ALL Black Lives Matter in the Congo

On behalf of East Congo Tribune representing the Banyamulenge diaspora in the Netherlands

After decades of civil warfare, peace is the priority for the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yet the predicament of the Banyamulenge, a minority currently besieged and threatened by surrounding armed groups in South Kivu, illustrates that the poisonous legacies of colonial theories of ‘race’ are alive and well in people’s minds. This threatens prospects for peace in the DRC and the wider Great Lakes region. Belgium’s King Philippe recently issued a public apology for the cruelty of colonialism in the Congo, and following Black Lives Matter protests, a Parliamentary ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ commission has been set up in Belgium. Yet its findings will not come soon enough to help the Banyamulenge. Helen Hintjens and Delphin Ntanyoma call for urgent intervention to protect the civilian Banyamulenge who are facing genocide. They call for mental decolonisation from race theories to ensure that ALL Black Lives Matter in the Congo.

Displaced Banyamulenge in Congo
Photo 1: Internally Displaced Banyamulenge in Minembwe fearful for their future

Race Theories and the Colonial Present

Following Black Lives Matter protests in Belgium that toppled statues of King Leopold II, King Philippe expressed his ‘deepest regrets’ for ‘violence’ and ‘suffering’ imposed on Congolese people under Belgian colonial rule. Leopold’s cruel reign sacrificed an estimated 10 million Congolese lives in pursuit of profit. Since 1994, another 5 to 12 million Congolese died in wars to benefit mostly non-Congolese. Belgian colonial rule also left behind toxic ideas about race differences that now underpin violence against minorities like the Banyamulenge.

Their targeting as a minority living mainly in the eastern part of the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) has intensified as armed conflict in South Kivu has continued, leading to fears of a slow genocide as world’s focus is elsewhere. Due to their ‘Tutsi’ ancestry, Banyamulenge civilians are labeled ‘Hamitic’ invaders, oppressors, and even vermin. For decades they have been victims of pogroms and violence.

Map of attacks on Banyamulenge villages
Map of attacks on Banyamulenge villages and civilians.
Source: Delphin Ntanyoma (Eastern Congo Tribune) 8.9.2020.

This map shows a red circle, an area of less than 10 km2, where over 150,000 civilian Banyamulenge have fled seeking shelter after more than 3,500 square kilometres of land have been seized and 300 Banyamulenge villages burned and completely demolished (see Photo 2). They have no humanitarian assistance, apart from a few private fundraisers. The villages (marked X in green) have been attacked by Mai-Mai rebels and by FARDC (the national army) in early September 2020. For four successive days, 2-5 September, Gahwera and Kahwela villages were attacked. On 8 September, Runundu and Rutigita were attacked. In Kahwela, six were reported injured and two dead. Fighting is going on around southwest Minembwe town as we go to press. The A in purple indicates deployment of FARDC troops— 6,000 in total. Local information on 8 September indicates a row broke out among FARDC officers in Minembwe. Some were opposed to FARDC allying itself with Mai-Mai attacks on unarmed Banyamulenge civilians. Whereas in the past massacres took the form of pogroms, today the killings and military operations seem designed to wipe the Banyamulenge out completely. As Kivu Security Tracker (KST) has reported, as Mai-Mai ‘self-defence forces’ attack Banyamulenge villages, they force more and more civilians to flee for protection to a few tiny areas in Minembwe in South Kivu.

A demolished Bayamulenge home
Photo 2: A demolished Bayamulenge home; one of thousands since 2017

Mai-Mai rebels were joined in recent years by Rwandan-backed Burundian opposition rebel groups (Red Tabara, FOREBU and FNL) and civilian Banyamulenge stuck in Minembwe since March 2019 are now completely surrounded. There are an estimated 125,000 to 150,000 people in tiny ‘safe areas’. They are now starving. All humanitarian agencies have left Minembwe, even MSF, claiming it is unsafe to work there. With local roads almost impassable, almost everything has to be flown in. The Rector of the local Eben Ezer University, Lazare Sebitereko, suggest aid organizations are afraid to help Banyamulenge civilians despite their evident vulnerability because of the stigma against this group as ‘Hamitic’ or ‘Tutsi’ outsiders, among the majority communities in Eastern Congo, who define themselves as ‘Bantu’ or indigenous.

Banyamulenge exiles and leaders are calling for international action before it is too late. In April 2020, in an open letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, they called on the UN to “avert another genocide in the region, with the international community as bystanders”. Several petitions are circulating. Yet as in Rwanda in 1994, no-one wants to use the ‘g’-word. Everyone wants to avoid the obligation to protect. However, the international community has been warned – indeed warned repeatedly – of the possibility of  genocide. Pre-conditions for genocide are now in place, including discrimination, dehumanization, polarization, persecution and denial.

Editor of the Eastern Congo Tribune, Rukumbuzi Delphin Ntanyoma explains: “As a Munyamulenge from South Kivu, completing my Doctorate in Development Economics at the Erasmus University’s International Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands, I am tracking the misfortunes of my community in Minembwe every day.” As a blog, the Eastern Congo Tribune has been an especially important source of information during the COVID-19 lockdown, when journalists and researchers could not enter DRC for months. The blog makes for grim reading, detailing armed violence against Banyamulenge civilians who have been horribly attacked, raped and killed, simply trying to find food. When the Banyamulenge’s precious cattle were looted, the proceeds were used to buy more weapons. MONUSCO is nearby, and there are an estimated 6,000 FARDC troops, and they are not protecting the Banyamulenge; on the contrary.

According to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, mutual understanding and peace require the “broken roots of African civilization” to be mended. As an example, the predicament of the Banyamulenge in South Kivu illustrates that colonial theories of ‘Hamites’ and ‘Bantu’ races continue to sow hatred and persecution today. The hope is still that in the longer run racism and violence against all Congolese people, including minorities like the Banyamulenge, can be ended by seeking out the truth behind Belgian colonial history.

However, the threat in Minembwe to civilians cannot wait for that process. The need for protection and humanitarian relief needs to be addressed right away. Otherwise this minority community will become another page in the history book of genocide in the Great Lakes region of the African continent in the former Belgian colonies. Time is running out to heal the wounds of colonial divide-and-rule theories of race, and to finally ensure that all Black Lives Matter in the Congo.

This article draws on two publications by Rukumbuzi Delphin Ntanyoma, one a Genocide Warning published on the Genocide Watch website (2020), and a related Working Paper, published by ISS (2019).

About the authors:

Helen HintjensHelen Hintjens is Assistant Professor in Development and Social Justice at the ISS, working in the field of migration.

Delphin NtanyomaDelphin Ntanyoma is a PhD candidate at the ISS. His research falls within Conflict Economics and is part of the Economics of Development & Emerging Markets (EDEM) Program. With a background of Economics and Masters’ of Art in Economics of Development from ISS, the researcher runs an online blog that shares personal views on socio-economic and political landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo but also that of the African Great Lakes Region. The Eastern Congo Tribune Blog can be found on the following link: www.easterncongotribune.com.

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