- An Overview of the Humanitarian Tragedy
The blog article warns over a worsening humanitarian crisis in the Uvira-Fizi-Itombwe High Plateau (hereafter referred to as Minembwe-Bijombo). The region is located in South-Kivu, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Fizi, Mwenga and Uvira territories. Since 2019, thousands of local populations have been forced to move from their localities (all villages burnt down completely) and had to concentrate in few localities. Approximately, these localities have following internally displaced people “IDPs” (in brackets): Minembwe Centre (120,000 displaced), Bijombo (20,000) and Mikenke (2,000).
Most of these IDPs have no longer access to their farming fields while local herders have seen most of their cattle looted by armed groups. It is estimated that more than 125,000 cows have been looted since February 2019 up to early 2020. Besides these inhuman tactics of impoverishing locals while forcing them to concentrate, most of these localities sheltering IDPS are regularly attacked by militias comprising locals and foreigners. Consequently, locals are dying of hunger and starvation. Due to inaccessibility of roads, there is limited humanitarian assistance provided by local NGOs and the support of diaspora relying only on expensive airlift transport.
In addition to regular attacks and local populations besieged, there is an emergency call to halt this humanitarian tragedy while it is yet possible. Though local communities in Minembwe-Bijombo are widely suffering from this crisis, Banyamulenge are facing acute and severe suffering for being attacked by armed groups belonging to four of their neighbouring ethnic groups strongly supported by Burundians rebels. Local groups have vowed to expel members of the Banyamulenge community who are locally painted as ‘immigrants and invaders’ trying to occupy “others land”. More particularly, Banyamulenge are restricted to flee in different directions as do members of other communities, Babembe, Banyindu, Bafuliro, and Bavira. Their only choice is Bijombo, Mikenke, and Minembwe Centre.
Following this looming humanitarian tragedy that is being caused by hunger and starvation, this article wants to inform the world about this desperate situation that local populations are facing in the high mountains of Minembwe-Bijombo. More widely, the crisis involves regional countries and linked to 2015 electoral contestation in Burundi. Burundian rebels supported by Rwanda have established their bases in the Uvira High Plateau and later coalescing with local militias known as Maimai to uproot Banyamulenge. Since the outbreak of a recent series of confrontations (2017), these populations are facing unspeakable humanitarian crisis far from the coverage of mainstream media.
From this crisis, around 300 villages and roughly 400 smalls villages were burnt down causing a large number of internally displaced. Many others have fled to neighboring countries, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda. The region covering Bijombo (Uvira territory), Itombwe (Mwenga territory), Kamombo and Minembwe (Fizi territory) has been destroyed. Among the hundreds of villages, there remain only less than 12 villages (Minembwe), 2-4 villages (Bijombo) and an IDPs site (Mikenke). Besides the regular climate of violence in the area that creates chaos and barbarity, the leitmotif of local mobilization and generally that of Maimai is to expel by all possible means, Banyamulenge (including their physically extermination through impoverishment and hunger).
- Banyamulenge & the Current Conflict?
Banyamulenge, a minority community related to Tutsi of the Great Lakes region, has settled long before the colonial advent in this region. Though contested from contenders’ perspective, some sources can ascertain that Banyamulenge have lived in South-Kivu for approximately 400 years back. Confronted by the “Hamitic Hypothesis”, they were described in colonial literature as “new-comers” in the region; hence seen as “invaders” by politicized local narratives. Evidence slightly contested are that Banyamulenge have lived in this region before 1885. However, sources confirm that Banyamulenge have specifically been subjected to severe discrimination from the Belgian colonizers. Consequently, their customary chieftaincies were abolished or merged to those of their neighboring communities. Some of their traditional chieftaincies were abolished around 1954-1958. Since then, they are locally seen as stateless.
From the Hamitic Hypothesis to colonial discrimination leading to being “locally stateless”, Banyamulenge are strongly contested to the extent that they have been denied civic rights including citizenship around 90s. Along other motivations, their vulnerable status in Congo has pushed some members of Banyamulenge’s elite class to engage in recurring insurgencies and rebellions in Congo. As these rebel movements and insurgencies were remotely controlled by their masters, instead of tackling these concerns, they rather contributed to worsening this vulnerable position. As one can read, Banyamulenge are seemingly paying the cost of these insurgencies that were meant to grant them acceptance among their fellow Congolese while the latter still reject their “Autochthony”.
Meanwhile, the state is largely failing to fulfill its responsibilities and missions leaving each community and group to resort to their own capabilities to survive. In an ethnically polarized environment, communities and ethnic groups are forced to seek safety from community affiliated armed groups. Therefore, the region has fallen into a cycle of violence involving myriads of armed groups and militias; reinforcing mistrust and animosity against the “invaders”. Thousands of cattle looted, and the involvement of Burundians armed groups has increased military capabilities of the Maimai. As some precedents have shown, Maimai can now expect to reach the dreams of freeing this region from Banyamulenge termed “invaders’.
- Systematic Uprooting: Impoverishment, Starvation, Hunger and Regular Attacks
Banyamulenge are known as cattle herders and live from land cultivation. Their main source of economic livelihood is cattle. Besides Rurambo and Bibogobogo (small localities), the rest of the traditional Banyamulenge homeland equivalent to an area estimated around 4-5,000 Km2 (one sixth of the Belgium State) has been destroyed. As you read this blog post, the remaining Banyamulenge community are now rounded up and face regular attacks. Hundreds have died while a large number have fled towards neighboring countries. Currently, it is even hard to flee from these besieged localities; making internally displaced living in a type of “concentration-like camps”. Organized attacks as well as raiding all cattle have served as a strategy to cut them from all sources of provision and starve them. Below is the picture of these localities sheltering IDPs:
By early February 2019, Minembwe comprised roughly 100 large villages and 150 small ones. For being enacted as a rural municipality between 2013-16, coordinated and systematic attacks targeted these villages with an aim to occupying the airfield (Minembwe Aerodrome) and the office of the Municipality (Madegu Catholique). Attacks came from North-East (Kalingi-Bidegu); East (Gakenke, Gakangara); South and South-West (Biziba, Kabingo and Rugezi). On average, each single axis was attacked more than 20 times since May 2019. For instance, the West and North-West axes of Minembwe, that is Gahwera, Kivumu, Rutigita…villages were attacked more than 29 times since 13th June 2019 up to before last week. In some circumstances and between June and October 2019, these types of systematic attacks could last for roughly a week.
Following these attacks, there remains less than 12 villages sheltering more than 120,000 people while surrounded by armed groups. The region has been destroyed while the national army has largely stood accomplice for the sake of preying from looted cows but also making businesses of selling ammunitions. Local populations in Minembwe have no longer access to their farming fields outside of the redline (see the picture). The concentration zone is roughly 10-12 Km2. IDPs in this region are facing acute hunger and diseases whilst there is limited humanitarian assistance.
Bijombo has been the single local and traditional chieftaincy managed by a member of the Banyamulenge community. The traditional chief has been contested due to the status of the chief belonging to a community seen as “immigrants-invaders”. Since 2017, attacks of Maimai colluded by Burundian rebels started to attack and burn villages. Whenever efforts are made to reconstruct huts in these villages, attackers keep coming to abort any initiative to survive. Cattle estimated around hundred thousand were also looted in this region.
Consequent to these attacks going on up to now, more than 50 large villages and 60 small ones were completely burnt down. There remain only 4-5 villages (Mugeti, Murambya, Kajembwe, Nyakirango, Irango) which are also attacked regularly. While Bijombo has no airfield, the single way to reach this region is by climbing the high mountains from Uvira. From Uvira to Murambya, this is a zone occupied by Maimai groups. Banyamulenge can no longer move from Bijombo towards Minembwe. Security concerns in Bijombo are not unique for Banyamulenge. As indicates Monusco’s report (tweets), Bavira, Banyindu, Bafuliro living in this region are extremely threatened by the presence of Banyamulenge gunmen. Nonetheless, members of these communities can easily be accepted outside of Bijombo, let say Luindi, Luhwindja or the large region controlled by Maimai groups.
South Kivu, DRC: On 16 Mar 20, Officers of MONUCO Pakistan Contingent, conducted patrol in Ishenge Village. They escorted IDPs visiting their farms. Such extensive patrols and escorts will continue in order to create a safe environment and eliminate activities of Armed Groups. pic.twitter.com/3bfWOLcG5y
— MONUSCO FORCE (@MonuscoF) March 17, 2020
The severe suffering around Banyamulenge in Bijombo is that they are not accepted as do their neighbors. More strikingly, there is a seemingly well-planned strategy of starving locals in Bijombo. Few weeks back, Maimai have been attacking vendors, merchants and travelers who used to move freely between Uvira and Bijombo. Currently, there is no access to this region as it used to be. It is worse than ever for members of the Banyamulenge community who cannot cross Maimai controlled region. Banyamulenge in Bijombo are suffering for this unnoticed humanitarian crisis. IDPs in Bijombo have nowhere to buy basic products such as salt or soaps. Their farming fields are largely in localities controlled by Maimai; implying that hunger is the last enemy to destroy them. They deserve an urgent humanitarian assistance to avoid a tragedy that could be severe than ever.
C. Mikenke IDP Site
Mikenke IDP site is located in Itombwe zone, between Mibunda and Kamombo. Before 4th May 2019, Itombwe and Kamombo had 158 large villages and 219 small ones. Since the outbreak of the recent violence, Banyamulenge have been forced to flee to Minembwe though some have failed to do so. Around 2,000 IDPs are internally displaced in Mikenke under the “protection” of UN peacekeeping Mission (MONUSCO). They are under a threat of being attacked at any time to the point where they have to rely on Monusco’s protection to go for wood collection or fetching water.
While the distance between Mikenke and Minembwe is less than 20 Kms, it is becoming impossible to travel without military protection towards Minembwe. Even though the National Army is deployed in every corner of this large area, the situation has been getting worse and worse again. Displaced people in Mikenke need also a support as those in Kipupu (a nearest base of Monusco protecting local Babembe, Bafuliro and Banyindu..). The only difference is that someone who is in Kipupu can manage to move from this locality towards Mutambala (Fizi) or Itombwe (Mwenga) if s/he is a member of the Babembe or Banyindu community. This is practically impossible for a member of the Banyamulenge community.
While the world is extremely concerned with the widespread of Coronavirus, we think that nothing has to overshadow humanitarian crises around the world. One of these humanitarian crises are violence taking place in Eastern Congo, including Minembwe-Bijombo. By taking place in an ethnical polarized setting with limited coverage of traditional Medias, Minembwe-Bijombo has been overlooked or misinterpreted as simply communal violence. However, the central point of contradiction (the content of violent conflict) is more dangerous and could lead to a disaster.
Therefore, if nothing is done quickly, Banyamulenge are facing a real threat of extinction. Internally displaced Banyamulenge are in an area that has been traditionally isolated and underserviced by transport infrastructures which is common for most Congo’s rural areas. Currently, the only means to reach those IDPs is via small aircrafts that can land in Minembwe or Mikenke aerodromes. There is a need to find an alternative to assist local displaced in Bijombo. Above the threat of being killed by their attackers, these concentrated IDPs are living in such dreadful conditions without food for their old and with no shelter for their newborns.
Furthermore, with the burning of their villages, and the complete extermination of their cattle dominating their economic livelihood for generations, it is the whole way of living of Banyamulenge community which is at stake. Besides its impacts on Banyamulenge’s identity, raiding and looting cattle would constitute an economic and cultural crime committed to this community.
There is a need for those who can have their voices heard, to stand and condemn those war crimes using starvation as warfare. We call upon human right organizations as well as aid agencies to ask for the establishment of a humanitarian corridor for the people who are currently surrounded by attackers in Minembwe-Bijombo area.
NTANYOMA R. Delphin
PhD Researcher in Conflict Economics
The Institute of Social Studies/
Erasmus University Rotterdam
 Thanks, Schadrack and Max for your insightful contribution.
 Banyarusuku, Kiziba, Muzinda, Mishashu, Kuwigishigo, Gitavi, Ilundu I & II, Bidegu, Madegu (Catholique), Gahwera, Runundu (CEPAC), Nyabibugu.