The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been wracked by violence and conflict for decades. The six-year war that ensued after the ousting in 1997 of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko drew in neighbouring countries and left at least three million dead. Although a peace deal was signed in 2003, the east of the country continues to be terrorized by militias and the army. Notoriously, thousands of women continue to be raped. Pascal Kabungulu, who trained as a teacher, was the head of DRC human rights organization Heritiers de la justice. He was among the first to identify rape as a weapon of war, and fearlessly denounced many other atrocities. He was murdered in front of his wife and children in Bukavu in 2005. His widow, Deborah, and their six children ultimately had to flee – and are now settled in Canada. Pascal Kabungulu’s perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice. Deborah Kabungulu and her son, Heri, speak about their harrowing story.
How did Pascal get involved with human rights?
Deborah: My husband was among many Congolese teachers who taught in Rwanda. He worked there until the massacre [the 1993-94 Rwandan genocide]. People were killing each other! There were bodies everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. He saw people with machetes, people killing each other. Within a week there was a stench in the streets. There were bodies everywhere. There was blood. It affected him. When he got home to Bukavu he said ‘I have to do something. I don’t know why everyone is killing each other. What’s happening? I have to defend people. If people had raised their voices, perhaps people wouldn’t have been killed like that.’
What was life like for you in Bukavu, in the east, when Joseph Kabila took power?
Deborah: He chased out the Rwandan Tutsis who helped him take power. They took the east. That’s the beginning of the RCD [Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie – the rebel group The Congolese Rally for Democracy]. That’s when the rapes and killings started. That was in 1998 – after Mobutu was chased out.
How did Pascal identify rape as a weapon?
Deborah: Heritiers de la justice was an organization which people trusted. He had a huge network to draw on – sometimes he went to document reports or got those affected to come in. It was 30, 40 women a day.
Heri: All the groups there raped.
Deborah: The rebels, Mai Mai, the RCD, the government military.
Heri: It became an instrument of war. They use our women. They know our women are vulnerable. They rape women to destabilize – and to continue their war.
What was the response of the authorities to his work?
Deborah: He regularly got called in to the RCD office. ‘Why did you write that?’ they would ask. ‘Because it was the truth, it was like that.’ The threats really started in 1998 when he denounced the burying alive of over 30 women in a village about 100 kilometres from Bukavu, where there was resistance to the RCD. They dug a hole, dumped women in there and covered it up with soil.
They warned me that the gunmen had killed my husband and now they wanted to exterminate me and my family. We left home – just like that – without anything, without knowing where we were going
Heri: They also took the priest of the church and killed him. They killed the traditional chief and his wife. Pascal pointed the finger at the RCD.
Deborah: After that, the real war on Pascal started. He then accused the RCD of stealing gold from the local population. On a visit to the RCD office one of the soldiers put a gun to his head and threatened him. ‘I want to kill you.’ His boss told him to put his weapon down.
What do you remember of his assassination on 31 July 2005?
Deborah: At 3.30 in the morning, my husband heard noises, got up and opened the door. A man said ‘It’s you we are looking for.’ ‘Why are you looking for me?’ ‘You escaped often but today it’s finished for you. We will kill you.’ He was hit by two bullets, including one in the head. The gunmen fled.
Why did you and your family have to flee?
Deborah: The day of Pascal’s funeral, armed men came looking for me at the health centre where I worked. They banged on the windows and the doors – and frightened the patients. The NGOs knew I was in danger. They warned me that the gunmen had killed my husband and now they wanted to exterminate me and my family. They decided to evacuate us. We left home – just like that – without anything, without knowing where we were going, empty handed. I was very weak, I had lost weight, I cried a lot. [My elder sons] had already crossed the border. I took my two youngest. We crossed and got to Uganda. A year later we arrived in Canada.
What do you know of the investigation into Pascal’s murder?
Deborah: I wasn’t there. But the men had been convicted; then [authorities in] Kinshasa called and said ‘You, the people of Bukavu, you don’t have the jurisdiction or competence to judge these people. Send the dossier to Kinshasa. We will judge these people.’ Up until today, there is nothing. The dossier is broken. All those people were freed. They work, they go where they want to go. Us, do we feel safe? We do not feel safe because our enemies are free.
What do you remember of Pascal?
Deborah: What I loved about my husband was that he taught my children to be nonviolent. Whatever happens, you have to find a nonviolent solution. Do not take revenge. I can’t forget him. He will never leave my heart. I miss him. I speak to him often.
Heri: I am told that I resemble my father the most out of all of us. A lot of the things I do are like him. He is my inspiration. Yes, that’s it.
Would you like to go back to DRC?
Deborah: We can’t return because it’s too dangerous. All the perpetrators are free today. It’s like we have congratulated them for what they did. If we went – it would be like being beheaded.
Deborah Kabungulu has set up a foundation to educate the children of murdered human rights defenders in DRC:
Pascal Kabungulu Foundation