He has been named and shamed by the United Nations, accused of murder, rape and abusing child soldiers in one of Africa’s most merciless war zones, but nothing it seems can stop Innocent Zimurinda.
The feared former Democratic Republic of Congo militia leader remains an army lieutenant colonel in “operational command”, despite having been put on a UN sanctions list one month ago, according to UN officials and rights workers.
Zimurinda is a leading name among rogue army officers who are meant to be extending government control in eastern DRC but are instead fighting for its mineral wealth and lumber concessions, according to rights groups.
There are “dozens” with a “horrible track record of human rights abuses who are in top positions in the national army”, according to Anneke Van Woudenberg, an Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, who checked on Zimurinda’s activities on a recent trip to eastern DRC.
She says he still commands military operations from a base at Kitchanga in North Kivu province.
The power of the rival groups in a country the size of Western Europe makes impunity easy in the DRC, where conflict in the last 15 years has left millions dead.
For many, Zimurinda has become a symbol of the license given to the “conflict mineral” soldiers.
He is an ethnic Tutsi who fought with National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) rebels until a peace accord with the government in March 2009. CNDP fighters were taken into the national army.
Zimurinda took part in a CNDP operation that led to the “massacre” in November 2008 of 89 people in the Kiwanja region, including many women and children, according to a statement that announced his name on the UN sanctions list.
Many of the women had their breasts cut off in the attack, investigators said.
When taken into the army he gave the orders that resulted in the “massacre” of more than 100 Rwandan refugees, mainly women and children, in the Shalio region in April 2009, the statement added.
And the list goes on, including the rape of “a large number” of women and girls and the killing of child soldiers.
Putting Zimurinda on the UN sanctions list is an “important signal”, said Van Woudenberg. “But travel bans and asset freezes are not enough. The next step is for the Congolese government to suspend him from his military position and bring him to justice.”
“The investigations have been difficult, in part because witnesses are in remote areas and judicial authorities have limited means to get to such areas, and also because many witnesses are scared to speak out while Zimurinda is still in operational command,” said the HRW researcher.
The DRC government may be reluctant to act against Zimurinda because he is a cousin of Bosco Ntaganda, a former CNDP commander and now an army general, diplomats said. Ntaganda was also at Shalio in 2009 and is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
HRW says Ntaganda is again forcibly recruiting children and youths and that he runs a parallel chain of command in his old rebel group.
Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN special representative on children in armed conflict, said the United Nations knows that Zimurinda is still an army colonel and has called on the DRC government to act.
“We have to put pressure on the government to prosecute him and we will continue with that,” she told said.
“I suppose the political decision to incorporate the CNDP is why they are scared to take action. I hope that something will be done.”
The decision to put Zimurinda on the sanctions list followed a campaign by France, the United States and Britain which Coomaraswamy called “historic” and predicted would be followed up by the Security Council and ICC even if Zimurinda remains at large.
DRC protested strongly after the United States last month took the country off its list of African countries with special trade privileges.
Margot Wallstrom, the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, said that “constant pressure” is needed and she wants to raise the case of Zimurinda and others with DRC’s President Joseph Kabila.
“He has to be handed over,” she told Agence France-Presse. “We keep telling the government that they have to help us to arrest them. I would like to meet with the president. There are a number of facts that we think we need to discuss.”
Wallstrom said a recent UN Security Council resolution on women in conflict would help with “naming and shaming” of individuals and to increase Security Council sanctions.
But in an implicit acknowledgement of the Security Council’s limited reach, Wallstrom said: “These are tools in the hands of politicians, between governments and decisions makers and the international community. We have to make sure that we change the lives of women and children on the ground, those that are victims and survivors of sexual violence.” – AFP