On 13th of March 2023, the Conversation published an article titled as: “The Banyamulenge: how a minority ethnic group in the DRC became the target of rebels – and its own government“. The Conversation’s article gives an overview of how the Banyamulenge have historically been targeted and killed by militias the Congolese government. The article does not give much room to help the reader understand the current situation of the Banyamulenge in connection to the broad security landscape of the Eastern Congo and the background of this community. This blog post complements the one published by The Conversation in detailing some aspects including the modus operandi used by local and foreign militias and armed groups to target members of this community. It stresses that specificities of violence targeting the Banyamulenge are widely linked to the fact that militias and armed groups perceive them as not “real Congolese”. However, escalation of attacks at local levels is narrowly explained by their immediate cause―incident which is mostly used by experts to describe the origin of violence. Such perspective that ignores the root causes of conflicts tends to perpetuate violence and serve the interest of those who have benefited from colonialism pitfalls.
- Banyamulenge’s vulnerability
The Banyamulenge vulnerability is located back in the colonial misrepresentation that had portrayed some ethnic groups in Eastern Congo as “newcomers” while others were considered as “native”. The colonial mischaracterization seems explain why the Banyamulenge local chiefdoms were abolished or simply merged with other to subordinate them. They later became locally stateless and easily contested as people who do not have their ethnic territory. Consequently, their situation has gradually worsened since the 1960s, to the present.
Members of the Banyamulenge community have been discriminated against, denied rights to be elected to public positions, excluding them to processes of representation. More specifically, the Banyamulenge nationality was stripped in the1980s. In the 1990s, the Zairean Transitional Parliament resolved to expel them leading to unending cycles of violence as the Banyamulenge’s grievances had served as instrument to regional actors to wage successive wars while settling their own scores. Meanwhile, many Congolese youth including the Banyamulenge had joined these rebellions with an expectation that they will contribute to improve Congo’s governance.
The specifics of the Banyamulenge lies in the fact that even when they participate alongside others in waging rebellion, recent experience has shown that they are likely to be the only one to blame. Subsequently, next to the persistent discrimination, they have been forced to leave their own localities such as Vyura/Moba in Katanga, Ngandja in South Kivu to name a few. Based on physical features, the Banyamulenge civilians, unarmed soldiers and those who physically resemble them were also killed because they are perceived as “genetically” enemies of the Congo.
Accounting for the above explained experience, the Banyamulenge security situation has drastically deteriorated from 2017 onwards. The Banyamulenge homeland has been attacked by local militias known as MaiMai and Biloze Bishambuke in close collaboration with Burundian rebels, namely Forebu, Red-Tabara, and FNL. These militias formed a coalition that destroyed almost the entire Banyamulenge homeland in southern South Kivu (Mwenga, Fizi and Uvira territories), a region known as High Plateau. Besides the large number of combatants forming this coalition, there have systematic and coordinated attacks that have contributed to destroy hundreds of settlements (villages), hundred thousand of cattle were pillaged and sold on local markets in South Kivu, Katanga, Maniema, or Kasai provinces while many other cows are still in the hands of militias and armed groups’ leaders. Particularly, systematic and coordinated attacks intended additionally to squeeze members of the Banyamulenge who had lived in state of besiegement for those who are still living in the High Plateau. How and why did it reach this tragic point?
- Killings & Systematic Burning of villages
In the violent-prone Eastern Congo, the Banyamulenge have specifically been targeted and killed mostly because of their ethnic affiliation. While perpetrators of violence against the Banyamulenge are numerous, state’s officials and political figures have in many cases called for the elimination of those portrayed as “vermins, snakes or cockroach to be systematically and methodically eliminated”. Consequently, Zairean and Congolese security services supported by local militias had targeted the Banyamulenge and organized systematic massacres in 1996, 1998, and 2004 (Burundi). By systematic, I meant, Banyamulenge people, based on their physical appearances, were targeted across different regions of the Congo regardless of one’s social status. My research has shown that in many cases, men and boy were killed first in front of their relatives and women and girls to be killed later or simply killers would plan to allot women and girls among perpetrators.
As stipulated above, the Banyamulenge situation has deteriorated since 2017. Form the African Great lakes region perspective, the new wave of violence was linked to the protest of the third mandate of former President Nkurunziza in Burundi (2015) and the delay of 2016 general elections in DRC. Burundian combatants (officers and soldiers) who failed the 2015 military coup in Burundi fled to DRC via Rwanda. Corroborated evidence has shown that Rwanda has logistically and financially supported these Burundian groups. Rwanda Defense Force’s security services in collaboration with FARDC and facilitated these groups to cross borders but also helped them to establish their rear bases in the High Plateau of southern South Kivu with an intent to attack the current regime in Burundi.
Meanwhile, two important events led to the resurgence of armed confrontation creating this new coalition at the local level: the contestation of two local entities, Bijombo groupement and Minembwe rural Municipality. The former is a customary-led entity in Uvira territory while the former is a decentralized one in Fizi territory. The main reason to contest the two entities is that militias and local armed groups combatants believe the Banyamulenge shouldn’t manage local or customary entities because they are not entitled to do so. Across different territories, Bijombo groupement is the single customary entity which is managed by a member of the Banyamulenge community.
From 2017 onwards, local armed groups affiliated to the largest ethnic communities in southern South Kivu, Babembe, Banyindu, Bafuliro, Bavira formed a coalition with the Burundian rebels. The largest coalition started to attack the Banyamulenge civilians. The coalition of MaiMai, Biloze Bishambuke and Burundian rebels resorted to systematic and coordinated attacks on the Banyamulenge settlements (villages). Some villages were attacked more than 40 times within a period of 3 years or attacks could target several villages in different localities at the same time. There have been targeted attacks on the Banyamulenge civilians in Uvira, Fizi, and Itombwe which were coupled with systematic burning of villages.
Therefore, the coalition of MaiMai, Biloze Bishambuke and Burundian rebels killed hundreds of Banyamulenge civilians. The exact number is hard to establish but at least, in mid-2020, local organizations have estimated that victims are around 1200 civilians. One of the unusual strategies used during this wave of violence was to burn down completely all villages that were attacked. Consequently, the coalition destroyed almost all Banyamulenge’s villages in the high plateau of Uvira, Fizi, Mwenga. From Rurambo, Bijombo groupement, Kamombo, Itombwe, Minembwe, and Bibokoboko, it is estimated that around 400 villages were burnt to ashes between 2017 and 2021. The 400 villages represent almost all Banyamulenge’s homeland. These attacks have forced many to flee to neighboring countries, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya… Those remaining in the High Plateau of Itombwe, Uvira and Fizi were imposed to live in tiny localities, sometimes in internally displaced people sites.
- Cattle-looting, Malnutrition & Impoverishment
Historically, the Banyamulenge are cattle herders. Cattle-herding is an economic and livelihood activity but also it is culturally valued. Since the 1990s, Banyamulenge’s cattle had specifically been targeted by armed plundering on the basis that these belong to “foreigners”. Narrowly, cattle-looting is sometimes justified to fit the farmers and cattle herders conflict narratives. However, experience has shown that if cows belong to individuals affiliated to ethnic communities considered as “native or sons-daughters of soil”, they won’t be treated as those affiliated to the Banyamulenge.
From 2017 onwards, local militias and Burundian rebels have pillaged around 400.000 Banyamulenge’s cows. Besides these, thousands have died because of hunger and harsh conditions they were imposed since violence erupted. As many cows would survive during the dry season by moving to localities with green pastures, known as transhumance, since February 2019, this practice stopped. Cattle owners had no longer possibilities to freely move to these localities with green pastures.
It is well believed that Cattle has constituted the main source of income and livelihood for a large majority of the Banyamulenge. Cattle-looting has served as a strategy to starve and impoverish owners. Impoverishment has rendered owners so desperate, and their future has become uncertain. There have been cases of young children and elderly people who have suffered malnutrition. They were not used to live such harsh conditions coupled with trauma, hunger, and lack of milk. Cattle-looting has left hundreds of students with limited possibilities to afford school. Parents who used to resort to cows to support their livelihood and provide basic needs to their family members had lost their vitality and sense of pride.
Most of the cows pillaged during this long period (half-decade) were sold on local markets in South Kivu, Maniema, Katanga, Kasai provinces. All these local markets are managed by the Congolese government, where security services (army, and police) are present. It is unlike that the FARDC military units in the region were unaware of this form of plunder. At least, one can confirm that provincial authorities knew what was happening in this region. This is one of the way state affiliated security services and provincial authorities are accomplices.
Besides the incurred losses on the side of owners, cattle-looting has mobilized combatants to join armed groups to gain money. Though this hasn’t yet been well documented, cattle-looting has increased military capabilities of the perpetrators, MaiMai, Biloze Bishambuke and Burundian rebels. If on average a cow’s price is estimated around $300 (reasonable value), the total amount of cattle lotted generated at hundred million of US dollars to the perpetrators. Cattle-looting has also benefited military officers within the Congolese national army as they partook to this plot to impoverish local Banyamulenge. Strikingly, cattle-looting has not yet been documented whether by MONUSCO nor by UN group of experts.
- Besiegement, Hunger and Humanitarian Aid
Armed attacks and the destruction of villages had forced most of the Banyamulenge to flee their own localities towards neighboring countries. Those remaining in the High Plateaux of southern South Kivu were forced to live in tiny areas such as Minembwe (an area of approximately 10km2), Murambya/Bijombo (almost 5 villages remaining), Mikenge (one IDP) and Bibokoboko (few villages), and Rurambo (almost destroyed). The tiny localities have faced constant and coordinated military attacks to the extent that IDP had no possibility to leave and move freely. From Minembwe to Rurambo, these localities did not only experience attacks, but they were also surrounded by different organized militias and armed groups.
For instance, thousands of Banyamulenge who live in Minembwe had been confined in a small area (10 km2 approximative) are up to now prevented from reaching two to three kilometers outside of the besiegement (see the red circle on map 2). The military commander in Minembwe, Gen Ehonza Andre, has implicity acknowledged this form of besiegement. For the Banyamulenge, traveling from Minembwe and Mikenge (Mikenke) to Uvira, Bukavu or any other city, the only possibility for them remains the use of airlifts, while this is not the case for members of the Babembe for instance. Between 2018-2020, the Banyamulenge who lived in Bijombo groupement had no possibility to Uvira which is the nearest city while their neighbors (members of the Banyindu, Bafuliro, Bavira mostly) were allowed to do so. Similarly, from 2021 up to recently, the Banyamulenge from Bibokoboko (Bibogobogo) were prevented to travel to Baraka which is a nearest city and agglomeration and single panacea if one wants to go Uvira or Bukavu.
This form of besiegement had not only prevented the Banyamulenge to travel, it has confined them to reach their farmlands, but mostly, this has complicated the unwillingly humanitarian organizations to support local populations. The case of Bibokoboko and ways humanitarian organisations were (un)intentionally hesitant to support speaks volume. This attitude in the humanitarian arena is largely visible when analysing the treatment of the Banyamulenge who fled from Rurambo to Bwegera (Ruzizi plain). At some point, the besieged in Minembwe was (misleadingly) interpreted by international journalists as a “Tutsi enclave”. Instead of being an “enclave”, these small localities served as zones intended to squeeze those who have been reluctant to leave their homeland.
Recent experience has shown that assistance provided by the Banyamulenge diaspora to their relatives in Minembwe for instance was extremely expensive due to the cost of airplanes from Goma. Tnere was no possibility to use land transport such as roads. The same roads in bad conditions were used by humanitarian assistance to support people in the Mutambala mid-plateau (Mulima, Rumanya…), localities which are not far from Minembwe. These localities were and are still extremely dangerous for members of the Banyamulenge community to travel to. In few cases where some Banyamulenge individuals have tried to cross these localities towards Baraka, Uvira…, they were singled out and killed.
This precarious security situation marks the difference between the Banyamulenge, “unwanted people” and their neigboring communities. For example, members of the Babembe, Banyindu, Bafuliro, Bavira…, who have fled their localities in this region had found accommodation and feel at least welcomed by local communities in South Kivu and even Katanga province. Though not decent, these types of accommodation give them an alternative to survive which is not the case for the Banyamulenge. Anyone who is affiliated to the latter cannot flee in any directions and expect to survive as do members of those communities considered as “native”. In nutshell, the Banyamulenge in their South Kivu homeland had become internally displaced people (IDP), imposed to live these tiny areas without access to their farmland while they were hugely impoverished. There is less doubt that perpetrators of violence targeting the Banyamulenge were not aware of these conditions and their consequences.
- The Danger of Dehumanizing & Hate Speech
Like other forms of violence during the digital era, the Banyamulenge had been victims of dehumanizing and hate speech. Social medias had served to proliferate harmful campaigns intending to dehumanize and demonize them. In December 2022, the European Union has sanctioned one of the political figures who has been harmful vocal, mobilising for the use of violence against the Banyamulenge. One, Justin Bitakwira is not the only one political or influential figures who has resorted to these campaigns, and none has been threatened by the Congolese justice. Second, Bitakwira has consistently continued his poisonous campaigns while claiming publicly that he is a best friend to the President of DRC. His speech and acquaintances with the Tshisekedi inner circle tend to convince those who were yet averse to incite people to use violence against the Banyamulenge that this something you can do and be rewarded.
Hate speech and dehumanizing campaigns have shown how abnormal violence can become normalised. If a member of the Banyamulenge community is reported killed, the Congolese majority tend to appraise this form of crime. Specifically, recent experience has proven that if a group of people is dehumanized, there are high risks that perpetrators feel proud to share their pictures when killing. In South Kivu (Lweba) and Maniema (Kalima), members of the Banyamulenge were lynched, burnt live and their bodies eaten by perpetrators. Perpetrators were proud enough of crime to the extent they would take pictures and videos to share with social medias users.
The persistent of hate speech relying on the accessibility of social media platforms should concern decision makers and the international community. Social media has been used to target several ethno-linguistic groups across the globe. Specifically, ahead of 2023 general elections in DRC, there are worries of seeing more tropes and speech targeting the Banyamulenge as these can help to mobilise and win elections in the Eastern DRC. Unfortunately, the Congolese government had paid little attention when it comes to curb this form of violence. Instead, there are indications that hate speech tend to take an increasing pace while rulers find it beneficial for the forthcoming electoral competition.
6. FARDC, MONUSCO and the Great Lakes Region
From killings, burning villages, cattle-looting, besiegement and coordinated attacks…, one may think that all these took place in an uncontrolled territory. However, such a destruction has taken place while the Congolese national army, FARDC units were present and deployed to curb violence. Pretexting that this is an intercommunal violence, FARDC units had failed to prevent these crimes and atrocities. In most instances, militias have (in)directly collaborated with the “military” to operate and attack the Banyamulenge.
It has been clear that militias and armed combatants have crossed localities where FARDC are deployed, facilitated to attack, and find corridors to return safely in their strongholds. There are countless instances where militias have attacked villages in which FARDC is deployed, and the latter did not intervene to save civilians lives. The Congolese military has shot to the Banyamulenge and their cattle while they intended to find protection. Later, cattle were handed in the hands of militias as cattle herders who have survived are watching the tragic scenarios from their hiding. There is no doubt that the army has sided with militias to attack the Banyamulenge.
Besides the Congolese national army, the role of the UN peacekeeping mission has been proven very weak. The force has failed to prevent violence, protect civilians but also failed to enlighten about the root causes of violence. Its contribution, in terms of reporting can hardly help the UN headquarters to anticipate violence. Mostly, to understand and prevent such violence singling out one specific ethnic group on the basis that they are not real Congolese. Similar violence takes place in Ituri where members of Hema community are targeted by killings with genocidal characteristics. One of the challenges facing the UN peacekeeping mission in understanding these forms of violence is linked to their limited knowledge of the local context, an overreliance on the Congolese security services intelligence records, and possibly the way “biased informants” can influence the framing of violence and hence affecting the decision-making process with the bureaucratic UN systems.
Documented research has shown that the UN peacekeeping mission does heavily rely on the Congolese security and intelligence services to gather and confirm their records. Therefore, for anyone familiar of the local socio-cultural setting, relying on the Congolese armed force to verify an information in the three territories can inevitably harm the Banyamulenge. On the other hand, when things go wrong as we guess, the UN peacekeeping mission and the Congolese armed forces tend to shift their responsibilities to other “minor actors”, namely ethnic groups. The Congolese government and the UN peacekeeping mission found a shortcut to label violence as entirely inter-ethnic.
In recent years of the Banyamulenge history, the 2017 violence has extremely worsened the vulnerability. The coalition of local and foreign armed militias, supported by Congolese national army has operated at the time regional countries were settling scores and more concerned with their own interests. Rwanda was in political confrontation with Burundi and remotely with Uganda while the political landscape in DRC was characterized by tensions around the 2016-2018 presidential elections. It has largely been documented that Rwanda has supported Burundian rebels, namely Red-Tabara intending to overthrow the CNDD-FDD regime in Burundi. Burundian rebels coalesced with local MaiMai to committed atrocities against the Banyamulenge. On the other side, Burundi tries to back Kigali’s opponents and at the centre of this dirty game were the Banyamulenge civilians who had nothing to do with politics. The presence of the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo had not been able to save this situation.