Democratic Republic of Congo

Crime Wave Ignites Debate Over Coronavirus Measures

The restrictions likely prevented the spread of COVID-19. But in Goma, a city with a fraught history of violence, they may have invited a different danger.

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Crime Wave Ignites Debate Over Coronavirus Measures

Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ DRC

Justin Kabuya, who owns a general store in Goma, now closes his shop early to get home before dark. He made the decision recently after a colleague was shot after work. Critics of DRC’s coronavirus restrictions say they hurt businesses and made crime worse in places like Goma.

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GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — On a late-September evening, several people rush toward a young man shot dead. As he lies in a pool of blood, they try to identify him. When they recognize him, they wail in despair.

The dead man is Salume Kabwelulu, a 33-year-old money-changer – Congolese francs to United States dollars – who worked in this city. Armed bandits took his cash and killed him as he walked home.

He leaves behind his wife, Sharifa Kabwelulu, and their 2-year-old twins.

“My husband was a responsible man who worked very hard to provide for his family,” Sharifa Kabwelulu, 27, says in tears. “Those who killed him knew he had money on him and waited to take it from him without leaving a witness.”

Salume Kabwelulu was another casualty in a city besieged by crime in recent months.

Some blame the national government’s attempts to corral the coronavirus, which included limited travel within the country, a curfew, the release of thousands of prisoners, restricted business hours and closed borders.

Critics of the government say those orders hobbled businesses, deepened poverty and fomented criminal activity. Measures meant to keep people safe, they say, appear to have done just the opposite.

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Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ DRC

Bandits killed Sharifa Kabwelulu’s husband, Salume Kabwelulu, in September as he walked home. Accompanied by the couple’s 2-year-old twins, she says she was more worried about her husband being robbed than she was about his being infected by the coronavirus.

Those measures have forced many Congolese out of work, according to the Center for Economic and Finance Research in Goma, an independent organization comprised mainly of professors at the University of Goma. Vicar Batundi, vice president of the Civil Society of Goma, says higher unemployment has pushed many young people into crime.

“As COVID-19 was brought under control, the cases of insecurity increased,” Batundi says, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus. “In the month of September alone, 10 people were killed by armed bandits, a number that is extremely high compared to last year, when there were two cases a month.”

Goma, the capital of North Kivu province in eastern DRC, saw 35 murders in 2019, local police say. As of September this year, it already had 45.

Instability has buffeted Goma off and on since the 1960s, the result of armed conflicts, political tensions, regional refugee crises and other cataclysms. When civil war erupted in DRC nearly 25 years ago, armed groups anchored themselves in this sprawling lakeside city of more than 1 million people. Some of those groups remain.

Meanwhile, Goma blossomed into a business and humanitarian hub, with scores of aid organizations and lots of upscale housing and hotels. But crime never ebbed, nourished by gentrification, unemployment and poverty.

“As COVID-19 was brought under control, the cases of insecurity increased."Vice president of the Civil Society of Goma

In early March, another social challenge emerged, as DRC announced its first case of COVID-19.

Among other measures, the government closed DRC’s borders. The shutdown, which lasted until late August, took a major economic toll, says Michel Djamba, spokesperson for the Cross-Border Traders Association.

Before the pandemic, he says, people traveled to Rwanda, as well as other nearby countries such as Uganda and Burundi, to seek work. At least 10,000 people crossed the border daily, he says.

“Half of this number have been forced to look for other sources of income,” he says, “while the others are unemployed.”

At the same time, to curb the virus in DRC’s overcrowded prisons, magistrates released 2,000 inmates. According to Human Rights Watch, a New York-based nongovernmental organization, most had been imprisoned for minor crimes or were awaiting trial.

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Yet some officials blame released detainees for DRC’s crime surge.

Job Alain Alisa, commander of Goma’s police force, says former inmates commit at least 60% of Goma’s violent crime today.

“When you release someone and there’s no social reintegration program, there’s a good chance that the individual will become a criminal again,” Alisa says.

Many Goma residents live on the edge of panic. Even with coronavirus restrictions fully lifted, neighborhood streets are deserted by nightfall. Crime is a hot topic in headlines and on social media. Businesses shut before sunset.

Justin Kabuya, married with three children, owns a general store in downtown Goma that sells rice, flour, soap and other staples. Kabuya says he used to remain open until 6 p.m. Now he closes around 4.

He made the move after robbers shot a co-worker in the shoulder one recent evening.

Before, Kabuya earned up to 60,000 francs ($30) a day. These days, he says, he is lucky to make half.

Winnie Byabure, a mother of six, was at home around 7 p.m. recently when four heavily armed men burst in. They told her and her children to kneel with their heads against a wall and stay silent.

"When you release someone and there’s no social reintegration program, there’s a good chance that the individual will become a criminal again."Goma police force commander

The bandits, who came in a van, took many valuables – cash, canisters of cooking gas, the refrigerator, the television and mattresses.

“I think my neighbors thought I was moving,” Byabure says. “Today I’m starting to refurnish little by little.”

Dieudonné Komayombi, a member of DRC’s Parliament who represents Goma, says its crime crisis predates COVID-19, adding that the solution is to seize the untold number of illegal weapons floating around the city.

Likewise, Patrick Mundeke, a senior leader of the Congolese political platform known as LAMUKA (“wake up”), believes Goma’s crime issues run deeper than coronavirus restrictions.

“The authorities should look for the root cause of the problem related to the case of insecurity in order to find an effective and sustainable solution,” he says. “If nothing changes, even after COVID-19, people will continue to be killed.”

Sharifa Kabwelulu, who married Salume in 2017, recalls him as a tall, calm man with a smile that caught her attention when they started dating. He was the president of the Moneychangers Association and frequently brought home matching dresses for the twins.

Sharifa says he used to arrive home by 7 p.m. to avoid robbers. But Salume didn’t carry a gun, and he always took the same route. The robbers knew his habits, she says, and on the evening of Sept. 28, they were waiting for him.

He was killed just before he reached his house.

Noella Nyirabihogo is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. She specializes in covering peace and security.


Translation Note

Megan Spada, GPJ, translated this story from French. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.