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Stateless People: The Banyamulenge of Eastern Congo


By Katy Lindquist, Central Africa Conflict Education Coordinator

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting cases of statelessness throughout the world. Click here for more information about the series.

The Banyamulenge are a stateless people from South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the Congo-Rwanda border. The marginalization and displacement of the Banyamulenge, a Tutsi minority group, from their home in eastern Congo has led to decades of violence in the region. The Banyamulenge have faced extreme processes of marginalization due to complex historical struggles, political motivations from both inside and outside the Congo, surrounding catastrophes in central Africa, and a lack of coherent leadership and organization from the Banyamulenge themselves. The Banyamulenge have continually exercised a remarkable amount of agency and have refused to occupy the “victim” role that is often prescribed to them.

Sources diverge on when the Banyamulenge migrated to the area now known as South Kivu in the DRC from Rwanda, but the general consensus is that the first original migration took place in the late nineteenth century. Differing cultural traditions and lifestyles differentiated the Banyamulenge from their Congolese neighbors from the time of their first arrival in Congo. Belgian colonization emphasized this stratification. The Belgians manipulated ethnicity to organize and remodel administrative units in the Congo. With Belgian favor clearly given to other larger ethnic communities in South Kivu, the Banyamulenge found themselves divided and dispersed through the South Kivu province with little control over their political situation. After independence in 1960, Mobutu Sese Seko, president of the DRC from 1965 to 1997, continually constructed and reconstructed the ethnicity of the Banyamulenge in order to gain greater political power. Mobutu showed favor to the Banyamulenge during the beginning of his term. However, during the 1980s, as ethnic tensions between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi began to rise, then so did tensions about about the Banyamulenge’s place in South Kivu. Because of the influx of refugees from the Rwandan and Burundian genocides in 1994 and 1995, the citizenship of the Banyamulenge was violently contested.

From the beginning of the 1990s, many Banyamulenge youth crossed the border into Rwanda to enroll in RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) training camps. As the attacks on the Banyamulenge community became increasingly violent in 1993, more and more Banyamulenge joined forces with the RPF. In July 1996, the first confrontation between RPF-trained Banyamulenge troops (that would later evolve into the AFDL) and the Congolese troops took place. After this first confrontation, the 1996 Banyamulenge rebellion took off. Banyamulenge troops began attacking and taking over major Congolese cities such as Bukavu, Goma, and Uvira. Thousands were killed, including many Banyamulenge soldiers, along the way. Ultimately the “First Congo War,” which began as a small rebellion by the Banyamulenge to regain citizenship rights, ended with the overthrow of Mobutu, thousands of dead Banyamulenge, and a Rwandan political presence that that continues today, visible in M23 actions in eastern Congo.

By the time Kabila took power in late 1997, Rwanda’s presence in Eastern Congo had become very powerful. To respond, he expelled all foreign troops from the Congo in July 1998. Because of their alliance with Rwanda in the 1996 AFDL rebellion, the Banyamulenge had virtually ostracized themselves from the rest of Congolese society. Their only ally was the powerful and self-interested Rwanda. In a forced alliance with the RPF, the Banyamulenge helped launch a second rebellion in Eastern Congo on August 2, 1998 in an attempt to regain footing within Congo. In addition to the growing gap between the Banyamulenge and the rest of Congolese society, the rebellion caused deep rifts within the Banyamulenge community.

Following the conclusion of the Second Congo War, many Banyamulenge fled from Congo. When the Congolese government revoked citizenship from the Banyamulenge in October of 1996 following the violence of the Second Congo War, this resolution was enforced. Many Banyamulenge found themselves in refugee camps in Rwanda and Burundi. Even in refugee camps, the Banyamulenge did not find safety. In 2004, a group of Hutu extremists brutally attacked an unarmed group of Banyamulenge residents of the Gatumba Refugee Camp in Burundi, near the Congolese border, killing 152 and injuring 107. Similar stories of attacks on Banyamulenge in refugee camps are common. Banyamulenge refugees often moved from camp to camp in an effort to find more security. Since 2000, many Banyamulenge survivors have been relocated to the United States. The largest group of Banyamulenge refugees is found in Portland, Maine.

Though the Banyamulenge have direct ties to the M23 through their involvement in Rwandan backed rebel movements in the past, M23 has had difficulties recruiting from the Banyamulenge community. There are only a few relatively unknown Banyamulenge officers in the M23 and a few senior Banyamulenge who had been in the CNDP (National Congress for the Defence of the People) are quite dismissive of the M23. However, as the M23 gains greater political power in the region (as exhibited through the recent capture of Goma in North Kivu), greater participation of the Banyamulenge in the movement is increasingly likely.

The history of the Banyamulenge in many ways reflects the larger history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Banyamulenge, an extremely small minority group in eastern Congo, have played central roles in the politics of both Mobutu and Laurent Kabila. Time and time again, the Banyamulenge have attempted to improve their livelihood in the face of extreme processes of manipulation, discrimination, and violence. Though there are few Banyamulenge left in eastern Congo, their presence around the world has not been ignored. The thriving diaspora in Maine has built numerous churches and has mutually reshaped both Banyamulenge and Maine culture. Last year, the Banyamulenge diaspora in Portland held a national convention for diaspora members across the United States. In fact, one of the diaspora members from Portland is a very good friend of mine who is studying to be an engineer at Colby College. He hopes to return to Central Africa one day to join his family and friends in rebuilding a new and free life in Congo. The Banyamulenge may be “stateless,” but their remarkable history of agency and their belief in a life free of discrimination and marginalization has already led to the remaking and reshaping of new homes around the world.

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