Would Rwanda or Burundi Kill “My Relatives”: Banyamulenge Between the “Hammer and Anvil” Position?

Following recurring crises in Eastern Congo, the Banyamulenge have become citizens of nowhere; moving from Congo, Burundi, Rwanda; and currently they have started to flee to Kenya, Uganda and Western Countries. Following 1994 the presence of Hutu militia in Eastern Congo and the Vangu Mambweni commission (and its consequences), many Banyamulenge moved to Rwanda and later on in Burundi. As far as I know, there would be few members of the Banyamulenge community who do not have a relative in Rwanda or Burundi. That is why many chose to cautiously deal with Kigali and to a lesser extent, Gitega.

Two weeks ago, an influential high rank priest visiting one of the Congo’s Cities has warned that keep referring to Kigali as part of plot to exterminate the Banyamulenge would lead to individual risks but also to widen risks that could affect family members. That was an advice to those pointing a finger on Kigali around its involvement in the Eastern Congo messes. Though he is among few who can openly and publicly refer to these risks, I myself believe that many would have the same feeling and chose to unwillingly play the “ostrich”. I personally felt warned for my cautious mind that pointing a finger to anyone responsible of something s/he voluntarily or mistakenly committed. Besides cautious mind, I would wish to treat all of them equally. You wonder why referring to a neighboring country?

  1. Any reason to mingle with neighboring countries?

From 2015 up today, the region inhabited by Banyamulenge community is facing an unprecedented―unnoticed humanitarian crisis. Recent clashes are seemingly viewed as inter-community confrontation through respective armed groups though Banyamulenge community is largely targeted; their cows looted, and their villages are being decimated on large scale. Their neighbors are Banyindu, Bafuliro, Bavira, and Babembe to large extent though there are other communities. These clashes fall within long-seated grievances largely linked to community contestation where political manipulation keep pulling strings. Referring to a reproduced and possibly forged colonial ‘literature’, some communities in the region are ‘autochthonous’; while other seen as ‘new-comers’. Besides political manipulation, the academic world had slightly questioned these narratives serving as source of mobilization. Consequently, since 60s, the High Plateau of Uvira-Itombwe had been going through recurring violence under many “episodes”.

Besides heavy fighting in Bijombo groupement that involved Burundian foreign groups, recent confrontation broke out between February-October 2019 around Minembwe, Kamombo and Itombwe. Bijombo is the single and contested customary entity managed by a member of the Banyamulenge community. Moreover, the others three regions are “home where hearts are” of the Banyamulenge community. Specifically, Minembwe has been enacted as Rural Municipality since 2018 following the 2013 Decree. For being enacted as rural commune, Minembwe strongly faced contestation from members of Banyamulenge’s neighboring communities. There is a direct involvement and support of foreign armed groups whose intent is unclear. Consequent to these clashes, reports have confirmed that more 300 people have died (Feb-October 2019); roughly 200 villages have been burnt down (April 2017-Octber 2019); among which 70% are of Banyamulenge. From Bijombo to Minembwe, around 200,000 people are estimated to have fled their homes facing challenges of a humanitarian disaster. Those who have fled are facing cruel living conditions leading to an unprecedented disaster. A type of systematic attacks have looted more 35000 cattle while remaining cows are dying for lacking pastures. It is a systematic plan to wipe out this community and impoverishing them. Unfortunately, clashes have been going in hardly accessible region in terms of roads infrastructures; hence, there are limited humanitarian aid to thousands in needs.

Schools facilities estimated around 60 and 20 heath facilities have also been destroyed. Besides being impoverished, many of local population are being squeezed within small localities. Particularly, members of the Banyamulenge community in large are under siege of Maimai armed groups. The group is a coalition of armed men from these 4 neighboring communities with the support of Burundian rebels. From Bijombo to Minembwe (area of rough 3000-4000 Km2), Banyamulenge have mostly been forced to concentrate in few villages around Minembwe Centre and Mikenke. These two localities comprise roughly 8-10 villages. This is likely types of “concentration camp”.

Banyamulenge are facing a threat of being attacked regularly by Maimai militias. Attacks are systematically organized and well planned from probably well-trained militias. There are indications that Rwanda could have sent around 2000 Burundian rebel combatants who are currently fighting next to Maimai groups. Maimai groups have, for decades, vowed to have Banyamulenge either expelled from Congo or wiped out of the map. This threat constitutes an extreme concern making anyone valuing the stability of this region to call upon voices to prevent a forthcoming human tragedy. However, in front of such threat that could turn worse, Banyamulenge elite are likely frightened to clearly point a finger on mastermind actors of this evil plan. Besides expressing dubiously their depressive frustration, many have rather choose to remotely watch while expecting God’s help. Is that a weird position? The answer can be found in a complexity and “power” of recent actors.

2. Background of Recent Clashes  

Since centuries, Banyamulenge is a small community affiliated to Tutsi living in South-Kivu Province. Oral and some written sources can confirm that this community have lived in the High land of Minembwe-Itombwe since 17e-18e Century. Historically, they are largely been victim of colonial accounts that have generally linked members of this community to Rwanda but also omitting them when it came to discuss what they dubbed as Bantu’s migration (See Moeller 1936)[1]. Secondly, this community has been contested due to how the colonial literature had vaguely referred to them by using countless eponyms/ethnonyms. They were sometimes referred to as “Ruandas, Banyaruanda, Tutsi d’Itombwe, Banyaruguru, Watuzi, Batutsi…”. These eponyms/ethnonyms were used in spite the fact that Depelchin (1974:70)[2] indicates it has been used well before colonial advent. The use of these confusing eponyms had largely shadowed current debate around settlement.

Therefore, reproduced colonial accounts had likely felt they were ‘new-comers’ in a region that has been characterized by wider waves of migration. More particularly, Banyamulenge have been victim of having their traditional chieftaincies merged to those considered large ones during colonial territorial reconfiguration; leaving them as “territorial deprived”. Throughout the history of Congo and the colonial legacy, lacking traditional chieftaincies means simply they are “stateless” as Congolese constitution keeps connecting civic to “ethnic” citizenship (Mamdani 1999)[3]. Though colonial accounts testify to have found this community in their homeland, Banyamulenge have been victim of political machinations painting them as ‘invaders-foreigners’; sometimes mixed 1959’ Tutsi refugees who fled the ‘Rwandan Revolution’. For mistakenly affiliating Banyamulenge to Rwanda, colonial administrators have opened a breach that have politically and academically been reproduced for centuries.

The debate over Banyamulenge’s nationality is as recent as post-independence violence (1960). Local confrontation in South-Kivu is linked to 60’s rebel movements. Confrontation and political alignment during the Simba-Mulele rebellion had exacerbated tensions among communities[4]. It created a dichotomy opposing Banyamulenge to these neighboring communities; sometimes, guns are means to express someone’s views and suppress contenders’ voices. Local armed groups, namely Maimai keep swearing in to have this community expelled. From 80s onward, Banyamulenge have been denied eligibility rights but also their citizenship has at some point been revoked. Political officials have publicly ordered their hunt down in several occasions leading to the instrumentalization of Banyamulenge’s grievances. Political manipulation and hate speeches are yet on top and serve as a tool of political positioning in the Congolese socio-political arena.

These political manipulations had partly triggered 90s wars in Eastern Congo; sometimes Banyamulenge serving as bridge to hidden agenda. Consequently, there have been massacres resulting from hate speeches in 1996, 1998, 2004, 2005… Massacres have targeted Banyamulenge even outside of Congo; Gatumba case in Burundi is one of the loudest. In addition, this community has been victimized as a scapegoat of massacres which have affected their neighbors during these recurring insurgencies and Congolese’s wars. Banyamulenge are portrayed as the source of the Congolese’s evil; seen as perpetrators of countless massacres that killed members of different ethnic groups in the region. In recent years, there are concerns over how social Medias have been campaigning towards extermination of the ‘invaders’. However, Banyamulenge have been familiar of this climate and could probably adapt over time.

3. Involvement of Foreign Armed Groups with Powerful Backers?

The region inhabited by Banyamulenge covers the region from Bijombo (Uvira territory) up to Kamombo-Minembwe (Fizi) and Mibunda (Mwenga). Since 2016, the region has been under heavy gun attacks opposing local armed groups with a wider hand of foreign groups. These foreigners are largely supported by DRC’s neighboring countries, namely Rwanda and Burundi (lesser extent). The four last ethnic communities mentioned above (Babembe, Bavira, Banyindu, and Bafuliro), and their diverse armed groups have colluded to attack Banyamulenge. Banyamulenge’s villages have been extensively and systematically decimated. There have been of course Babembe, Banyindu, Bafuliro’s villages burnt down in retaliation (30% of the total).

Local armed groups are respectively Gumino-Twirwaneho and Maimai for respectively Banyamulenge and other communities (Babembe, Bafuliro, Banyindu). Though these local groups have locally been fighting, recent clashes involving foreign groups are of extreme concern. On one hand, there are Burundian groups that have been formed to overthrow President Nkurinziza’s regime. Besides Front National de Libération (FNL) of a self-proclaimed General Nzabampema Aloys; two groups have established their stronghold in High land of Uvira following 2015 contestation of the Presidential third term in Burundi. The two groups are Resistance pour un Etat de Droit au Burundi (Red-Tabara) linked to Alexis Sinduhije; and Forces Républicaines du Burundi (FOREBU) of General Niyombare Godefroid. Niyombare is the General who failed a military coup during the 2015 protest in Burundi. These three groups are largely supported by Rwanda in attempts to “impose democracy” in Burundi. These well-trained forces are fighting next to Maimai to get rid of Banyamulenge.

On the other hand, local sources have pointed to the presence of opponents to Kigali’s regime of President Paul Kagame. Though unclear in terms of their figure and their real identity, Rwanda National Congress (RNC) might have stationed in Bijabo next to Gumino. Gumino is largely affiliated to Banyamulenge though being an offspring of 2002 Banyamulenge military that have opposed RDF presence in Congo; and specifically for the role the latter army played in instrumentalizing Banyamulenge’s grievances. A group led by Masunzu Pacifique, who is currently a General within the Congolese National Army had clashed with RDF supported by Congolese rebels, namely the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD). Clashes took months and RDF finally decided to unwittingly withdraw following defeats it incurred but also failing to deeply justify reasons behind the hunting down of Masunzu’s group.

Gumino’s background can approximately explain why they would choose to accept an alliance with RNC elements. However, the threat posed the presence of Burundian armed groups supported by Kigali could have played a determinant role leading to this complex decision. This threat targeted principally Burundi and President Nkurunziza to the extent that it is understandable why the latter country would have opted to step in. Moreover, one can imagine that Burundi had limited interests to interfere in local affairs had it not been the presence and threat of Red-Tabara, FOREBU, and FNL. Specifically, RNC’s presence is subjected to debate for two reasons. Since 2017, Rwandan affiliated Medias have estimated them to be around 50 and keep referring to few names of these on one hand. On the other hand, these elements have largely moved from Bijabo to Mwenga-Kalehe as part of yet disclosed dissidence among this group. They had been snared and largely killed in North-Kivu by a coalition of local groups such as NDC-Renové, a hand of Kigali’s special forces but also FARDC. 25 out 200 of those who moved from Bijabo-Kalehe were captured and are currently going judicial trial in Rwanda. Would many of these “RNC” elements have concealed their missions and identity while spying? The concealed identity is an option to be considered for an observer who has been following this move closely or they were snared as part of exchange to reinforce power in Kinshasa.

4. The “Hammer and Anvil”: Embarrassing position of the Banyamulenge?

The current move and the way Maimai have increased their military capabilities is largely terrifying. Sources on the ground have confirmed that gunfire used in these clashes have ever existed in this region. These guns, instead of overthrowing President Nkurunziza, are being used to destroy Banyamulenge community. Banyamulenge’s homeland Minembwe has been on top discussions in Kigali’s affiliated Medias and those likely sponsored by this regime[5]. An informed observer could read that, by singling Minembwe out within Medias, Kigali was likely preparing public opinion on a forthcoming and systematic attacks. Medias intended to convince audience to stand with antipathy when Minembwe will be destroyed. Banyamulenge’s elite had unlikely condemned this sponsored medias’ attitude nor present a clear picture of the situation on the ground. Normatively, dismissing these narratives within the Medias would have been a Congo State’s mission. However, one can think of how some military officials in Congo have colluded to create the chaos. More specifically, the army did not intervene for roughly 3 years while information had pointed to this presence.

Notwithstanding the fact that this is a State’s (ir)responsibility to protect and defend its citizens, at local and national level, the crisis pits together conflicting communities that keep confronting over the appropriate approach to resolve the crisis. It is partly this confrontation in Kinshasa (intra and inter-ethnic groups) that pushes the government and the national army to find a justification when they watch as observers this unprecedented tragedy. Nonetheless, the military and central-Provincial government have other motives; some can be linked to the current political confrontation around the new ruling coalition. The national army with its all weaknesses, had and considers the clashes as communal violence opposing Banyamulenge against neighbors. Though unlikely able to contain the resurgence in which foreign groups are partaking, the national army watches escalation and possible extermination of one group for the sake of ‘neutrality’.

Banyamulenge are the losers for several reasons. Nonetheless, their voice to clearly point to the mastermind remain a puzzle. Why? One can briefly circumscribe a reflection in the following direction: Firstly, Banyamulenge elite have moved all around the region from Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya to Uganda. Most of them had unwittingly evolved in Rwanda following 90s regional crises in Congo. When Zairean state resolved to expel members of this community coupled with the threat posed by the Hutu militias, many have moved to Rwanda; largely disconnected with the Congolese politics arena. Many tend to confine this context within the Hutu-Tutsi dichotomy. A large share of Banyamulenge community, particularly literate people, live in one of these countries suspected of lending a hand and ammunitions to the coalition of Red-Tabara-FOREBU; and hence, Maimai. While playing “ostrich”, literate individuals would prefer to see rather Burundi or at least Congo arming Maimai than Rwanda. If this would be the case, everyone would have a room to openly point a finger. On the other side, those in Burundi; though slightly confined as compared to those under Kigali’s watch, would likely behave the same way if Burundi would arm Maimai to get rid of Banyamulenge. However, if one is based in Burundi or all over the world, s/he will certainly be scared to point a finger to Kigali for we all have relatives there.

Despite Kigali standing as a ‘custodian’ protecting Banyamulenge who have been struggling to recover their rights, its involvement into recurring 90s wars had rather turned to reverse this feeling. It even led to a level of mistrust putting this community to be confined in “dilemma of choice” between personal and community interests as Congolese. The mistrust is largely linked to how Kigali is seen to have manipulated local grievances in Congo to weaken Banyamulenge[6]. Some of these maneuvers are likely plots that can be overlooked and seen as ‘conspiracy theories’. They include killings, disappearances and arming Banyamulenge opponents to later support as “firefighters”. Even when Banyamulenge are jailed in Kigali’s hand, members of this community would choose to keep quiet. There have been less voices to protest the arrest of Rwema, the son to Karojo Sunzu Vedaste, one the prominent traditional chief of this community. The current situation in the High Plateau can again be or would be exploited in the sense of squeezing someone as you know he will finally resort to you for survival.

Furthermore, since the 1996’s failed ‘deportation’ policy and 2002 Minembwe confrontation, Banyamulenge had likely avoided to be embarked into political maneuvers in which Kigali and mainly RDF has had a hand. For instance, Banyamulenge has refused to join CNDP of Laurent Nkunda and categorically the M23 of Makenga Sultani. Attempts to have them aligning behind these insurgencies had failed to bear fruits and one can suspected this to create a huge row between these two ‘natural’ allies. Consequently, besides what is seen as hunting opponents, systematic attacks against Banyamulenge’s homeland can stand as an intersectional zone of those seeing this communities as enemies to be destroyed and those settling account to revenge the failure of “babysitting strategy”; and Congolese military officials creating chaos for their own reasons.

Next to this climate requiring to be cautious before expressing your views, having evolved in neighboring region since 90s had disconnected many of Banyamulenge’s elite class to Congolese political arena. These are two decades of discomfort and disconnection that resulted from discriminative―instrumentalized politics. Furthermore, the elite class is not only disconnected; but also, they have had a sad experience of this Congolese politics. Many have moved to Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, US or Australia… following recurring violence that have indiscriminately targeted them. They seem to have lost not only connection but likely interests over the complexities of the Congolese political discussions. Discriminated for years, targeted and running away of this context had added “insults to injury”. Many of them can reluctantly afford tense debates of the Congolese fellows who would wave Banyamulenge’s physical characteristics to kick them away. In front of these puzzling issues, many would choose to step back and wish God could do something on their behalf. In a nutshell, one can see almost all members of this community as vulnerable in front of this complexity.

The community relies on the divided elite class based in Kinshasa. These have been overwhelmed by the complexities and political maneuvers in Kinshasa that keep pitting sub-groups together. On top of that, the Congolese society will hardly show sympathy whenever something is destroying invaders. Many are not against but have been hearing one-way stories painting Banyamulenge as the source of the evil. The wider campaigns to portray Banyamulenge as ‘invaders’ or assimilated to rebel groups backed by Kigali in the past has been going for roughly 2 decades. Social Medias are likely leading in these campaigns. These narratives had (are) largely influencing international organizations working in the region. Some would wait until the Nobel Prize voices! Meanwhile, Banyamulenge and mostly the elite class would choose to find shelter in one’s “frustrated mind”. Therefore, guns falling into the hands of Maimai will inevitably lead to what they have been dreaming for. Voicing by pointing a finger to this regional complexity is largely risky to individuals but also to relatives. I wish no one could be harmed for a collective responsibility. Your voice can prevent such forthcoming and ongoing tragedy. May the voices of voiceless be heard through your support.



PhD Researcher in Conflict Economics

The Institute of Social Studies/

Erasmus University Rotterdam

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Delphino12

Blog: www.easterncongotribune.com

[1] Moeller, A (1936), “Les Grandes Lignes des Migrations de Bantous de la Province Orientale du Congo Belge”, Memoires―Collections in-80, TomeVI, Institut Royal Colonial Belge, Librairie Falk Fils, Bruxelles. Available at :http://www.kaowarsom.be/documents/MEMOIRES_VERHANDELINGEN/Sciences_morales_politique/Hum.Sc.(IRCB)_T.VI,_MOELLER%20A._Les%20grandes%20lignes%20des%20migrations%20des%20bantous_1936.pdf

[2] Depelchin, Jacques-Marie F. (1974), “From pre-capitalism to imperialism: A History of Social and Economic Formations in Eastern Zaire”. PhD Dissertation, Stanford University

[3] Mamdani, Mahmood (1999), ‘Preliminary Thoughts on the Congo Crisis’, Social Text, No. 60, Globalization, pp. 53-62

[4] Details on how Simba rebellion created such dichotomy, one can see details in Vlassenroot, Koen (2002), ‘Citizenship, identity formation & conflict in South Kivu: the case of the Banyamulenge’, Review of African Political Economy, 29:93-94, pp. 499-516, DOI: 10.1080/03056240208704635

[5] See for instance La Libre Afrique https://afrique.lalibre.be/9294/rdc-a-qui-etaient-destinees-les-armes-de-lantonov/ on what this medias describing Minembwe as the stronghold of FDLR “Or, au sud de Bukavu, il y a Minembwe, qui sert régulièrement de base de ravitaillement pour les troupes négatives comme les FDLR” ; sincerely misleading. The Kenyan medias such as SDE (https://www.sde.co.ke) has reported that “The two are now charged with setting up a new training base for RNC in the west Nile region, along the shared borderlines of DRC, S. Sudan and Uganda. This new base comes to complement the one already established in Minebwe S.Kivu”. Though this info is no longer available on SDE, one can read the same story on Virunga post: https://virungapost.com/first-blog-post/ ; Minembwe has been singled out by Medias based oin Kigali to the extent one can link the reporting with what is going right now.

[6] Anyone willing to read my biases over Kigali and Banyamulenge’s relation can check my book published by L’Harmattan: “Behind the scenes of the “Banyamulenge Military”: Momentum, Myth, and Extinction. Firstly published by Kindle Self-Publishing, a new link is being created (L’Harmattan) to access it online.

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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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