Fighting violence with violence: DRC’s brutal crackdown on Kinshasa’s young street gangs

Journalists: Nils Adler (text and audio) and Pascal Vossen (photography and film)

We intend to spend 22 days in Kinshasa to document the lives of the Kulunas — violent youth gangs who commit robberies and terrorize the local communities using machetes and other weapons. The Kulunas began to separate into increasingly organized military style grids throughout the city around 2008, each gang controlling a écurie (stable) or assigned area.

The government’s reaction to this situation was to launch Operation Likofi (translates as — operation Iron Fist) in 2013. Police began to raid the boys’ homes at night, often killing them in front of their families. No arrest warrants were displayed and often their bodies were left on the street as a warning. The families were later denied access to the bodies and prevented from holding a funeral. After complaints from Human Rights Watch over the public executions, reports began to surface that gang members were being abducted by the police and later killed whilst under custody, their bodies were disposed of in the Congo River. Thirty-three of these children are still registered as missing.

The crimes committed by the Kulunas have been horrifying and the actions of the police in retaliation have been a series of incredibly serious human rights violations. This situation needs international recognition in order for anything to change. However, in reaction to the visceral actions of the government, we want to unearth some of the underlying social and economic conditions that meant the Kuluna existed in the first place. Initial reports indicate that many of the youth members have been child soldiers and are victims of physical and emotional traumas suffered throughout their childhood. They often live in extreme poverty, living in slums with no employment opportunities due to a lack of education.

In the beginning of 2016, there has been an increase in activity amongst the Kulunas. In reaction to this the African Association for the Defence of Human Rights, made recommendations and urged the government, police and Congolese courts to uphold the rule of law when dealing with the Kulunas. We will look to investigate if these recommendations are being adhered to and if there has been any ethical improvement in the treatment of these boys and young adults.

Our approach to this article is to show the human side of this underreported situation. With the help of local contacts, we will spend time with these young boys and their families, visiting their homes and spending time with them to find out what has caused this situation. We also want to hear the stories and thoughts of the families who have lost their children to this situation and reflect on the human impact of this violence. If we are able to show the underlying issues, then hopefully the international community can encourage a more long-term and just approach to dealing with the violent culture of these gangs.

We will not shy away from the seriousness of the often-gratuitous acts of violence that these young men have committed. We will interview the affected communities and provide a fair and balanced background to the story. However, we do want to give these men a chance to tell their story. Until now, only one side has been told — the official line of the government and the local residents who want to see them off the streets. We feel in the name of fairness and equality, these men deserve a chance to show the world what their life is like, as well as how and why, they became involved in these notorious gangs.