As the World Observes the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, Helpless Tears of 141 Banyamulenge Children in Tanzania Must be Heard
What happens when a government rejects part of its citizens? Who intervenes in such a situation? This short article intends to shed light on a tragic mistake that characterizes the Democratic Republic of the Congo in terms of its irresponsibility toward one of the vulnerable ethnic minorities in the country, the Banyamulenge community. Before I elaborate the real problem, I will briefly discuss an international commitment and law. Three events will be expanded in this paper: the enforced disappearance of Banyamulenge children, the Gatumba massacre, and the current political crisis in the highlands of Uvira, Fizi and Mwenga territories in South Kivu.
Responsibility to Protect (RtoR)
During the Sixtieth session of the United Nations General Assembly, Heads of State and Government adopted principles and formed the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document (United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and Responsibility to Protect, n.d.). According to the source, the international community’s failure to prevent atrocities committed in Rwanda and the Balkans led to the adoption of the resolution toward the Responsibility to Protect. During the 2005 World Summit, Heads of State and Government agreed to be responsible to protect own citizens “from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and accepted a collective responsibility to encourage and help each other uphold this commitment” (United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and Responsibility to Protect, n.d., para. 6.). However, although the core principles of RtoR seem to be strong, the international community has failed to protect victims of mass atrocity crimes (Ainley, 2017).
August 30th is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances (United Nations, n.d.). Enforced disappearances occur when individuals are arrested or detained and taken away from their families by force or without their consent. Victims, families, friends and communities are all affected by enforced disappearances. The U.N. indicates that when an individual disappears, more human rights are violated. The following are a few human rights violations when a person is abducted:
The right to liberty and security; the right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; the right to an identity; the right to protection and assistance to the family; the right to an adequate standard living; the right to health; and the right to education. (United Nations, n.d., paras. 15 and 16)
Banyamulenge Victims of Enforced Disappearances
Twenty four years ago, members of the Banyamulenge community experienced an inhuman and degrading treatment from members of other communities in Fizi territory with undeniable assistance from the Zairean government, specifically military and civil authorities. In 1996, Banyamulenge civilians in the Bibogobogo area were arrested and brutally killed. According to a female survivor, men and boys were tied up with their own shirts. They were loaded in boats and taken in the middle of Lake Tanganyika and dumped in alive. Before the incident, a couple of brave girls begged the killers to go with their men and boys, but they were shocked to be told they were already dead because they were left with no men among them. Another unverified source has indicated that men and boys were thrown into ovens to heat up bricks in the place of dry woods. While some survivors were escorted toward the Rwandan border with Zaire (presently the Democratic Republic of the Congo) at the Kamanyola post, hundreds of children, mostly girls, were forcibly taken to Tanzania by members of armed groups in the area (victims’ names are available upon request). It’s believed that the perpetrators were from the Babembe community and other armed groups from possibly Burundi.
According to the Human Rights Council (2019), on December 2, 2019, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances generated a report resulting from its 119th session, which took place between November 16 and 20, 2019. The report indicates that, toward the end of 1996, 146 Banyamulenge children were forcibly separated from their parents and taken to a refugee camp in Kigoma, Tanzania, from the city of Baraka. Baraka is located in Fizi territory, south of the city of Uvira, South Kivu, Congo. The Council confirms that more than 700 Banyamulenge civilians were arrested by the Zairean soldiers while attending a church service on a Wednesday. They were taken from the Bibogobogo area to Baraka, where they were separated from each other, men, women, and children respectively. In September of the same year, nearly 300, mostly men, were executed. More than 200 women were also killed. Only 5 women miraculously survived the killings. Among the 159 children, from 1 to 13 years old, 13 children were executed. One hundred forty-six children were forced to cross Lake Tanganyika into the refugee camp of Nyarugusu, Tanzania.
The Council report states that five of the 146 children have managed to reunite with their families, while the other 141 remain disappeared. A few years ago, when I was managing a blog called Imurenge.com, which has recently been changed into a whole new blog, Kivu Times, I conducted a phone interview with one of the five children. The child was located in Rwanda at the time of the interview. During the interview, the child stated he was in his late 20s. He barely spoke his native language, Kinyamulenge. He was more comfortable communicating in Kiswahili due to the environment in which he grew up. He indicated he and other children were not allowed to know anything about their families. They lived in fear of being killed had they attempted to reveal the courage of wanting to know the whereabouts of their families. He was brave enough to escape his abductor. He also reported that girls were turned into the wives of their kidnappers. It should be noted that families of the 141 children remaining have unsuccessfully tried their best to negotiate with different agencies and governments in an attempt to locate their children.
In June 2004, Colonel Jules Mutebutsi, a member of the Banyamulenge community, fought with his boss, Brigadier General Mbuza Mabe. Their disagreements were said to be more political than personal. A suspected military officer in the President Laurent Desire Kabila’s assassination was said to be the main cause. Unfortunately, as it had always been, Colonel Mutebutsi’s community throughout the country was threatened and some were arbitrarily executed. The dispute between Colonel Mutebutsi and General Mabe revived a very longtime hatred of the Banyamulenge community by some members of the Congolese government and tribes. Dozens of Banyamulenge civilians who lived in Bukavu, the capital city of South Kivu, where the fight was taking place, were tortured and killed by military personnel. Door-to-door operations were conducted by Congolese military squads to hunt down members of such a community. I myself survived this manhunt.
The Bukavu war between forces of the two high-ranking Congolese military officers triggered the same long-standing hatred among local public authorities and residents in Uvira towards the Banyamulenge community. Members of the later tribe feared for their safety and fled the country into Burundi. They were received by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and were housed in the Gatumba refugee camp. The camp had already been occupied by Burundian citizens who were coming back home most likely from Tanzania and Congo. A new section of the camp was built exclusively for members of the Banyamulenge community and a few members of the Babembe community who had fled with them. The section for Burundian refugees was built in white tents, while the section for Banyamulenge was built in green tents. The section for Burundians was closer to the Burundi-Congo border.
On Friday, August 13, 2004, at approximately 10 p.m., the only section of the camp that housed Banyamulenge refugees was attacked. There were rumors of this attack a few days prior. For example, members of the Babembe community who were with the Banyamulenge refugees were warned of this planned attack by their people. They were told to leave, but they did not listen. The attackers possibly came from the Kiliba area, Congo. They spoke various languages of the region, including Kinyarwanda, Kiswahili and Kirundi. They came chanting and singing religious songs. Some victims were shot, while others were shot and burned (a complete list of the 166 victims are available upon request). The number of the wounded was 116. Pasteur Habimana, the then spokesperson of the Burundian FNL-Palipehutu under the leadership of Agathon Rwasa, shortly later claimed responsibility for the attack on an international radio.
2017-Present Acts of Genocide against Banyamulenge
The eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in South Kivu province, specifically in the highlands of Fizi, Uvira and Mwenga territories, also known as hauts plateaux, is experiencing a new episode of a political crisis motivated, as always, by a hidden political agenda through ethnic hatred. The coalition of more than three local ethnic groups, namely, Babembe, Bafuliru, and Banyindu, alongside with foreign armed groups operating in the region, especially RED-Tabara led by Alexis Sinduhije, FOREBU led by Godefroid Niyombare, and FNL led by Aloys Nzabampema from Burundi, has killed at least 300 Banyamulenge civilians since early 2017. On April 18, 2020, for instance, two Banyamulenge women were slaughtered by Mai Mai fighters in a suspected coalition with the Congolese military (FARDC) while in the field getting food for their children. The victims’ genitals were mutilated. The Mai Mai-RED-Tabara-FOREBU-FNL coalition has also burned hundreds of villages belonging to the Banyamulenge community and looted over 130,000 cattle.
The Babembe community has different armed groups, including a group led by Amuri William Yakutumba and that of Ebuela Mutetezi. Bafuliru and Banyindu communities have other armed groups, including Biloze bishambuke, which means, “Who cares if the situation gets worse?” The Banyamulenge community has formed their defensive group known as Twirwaneho, which means, “Let’s defend ourselves.” The perpetrators of these acts of genocide have made their plan public through various social media platforms. The master plan is to force the Banyamulenge community out of the country using all means, including to kill them, loot and destroy their villages and properties. The majority of Banyamulenge villages have now been completely wiped out. Banyamulenge are subjected to isolate themselves in small remaining villages, including the camp of Mikenge, now guarded by the United Nations peacekeepers, the MONUSCO.
The Complicity of the Congolese Government and its Officials
A myriad of evidence proves the complicity of the Congolese government and its officials in discriminating and killing members of the Banyamulenge community in the Congo and elsewhere. Multiple sources to include the United Nations and other international organizations have recorded such a complicity. A leader of a local tribe has recently admitted the coalition between Mai Mai militias and the Congolese army. Mr. Pierrot Kaluba is the president and spokesperson of the Banyindu community in Congo. On March 15, 2020, he reported that Mai Mai fighters have plundered Banyamulenge cattle and shared them with members of the FARDC (Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo) operating in the hauts plateaux area (Imurenge TV, 2020a). The United Nations Mapping Report (2010) lists many instances where Congolese authorities ordered mass killings of the Banyamulenge community. Even during the current crisis, elected public officials have called on local population to exterminate members of the Banyamulenge wherever they may be. Homer Bulakali, a provincial deputy in South Kivu, hosted a public conference in Baraka on November 30, 2019 and encouraged local people to kill Banyamulenge (Muyoboke, 2019). A survivor of one of the 2019 attacks by Mai Mai fighters against members of the Banyamulenge community in the Mibunda area recently reported that he heard a radio communication of a FARDC soldier (a member of the Babembe community) calling Mai Mai fighters to advance into Banyamulenge villages and burn them (Imurenge TV, 2020b). Such an encouragement by a FARDC soldier resulted in the loss of all Banyamulenge villages in the area. Not a single member of the Banyamulenge community in this part of the region lives in Mibunda as of the date of this article.
During the last three years of the killings of Banyamulenge civilians, the burning of their villages and the looting of their cattle, the Congolese government has remained silent and completely ignored this portion of the Congolese population despite of their helpless and hopeless tears and begging for government assistance. A single counterattack by Twirwaneho, a Banyamulenge self-defense group, against Mai Mai fighters in the village of Kipupu on July 16, 2020, left Congolese politicians ablaze. Why? Why did these politicians not react when hundreds of villages belonging to the Banyamulenge community were set on fire? It should be noted that the above counterattack at Kipupu resulted from several attacks by Mai Mai fighters against Banyamulenge civilians at Kalingi between July 10 and 13, 2020. During these attacks, members of Banyamulenge were killed and about 400 cows were taken by Mai Mai to Kipupu. In its announcement, Twirwaneho reported that it conducted a counterattack at Kipupu and retrieved most of the cows.
As a result of the Kipupu attack, elected officials at the provincial level of South Kivu from Babembe, Bafuliru, Banyindu and other tribes demanded the central government and the international community to conduct a swift investigation. They claimed 220 Babembe civilians lost their lives at Kipupu, but upon the completion of a joint investigation by South Kivu officials and MONUSCO that took place from July 29, 2020, MONUSCO reported 15 people died and more than 200 others disappeared (Actualite, 2020). At the national level, the Kipupu incident was among the main topics during the 42nd meeting of the council of ministers on July 31, 2020 (Premature, 2020). This meeting was presided over by President Felix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo. What is astonishing is the manipulation of the number of the victims during the Kipupu attack. During this ministerial meeting, the government reported 6 villages were burned, 17 civilians were killed, 11 were wounded, and 213 disappeared. The government also reported a medical facility and a church were destroyed. What a contradiction! From 220 to 17 people dead? The Congolese government has not yet explained the reason behind its silence in investigating hundreds of Banyamulenge civilians killed, hundreds of their villages destroyed, and over 130,000 of their cattle plundered by Mai Mai militias since early 2017. What a fair government!
Zairean authorities (now DR Congo) played a practical role in the enforced disappearances of Banyamulenge children in Baraka, in 1996. The national army arrested Banyamulenge civilians in the Bibogobogo locality and handed them to the Mai Mai militias in the area to do whatever they wanted with them, which in this case was torture and other savage treatment to include annihilating them. The Mapping Report (2010) clearly indicates that the national army physically killed members of the Banyamulenge community. The fact that the Congolese government has remained silent for 24 years of the children disappearance and failed to show the willingness to locate the victims is a sign of its role in such a crime. The same scenario applies to the massacre of Gatumba in 2004. Unverified sources indicate that some prominent figures in the Congolese government played a vital role in organizing the massacre. The Congo should have taken the first step in seeking justice for its citizens who were massacred on a neighboring country’s soil, in a refugee camp.
The silence of the Congolese government for 16 years on this international crime proves its undeniable complicity in discriminating and exterminating the Banyamulenge community in Congo and overseas. For example, according to the only current elected national deputy from the Banyamulenge community and the second in its political history Moise Nyarugabo, in 2004, during a government session presided over by President Joseph Kabila, the Congolese government officially received the bad news about the Gatumba massacre. President Kabila asked his ministers to stand up and remember this tragic event. However, some ministers refused to obey the President’s order to recognize the massacre (Imurenge TV, 2020b). The unwillingness of recognizing the Gatumba massacre by some Congolese officials during the above meeting sends a strong message of their sentiments towards the victims and their community.
The Role of Congolese Powerful Figures
The hatred towards the Banyamulenge community in the Congo seems to be common throughout different levels, including the country’s powerful figures. Recently, for instance, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege was heavily criticized by members of this community for taking a side. As previously mentioned, the current political crisis in the highlands of Uvira, Fizi, and Mwenga territories has been active for more than three years. Dr. Mukwege did not react when hundreds of Banyamulenge civilians were slaughtered, hundreds of their villages were completed burned, and over 130,000 of cattle were looted. He, however, reacted when the village of Kipupu, a single counterattack against Mai Mai fighters, was attacked by a Banyamulenge self-defense group.
On August 1, 2020, the Catholic Bishop of Uvira, Sebastien-Joseph Muyengo Mulombe, issued an official document and video condemning the Kipupu attack. However, like many others, including the Congolese government and Dr. Mukwege, he failed to react when the Banyamulenge community was attacked during the last three years. Members of this community have strongly condemned such a behavior that indicates his sentiments towards their community. Bishop Mulombe claimed that the attack took the lives of more than 200 people, a number that is not even close to the number provided by investigators, including the MONUSCO. The Bishop’s argument seems to hide an agenda. Although in his letter he mentioned and condemned the retaliation among armed groups in the region, one can still ask why only condemning one attack among hundreds. Similar behaviors apply to many other powerful individuals in the country, including political figures, such as the 2018 presidential candidate Martin Fayulu of the Lamuka political coalition.
Conclusion and Recommendations
One hundred and forty-six Banyamulenge children are victims of enforced disappearances in 1996, in the city of Baraka. The country’s national army arrested the families of the victims and handed them to Mai Mai fighters. The latter killed the parents of the victims and abducted the victims to the Nyarugusu refugee camp, in the Kigoma province, Tanzania. Five of the victims have managed to reunite with their families in the recent years. One hundred and forty-one children remain in the hands of their abductors. Most shockingly, girls have been turned into the wives of their parents’ killers. The 2004 Gatumba massacre, on the other hand, was reportedly carried out by armed groups of different nationalities in the Great Lakes region of Africa, but came straight from Kiliba, Congo. The then FNL-Palipehutu’s spokesperson, Pasteur Habimana, reported his political group was responsible for the attack.
The enforced disappearances and the Gatumba massacre are only two examples of many atrocities against the Banyamulenge community in the region. The current political crisis that aims to run out of the country the entire community of Banyamulenge started in April 2017. Hundreds of Banyamulenge civilians have been killed, hundreds of their villages have been destroyed, and over 130,000 of their cattle have been looted. People behind these acts of genocide are Mai Mai armed groups from Babembe, Bafuliru, and Banyindu communities along with their foreign partners, Red-Tabara led by Alexis Sinduhije, FOREBU led by Godefroid Niyombare, and FNL led by Aloys Nzabampema.
Numerous pieces of evidence show the complicity of the Congolese government and its officials in discriminating and annihilating the Banyamulenge community. Members of the Congolese army have assisted the above armed groups in destroying Banyamulenge villages and looting their cattle. The Congolese government has failed to protect the Banyamulenge community. Its silence continues and has refused to listen to the Banyamulenge community begging for its help.
The international community, governments and private entities, is the only source of hope on earth members of the Banyamulenge community have left with. International laws and treaties should be utilized to protect this helpless community of the 21st century. As the world observes the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on August 30th, the same world or the international community is reminded of all victims of enforced disappearances, including the 141 Banyamulenge children in Tanzania. A collective effort, starting with responsible parties, such as the Congolese government, is imperative in returning and reuniting Banyamulenge children with their families. Perpetrators of this heinous crime should be held responsible and charged with such a crime. As far as the 2004 Gatumba massacre is concerned, the Congolese government should be condemned for failing to seek justice of its own citizens who perished in a neighboring country. The international community shouldn’t be silent when human rights are arbitrarily being violated by either governments or private entities. Where else can a helpless and hopeless community look for protection?
Criminal Justice: Homeland Security
Liberty University, Virginia, United States
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