Fizi-Baraka the “Drowning Hell”: How 150 Children have been Missing since 1996?

For decades if not centuries, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been characterized by a cycle of violence. The eastern part of DRC, specifically the Kivus has been the mostly affected regions. Since the post-independence period, Fizi Territoire has seen Banyamulenge and Babembe ethnic communities clashing violently. This background has made the region as an epicenter of contestation and massacres. To some extent, the post-independence violence and grudge had gradually been buried as the two neighboring communities lived in a neighborhood and shared some “developmental” initiatives. Up to 90s, these neighbors lived in a likely stable mood though there was a power structure imbalance that favored some groups. The democratization era exacerbated tensions propelled by a mixture of local and Kinshasa politics. Fueled by the presence of Burundians and Rwandan refugees, the 1996 socio-political and security climate has led to a resurgence of violence targeting mainly civilians. Relying on recommendations of Vangu Mambueni’s commission, Zairian State decided to expel Banyamulenge community as well as those considered as ‘Rwandan’ descents. Alleging members of the latter community to be foreigners, there followed “incidents” that culminated to 1996 war. One of these incidents is the Wednesday’s nightmare that keeps knocking into minds of few survivors of the Bibogobogo’s massacre that took place in Baraka.

BIbogobog’s village where hostages were rounded up manu militariby Mobutu’s security Forces

Bibogobogo is considered as fiefdom of Chief Muganwa since early 1930s. The latter is cited, alongside with Rupande Laban, as the ones who have contributed to get this area stabilized following the post-independence crises. They managed to save lives of thousands who were regularly targeted by Simba-Mulele rebellion. Bibogobogo is approximately located 25 miles westward of Tanganyika Lake. From the coast Baraka, Mushimbake, Lweba, Lusenda, Kabela or Mboko, the locality comprises around 19 villages[1] in the mid plateau. Most of these villages are inhabited by Banyamulenge who, regardless Simba-Mulele shortfalls, have managed to live in harmony with their neighbors. Distant of 50-60 Kms to westward Minembwe, reaching the latter zone considered as the stronghold of Banyamulenge requires to cross Mutambala river, the large forest along the Mitumba Mountains Chain as well as villages inhabited by Babembe. The deep Mutambala River is approximately 20-30 meters of width. More strikingly, there is no practical road that connects Minembwe to Bibogobogo and possibly that such project is not listed on public priorities. Thus, one can only reach either Minembwe or Kamombo by embracing difficult conditions of climbing hills as well as crossing the large forest called Ndobo. This is the landlocked picture in which Banyamulenge population living in Bibogobogo were found on 18th September 1996 while gathering in a church service.

Amid 1996 political crises, following the developments of rebel movements and the presence of uncontrolled armed men among refugee camps, ethnic tensions increased in Eastern Congo. Particularly in South of South-Kivu, local politicians such as Anzuluni Bembe alongside Provincial authorities instigated inter-ethnic violence that had involved security services. At some point, state authorities, mainly the ‘Governor’ of South-Kivu Lwabanji Lwasi Ngabo declared all Banyamulenge as non-grata community and ordered security services to surround and implement the Vangu recommendations. Following the 31st August 1996 incident in which military clashes occurred among insurgents and loyal forces to Mobutu, local tensions and fear increased. Maliciously, public authorities requested local population, specifically Banyamulenge to seek shelter nearest Security services’ military bases otherwise they will be shelled by military airstrike. Banyamulenge gathering in Mugorore’s church were attacked in this context on 18th September 1996. Men, women and children from different villages comprising the Bibogobogo area, were manu militari rounded up and taken to Baraka by the military and some members of Babembe community. Though yet independently documented, the plan to attack Bibogobogo’s villages would have a hand behind of some members of their neighbors; mainly instigated by youth and political leaders.

Carte de Fizi et Baraka.

The Wednesday gathering service has been taking place for roughly 5 years. It was well-known that villagers from Bibogobogo would meet for prayer services on that specific day. The uncertainties of the socio-security context would inevitably push many people to attend the church services. It is amid of the church service that military with heavy guns attacked Mugorore. All these prisoners were taken to Baraka, an agglomeration/city located approximately 80 Kms Southward of Uvira city. From Uvira to Baraka there are many localities at the shore of Lake Tanganyika, bordering Burundi and Tanzania. It is believed that more than 700 (including 159 children under 13 years) people were taken hostage. At their arrival, they were separately held in “slaughterhouses” men, women and children. Around 26th September 1996, approximately 300 adults were killed and buried in a mass grave. In the same hell, roughly 250 who were told to be taken to “Rwanda” were slaughtered in Lweba-Mboko 2 days later. Strikingly, for the sake of wiping evidences out, in 2005 all these bodies were later exhumed from mass grave and dumped into the Lake Tanganyika. The fate of those who have died is quite clear as no one wonders again where they are. Survivors would wish to remember them or at least having such opportunity to visit the place where these bodies were thrown into waters. There is yet a possibility of recovering at least bones. But this article advocates for the missing children.

For roughly 3 years I have been following this case, I managed to collect the following information. Among 500 adults, only Five women have miraculously survived, and they are still living in the region. For safety reasons, they names will be disclosed later. Out of 159 children who were among the victims, 13 dead bodies have been identified. Besides the 13 bodies, informed observers have confirmed that other children have been taken to Tanzania as part of protecting them. That is, 146 children were taken either as hostage or slaves in Tanzania. Though slightly documented, a name of priest is cited for having working relentlessly to “save’ the lives of these children. At their arrival in Tanzania, most of them were taken in Kigoma refugee camp where some have found host families mainly from Babembe community. Since September 1996, 5 of the 146 have already returned from the hostage captivity and have recognized their families. Hence, 141 children are up to now missing. During my investigation, I managed to get names of 134 missing children and everyone is linked to her parents. The list is available to anyone interested to support and advocate for this tragedy affecting innocent children. We are still working to get 7 other names of the missing children.

Most of these missing children under 13 were held in a different hall when their parents were being killed. They range between the ages of 1 year to 13 years:

Age/Years 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10-13
Number of Children 5 9 13 9 19 9 19 10 14 27

As per information from local population in Baraka as well as from the 5 women who survived, all these hundreds of children were taken to Tanzania within the range 1996-1998. A catholic priest whose name hasn’t yet been disclosed might have played an important role to rescue them. As the region comprised some Catholic priests and Free Methodist church’s missionaries, it has remained a puzzle to exactly identify this person. There are some clues that can help to move forwards as names of priests is likely recognizable. As per family members―relatives of these missing children, the priest might have decided to get families that would take care of them after crossing the border.

Model of Village in Bibogobogo

Since then, there have been efforts to locate and identify the whereabouts of these children. These efforts have been challenged―undermined by the reluctance―indifference of those who might see their responsibilities in this tragedy. Few supported initiatives to locate them went unsuccessful either because of lacking political support but also the fact that it is an issue that needs an involvement of state governments and international organizations. As this tragedy can be only handled with the support of diplomatic and bilateral relations, it would be successful if international organizations such as UNICEF, UNHCR and others willing to be involved. Specifically, Tanzanian and Congolese state must play an important role to, at least, lying grounds to have the truth known.

Back to those who managed to return, this is an indication that there is a possibility to locate these missing children. From 2003 until late 2010, there have been promising signs that something can be done to get these missing children recover their rights. Among the 5 who have returned, one has been retrieved in 1998; two others returned home and retrieved their relatives in 2006. One of these two has unfortunately died in 2015. The inspiring case is for those who have returned in 2009-2010. The nicknamed Bis returned by himself while escaping mistreatment and harassment from other young guys and the ‘adoptive family’ who considered him and kept calling him a ‘stranger’. He then decided to flee from Tanzania to Congo and he reported to a non-governmental organization in Uvira. While under local NGO shelter, his case went under court judgement in Uvira. There were families on the side of Babembe and Banyamulenge trying to prove the paternity. One of the lawyer who defended this case has told the blogger that there are yet indications in the Uvira court on how this issue is sensitive. Lawyer nicknamed Mat can still testify, and I have talked to him few months ago. The other who came by 2009-2010 nicknamed Neza came with her husband from Tanzania to Baraka and she initiated openly contacts with family relatives. Neza has divorced with the husband for their personal reasons and lives currently in Kenya with her three children.

There is also a case of Mukiza Simeon who had managed to recognize his mother who went in captivity but unfortunately, there have been challenges to get his mother back because of an identity card he used during the travel. Nelson, Benjamin Munanira, Ngirumukiza David and Mushapa Zabulon have had some clues on why these efforts have failed. All of them have visited Tanzania in order to locate and identify the whereabouts of the missing children. Kazungu Bernard is also one of the active persons who have been involved in finding the ways out. From their experience, the matter is sensitive for having involved ethnic communities and individuals but also states. Additionally, some of the ‘hosting-adoptive’ families have managed to resettle outside of Tanzania as they managed to prove their vulnerability linked to having Banyamulenge in their households. Hence, tackling the question requires to cautiously involve the Congolese and Tanzanian government, the UNHCR as well as key international partners working with refugees.

One of the villages of Bibogobogo locality

Individuals efforts have failed to handle such complex and sensitive issue. There is a list of roughly 6-8 relatives of these missing children who have tried to visit Tanzania though they have faced challenges. Among the challenges, one can easily realize that some of these children were taken into captivity while yet younger. They have no memories of their relatives. Some were likely told that they no longer have any relatives. However, as stated by those who managed to return, there is a hope that missing children can be located by deeply investigating within the UNCHR systems. There are indications that some of these families were resettled in third countries for fearing their lives linked to having a ‘stranger’ in their households. There has been a case within the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) in Burundi that failed to bear fruit as children couldn’t be able to identify their relatives, Bernard has told me. To some extent, for the sake of being fair, the world and international organizations can try other modern techniques to identify paternity; this would include ADNs tests. At Mutambala River, 20 children who have managed to flee from Bibogobogo were killed by machetes and spears when trying to shelter themselves in Minembwe. It is believed that the killing was perpetrated by neighboring communities. Around 10 out of 30 young guys under 15 years have survived and many of them are still alive. Relatives within African and Banyamulenge culture can be found. It is either siblings who have survived, uncles or aunts and we are working onto having this list as early as possible.

Though this article cannot give all clues around this dramatic story, I hope anyone reading this story can support in her possibility to recover the rights of these children. Besides atrocities committed in the region and between communities, handling this question would widely contribute to finding long-term stability as well as reconciliation. Though mutual accusations among these two groups are countless, Fizi-Baraka is not only a drowning hell of the 1996 killing. It has continuously been repeated for roughly decades. One can remind the killing of Eben-Ezer staff who have been killed by allegedly Maimai after splitting passengers into ‘natives’ and ‘strangers’. Cattle herders, commercial traders as well as normal passengers crossing the region are regularly targeted and killed. Last week, Mutabazi has been shot dead on 13th October 2018 few miles away of Fizi center. The fate of these young missing has been a stumbling block opposing rival communities. The history of animosity has been characterizing these communities, but the world cannot allow slavery and captivity of children.

NTANYOMA R. Delphin

PhD Researcher in Conflict Economics

The Institute of Social Studies/

Erasmus University Rotterdam

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Delphino12

Blog: www.easterncongotribune.com

[1] The villages composing the Bibogobogo locality are: Bibogobogo (Kwamatare); Bikitikiri (Kwamuganwa); Bikirikiri (Mubasepeza); Kwasebasaza; Mubijanda; Mumagaja 1; Mumagaja 2; Mubivumu; Kurinyagisozi; Murutabura; Murikabembwe; Kumugorore; Kumugorore 2; Mururimba 1; Mururimba 2; Mumagunga 1; Mumagunga 2; Kukavumu; Murutabura

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