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 cycles of violence. The eastern part of DRC, specifically the Kivus, has been the mostly conflict-prone affected regions. Since the post-independence period, Fizi Territoire located in South Kivu has seen Banyamulenge and Babembe ethnic communities violently clashing. This background has made the Fizi territory being an epicenter of contestation and massacres. However, the post-independence violence and grudge had to some extent gradually been buried as the two neighboring communities lived in harmony and shared some “developmental” initiatives.

Up to the 1990s, these neighbors lived in a likely stable mood characterized by power imbalance among ethnic communities which favored some of them. Propelled by a mixture of local and Kinshasa politics, the democratization era has seemingly exacerbated again tensions between the two communities. Fueled by the presence of Burundians and Rwandan refugees, the 1996 socio-political and security climate in Fizi led to a resurgence of violence targeting mainly civilians. One of the trigger of violence was the establishment of Vangu Mambweni commission that resulted from the 1990s Sovereign National Conference. Relying on the recommendations of this commission, the Zairian State resolved in 1995 to expel Banyamulenge community as well as those considered as ‘Rwandan-Burundian’ descent. The Vangu Mambweni commission hs alleged that members of the Banyamulenge community are foreigners and therefore, they should be expeled to where they came from. There followed “incidents and attacks” that culminated to 1996 war in Congo. One of these incidents is the Wednesday’s nightmare that keeps knocking into the minds of few survivors of the Bibogobogo massacre that took place in Baraka and its surroundings.

Locate Bibogobogo in Fizi Territoire

Since early 1930s, Bibogobogo is considered as fiefdom of Chief Muganwa. Following the post-independence crises and violence in South Kivu, Muganwa is cited, alongside with Rupande Laban, as the ones who have contributed to stabilise their localities, namely Bibogobogo (or Bibokoboko) which were under constant attacks of Simba rebels. Muganwa and Rupande managed to save lives of thousands who were regularly targeted by Simba-Mulele rebellion.

Bibogobogo is approximately located 25 miles westward of Tanganyika Lake. There are few agglomerations and cities at the coast of Tanganyika which can be considered as the reference point; that is, Baraka, Mushimbake, Lweba, Lusenda, Kabela or Mboko. Bibogobogo as a locality comprises around 19 villages[1] in the mid plateau westward of Baraka. Most of these villages are inhabited by Banyamulenge who, regardless of the 1960s Simba-Mulele violence, have managed to live in harmony with their neighbors, Babembe and Bazoba, Masanze…

Bibogobogo is distant of 50-60 Kms eastward of Minembwe. From Bibogobogo to reach Minembwe or Kamombo (the high plateau in Minembwe-Itombwe), the Banyamulenge’s homeland, one has to cross Mutambala river, the large forest along the Mitumba Mountains Chain as well as many villages inhabited by members of the Babembe community. Mutambala river is deep and approximately 20-30 meters of width with possibly few bridges made from local technology (trees brought together). There is no functional road that connects Minembwe-Kamombo and Itombwe 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 walking conditions on top hills as well as crossing the large forest called Ndobo. This gives an idea of how the Banyamulenge population living were in in Bibogobogo on 18th September 1996 when a military force rounded up hundreds of civilians who were found in a church service.

The Wednesday’s Nightmare: What Happened on 18th September 1996?

Amid 1996 political crises, following the developments of rebel movements and the presence of uncontrolled armed men among Rwanda and Burundian refugees, 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.

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

Family and Relatives’ Efforts to Locate thier Children

As per information from local population in Baraka as well as from the 6 women who survived, all these hundreds of children were largely taken to Tanzania within the range 1996-1998.Yoramu, one of the 6 women who survived in Baraka confirms that children did not get killed at the scene. At Baraka killing scene, Yoramu has lost her husband and 5 children. However, she managed to only see one dead body while other 4 were thrown out during the killing; that is 3 boys and one girl. The whereabouts of these children remain a mystery. It is believed that a catholic priest whose name hasn’t yet been disclosed might have played an important role to rescue them. As the region comprised some 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 Tanzanian border. Nonetheless, some would have been dispatched into families while yet in Baraka.

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.

          View of Bibogobogo mid-Plateau

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.

What Happened to the Banyamulenge who lived in Ngandja/Fizi

Next to those who went missing from Bibogobogo, I have learnt last year when I met Jimmy who have returned from this captivity. By 22 February 2018, I met Jimmy who was among 13 children captured in the neighboring zone of Bibogobogo; namely Ngandja. He had only 7 months at the time of captivity. During his captivity, hee was raised in a family where he never knew his real parents until his “adoptive” mother died and stayed with the father. Following the deterioration of health conditions of his adoptive father, the latter revealed to him where Jimmy was taken and told him a short story of the circumstances. The father died the same day after having delivered this information.

Jimmy had to enquire from the “adoptive” grandmother who managed to give him some details. When Jimmy fled to Burundi, he met a lady who was one of their neighbors in 1996 and who survived these killings. The lady fled one week before Jimmy’s family was taken in captivity. The lady managed to recognized Jimmy by his resemblance to his late mother and Jimmy has some physical signs that helped his father to recognize him. Jimmy is currently in Goma and I have met him during my field research. His story and the way his sister could be located if efforts deployed has given the courage to continue advocating on this tragic incident. He told me a story of his sister who keeps moving from Baraka to Nyarugusu and he thought she is his real sister who was 6 years in 1996 as his father has explained.

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.

However, one can undertake such noble search within the reconciliatory lenses. There is a possibility of seeing hosting families of these children as forming extreme cases of people who can save lives regardless of animosity among communities. Nonetheless, whatever lenses one can look at this story, these children must recover their rights, know what happened to them and let them have a choice over what they want to be.


PhD Researcher in Conflict Economics

The Institute of Social Studies/

Erasmus University Rotterdam



[1] Bibogobogo locality comprises the following villages: 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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PhD & Visiting researcher @POLISatLeeds. Interest: Microeconomic Analysis of Violent Conflict, Genocide Studies and violence targeting minority groups. Congolese, blogger advocating for Equitable Redistribution of Ressources & national wealth as well as & #Justice4All #DRC. On top of that, I'm proud of being a "villageois"

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