On the Interplay of Minority Groups’ Discrimination and Humanitarian Assistance Failure
Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 9, No. 11, November 2021
For two weeks now, a humanitarian convoy (five trucks) transporting humanitarian assistance to support the Banyamulenge in Bibogobogo (sometimes spelled Bibokoboko) has been intercepted by administrative and security officials in the city of Baraka .Two international humanitarian organizations, including the World Food Program (WFP), that have been working in this region to support displaced and local populations, resolved to support internally displaced Banyamulenge in Bibogobogo. The WFP’s support used an intermediate humanitarian organization, familiar of the context, to provide the assistance. On its way from Uvira to Baraka, rumors circulated that this is not humanitarian assistance but rather that the trucks contained ammunition and guns. Several sources including ones linked to civil society organizations in the region have confirmed that youth in Baraka (who support administrative and security officials) erected barricades to block the trucks. Truck drivers were obliged to unload everything to check what was inside each box. In the end, the search found that there was nothing linked to guns and ammunition. However, the assistance is now stored in Baraka, and it is uncertain if these organizations will be courageous enough to reload and bring the assistance to Bibogobogo.
In the meantime, the Banyamulenge diaspora in their limited means has been striving to support the local population in Bibogobogo. Strikingly, on 1st December 2021, a truck that was transporting humanitarian assistance provided by the diaspora was attacked by unknown assailants within a short distance of Baraka (6-8kms). The truck and two motorbikes heading to Bibogobogo were burnt entirely, which local sources have confirmed. The attack led to five people including drivers killed at the scene, some possibly early in morning. Several sources from Baraka believe that assailants unloaded the truck, shared it among themselves, and burnt it later.
This is not a minor or isolated incident as this argument shows. It is linked to a grounded hate against the Banyamulenge across different regions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Protection of Minorities: The Call of US Senate
For centuries, members of the Banyamulenge community, mostly cattle herders, have lived in South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Many scholars do agree that their migration towards the DRC took place well before the colonial advent and the “scramble for Africa” in 1885. Originating from Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania as some authors believe (Mutambo-Jondwe, 1997) the Banyamulenge are largely affiliated to the Tutsi of the African Great Lakes region. Their homeland territory is located at the intersection of three territories, Uvira, Mwenga, and Fizi. However, they have been discriminated against and mostly singled out in different waves of violence that DRC has experienced. Their recent situation as well as other minority groups in the Eastern Congo region is widely worrying.
In relation to the situation of minority groups including the Banyamulenge in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), two important questions were raised by the US-Senate Committee on Appropriations. The committee has recommended that the State Department work on their protection and the assistance provided, but also on sanctions against those responsible for atrocities. The US-Senate committees on the 2021 Appropriations Bill (p.86) expressed their concern in the following manner:
"The Committee is concerned with continuing atrocities committed against the Banyamulenge ethnic minority in the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC]. Not later than 90 days after enactment of the act, the Secretary of State shall brief the Committees on Appropriations on efforts to protect minority communities in DRC, including the Banyamulenge. The briefing shall describe assistance provided in response to recent atrocities and any sanctions levied against individuals responsible."
Despite Minembwe visits by the under Secretary General for peace operations, Jean Pierre Lacroix (04 September 2019) and that of Mike Hammer, the US Ambassador to DRC, the situation remains dire with limited humanitarian relief from international organizations. While the Banyamulenge in Minembwe, Muramvya, and Mikenke have been besieged, they have also mostly been assisted by Banyamulenge diaspora communities living across Europe, the USA, and Australia. On one hand, the failure on the side of the International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) was explained by the fact that most humanitarian organizations left the region due to violence.
These areas are only accessible through airlift as road infrastructures are generally lacking. Inadequate transport infrastructure has been mainly used to explain why INGOs have not provided humanitarian assistance. Can the dominant excuse of violence coupled with failing transport infrastructure explain it all? While the US Senate has underscored the need for protection and humanitarian assistance due to atrocities committed against the Banyamulenge, this article argues to look beyond apparent challenges of violence and inadequate transport infrastructures when it comes to support the Banyamulenge. The article contributes to this debate by highlighting that discrimination of minority groups, namely the Banyamulenge, which has spilled over from state and political officials to erode the neutrality principles of civil society, including humanitarian organizations in South Kivu. While Banyamulenge’s discrimination has largely been documented (Jackson, 2007; Mollel, 2008; Court, 2013), their relief remains uncertain as humanitarian principles rely on local expertise and staff who might in large part be biased against this community considered as “invaders”.
As demonstrated below, humanitarian organizations have also been influenced by the discriminative attitude that characterize the Congolese state and influential figures within the civil society organizations and clerks (Turner, 2007: 92; Reid 2014). Regardless of ethnic affiliation, violence does affect the entire local population though the Banyamulenge have their specificities. This is obvious when considering the failure to support internally displaced Banyamulenge in Bwegera (April 2021) and Baraka (October 2021).
The Persistent humanitarian Crisis?
On 12-14 October 2021, the somewhat more peaceful localities of Bibokoboko (also spelled Bibogobogo) were attacked by local and foreign militias. Since recent waves of violence erupted in 2019, the Banyamulenge in these localities have experienced intermittent attacks and communities in this region have regularly engaged in dialogue to de-escalate tensions. The localities were mainly inhabited by the Banyamulenge who lived together with other ethnic communities, including, and not limited to Babembe, Banyindu, and Bafuliro. On one hand, there is ample evidence that the Congolese national army has failed to intervene and protect the Banyamulenge, despite it being their mandate, and also having capacity. Strikingly, the Congolese national army, FARDC, has in several cases been an accomplice to MaiMai militias when they attack the Banyamulenge, as military officers in South Kivu have provided ammunition to these militias.
Consequent to the Bibogobogo attacks, at least 20 people were killed in Bibokoboko, 15 villages burnt down, thousands of cattle stolen, and victims forced to flee towards Baraka, at the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Bibokoboko attacks reflect the MaiMai  and their allied militias modus operandi of recent waves of violence against the Banyamulenge in South Kivu: killing people, burning villages and crops, systematic cattle looting and forcing victims to live under constant threat and trauma. Thousands have fled towards neighboring countries while those remaining in South Kivu province are now forced to live under siege in a few tiny areas: Minembwe, Mikenke, Muramvya, and recently Bwegera. Even some of these localities have been regularly and systematically attacked.
Besides thousands killed since 2017, around 300 villages were burnt down, and more than 265,000 cattle  were looted by MaiMai and allied militias. Banyamulenge cattle constituted their economy and source of livelihood, as well as being a central part of Banyamulenge culture. While extremely impoverished, be it in Minembwe, Muramvya, Mikenke, or Bwegera, the Banyamulenge have limited access to their farming fields. This leads to starvation and malnutrition, affecting mainly children. There are also indications of elder deaths caused by the inhumane conditions in which they are forced to live in for years. The current conditions of the Banyamulenge in South Kivu are consistent with Rosenberg and Silina (2013)’s definition of a “genocide by attrition”. More broadly, the violence committed against the Banyamulenge fits the definition of a genocide according to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, in that it constitutes “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” This destruction is clearly seen in the attempts to destroy villages, as well as in the systematic looting and attacks on the Banyamulenge.
However, their survival poses questions as humanitarian organizations face accessibility, and bureaucratic challenges within an ethnically polarized context. Borrowing from Hilhorst and Jansen (2010), the argument in this article considers that humanitarian principles, neutrality, impartiality, and independence are not always met. For instance, impartiality as a core principle (Van Mierop, 2015), can sometimes be influenced by “institutional interests, the local socio-cultural fabric and power differentials among aid recipients” (Hilhorst and Jansen, 2010: 1136). While the Congolese state and its national army have played a dubious role when it comes to protecting the Banyamulenge, James (2020) reveals how humanitarian officials in Eastern DRC are more reliant on local staff to intervene and assess the security situation. The experience around the Banyamulenge in relation to humanitarian interventions is to be viewed within the lenses of their vulnerability and mostly what to expect from many local staff and civil society organizations in South Kivu.
The Failure of the Humanitarian Intervention?
As hinted in the introduction, members of the Babembe, Banyindu, and Bafuliro have been affected by violence and faced similar challenges in terms of humanitarian support. However, when fleeing violence in their villages, they at least have options to move from one locality to another and integrate into local host communities. Members of these Banyamulenge neighboring communities who fled towards localities that are accessible by road have at minimum received humanitarian support. Moreover, compared to the Banyamulenge who the majority live under the siege, members of these communities have the possibility of cultivating farms from which they can barely survive if not supported by humanitarian assistance. Contrastingly, the Banyamulenge in this region live under siege, and have mostly survived due to the support of the diaspora. As Rosenberg and Silina (2013: 107) argue, the Banyamulenge conditions will inevitably “lead to the slow and steady destruction of the group.”
Attacks of early March up to April 2021 forced the Banyamulenge in Rurambo to flee their localities towards the region called Ruzizi Plain, namely Bwegera. While Bwegera is accessible by roads from Uvira or Bukavu, displaced Banyamulenge in Bwegera had spent approximately three months without humanitarian support from INGOs . While an estimated 4000 individuals are now located in a Malaria-ridden region and are subject to other sanitation-related diseases, reasons behind the lack of support by humanitarian organizations remain unclear. Local sources have confirmed that from late April to August 2021, there were no systematic interventions from international organizations while their officials visited the site of Bwegera. As the “problem of inaccessibility” is ruled out, victims and some voices tend to believe the failure has to do with discrimination wrapped within bureaucratic norms and principles.
The case of the Banyamulenge who fled from Bibokoboko towards Baraka indicates the role of discrimination within the “humanitarian space” (Hilhorst and Jansen, 2010). Approximately 5,000-7,000 exhausted Banyamulenge fled from Bibokoboko localities towards Baraka. While few individuals called local communities to welcome the displaced, many have experienced physical and psychological attacks from local communities. Youth in Baraka operated in mob gangs to try to rob what few possessions they managed to flee with. Security services, army and police and administrative officials who knew the displaced were arriving did not establish mechanisms to support them . Instead, victims, witnesses and civil society representatives have claimed that the situation in Baraka was as traumatizing as the attacks in their villages.
From Uvira (one of the large cities in South Kivu that comprises many INGOs and the local headquarters of OCHA) to Baraka, there is no such big accessibility challenge. One can use the road or Lake Tanganyika (the easiest way). Nonetheless, displaced Banyamulenge in Baraka spent 2 to 3 weeks without humanitarian interventions whether from INGOs or the Congolese state. Local sources have confirmed that 5000 people lived in one small local church with only 2 toilet pits. Their survival again relied on the intervention of the Banyamulenge diaspora. Consequently, they finally decided to return to their villages around November 1, 2021 where they are yet struggling to get assistance.
Historical background and why would the Banyamulenge situation be a concern for the United States?
The Banyamulenge as well as other minority groups, such as the Hema community in Ituri, have been singled out because of the colonial categorization fallacies. Through colonial categorization, the latter ethnic groups are self-styled as “native/autochthonous” while the Banyamulenge are viewed as “immigrants/newcomers” (Willame, 1997). In a broad categorization, autochthonous groups are defined in the Africa great lakes region as “Bantu” while immigrants are labelled as “Nilotes”. This is a colonially inherited classification within the “Hamitic Hypothesis” (Sanders, 1969; Eltringham, 2006). The attacks build on existing grievances and antagonisms originating and mobilizing around the native-immigrants dichotomy. A coalition of local and foreign militias has engaged in attacks that intend to eradicate the Banyamulenge, who are considered “ invaders” (Ntanyoma and Hintjens, 2021). While decades of violence in the Eastern Congo led to millions of deaths, experience in the Great Lakes region of Africa shows that similar narratives of native-immigrant dichotomy and the sense of chasing “invaders” drove the 1994 genocide in Rwanda (Stanton, 2009).
As indicated above, the Congolese state and its army has backed the militias attacking the Banyamulenge. The foreign groups receive support from regional countries; the support has contributed to increasing the militias’ military capabilities. However, intentionally, or not, President Felix Tshisekedi’s administration has defined violence in this region as inter-communal, disregarding the presence of foreign groups. In addition, regardless of many visits by Congolese officials, the Congolese state has remained belligerent. While it set aside $500,000 that could have rehabilitated the road towards Minembwe, the funds disappeared in 2019 in the hands of the central government Minister of Solidarity and Humanitarian Action (Kinshasa), who was never prosecuted.
The Banyamulenge are not victims of the violence that erupted in 2017. Instead, theirs is a protracted victimhood moving towards annihilation as different massacres and forced displacements  are weaved together (Rosenberg and Silina, 2013: 113). While their discrimination originated from the colonial period that abolished their local chiefdoms (Vlassenroot, 2002; Stearns et al., 2013), the Banyamulenge have since then been discriminated against and treated as “invaders”. Their nationality was revoked around 1981, and the Zairean state resolved to expel them in December 1995. In this context emerged the 1996 massacres in which they were specifically singled out by the South Kivu governor. In 1998, the entourage of the late President Laurent Kabila called on civilians and military units to use systematic and methodical techniques to exterminate the Banyamulenge labelled as “vermin or microbes”. In 2004, they were again selectively massacred in Gatumba/Burundi while under the protection of the UN (HRW 2004).
Many of these massacres were preceded by political and dehumanizing speeches. The same speeches are still being used by priests, civil society representatives, and political figures (Genocide-Watch and Ntanyoma, 2021; UNJHRO, 2021). Besides voices of international human rights organizations, in most cases civil society organizations including humanitarian organizations have remained silent vis-à-vis the tragedy facing the Banyamulenge. As the future of the Banyamulenge facing genocide by attrition remains uncertain, both logistical and infrastructure challenges, as well as discrimination within the “humanitarian space” are worth attention. Therefore, the protection of the Banyamulenge should concern world leaders and international institutions, all of which should wake up and ensure their survival.
- Baraka is a city located in Fizi territory, approximately 80 kms southward of Uvira city. The latter is part of the Uvira territory.
- MaiMai (Mayi Mayi) are local armed militias self-syled under ‘Autochthonous’ and nationalist groups who devoted their engagement to protect their lands against “invaders”. Mai (maji in Kiswahili language), meaning water is in reference to historically shared beliefs in the power of witchcraft to turn the enemy’s bullets into water. The details can be found in Fox et al. (1965); Verhaegen (1967); Nzongola-Ntalaja (2002).
- Due to continued attacks, the number keeps increasing as do looting and stealing of Banyamulenge cattle. In addition, the figure excludes thousands of cattle that died due to harsh conditions related to sieges.
- Even at the time INGOs provided humanitarian support, local sources in Bwegera corroborate that each household (5 individuals on average) has received around $230 since August 2021, making approximately $45 per 3.5 months per person. Since late April, efforts to build shelters have started.
- Different sources including representatives of “Ambassadors of Peace”, and Jacques and Amisi Amirado have corroborated the above.
- Details on how the Banyamulenge have been forced to leave certain territories in DRC and how they have been impoverished by recent waves of attacks are to be found in “Under the shadow of violence” (forthcoming paper).
Delphin Ntanyoma is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Social Studies (within Erasmus University) specialising in the micro-level analysis of violent conflict in North Kivu and South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is the author of “Behind the Scenes of ‘Banyamulenge Military’: Momentum, Myth, and Extinction”, co-author of “Expressive violence and the slow genocide of the Banyamulenge of South Kivu” and other articles, including in The Eastern Congo Tribune, which he edits.
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