IRIN Interview with Banyamulenge leader on fighting in Minembwe

A mutiny among Tutsi troops, led by Commandant Patrick Masunzu of the Rwandan-backed rebel Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie (RCD-Goma), has for three months resisted attempts by RCD-Goma to suppress the rebellion in the eastern province of South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has vowed to crush resistance by Masunzu's forces, most of whom are members of the Banyamulenge of South Kivu, the Tutsi community with the longest history in the DRC - and a group whose protection is one of the reasons for Rwanda's military presence in the country.

The security chief of RCD-Goma, Bizima Karaha, has described Masunzu's followers as "criminals and thugs", but Enoch Sebeniza Ruberangabo, a spokesman for the Congolese Tutsis in South Kivu, told IRIN in April that Masunzu had been the best protector of the Tutsis in South Kivu over the past three years. He added that Masunzu had become the victim of a defamation campaign after writing to RCD-Goma appealing for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, and warning that it could add to the risk of extermination of the Tutsi community in the DRC.

On 2 May 2002, IRIN spoke with Muller Ruhimbika, leader of the Congolese Forces Republicaines Federalistes (FRF}, a political faction opposed to the Rwandan military presence in the DRC, on the situation prevailing in Minembwe, where RCD-Goma troops are fighting Masunzu.

QUESTION: Is fighting between RCD-Goma troops and Commandant Patrick Masunzu's combatants in the high plateaus of Minembwe continuing or has it ended?

ANSWER: Fighting continues in the high plateaus. Despite the high number of Rwandan soldiers [between 5,000 and 7,000] in the area, Masunzu's men [about 1,000] are still holding [out]. Obviously, Masunzu is supported by the Banyamulenge. Although civilians are not participating in the fighting, they are supporting Masunzu, and the latter feels strong. Therefore, fighting continues.

Q: There are reports of high losses of human lives. How many people have been killed among the civilian population? Are people on the move in that area, or are there centres for the displaced?

A: Sixty-six civilians and 350 soldiers from both sides had been killed by yesterday [Wednesday 1 May]. Civilians were killed mainly following bombardments by RPA [Rwandan Patriotic Army] helicopters. There have been movements of people in the area. People fled from village to village. Movement has almost stopped for the time being. Three hundred villagers fled their villages fearing RPA reprisals, because they are considered to be Masunzu supporters. These people are currently in the bush.

Q: Has any humanitarian activity been carried out in favour of these people?

A: No humanitarian activity has been initiated in favour of the displaced populations or those who lost their properties to looters. When the RPA arrived at Minembwe, the surrounding parish and villages were looted by the Rwandan army. No NGO had come to the rescue of the high plateaus by 1 May 2002.

Q: As the leader of the main Banyamulenge organisation, what kind of assistance would you call for in favour of these people?

A: The FRF is asking for two things: [First,] the withdrawal of the RPA from the high plateaus, because it is terrorising the people. Everybody fears the RPA. Masunzu will not leave the high plateaus. The fact that the RPA is still present in the area is a sign of the continuing war. The RPA should therefore leave. [Second,] the international community should assist the high plateau populations. They need a lot of things such as medicines and food.

Q: The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] in Burundi says it will soon transfer Banyamulenge refugees to the north of the country. What is the position of the FRF on that matter? Are you in contact with UNHCR so as to find a satisfactory solution to that issue?

A: Yes, the UNHCR is planning to transfer the Banyamulenge refugees from Bujumbura to the countryside. Although the FRF is not the refugees' spokesman, since they are organised into committees, it can show the UNHCR and the Burundi authorities that the transfer would be deadly for these refugees. They will be killed by rebels. This is a reality. To take them to the interior would amount to sacrificing them.

Sincerely, the FRF believes that the UNHCR and the Burundi government will not implement their programme. As a political party, the FRF is not in contact with the UNHCR. However, the refugee committees are defending their case very well on this subject. In case they are not heard, then the FRF may also contact the UNHCR to make sure the programme is not implemented.

Q: What is the position of the FRF on the recent agreement between the Kinshasa government and the Mouvement de liberation du Congo [MLC], led by Jean-Pierre Bemba? Will it bring peace to the DRC?

A: The agreement between the Kinshasa government and Bemba's MLC will bring peace in the DRC. However, this agreement is not the result of the Lusaka framework agreement. The latter experienced serious problems, because the RCD-Goma is held hostage by Kigali and cannot make its own political decisions. This led to Kinshasa and the MLC forging an alliance outside Sun City [talks].

The FRF hopes that Kivu will join the Banyamulenge in order to liberate the area still occupied by the RPA. Congo will not be liberated by an agreement including all the signatories of the Lusaka agreement, because Rwanda is a signatory, but has no interest in the restoration of peace. Rather, this will be done by local agreements at provincial level. This is what the FRF is calling for.

Q: Did the Sun City talks find a solution to one of the main causes of the Congolese crisis: the question of citizenship for the Banyamulenge?

A: Of course, the agreement between the MLC and Kinshasa is not a guarantee for peace in the DRC. However, it is a beginning. The FRF believes the question of citizenship will be discussed between Banyamulenge and other Kivu inhabitants. The resulting understanding should be accepted by Kinshasa. Our plan is to start with pacification at the local level [Kivu] and extend to Kinshasa at a later stage. Therefore, the eastern populations hold the key to the Banyamulenge question.

Q: Scanty information is reaching the international community on what is happening in Minembwe. Why is that?

A: Yes, little information is circulating on what is happening in Minembwe, because the area is inaccessible to the media, and the RCD cannot allow journalists to visit the area. RCD opponents who are in Bujumbura, Uvira, Bukavu and Kigali cannot express themselves. They are facing high risks.