Why the UN Fails to Prevent Mass Atrocities

Violent Incidents and Reporting Bias in the South Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo from 2017 to 2022

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 10, No. 8, August 2022

UN forces in Minembwe, South Kivu taken on 2 April 2019. Source: Delphin Ntanyoma.

Delphin Ntanyoma
Erasmus University

Fidele Sebahizi
Liberty University

Prosper Baseka wa Baseka
Bircham International University

1. Introduction

This study includes preliminary analysis of 324 violent incidents in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) recorded by Kivu Security Tracker (KST) and 29 reports of the United Nations Peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, known as Mission de Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation du Congo (MONUSCO).[1]

Since its creation and deployment in 1999, MONUSCO is now facing unprecedented protests as local populations in Eastern DRC are demanding its immediate withdrawal. Between July 25 and July 26, 2022, protesters from the main cities in North Kivu and South Kivu stormed MONUSCO bases in Beni, Butembo, Goma, and Uvira to express their anger at the 22-year-long UN mission’s failure to stabilize the region.  Following these incidents, including the one that took place at the Uganda-DRC border, it is believed that 32 civilians and 4 peacekeepers died.

The demonstrations have raised concerns over when the mission will be successful in a region where armed groups keep growing in number from dozens to hundreds. Despite the presence of the largest peacekeeping mission, local populations in the Eastern DRC face daily violence either committed by non-state or state actors. We share the view that blame for the failure to stabilize the region lies primarily with the Congolese rulers/elite, and MONUSCO on a secondary level. Within this broad debate, this study (working paper) takes a step further to assess if the mission understands the complex nature of violence in this region. The following study includes a preliminary analysis of 324 violent incidents committed in Eastern DRC that were recorded by KST, and 29 reports that were recorded by MONUSCO.

To give a rough idea of MONUSCO’s capacity, an example below indicates this challenge.

From October 13 to 15 last year, a large and local coalition of Congolese armed groups, known as MaiMai/Biloze Bishambuke  believed to ally with Burundian rebels, attacked Banyamulenge civilians and destroyed a dozen  villages in an area called Bibokoboko (sometimes spelled Bibogobogo). During the attack, local sources have indicated that 25 people were killed, several properties damaged, and perpetrators took 52 civilians as hostages. The 52 civilians included 30 children, 18 women and 4 men who were mostly above 55 years old.[2] Instead of framing[3] this specific incident as an attack against Banyamulenge civilians, KST recorded that the local armed groups, known as MaiMai/Biloze Bishambuke,[4] attacked other Congolese armed groups known as Gumino/Twirwaneho.  Moreover, rather than recording the 25 deaths, KST only recorded four killings . In lieu of the 52 Banyamulenge civilian hostages, KST recorded the civilian hostages as 40 Twirwaneho combatants. Three to four months after the Bibokoboko attack, and as a result of the authors’ discussion with KST’s representative, the latter reviewed and revised the report. As a result, KST reframed the attack  by changing the number and the status of hostages: 40 combatants Twirwaneho to 52 civilians. Such framing, considering children and women as armed combatants, prompted our deeper analysis of these  records. The Bibokoboko’s case is one of the many incidents which the findings discussed below were drawn from.  

MONUSCO, KST and the DRC government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

2. Background

MONUSCO is considered to be the largest UN mission across the globe. Deployed in DRC since 1999, there are still many concerns around the effectiveness of this mission because the DRC, and mostly its eastern part, has remained unstable. Besides the proliferation of armed groups, some of which are locally based, the Eastern DRC has seen the emergence of terrorist groups such as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) operating in North-Kivu. Hundreds of local armed groups and others originating from DRC’s neighboring countries have been committing violence against civilians in Ituri, North Kivu, South Kivu, and Tanganyinka provinces. 

Specifically, the Eastern DRC region has been characterized by violence targeting some minority ethnic groups on the ground that they are not “real Congolese”. For instance, the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) warned in 2020 that violence targeting the Hema of Ituri may constitute acts of genocide (see the report here, p.23).  Despite UNJHRO’s warning, violence has continued against this ethnic group in Ituri while the Congolese security services, including the national army and police, have failed to put an end to these specific atrocities, regardless of MONUSCO’s support. Similarly, the Banyamulenge ethnic group in South Kivu are experiencing violence divergently interpreted as inter-ethnic confrontation or a slow genocide while the contestation of their nationality has been among core motives to attack members of this community.

The Banyamulenge inhabit the Southern South Kivu, Fizi, Mwenga, and Uvira territories. Briefly, the socio-cultural context of this region indicates that it is inhabited by ethnic groups categorized, since the colonial period, into “native” and “newcomer” populations. This is part of a misclassification linked to the “Hamitic Hypothesis” [5]. Hence, Babembe, Banyindu, Bafuliro and Bavira ethnic groups are considered as “native/first occupants” while the Banyamulenge and Barundi communities are labelled as “newcomers/immigrants”. Following lengthy political manipulation, the “immigrant” communities ended up being viewed as “invaders” who had to be chased from “others’” territory/land. The protection of land and chasing invaders have been among the core motives to mobilize young men for the use of violence. As violence continues, each ethnic group has apparently established its own armed group, defined sometimes as self-defense groups. 

Therefore, MaiMai and Biloze Bishambuke are largely armed (“self-defense”) groups affiliated with, and having the aim to protect, Babembe, Banyindu, Bafuliro, and Bavira communities. On the other hand, Gumino and Twirwaneho are widely seen as groups affiliated and established to protect the Banyamulenge community. In a broad sense, the “native-immigrant” dichotomy determines the way armed groups coalesce as heterogeneous. MaiMai/Biloze Bishambuke groups coalesced to counter-attack the Banyamulenge, while Gumino/Twirwaneho is believed to counter-attack MaiMai/Biloze Bishambuke. Since 2017, Burundian rebels in South Kivu have however entered the battle and allied with MaiMai/Biloze Bishambuke to attack the Banyamulenge, whether civilians or their affiliated groups. As violence in this region revolves around the dichotomy and chasing Banyamulenge “invaders”, our analysis investigates the capacity of MONUSCO to understand this complexity of historical violence. 

3. Methodology and Research question

Here, we seek to understand MONUSCO’s capacity to capture historical grievances and motives that drive violence against minority ethnic groups in Eastern DRC, particularly the Banyamulenge. The scope of the study focuses on violence around the Banyamulenge; hence, the analysis focuses on violent incidents that took place in Uvira, Mwenga (Itombwe), and Fizi territories. Territories were purposively selected based on the objective of this paper. 

As we could not access MONUSCO’s detailed accounts of incidents that back their summarized reports, the analysis relies on the mission’s quarterly reports covering the period between March 2015 and March 2022. The timeframe choice reflects a period of turmoil in the Africa Great Lakes region linked to either contested or delayed presidential elections in Burundi and the DRC. MONUSCO reports are supplemented by detailed accounts of violent incidents recorded by the Kivu Security Tracker (KST). Since 2017, KST has been recording violent incidents in Eastern DRC, including the region of interest, the Southern South Kivu.[6] 

In total, the analysis builds on 29 MONUSCO’s reports, and 324 incidents recorded by KST. The selection of violent incidents and reports was largely systematic. By systematic compilation, we intend to collect as many violent incidents recorded by KST during this period and in these specific territories, but also review the connection across different reports. [7] Broadly, the study aims to answer the following central question: “To what extent does the UN peacekeeping mission understand the complex nature of Eastern DRC violent conflicts including historical violence against minority groups portrayed as “invaders”? 

The material here includes content analysis methodology. The analysis departs from delving into the framing of violent incidents to understand why the inter-ethnic community perspective remains the dominant one. Next to the framing, we analyzed how KST identifies perpetrators and incidents, and in the process misconstrues or omits them for unknown reasons. While being reflexive [8] on our own positionalities as native of the region and members of one its communities, we believe that local knowledge and experience of being researchers have contributed to enhance the argument of this paper and provide alternative accounts. 

4. Key Preliminary findings: Proxy Analysis

In terms of perpetrators, the KST data we analyzed to reflect MONUSCO’s records of incidents are distributed as follows in Table 1. 

Table 1: Incidents analyzed per perpetrator categories

Number of incidents by Perpetrators Incidents committed Percentage 
MaiMai/Biloze Bishambuke 112       35
Gumino/Twirwaneho 119       37
Unidentified armed men 61       19
FARDC 25         8
Burundian rebels 5         2
RDF 2         1
Total 324     100

KST’s incidents analyzed took place between 2017-2022. As table 1 shows, 119 of incidents were committed by Gumino/Twirwaneho-Makanika and their ‘allies’; 112 of incidents were committed by MaiMai/Biloze Bishambuke, in some cases associated with  Burundian rebels, namely Red-Tabara; 61 of incidents were committed by perpetrators labeled “unidentified armed men”;  25 of incidents were committed by the Congolese national army (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo). The key preliminary findings shared here are from insights we gained by cross-checking MONUSCO’s reports with KST’s records of violent incidents. The findings can be summarized in the following arguments.  

Regardless of evidence that Burundian rebels operated in South Kivu since 2015 and have allied with local MaiMai and Biloze Bishambuke (affiliated to the Babembe, Banyindu, Bafuliro, and Bavira ethnic communities), the former groups were loosely referred to by MONUSCO reports as rather allied to Banyamulenge affiliated groups while KST has started to mention them at the end of the first quarter of 2021. From our local knowledge, 2021 coincides with the period when Red-Tabara released several communiques shared in social media. During this period, MaiMai/Biloze Bishambuke and Red-Tabara launched many attacks to destroy Banyamulenge villages in Uvira territory. 

On the other hand, our findings reveal that MONUSCO and KST have largely understated the destruction of villages, overshadowing how burning villages has forced thousands to flee their localities towards tiny areas where many civilians have been confined. In a few cases, only KST mentioned that houses were burnt down in a soft sense, and one might think of it as part of collateral damage next to armed attacks. However, experiences starting in 2017 have shown that burning villages was a largely systematic tactic and part of a larger strategy to wipe out the groups portrayed as “foreigners”, namely the Banyamulenge and Barundi communities. Moreover, the destruction of villages has pushed thousands to move into Internally Displaced People (IDP) sites or live in tiny areas where living conditions reflect besiegement. Those besieged and/or living in IDP sites have been regularly attacked and prevented from accessing their outside sources of livelihood, including farmland. Failing to acknowledge the intention, systematic nature, and effects of burning villages and subsequent encircling and besiegement of communities blurs the danger to civilians living under constant attack without protection.  

In the same vein, KST’s records and MONUSCO’s reports have paid little attention to cattle-looting, while this too is a military strategy to reward combatants. Next to the destruction of villages, forced displacement, besiegement and burning of crops, cattle-looting  has become a widespread phenomenon in recent years. These phenomena  have impoverished the Banyamulenge. For instance, in 43 incidents perpetrated by MaiMai/Biloze Bishambuke (sometimes associated with Burundian rebels), KST has recorded in specific terms only 3,227 cows looted. However, according to KST recorded incidents we analyzed, Gumino/Twirwaneho have stolen 470 cows in 2 incidents while unidentified armed men have stolen 463 cows. Local sources with reliable details have indicated that around 250-300,000 Banyamulenge’s cattle were plundered during this period and sold in different local markets. We question such understated figures about what constitutes a main source of income and livelihood for some local communities. Failing to understand this phenomenon can only harm those whose livelihood relies heavily on cattle. Failing to capture this phenomenon serves the interests of the perpetrators who have relied on cattle to mobilize resources to reward combatants. 

In this specific context, records and reports do not clearly refer to the ambiguous role played by security services, namely the FARDC. While 2017 violence took place in a highly volatile context, FARDC military officers and generals have played a role in fueling violence while instructing FARDC units to remain “neutral” in the face of the destruction of communities they have an obligation to protect. However, it is hard to capture this ambiguous role of the FARDC. Building on incidents we know, in which we suspect FARDC elements were involved in attacks, KST records tend to describe perpetrators as unidentified armed men. Failing to name or identify perpetrators has sometimes occurred to blur victims’ identity (we base this common assumption on the fact that MaiMai/Biloze Bishambuke would attack Banyamulenge while Gumino/Twirwaneho would attack Babembe, Banyindu, Bafuliro, and Bavira).The two following examples (among others) can give an idea of the argument above :

 On 30.06.2021, KST recorded that “An unidentified armed man killed a man in Madegu [Minembwe] village in Fizi territory. The victim did not obey the order to stop”. On one hand, the framing is questionable because it blames the victim as someone who refused to obey an order while unable to identify who was giving the order. Secondly, local sources and authors’ records corroborate the fact that the incident happened midday, the perpetrators were FARDC soldiers and the victim, whose name we know, was a member of the Banyamulenge community. [9] On this specific date and  in the same village of Madegu, FARDC also killed 4 Banyamulenge women involved in a peaceful protest. [10]  

Similarly, KST recorded on 05.02.2022 that “The FARDC attacked unidentified armed men who were trying to rustle cattle at the village of Mikenge in Mwenga territory. The FARDC chased away these assailants”. On this incident, local sources and authors’ records can show that the attack targeted primarily Banyamulenge civilians who live in an IDP site of Mikenke. Since 2019, the IDP site has been attacked more than 5 times as perpetrators killed or wounded displaced Banyamulenge inside the site. Meanwhile, there have been more than 20 attacks targeting their cattle, almost entirely decimated now. [11] Perpetrators are groups of MaiMai/Biloze Bishambuke (sometimes allied to Burundian rebels), a situation which cannot be considered new to KST.    

Violence in this region has largely revolved around hate speech propaganda. Prominent political figures and members of civil society invite people to commit violence and thereby mobilize combatants using hate speech. While hate speech intends to dehumanize victims, and is thus important to understanding whether the crime of genocide is being committed, there has been little attention paid to this by either MONUSCO or KST. As largely documented, hate speech discourse has intended to harm mostly the Banyamulenge community. 

In such contexts where the Banyamulenge are largely targeted by hate speech and propaganda, we  found rather systematic biases towards negating their civilian status. Our preliminary findings show that 57% of MaiMai/Biloze Bishambuke attacks are described by KST as clashes between armed groups (against Gumino/Twirwaneho) while 13% are framed as attacks against civilians. Meanwhile, more than 80% of these attacks perpetrated by MaiMai/Biloze Bishambuke have taken place in villages inhabited by mostly civilians. On the other side, 23% of Gumino/Twirwaneho attacks are described as clashes between groups (against MaMai/Biloze Bishambuke) while 47% are succinctly described as attacks against civilians. On top of that and next to other loopholes, we found that victims of attacks perpetrated by MaiMai/Biloze Bishambuke are largely painted as “men” or “people” while victims of attacks perpetrated by Gumino/Twirwaneho are described in disaggregated forms as men, women, children, and elders. We believe that Gumino/Twirwaneho are presented as  more violent and likely to target civilians, as compared to MaiMai/Biloze Bishambuke groups.  This comes from KST’s systematic framing of the Banyamulenge community.   

5. Conclusion

Besides the key insights shared in section 4, our analysis indicates that violent incidents in the South Kivu region of the DRC are recorded in an ahistorical and biased manner that is largely disconnected from the socio-political context. Many of the incidents are reported as an armed group attack in which motives and history are unclear for almost the entire period covered in this analysis. Even in MONUSCO’s reports, it is mostly described as “renewed inter-community violence”, simply as such. Hence, official records indicate fighting for the sake of fighting, while leaving a vacuum in terms of local grievances, causes, tactics, strategies, and goals of the violence.

For instance, 2019 attacks in Minembwe were largely motivated by the contestation of the Minembwe Rural Municipality due to how MaiMai/Biloze Bishambuke consider beneficiaries of the Municipality as being Banyamulenge “foreigners”. However, MONUSCO’s reports and KST’s records have failed to sufficiently focus upon these motives to help readers, including key decision-makers, understand the root causes of conflict. Readers who are unfamiliar with the area could conclude that its combatants simply enjoy fighting, which is far  from the truth. Whether legitimate or not, armed groups have claims when fighting. 

Though the two groups discussed throughout the paper, MaiMai/Biloze Bishambuke and Gumino/Twirwaneho, claim to defend their communities against each other, the root cause lies in the contestation of the Banyamulenge as Congolese citizens. As previously mentioned, the former believe to be “native,” entitled with specific rights to manage land and local authorities. They accuse  the Banyamulenge of being “foreigners” or “immigrants”. Twirwaneho/Gumino, on the other hand, claim to be “native” and  contest other ethnic communities on the basis that they are  “foreigners” or “immigrants.” Within such a complex violent setting, coupled with other motives, violence in this region is largely motivated by the desire to equally belong to the Congolese state. This explains the basis of the above community-based armed groups to defend their respective causes.    

This is an on-going analysis. Many of the issues  analyzed here have consequences for vulnerable groups, including Banyamulenge civilians. Failing to account for the presence of foreign armed groups, consequences of forced displacement coupled with besiegement, the risks associated with cattle-looting and impoverishment, as well as the portrayal of Banyamulenge civilians as combatants, will have massively harmful impacts on this community. These consequences could inevitably worsen the future of additional vulnerable groups in the area. Decision-making should be based on a proper assessment of the socio-cultural, security, and political context. Our preliminary findings shed light on challenges facing the UN peacekeeping mission and how its intervention can fail to prevent mass atrocities. 

Delphin Ntanyoma holds a PhD degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from Erasmus University Rotterdam/Institute of Social Studies (Netherlands). Delphin’s research focuses on micro-level violent conflicts in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He is the author of Behind the Scenes of Banyamulenge Military’: Momentum, Myth, and Extinction, (Harmattan 2019), co-author of Expressive violence and the slow genocide of the Banyamulenge of South Kivu (Ethnicities, 2022: Vol. 22(3) 374 –403) and other articles, including in The Eastern Congo Tribune, which he edits.  

Fidele Sebahizi is a PhD student at Liberty University, Virginia, United States, with a focus on criminal justice and homeland security. Fidele has a master’s degree in Criminal Justice and was born and raised in the village of Bijombo, Uvira territory, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Prosper Baseka wa Baseka is currently doing his PhD studies in Anthropology at Bircham International University. Born and raised in Minembwe, South Kivu, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Prosper has a master’s degree in museology. He has worked as a curator and archivist, and has extensive experience in memorial and ethnography museums.


[1] Conference of the International Network of Genocide Scholars (INoGS), held in Mexico City from June 26 to June 28, 2022. We thank those who provided comments and suggestions.

[2] Anonymous interviews, 2022.

[3] By framing, this paper refers to the selection of some features within a complex setting to attract the attention of a given audience (see Entman, 1993; Papacharissi and De Fatima Oliveira, 2008; Autesserre, 2012 among others). In this discussion, we consider that the framing has attracted (or not) and influenced largely the decision-making of the UN Security Council.

[4] The group changed its name from Biloze Bishambuke being a local defense to Forces Armées Biloze Bishambuke (FABB), implying that its nature has roughly changed.

[5] The “Hamitic Hypothesis” refers to the legacy of colonialism that polarized local communities in the Africa Great Lakes region into “Bantu” and “Hamitic/Nilotic”. The former were allegedly considered as “first occupants” who are agriculture oriented while the latter, cattle-herders mostly, were misclassified as “immigrants” (see details in Edith Sanders, 1969). Specifically, in the Africa Great Lakes region and the Banyamulenge, see among others Nigel Eltringham (2006), and Delphin R. Ntanyoma (2020)

[6] Many of these incidents are accessible on the KST’s website”: https://kivusecurity.org/. For details on how KST collects, analyzes, and crosschecks information, see ― verify its information shared on its website, follow this link: https://kivusecurity.org/static/KST_Methodology_Nov2017.pdf

[7] As part of our future triangulation and integration of the data, we are considering the incorporation of UN group of Experts’ reports on DRC (2015-2022)into the analysis. 

[8] By reflexivity, the article refers to situating oneself and being conscious of how one’s position can influence the outcome of the research during the process of knowledge production. For details on the meaning of reflexivity and positionality, see for instance Jonathan Harvey (2013), Hervik (1994) among others.  

[9] Anonymous interviews, 2022.

[10] While we are still working to find out how the killing of women was recorded, our  analysis has also shown that the killing of Banyamulenge women was possibly recorded late as authors raised this debate.

[11] Anonymous interviews, 2022.