By Djaffar Al Katanty and Arlette Bashizi
GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) – The smell of decomposing bodies filled the air as cemetery workers in eastern Congo unloaded dozens of coffins at the final resting place for victims of one of the deadliest crackdowns on protests in recent local memory.
As rain poured down on the funerals in mid-September, distraught family members cried out and clasped each other for support. The burials continued as darkness fell.
At least 56 people were killed on Aug. 30, according to a military prosecutor, after Congolese soldiers in the city of Goma opened fire on protesters ahead of a demonstration against the presence of U.N. peacekeepers.
A military court on Monday sentenced some of those accused of orchestrating the bloodshed, and the government has paid for burials and offered compensation to the grieving and angry families.
Many are struggling to come to terms with their loss.
“It’s criminal, what they’ve done,” said 26-year-old widow Tumaini Barumana Biluge, decrying the two weeks she and the other bereaved had had to wait to identify the victims.
“We couldn’t recognise people’s faces anymore, relatives only recognised their own by the clothes they were wearing,” she said at her simple home in a hardscrabble suburb of Goma, the day after the Sept. 18 burial.
Her husband’s brother was also killed on Aug. 30. She and her sister-in-law, Zawadi Balthazar, 22, must now raise six children between them without their fathers. They all wept when they went back to visit the graves on Sept. 19.
“May the perpetrators of these killings be condemned, may they be thrown into prison forever,” said Balthazar.
On Monday, three of six soldiers on trial for their role in the killings were sentenced to 10 years behind bars, while the head of the Republic Guard unit in Goma was handed the death penalty, which is expected to be commuted to life imprisonment. The two others were acquitted.
During the trial, the prosecutor described the sound of crackling of gunfire as soldiers started firing before dawn on Aug. 30 in what he called a massacre.
Decades of conflict between the army and myriad rebel groups has destabilised eastern Congo and civilians rarely see justice for the abuses committed by both sides.
The new military governor of eastern North Kivu province, Major-General Peter Cirimwami, said the army needs to work harder to build people’s trust.
“This is why I was sent by the higher-ups so that we can develop an approach with the local community that will change attitudes,” he told journalists on Sept. 20. during his first field visit in the province.
(Writing by Sonia Rolley; Editing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Gareth Jones)