Slow genocide of the Banyamulenge of South Kivu

Rukumbuzi Delphin Ntanyoma and Helen Hintjens

International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University, The Hague, The Netherlands

First Published on May 8, 2021

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


Recent warfare in Eastern DRC, especially since 2015, is marked by violence inspired by ‘race’ narratives. Identity politics around ‘race’ is used to legitimise ‘expressive’ or reprisal-oriented violence against ‘Hamitic’ or ‘Tutsi’ minorities. The case of the Banyamulenge of South Kivu is examined in this article. Following Autesserre, we show that one-dimensional narratives – in this case of ‘race’ – tend to over-simplify the dynamics of political violence. Anti-Hamitic racism is derived from colonial ideas around race hierarchies, and has resulted in systematic killings of Banyamulenge civilians in what resembles a ‘slow genocide’. Expressive violence has, in turn, produced a lack of concern for the plight of Banyamulenge civilians among the military, humanitarians, media, scholars and NGOs. Given armed alliances between local Maimai forces, Burundian and Rwandan opposition and the DRC army, such ‘race’ narratives cruelly legitimise violence against civilians from ‘Tutsi’ communities, associated by neighbouring communities with Rwanda. Resultant displacement, starvation and killing of Banyamulenge civilians in this context amount to an on-going, slow-moving genocide. As the COVID-19 crisis unrolls, the decolonisation of identity politics in Eastern DRC, and in South Kivu in particular still seems very remote.


South Kivu, Banyamulenge, identity politics, colonial, warfare, expressive violence, race, tribal, DRC, citizenship


The world is simultaneously moving in opposite directions. (Rosenau, 2003: 12)

South Kivu Province, in the High Plateau of Uvira-Minembwe, is facing an underreported, misunderstood and disturbing humanitarian crisis. The scapegoating of specific minorities, informed by colonial-era ideas about ‘race’ and ‘tribe’, is being instrumentalised as part of what Kalyvas terms ‘expressive violence’ against civilians (Kalyvas, 2006). In South Kivu, such forms of violence are enacted against Banyamulenge with some 150,000 civilians besieged as IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) in Minembwe since January 2019, as well as smaller numbers in Bijombo and Mikenke, Banyamulenge are sitting targets for attacks. Violence against this minority is often justified as revenge for the past war crimes of Banyamulenge troops.

Banyamulenge civilian IDPs have, for some years, been targets of what can be seen as a slow-moving genocide (see Ntanyoma, 2019b). Slow genocide can be defined as ‘the emotional and physical harm done to survivors of violence over time…[and] emotional and physical harm resulting from witnessing or participating in violence and the continuing experiences of living in unsafe and violent communities’ (Cottam et al., 2006: 2). According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), in 2004, the situation in Darfur resembled ‘Rwanda in slow motion’ (ICG, 2004). ‘Slow genocide’ is also used to classify the long, drawn-out destruction of Palestinians by Israel (Barghouti, 2010; Lendman, 2010). Similarly, the situations of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and of West Papuans in Indonesia have been defined as ‘slow-burning’ or ‘slow-motion’ genocides (Elmslie and Webb-Gannon, 2013; Zarni and Cowley, 2014: 682). Just as Rohingya are referred to as Bangladeshis in order to deny their claims to full Myanmar citizenship, so too, Banyamulenge are referred to as Rwandans, which serves to discredit their claims to be recognised as full and equal Congolese citizens.

It is well to remember that genocide, as Sheri Rosenberg reminds us, may not consist of one spectacular set of events (although it can do), but can take the form of a gradual process of ‘genocide by attrition’, with the slow death of a people and their culture over time (Rosenberg, 2012: 18–19). This insight applies to the Banyamulenge community in South Kivu, and yet to declare the killing and starving of a community a slow genocide, even publicly, does not guarantee a strong response will come that will stop the killers in their tracks, as demonstrated in the case of Darfur 20 years ago, when declaring what was taking place a genocide did not produce the expected results (Straus, 2005).

Meanwhile, in South Kivu, Maimai attacks on Banyamulenge civilians, given the community’s stigmatised status, are ignored in the media, or framed as ‘inter-ethnic’ violence rather than one-sided killings. State failure to protect all persecuted minorities in Eastern DRC is evident. Far from promoting dialogue or a military solution, Forces Capitals Armees de la Republique Democratique du Congo (FARDC) are reported to turn a blind eye to attacks by Maimai rebels on Banyamulenge, and even recently, said to have assisted the Maimai (Stearns, 2011: 126). Amid tensions in Minembwe, Kivu Security Tracker (KST) has remarked that ‘FARDC members had given ammunition to the Maimai groups two days before’ a Maimai attack (KST, 2020a). Not surprisingly, Vogel and Stearns (2018: 6) classify the FARDC as belligerents in the third phase of warfare since 2015. In 2020 and 2021, with COVID-19, come further risks of intensified victimization of minority communities, such as the Banyamulenge and others, under cover of lockdown.

Local armed groups were active in South Kivu in the 1960s during the Mulelist rebellions (Stearns et al., 2013a). They were then largely dormant until just after the Rwanda genocide which ended in July 1994, when a million Rwandans, and a heavily armed retreating force, fled into then-Zaire. Open warfare intensified from 1996 to 1998, involving regime change, becoming a general war involving regional states, from 1998 to 2003 ‘Africa’s first World War’ (Prunier, 2009). Most recently, warfare again shifted its nature, from 2015 onwards, to take more expressive forms, involving both reprisals ‘…conducted against those who had nothing to do with the prior act’ and uncoordinated acts of revenge, where ‘…the attack is aimed indiscriminately’ at a specific ethnic group, in this case the Banyamulenge (Boyle, 2010: 190).

During the first and second Congo wars (1994–1998 and 1998–2003), Banyamulenge fighters were closely associated with Rwandan military and political intervention in Zaire, and later in DRC. Banyamulenge forces often formed a proxy force for Rwanda. Today, with this alliance long gone, perceptions persist that Banyamulenge are allied to, and loyal to, Rwanda. National and global events have ‘frozen’ the Banyamulenge in this role. On the pretext that they are not loyal Congolese, but intent on subversion, the Banyamulenge have been systematically marginalised and persecuted. The Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en République Démocratique du Congo (MONUSCO) has little chance of maintaining peace, whilst its main partner is the FARDC. MONUSCO soldiers appear not to have noticed the acute humanitarian tragedy unfolding near their base in Minembwe. International humanitarian agencies completely ignore the crisis in South Kivu and fail to respond to human need in Minembwe and other centres where IDPs are concentrated. Instead of a focus on civilians, the main priority of those work