The Banyamulenge, found mainly in South Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), have been at the centre of several wars in the country, and were at one time stripped of citizenship due to their links to Rwanda.
The Congolese government issued a decree in 1995 declaring the Banyamulenge and all Kinyarwanda-speakers foreigners. This decree has since been overturned.
Zachée Muhamiriza, president of the Banyamulenge community in Bukavu, the provincial capital of South Kivu, said that according to Congo's current constitution, citizenship for the Banyamulenge is guaranteed, "but I think the continued animosity towards them is due to tribal bias by individuals".
He added: "Our plight has been made worse because whenever we are attacked, some of us run to Rwanda for help, confirming the perception that we are foreigners. If there was peace in eastern Congo, Banyamulenge would want to identify with Congo; those who run to Rwanda do so because they think it is the only place which can guarantee their safety.
"Since the Rwanda genocide [in 1994], there is fear in the Great Lakes region, since [Rwandan President Paul] Kagame took power, that there could be a domination by Tutsis," Muhamiriza said. The Banyamulenge are ethnically linked to the Tutsi and speak Kinyarwanda. Another Congolese Tutsi population of north Kivu are not known as Banyamulenge, but also speak Kinyarwanda. "That is why we had mass killings of the Tutsis - the Gatumba massacre in Burundi on 13 August 2004 as well as other incidents inside Congo - in which the Banyamulenge were killed in large numbers. The international community should pressure the region's leaders to accept reconciliation at national level."
"Kagame's struggle caused problems for the Banyamulenge in Congo because of our perceived support for his rebellion," said Enock Ruberangabo Sebineza, a former parliamentarian during the transition that ended with general elections in 2006. "After the genocide, hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees fled into eastern Congo. They included Interahamwe militiamen and members of the former Rwandan army, the ex-FAR [Forces Armées Rwanda]."
The ex-FAR and the Interahamwe fled with their weapons. "They came into Congo with the same ideology of exterminating the Tutsi; and once they took to the bush, they started targeting the Banyamulenge," Sebineza said.
Photo: Jane Some/IRIN
|A view of Bukavu town|
Violence against Banyamulenge
The Banyamulenge have been buffeted by Congo's wars since the 1960s, Sebineza said. In the rebellion that began in 1996, led by Laurent Kabila, they were caught in the middle. "Mobutu sent soldiers to chase us out of our homes; and Rwanda wanted to use the chance to get the ex-FAR and the Interahamwe out of Congo," he said.
He said many Banyamulenge youth joined Rwanda’s army, which came into the Congo to support Kabila's rebellion, but after the war no proper reconciliation process was put in place before Kabila fell out with the Rwandans.
"After this, there was a split within the Banyamulenge: one group thought it was better to side with the Rwandans while another thought the Banyamulenge were better off without Rwanda," he said. "For long, the Banyamulenge have borne the brunt of Rwanda's forays into Congo."
After the transition, a number of Kinyarwanda-speaking soldiers refused to join the integrated Forces Armées de la Republic Democratic du Congo (FARDC). These included Col Jules Mutebusi, who led his troops to occupy Bukavu for a week in June 2004, Gen Laurent Nkunda, who is based in North Kivu's Masisi area, Gen Patrick Masunzu, who commanded a brigade based in South Kivu's Minembwe area and many others.
"Mutebusi's bid to take Bukavu failed, mainly because most members of the community backed Gen Masunzu, who helped the army in getting Mutebusi out of Bukavu," Sebineza explained. "Masunzu's brigade remains out of the army’s 'brassage' [reintegration process]." Later, he added, Masunzu's brigade suffered a leadership crisis which led to a revolt.
Solution should be political
|Each community should respect the other and desist from committing atrocities against those who they perceive to be their enemies|
According to Sebineza, most Banyamulenge are against using force to quell the unrest in the east. "In 2006, a group representing the community visited Kabila in Kinshasa and asked him to give us time to talk to Masunzu [and other rebels] to get them to accept integration into the army," he said.
After that meeting, Banyamulenge leaders held talks for one month with Masunzu and the others and an agreement was reached that they would join the national army. However, he said, Masunzu later wrote to Kabila declining integration.
"In January 2007, Masunzu carried out a series of attacks against Bisogo's group, killing 12 fighters, who included two majors and three captains," Sebineza said. "We denounced this fighting and Masunzu was not very pleased."
Muhamiriza decried the fact that there was no Banyamulenge MP in Congo's parliament. "To date, we continue to plead with the government for a territory to be carved out of the four in which Minembwe is found. Minembwe is administered from Fizi town, which is 117km away, or from Uvira town, which is 126km away.
"If a Banyamulenge wants to register a birth or marriage, they have to trek long distances to these towns to get these services," he added. "Every community should respect the other and desist from committing atrocities against those who they perceive to be their enemies."
"We need government recognition; we need representation at the Senate, Parliament and in other government institutions," Muhamiriza said.