Unfolding Tragedy of the Banyamulenge in Eastern DRC

Mass violence targeting the Banyamulenge is escalating in South Kivu provinces, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo with limited national and international attention. The Banyamulenge have become the target of systematic attacks due to a widespread yet misleading race narrative that perceived the Banyamulenge as the “Tutsi other”. In the meantime, the government has failed to step up to protect the community, despite a previous promise of President Tshisekedi to address the situation of insecurity in South Kivu provinces, including Minembwe and surrounding areas. 

Forgotten violence in South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo

While mainstream media mostly turns its attention to terrorist and armed groups’ activities in Eastern DRC, the plight of the Banyamulenge seems to melt into the shadow of obscurity. In broad daylight, around 300 villages have been destroyed; more than 125,000 cattle looted and many Banyamulenge people forced to live in IDP camps. Mass killings conducted by Mai-Mai militia groups and their allies took place arbitrarily and targeted even Banyamulenge soldiers in the national armed forces. Profits gained from selling cattle are used to purchase arms and reward combatants hence prolonging the struggle. Mai-Mai’s attacks are nowhere near spontaneous; in fact, the attacks are organized with a clear mission of cleansing the entire Banyamulenge. Despite escalating violations putting thousands of lives at risk, the government, the national forces, and international actors have failed to intervene. 

A misleading tragedy: Race or revenge?

Banyamulenge is commonly portrayed as Tutsis, Rwandophones, or Hamites as opposed to Bantus or autochthony. Even though the Banyamulenge moved and resided in the high plateaus of Minembwe-Itombwe in South Kivu in the 17th and 18th centuries, they have long been perceived as a Rwandan Tutsi affiliate. Though this race narrative is often deployed to portray the tension between the Banyamulenge and Congolese natives, what worsened the existing tension were events in the colonial time and later the overthrowing of President Mobutu. Both the divide and rule tactic in colonial times and the period when Banyamulenge fighters joined Rwanda in overthrowing Mobutu fed into the existing marginalization of the community. At that time, the Rwandan-Banyamulenge coalition carried out brutal attacks on not only Mobutu’s forces but also innocent civilians. After that, Banyamulenge fighters had to turn in their lands as compensation and the coalition did not remain, but many Congolese natives sought revenge. 

In the back of the mind of many Congolese natives, the role of “Rwandan army affiliate” is fixed to the Banyamulenge, regardless of how the Banyamulenge have tried to prove that there was no longer any connection. What was worse was numerous hate speech targeting the Banyamulenge and emphasizing that they were the source of evil and insurgencies in the country. The existing “in-group-out-group” mentality of the Congolese natives was fuelled by hate speech and civilians’ grievances that transformed into repeated violence and legitimized abuses from armed groups. Until 2015, Congolese native communities had still dwelled on the past aggression of the Banyamulenge, resulting in attacks mainly by Mai-Mai militias and their Burundi rebel alliance. The alliance’s main mission is to wipe out entirely the Banyamulenge from DRC. 

Failed attempts to intervene

The Banyamulenge community has been left unprotected for years. The national army is responsible for protecting civilians, but the reality shows a stark contrast. Instead of protecting the community at stake, the national armed forces (FARDC) have not hesitated to shoot civilians and protect the perpetrators including Mai-Mai militias and Burundi rebels. The evidence of FARDC getting involved is clear. According to a report by Banyamulenge Global Network, when attacks happened, FARDC either turned blind eyes or directly conducted killings. On the 30th of June, 2021, FARDC were reported to kill four women and one man. 

Fuelling the existing plight of the Banyamulenge was an assumption of local media that the community was preparing to launch rebellions in secret. Thus, international actors such as United Nations Organisation Stabilisation in DR Congo (MONUSCO) have a reason to believe that what has been going on is a result of ethnic tension. Furthermore, MONUSCO also collected intelligence from FARDC and security services, which undermined the possibility that MONUSCO could gather quality information. Meanwhile, other international actors such as humanitarian agencies while being informed about the tragedy, failed to intervene and help individuals stranded in IDP camps. 

The way forward

The present is filled with hopelessness and gloomy scenes, but there is no reason to stop fighting for the Banyamulenge community. The Next Century Foundation expresses its great concern about this acute humanitarian crisis and calls for pragmatic responses from both the government and international actors. We appeal to President Tshisekedi to be willing to hold a round-table talk with representatives of the Banyamulenge and FARDC soldiers deployed in South Kivu. Such talk would be expected to help the government have a closer look at the serious situation in South Kivu and highlight the significance of restoring peace for the Banyamulenge in the region. Such talk should also cover the topic of living conditions of FARDC soldiers in Eastern DRC because many soldiers have allied with militia groups to loot civilians to sustain their livelihood. Meanwhile, we call upon immediate actions from the government to closely investigate and punish perpetrators of atrocities. Furthermore, international humanitarian agencies should pay more attention to and prioritize medical and food supplies to the Banyamulenge living in IDP camps. We look forward to decisive and prompt actions to restore safety for the Banyamulenge in the region. 

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