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Addressing the Banyamulenge’s Plight in DR Congo

By Tom Shacklock

This piece was first published as a three-part blog series on The Call, a Genocide Watch blog site.

Part 1: Why Recognition Matters for Peace and Security

Part 2: False Dichotomies Between Conflict and Genocidal Violence

Part 3: False Equivalences and Asymmetric Victimization

First published by The Call on June 28, 2022.

Banyamulenge men at a herder's funeral. (ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP via Getty Images)

Part 1: Why Recognition Matters for Peace and Security

Since 2017, the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has witnessed some of the region’s worst violence since the Congo Wars (1996-2003). In the Plateaux region of South Kivu province, a coalition of militias has been fighting armed groups representing the Banyamulenge, a Tutsi community. This violence has been conventionally framed as “intercommunal conflict,” though certain academics and organizations have recognized the anti-Banyamulenge violence as genocidal. More neutral stances on this crisis emphasize its complexities while also reflecting differing views about the term “genocide.” In the field of genocide studies and prevention, there exists a tension between positions that reserve the term for clearer cases of extermination, to prevent its devaluation, and more critical stances that broaden its applicability, usually to situations that raise existential concerns for vulnerable populations. Given these divergent perspectives, this blog series does not focus on explaining the interpretation of a Banyamulenge genocide. Instead, it problematizes narratives that oppose or avoid this interpretation or downplay dynamics that inform it, highlighting arguments on the crisis that represent potential false dichotomies between genocide and complex violence and situating its asymmetries within its complexities. This analysis could have implications for certain shifts needed in interventions tackling this crisis.

There are numerous reasons why international actors may choose to maintain neutrality in this context. Appearing biased towards groups risks compromising their peacebuilding or humanitarian work. Similarly, humanitarian organizations have discussed the politicization of aid in Ethiopia. Yet, given these limitations, the narratives they present publicly and the locations they focus on are not necessarily a comprehensive reflection of this crisis. Furthermore, complete neutrality has in many contexts been problematic. Samantha Powell argued that United States (U.S.) diplomacy in pre-genocide Rwanda displayed a “bias toward states and negotiations” and a reluctance to disrupt peace negotiations. United Nations (U.N.) actors have also demonstrated this bias in adopting denialist narratives on genocides in both unstable contexts, including Sudan, and more stable contexts like China. Additionally, denial mechanisms are often based on conventional views regarding the scale of genocides and certain strict criteria for proving intent to destroy. So far, disagreements regarding a Banyamulenge genocide have not compared with denial of clearer, more well-known genocides, and there are debates on whether the Banyamulenge’s current persecution represents a warning for genocide or a “slow genocide” already underway. Notwithstanding these disagreements and concerns, the Banyamulenge are vulnerable to what would be more widely considered genocide.

The term “conflict” does not always contradict interpretations of genocide, though variations of it can. During the Rwandan civil war (1990-94), the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a rebellion that committed severe abuses but predominantly represented the persecuted Tutsi minority, was in conflict with the ideologically extremist Hutu Power regime. The latter resisted and eventually caused large-scale genocide. Today, the idea that Banyamulenge experience “cyclical” conflict or violence does not necessarily contradict the claim they face genocide. Galtung’s “Conflict Triangle” further captures the dynamics of “cyclical” conflict. However, “intercommunal conflict” is too specific and reductive a categorization. While marking an improvement from when media sources used terms like “tribal violence” during the Rwandan genocide, it still portrays violence as symmetric and coalesces armed groups with civilians. It also reduces explanations for violence to being centred around material issues including land, resources, and local power. While these factors are relevant, “intercommunal conflict” insufficiently captures the deeper socio-political dynamics these factors feed into while negating the destructiveness of the crisis. Additionally, this framing represents certain neo-colonial power dynamics in peacebuilding. It disregards interpretations from within communities, who are expected to accept narratives imposed on them by international actors in order not to complicate peace.

Notwithstanding the importance of peacebuilding processes, they can still be problematized. Though there is a tension between facilitating reconciliation and recognizing a community’s specific victimization, the latter may humanize and complement the former. Commitments to impartiality raise questions about what “peace” means and on whose terms it should be negotiated. Peace can become an abstract goal that overlooks specific experiences of different communities. During the Rwandan civil war, Samantha Powell argued that U.S. diplomats feared setbacks to “the peace process” rather than for “Rwandans.” Additionally, non-recognition of community vulnerabilities can be counterproductive in hindering interventions necessary to avert violence and has implications for justice. In complex conflict settings, genocide accusations can be perceived as biased or stigmatizing for entire “perpetrator groups,” creating simplistic victim-perpetrator binaries. Yet, non-recognition can be hurtful or disconcerting for targeted communities, depriving them of a sense of justice and peace of mind. In the short term, if peacebuilding downplays the insecurities of targeted communities, it risks perpetuating the armed mobilization of some community members. In the long term, recognizing genocide, or at least appreciating such interpretations, can bring targeted communities some closure. It is recognition that they have been targeted as “unwanted peoples” by certain actors.

This piece focuses on socio-political dynamics and emphasizes that quantifying suffering alone is problematic. Yet, broader factors create limitations in data that can be indicative of these dynamics. Across the DRC, various forms of suffering and violence facing many communities have become neglected, normalized, and chronically underreported. One source that does document violence in the Plateaux is Kivu Security Tracker (KST), though its data is perpetrator-focused and rarely identifies the ethnicity of victims. Various U.N. documents have also been generalist when reporting on data concerning all civilians. While this approach appears comprehensive and unbiased, it presents civilians as abstract numbers rather than members of different communities whose specific experiences need to be humanized and understood. One U.N. report from 2020 does provide more specific data. There are also disparities between verified data on the crisis and higher numbers of victims and displaced persons estimated by Banyamulenge researchers. These figures warrant further investigation to enhance understanding of the crisis and account for every individual’s story from each community. Verifying data is challenging in South Kivu, and accuracy remains an important principle. However, the overall lack of comprehensive data reflects a lack of genuine responses to this crisis among various actors globally.

With the revival of the M23 rebellion in North Kivu, the Banyamulenge’s situation could change and coalesce with the persecution of other Tutsi. Nationally, all Tutsi groups are associated with the rebellion and related anti-Tutsi conspiracy theories. While anti-Banyamulenge violence may escalate to more clearly resemble genocide according to conventional views, there is still value in seeking recognition for the Banyamulenge’s experience from the past five years. From a justice perspective, this blog maintains that the violence should not have needed to escalate further to receive attention or even be understood, through some conceptual approaches, as genocidal. It also unpacks the dynamics of the crisis that have been warning signs for large-scale genocide. Similarly, members of Myanmar’s Rohingya community still refer to the history of their hidden genocide prior to 2016-17, despite their situation having worsened since then. From a research perspective, recognizing the interplay of such dynamics can be applicable to genocides of various scales in other contexts with multifaceted violence, such as Tigray, Ethiopia. However the Plateaux crisis develops, the past five years have been a key chapter in the region’s history where all communities suffered collectively while the Banyamulenge’s existence came once again under threat.

A MONUSCO delegation in Fizi, one of the territories affected by violence March 16, 2019. (MONUSCO/Jacob de Lange)

Part 2: False Dichotomies Between Conflict and Genocidal Violence

The crisis in the South Kivu Plateaux in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which has seen a coalition of ethnic-based Mai-Mai militias outnumber a coalition of Banyamulenge groups, has been complex, with abuses on all sides. Yet, complexities can be cited to minimize the significance of certain dynamics. Such arguments can be examples of false dichotomies, where ideas are considered mutually exclusive when they may rather intersect or be interrelated or mutually reinforcing. Denial mechanisms regarding a possible Banyamulenge genocide can sometimes be based on false dichotomies. In 2019, a source from MONUSCO, the U.N. peacekeeping mission, said there was no genocide but “some ethnic cleansing of the Banyamulenge and other communities.” While this statement captured the suffering of all communities, it reinforced some false equivalences. Furthermore, some consider “ethnic cleansing” a term for genocide denial because it has no legal meaning, while its implications can complement elements of genocide. Even insightful research publications on this crisis contain false dichotomies. While not all areas discussed in this blog are examples of false dichotomies per se, they include important nuances that, perhaps inadvertently, can feed into a false dichotomy between recognizing genocide or asymmetric victimization and addressing complex violence.

In academic literature, explanations for violence across the DRC are often subject to dichotomization. Research findings on localized conflicts are seen to reduce the importance of national and regional dimensions, while incentives created by “conflict minerals” are seen to outweigh identarian factors of violence. Regarding the South Kivu Plateaux, one important paper titled “Mayhem in the Mountains” and other related articles challenge the suitability of the term “ethnic conflict.” They argue ethnic identity is only one of various factors driving violence, including contestations over local authority, territory, access to land and resources, the taxation of goods, and the movement of cattle (transhumance). Indeed, only focusing on ethnicity produces simplistic, essentialist explanations for violence, armed mobilization, and community-based support for armed groups. Yet, arguing the violence is “not ethnic” downplays the way this same research and previous publications show that material factors intersect with ethnicity and are susceptible to ethnicization when linked with socioeconomic insecurity and perceived security dilemmas. For example, farmers more likely feel strongly about Banyamulenge cattle trampling on their farmland than about abstract anti-Banyamulenge conspiracy theories. Given the effective popularization of such theories and narratives about being collectively victimized by Banyamulenge, they can become inseparable from material grievances.

The build-up of different factors of violence can feed into less visible undercurrents of the crisis. Kivu Security Tracker has suggested some Mai-Mai are trying to remove Banyamulenge from their homelands. Incitements to genocide may be indicative of the intent behind different anti-Banyamulenge attacks. Additionally, genocidal intent may not necessarily be the direct or stated intent behind every incident of anti-Banyamulenge violence. Instead, general intolerance towards the group can be secondary to more immediate factors. Though there may be specific triggers for incidents, including tensions over resources, a defining source of division between the two armed coalitions is the belief that Banyamulenge are “outsiders.” Separate incidents can reflect an underlying preference among Mai-Mai and some supporters for the non-existence or removal of Banyamulenge. For example, in 2020, the creation of the Minembwe municipality, which would give Banyamulenge more local political representation, was suspended after provoking hateful backlash. The “Mayhem in the Mountains” paper cautions against overstating the direct impact this issue had on violence, instead underlining its indirect effects on intercommunity relations. Nonetheless, while clearly identifying causal links between certain discourses and incidents is challenging, these indirect links remain significant. Such discourses feed into beliefs about indigeneity, rendering Banyamulenge vulnerable.

Another dimension adding complexity to the crisis is the fragmentation of the armed coalitions and the volatility of armed group relations. Such volatility has risked affecting regional stability, causing local community insecurities to be overlooked. Burundian rebels in the Mai-Mai coalition, RED-Tabara and the National Forces of Liberation, have perpetrated attacks in Burundi, which has accused Rwanda of supporting them. In past years, Rwanda accused Burundi of supporting the rebel group Rwandan National Congress, which occasionally linked with Banyamulenge armed group Gumino but has now practically left the area. Additionally, the coalitions are themselves fragmented. Nonetheless, the “indigeneity” narrative that unifies Mai-Mai causes this overarching division to override any subdivisions and threaten Banyamulenge civilians. There have also been shifting alliances between armed groups and unlikely alliances formed due to interests transcending ethnicity. Sometimes, Banyamulenge groups have reportedly linked with groups that could be considered hostile towards them. Such developments demonstrate a need for Banyamulenge fighters to strategically adapt to changing circumstances. Any alliances they previously had with Mai-Mai or other ethnic groups became irrelevant as the Mai-Mai coalition united in its anti-Banyamulenge hostility. The volatility of group relations does not reduce but rather reflects and exacerbates the Banyamulenge’s precarious position.

There are perceptions that Banyamulenge are not vulnerable because of certain protections and integration efforts within the country’s political and security structures. However, such developments create false impressions of the security Banyamulenge enjoy. Despite the 2004 nationality law being worded to include Banyamulenge, many people locally and nationally still reject their citizenship. Hostilities have necessitated that Banyamulenge move closer to the government, yet with caution. Their decisions to join both Rwandan-backed insurgencies and counterinsurgency operations later have reinforced prejudices. Tutsi and Banyamulenge elites in high-ranking state positions represent small gains made in their struggles for acceptance that risk being reversed while reinforcing conspiracy theories of a Rwandan infiltration. Government solidarity also remains precarious. At a diaspora conference in London in 2020, President Tshisekedi’s declaration that Banyamulenge were Congolese provoked a hostile reaction. Additionally, the positions of elites do not reflect the broader community’s situation. The role of elites from all communities in contributing to armed group activities links with the country’s structural challenges of militarization and ineffective governance. Meanwhile, attempts by MONUSCO and the army (FARDC) to tackle violence overshadow times where they do not prevent attacks and some FARDC soldiers support Mai-Mai. Such contextual complexities obscure the Banyamulenge’s vulnerability.

In this context, false dichotomies reflect a high bar for recognizing the significance of certain threats towards minorities in relation to other dynamics. Instead, the nuances of this crisis can be situated within its broader underlying dynamics. The obscuring effects of the country’s structural challenges have implications for the concept of a “slow genocide,” where one community’s fate is hidden by complicated, normalized violence. Recognizing genocide can mark a recognition of how severely intercommunity relations have deteriorated in this context. It could also have implications for peacebuilding and other interventions, which can become more holistic, as well as for justice. Even if practical dilemmas remain for peacebuilding actors whose work relies on neutrality, other actors can enhance peacekeeping and humanitarian interventions. In 2019, a Banyamulenge politician declared Banyamulenge would not attend intercommunity dialogue as there was no conflict but a genocide against his community. While this did not reflect the position of all Banyamulenge and reinforced some false dichotomies, it underlined the problem of relying on dialogues alone. Perhaps even more long-term efforts, including tackling ethnic-based prejudice within communities and reducing support for militias, may remain challenging unless accompanied by commitments to improving governance and security at a structural level.

Banyamulenge women at a herder's funeral. (ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP via Getty Images)

Part 3: False Equivalences and Asymmetric Victimization

The crisis in the South Kivu Plateaux in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has seen all communities suffer from abuses by the Mai-Mai or Banyamulenge armed coalitions. However, it has displayed asymmetries rendering Banyamulenge particularly vulnerable and has been subject to false equivalences in various narratives. An example of a false equivalence can be found in a report by the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) from 2020, which otherwise outlined various asymmetries. It framed claims by Banyamulenge that other communities wanted to exterminate them and that the army collaborated with Mai-Mai as hate speech similarly as incendiary as incitements to the Banyamulenge’s extermination. Though these claims contained some generalizations about entire groups, they reflected real findings on individuals, and the report’s framing reflected a problematic commitment to neutrality. While this blog does not focus on explaining interpretations of a Banyamulenge genocide, it emphasizes that recognizing the Banyamulenge’s specific experiences need not minimize other complexities and can rather help challenge false dichotomies between genocide and conflict. Underlining asymmetries involves interpreting numerical data, which can be indicative of certain power dynamics. However, quantifying suffering alone is problematic and needs to be accompanied by engagements in other dynamics.

There are asymmetries in the socio-political dynamics of this crisis, which represent not just a conflict over local authority but a struggle for equality among Banyamulenge. A common claim is that many neighbouring communities, not just Banyamulenge, are minorities, but this disregards other factors. Most communities, including Banyindu, Bafuliro, Bavira, and Babembe, display a higher sense of identification with each other as “indigenous” communities. Meanwhile, the Banyamulenge have historically faced persecution as pastoralists considered “outsiders.” Banyamulenge have sought to redress their history of being excluded from local political power since colonial rule through the creation of the Minembwe municipality. This would have a similar status to other decentralized entities and could enhance Banyamulenge political representation. Yet, behind some legalistic arguments, the selective opposition to its creation by public figures, who have portrayed it as a Rwandan plot to “balkanize” the DRC, has exposed the high levels of intolerance towards the Banyamulenge. Furthermore, the municipality remains associated with a territory created during the Congo Wars (1996-2003). Though all sides perpetrated abuses during the wars, and Banyamulenge were among the main targets, abuses by Banyamulenge fighters, who joined Rwanda’s invasion, have stood out in people’s memories and reinforced their label as “outsiders.”

The names and histories of each armed group also indicate asymmetries in their ideals and purposes. Mai-Mai mainly originated in the 1990s and share the ideology of “indigeneity” or “autochthony.” One member of the current Plateaux-based Mai-Mai coalition is called Biloze Bishambuke, meaning “If we have to destroy, let’s destroy” in Kifuliiru. This name alone does not necessarily provide a causal explanation for the group’s violence, but its overtness conveys a certain boldness and destructive mentality. In contrast, the name of Banyamulenge group Twirwaneho translates as, “Let’s fend for ourselves,” while Gumino means “Stay here” in Kinyamulenge. Their actions do not always reflect these names, and both armed coalitions have perpetrated counter-attacks attributing collective responsibility to whole communities. However, Banyamulenge group names reflect their community’s victimhood. Gumino has a relatively long, complicated history as an offshoot of an earlier group. However, Twirwaneho became active more recently, reviving another past group, when insecurity increased and Banyamulenge fell into another vulnerable and isolated position from 2015. Additionally, Mai-Mai had begun stepping up expressive violence towards Banyamulenge in 2011, meaning they aimed to inflict pain for identarian reasons. Overall, the Mai-Mai’s exclusionary ideology differs from the Banyamulenge groups’ fight for acceptance and survival.

Certain socio-cultural and socioeconomic dynamics have also displayed asymmetries. All communities experience cattle-looting, particularly Banyamulenge. As a pastoralist community, cows are central to their livelihoods and culture. Therefore, Mai-Mai use cattle-looting to attack Banyamulenge where it hurts the most, portraying this as self-defense by capitalizing on frustrations around transhumance (movements of cattle). Sometimes, Banyamulenge cows trample on farmers’ crops, which is considered a trigger of violence. In a context of widespread socioeconomic insecurity, this causes distress for farmers. However, the region lacks a suitable legal framework for farming. Furthermore, a common problem worldwide is that settled communities are normatively favoured over pastoralist and nomadic communities, who are often considered threatening trespassers by default when moving onto territories. Hence, challenges related to transhumance link with the Banyamulenge’s structural marginalisation. Another regular trigger of violence is the killing of customary chiefs, which are considered symbolic acts against entire communities. This symbolic effect in killing Banyamulenge leaders can additionally mark an expression of the rejection of Banyamulenge as Congolese and can weaken the community socio-politically. This effect has also been seen in the military. The recent assassination of a Banyamulenge major, cheered on by a mob, caused pain and fear throughout the community.

A combination of quantitative asymmetries and tactics adopted by the Mai-Mai have signified the Banyamulenge’s vulnerability. Kivu Security Tracker (KST) has documented similar numbers of abuses by both armed coalitions. However, their focus on perpetrators creates limitations in understanding the impact on different civilians. The UNJHRO’s report from August 2020 documented abuses in the Plateaux from February 2019 to June 2020, finding that 38% of victims of documented abuses were Banyamulenge, while 25% were Bafuliiru, 13% Banyindu, 12% Bashi, and 9% Bembe. The report omitted some areas but demonstrated the seriousness of the crisis. While such asymmetries by no means suggest Banyamulenge are the only people suffering, they reflect power dynamics that render them particularly vulnerable. Mai-Mai have attacked Banyamulenge in their villages and again in a Minembwe internally displaced persons (IDP) camp from multiple directions, demonstrating their levels of coordination as a coalition. Other communities have suffered from displacement, such as the Bafuliiru struggling to survive in another camp. Yet, Mai-Mai have additionally used tactics to effectively besiege Banyamulenge IDPs, directly threatening the community’s survival. Their physical attacks have been compounded by their mental effects on Banyamulenge, which serve as reminders of the community’s status as an “unwanted” people.

Existing peacebuilding initiatives have not only overlooked different drivers of this crisis. They have also relied on neutral dialogues between armed groups and elites that have exposed their unequal positions. Some talks have failed due to decisions by members of both coalitions, often reflecting feelings of uncertainty among Banyamulenge representatives. However, many such failures have reflected the deep distrust towards the Banyamulenge among “autochthonous” representatives. Altogether, the data limitations, chronic underreporting, and narratives downplaying asymmetries demonstrate that the international community has yet to take this crisis seriously. Until incongruences between verified data on the crisis and higher estimates by Banyamulenge researchers can be further and independently investigated, the threats signalled by the dynamics of the crisis still need addressing. Asymmetries alone are not necessarily signs of genocide, but they can indicate certain vulnerabilities that inform this interpretation. Highlighting the disproportionate suffering of Banyamulenge need not undermine the suffering of others. In every death and abuse, there are members of communities whose human rights have been violated. Rather, it underlines threats that necessitate specific interventions. It can also give Banyamulenge more assurance that their story has been heard and can be situated within this crisis and the DRC’s multitude of challenges.

Tom Shacklock is a Senior Research Analyst and Advocacy Manager​ at Genocide Watch. He is also author of an earlier blog, 28 Years After Rwanda, Anti-Tutsism Still Kills in Congo, which can be found here at The Call.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Genocide Watch.

You can download a PDF version of this blog series by clicking on the attachment below:

Addressing the Banyamulenge Plight in DR Congo
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