert Flummerfelt, and shared exclusively with Unite-I, appear to show the bodies of villagers in the park after alleged attacks by park rangers and Congolese soldiers.
Photographs 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 could not independently verify, also shows a body that appears to have been mutilated with a series of deep machete blows to the torso.
Journalist, Robert Flummerfelt, says he believes park rangers and Congolese soldiers carried out the raids as part of a coordinated campaign to evict indigenous communities from the park to make the area more attractive to foreign conservationists. and foreign tourists. He alleges that at least 20 villagers were killed and that Batwa women were gang-raped.
Kahuzi-Biega National Park, which receives the majority of its funding from the German government, is home to the critically endangered eastern lowland gorilla, and it is one of the most important tourist attractions in the DRC.
Controversy over the events at the park escalated on June 1, when the German government-funded commission of inquiry into the alleged murders dismissed Flummerfelt’s claims and found that park rangers and Congolese soldiers did not had not committed widespread atrocities.
The commission said park rangers were forced to defend themselves against “armed” Batwa villagers and that some Batwa were killed in the crossfire when they were used as “human shields” in clashes between the park 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 cases of direct intimidation of witnesses, of treating Batwa victims with open contempt, of literally laughing at reports that Batwa women have been gang-raped.
“I was there with the commission,” said Flummerfelt, who was invited as a commission participant. “There have been no firsthand accounts, even secondhand, of Batwa being used as human shields. And yet this [claim] is used as a kind of flimsy justification to prove that the Batwa were killed.
Flummerfelt and his researcher, who wish to remain anonymous for security reasons, had gathered accounts of the alleged atrocities for the report commissioned by MRG.
“[We] spoke to eyewitnesses who described park rangers opening fire on civilians, killing a number of Batwa, sometimes by execution,” Flummerfelt said.
“Sometimes community members [were forced] to watch as their family members were executed,” he added.
“[Witnesses also described park guards] subject Batwa women to gang rape at gunpoint.
Recordings of “witness intimidation”
The report compiled by Flummerfelt and his Congolese researcher led to the creation of the Commission of Inquiry to investigate their claims.
The investigation was led by a senior official from the Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN), the Congolese government agency that manages the park.
“In effect, ICCN was investigating itself, a huge conflict of interest,” Flummerfelt said.
In audio recordings obtained by Unit-I, the head of the commission, George Muzibaziba, can be heard appearing to intimidate witnesses who gave accounts of 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 the attack on his community by militias if ICCN guards and Congolese soldiers must leave the area accordingly. of the testimony he provided.
In another interview, conducted in mid-April, Muzibaziba is recorded telling a witness that the information provided would be “dangerous” for the witness. Another member of the commission then interrupts Muzibaziba by saying, “George, don’t intimidate him.
On the recordings, we also hear the ICCN lawyers laughing at the mention of the gang rape and the death of a Batwa woman.
Fearing for his safety, the Congolese researcher working with Flummerfelt did not disclose his full name to the commission of inquiry. However, the limited personal details he provided have been leaked, providing enough information for him to be identified.
“Within three days, the very specific information provided to the commission on the identity of my colleague is available to members of the Congolese government,” Flummerfelt told Al Jazeera.
After being informed of credible threats to their lives, Flummerfelt and the researcher fled into hiding.
A witness, who asked not to be identified, told Al Jazeera that ICCN guards “won’t get tired until they have [Flummerfelt] and [the Congolese researcher]. Killing someone is not a problem for them”.
The head of the commission of inquiry, George Muzibaziba, dismissed claims that ICCN park rangers were targeting Flummerfelt and the researcher, calling the claims “very flawed”.
Chief Mbuwa Kalimba Bacirembera and another Batwa chief, Chief Gonzalo Malenga Majafa, are also in hiding, believing that their appearance before the investigation put their lives in danger.
“They received credible threats that people working for the Congolese government institution, the ICCN, were pursuing them, in order to punish them for having communicated to the commission the fact that members of the community had been victims of gang-raped, killed and attacked. and so on,” Flummerfelt said.
“Massive violations of human rights”
Since the publication of the commission’s report, a member of the German parliament has described the events in Kahuzi-Biega National Park as “massive violations of human rights”.
Deborah Düring, parliamentary spokesperson for international cooperation and development of the Greens in the German Bundestag, said: “The Batwa must be heard and their rights must be respected”.
“I think it’s clear that we are dealing with structural issues, not isolated incidents,” Düring said.
She said the German government and international donors must 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 forced evictions of Batwa villagers, Muzibaziba suggested that Al Jazeera “refer to the published report”.
Muzibaziba said he believed Flummerfelt made “misrepresentations” about the violence in the park. He called Flummerfelt’s research “reductionist… evasive and not thorough”, and said his report alleging atrocities against the Batwa was “very biased”.
Muzibaziba denied intimidating witnesses who testified before the commission of inquiry. He also denied disclosing the identity of the Congolese researcher. He described the commission’s work as “fair and objective.”
A spokesman for Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), which funds most of the park’s operating costs, told Al Jazeera they were “deeply disturbed by reports of threats and intimidation that would have been uttered against witnesses and sources by members of the Commission”.
Nevertheless, the ministry has “confidence” in the methodology of the commission. In light of the allegations of atrocities committed, the BMZ will “reflect on its continued support for Kahuzi-Biega”.