“If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail,” Abraham Maslow.
Peaceful demonstration is a universal human right. Senior UN-appointed independent rights experts have recently argued that “people have the right to demonstrate peacefully and Governments should respect international law and let them do so” (UN News, 2020). More than 200 years ago, in the Boston Massacre, British guards arbitrarily shot into a crowd of civilian protesters. This bloody massacre occurred on the afternoon of March 5, 1770. The Bostonians were shot for throwing snowballs, in protest against British imperial rule. And still today, peaceful demonstrations are met with violence, this time in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). On 30 June 2021, unarmed civilians, including elderly women, were shot by the Congolese army. Worldwide, women’s protests have changed history. The women in Minembwe staged a sit-down protest at the airport, singing hymns. Just as way back in 1770, the massacre of the innocent is happening right now in Minembwe, located in South Kivu, in Eastern DRC.
As Banyamulenge women peacefully protest against injustices against their own communities, they are also seeking to draw attention to what amounts to a slow genocide against their people. In response, FARDC (the DRC Armed Forces) has, not for the first time, shot innocent civilians. Galvanised by dismissal of a local police chief, and the arbitrary arrests on June 12, 2021, of a family of three (father, mother, and child), the women decided to stage a sit-down protest, blocking the airport. The family arrested were detained in a metal container, used as a detention facility. It was feared they, like others before them, would be transferred to Bukavu or Kinshasa and never seen again. The father, Bonfils Rutebuka, was accused of belonging to Twirwaneho (aka Makanika), an armed Banyamulenge self-defense group led by Colonel Michel Rukunda. The family’s arrest proved the final straw for the women of Minembwe, coming after intensified discrimination, violent attacks and kidnappings of Banyamulenge civilians, including women and children in Minembwe and in Bijombo. The women, young and old, organised themselves and took it in turns to share domestic duties, and to engage in peaceful protest. They staged their sit-down protest for several weeks, insisting on the family’s release. Singing hymns to lift their spirits, they sought to convey their desire for a peaceful solution. Some of these women have now paid with their lives, their voices silenced forever.
Already, in recent years, dozens of young Banyamulenge civilians have been arrested and airlifted to Bukavu or Kinshasa, never to be seen again. Women too are kidnapped, raped and murdered with alarming regularity, and with impunity by Mai Mai and Burundian armed groups. In marked contrast, fighters from local Mai Mai militias and foreign armed groups (e.g. Red-Tabara from Burundi) enjoy FARDC protection, and are not prosecuted for their crimes against Banyamulenge civilians. Armed groups have attacked Banyamulenge civilians more intensively since 2017, destroying hundreds of rural Banyamulenge villages. The 150,000 Banyamulenge people in Minembwe are forcibly displaced, with a smaller number are in Bijombo and other limited areas of South Kivu. Historically, Banyamulenge’s wealth consisted of cattle, and their displacement has been accompanied by looting, their cattle were being sold in local markets, and money earned used to buy weapons, with which armed groups then attack Banyamulenge civilians.
Here are the names of the victims:
Nyamuhoza Bibiyane (female) 62 years old
Nagaju Veronique (female) 75 years old
Royi Nagabiro (female) 72 years old
Nantabara Nyantonesha Aimee (pregnant woman) 38 years old
Bitwenge Mfashingabo (male) 27 years old
Since 12 June, Banyamulenge women in Minembwe have been on sit-down protest, and prevented planes from landing in the local airfield. They were able to secure the release of Rutebuka wife and child from detention. Their brave demonstration brought regional civil and military leaders to Minembwe, ostensibly to resolve the problem (including Brigadier General Bob Ngoie Kilubi, 33rd regional military commander, Lwasi Ngabo Lwabanji, Provincial Minister of Internal Affairs and Lieutenant General Philemon Yav, head of the 3rd Defence Zone). None of these public officials and military men was able to end the women’s protest. As a petition in support of the Banyamulenge women’s protest explained:
“In a region where women have it worse, they are now rising up in protest and calling for protection and safety. Following the removal of one local police chief who had stood up for them and ensured their security, they have been left unprotected. Meanwhile, the UN base camps are failing to fulfil their mission of protecting, sheltering, and aiding the people in the DRC. We stand with our sisters in Minembwe, and demand the UN and the Congolese authorities to offer them unconditional protection and support in channelling the humanitarian aid they so urgently need.”
Unfortunately, inter-community dialogues and the arrival of generals and politicians, hoped to bring ‘peace’, seem to have done the opposite. After Rutebuka’s wife, Consolee Penina, and child were released, the women bravely continued with their sit-down protest, organising a rota among themselves. In the past, it is known that FARDC has killed innocent, unarmed Banyamulenge civilians on several occasions. On June 30, 2021, returning home from the protest, FARDC are held responsible for killing four women and one man. They were ambushed and shot dead on the spot (see photo). Instead of helping the besieged Banyamulenge in Minembwe, FARDC appears to be arbitrarily targeting and executing civilians. Residents are convinced that FARDC executed these women and this man.
As more and more military governors are appointed, in an effort to keep the peace in Eastern DRC, for example in North Kivu and in Ituri, what of South Kivu? Speaking with the media, President Felix Tshisekedi recently stated that South Kivu does not need a military Governor, since violence there is ‘inter-communal’. Yet this is no evenly-matched conflict between warring parties. Although the President denied this, the involvement of foreign armed groups has unbalanced the conflicts in South Kivu, making victims of Banyamulenge now more than ever. As Red-Tabara from Burundi operates alongside local Mai Mai militias, in the Uvira-Fizi-Mwenga mountain region, Banyamulenge are killed and their property destroyed. Alongside Red-Tabara, and legions of Mai Mai local fighters from neighbouring Babembe, Bafuliru, and Banyindu communities, there now appears to be the FARDC, also killing the Banyamulenge minority population.
Since April 2017, when the first rural villages were systematically burned, the Banyamulenge community has been the object of a slow and silent genocide. According to the United Nations Office of Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect (n.d.), Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide stipulates that “genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The acts listed by the Convention include “killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” All the above acts have been committed against the Banyamulenge community since 2017. The United Nations has recorded and documented hundreds of Banyamulenge children, forcibly taken to Tanzania by members of the Babembe community in 1996. Furthermore, Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile.”
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a UN member states, and the law in Congo recognizes the human right to peaceful demonstration. Decree 196 of January 29, 1999, regarding demonstrations and public gatherings stipulates in its first article that all Congolese have the right to organize peaceful demonstrations and meetings and individually or collectively participate in public or private, obeying laws and public order with good morals. Why then are the women peacefully protesting in Minembwe being murdered, and why kill elderly women? The DRC possesses negative past experiences with protest, as research shows (Murdie & Purser, 2017).
The main problem seems to be that the Banyamulenge minority ethnic group are of little concern to the central government, except insofar as they are viewed as a problem or even a threat. Since almost nobody inside DRC seems willing to protect Banyamulenge civilians from killings, we are obliged to call on international organizations, government bodies, and human rights defenders everywhere to raise their voices and demand an end to killings in Minembwe and Bijombo, and an immediate investigation into the on-going genocidal killings and human rights violations against Banyamulenge women, men and children in South Kivu. Mahoro Peace Association represents the Banyamulenge diaspora in all four corners of the world. They are almost alone in sending food aid to Minembwe and Bijombo. Yet the scale of action must grow rapidly before it is too late. We do not want to say “We told you so”. The women’s protest is warning enough: the world must respond.
With their hands up, singing church songs
Barzachka, N. S. (2020). To resign or not to resign: Why incumbents ignore peaceful mass protests. Europe-Asia Studies, 72 (5), 763-791.
Murdie, A. & Purser, C. (2017). How protest affects opinions of peaceful demonstration and expression rights. Journal of Human Rights, 16 (3), 351-369.
Fidele N. Sebahizi
Criminal Justice: Homeland Security,
Helms School of Government
International Institute of Social Studies (Erasmus University)
The Hague, The Netherlands