Addressing the Banyamulenge’s Plight in DR Congo, Part 3
False Equivalences and Asymmetric Victimization
Photo: Banyamulenge at a herder’s funeral. (ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP via Getty Images)
By Tom Shacklock
The crisis in the South Kivu Plateaux in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has seen all communities suffer from abuses by the Mai-Mai or Banyamulenge armed coalitions. However, it has displayed asymmetries rendering Banyamulenge particularly vulnerable and has been subject to false equivalences in various narratives. An example of a false equivalence can be found in a report by the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) from 2020, which otherwise outlined various asymmetries. It framed claims by Banyamulenge that other communities wanted to exterminate them and that the army collaborated with Mai-Mai as hate speech similarly as incendiary as incitements to the Banyamulenge’s extermination. Though these claims contained some generalizations about entire groups, they reflected real findings on individuals, and the report’s framing reflected a problematic commitment to neutrality. While this blog does not focus on explaining interpretations of a Banyamulenge genocide, it emphasizes that recognizing the Banyamulenge’s specific experiences need not minimize other complexities and can rather help challenge false dichotomies between genocide and conflict. Underlining asymmetries involves interpreting numerical data, which can be indicative of certain power dynamics. However, quantifying suffering alone is problematic and needs to be accompanied by engagements in other dynamics.
There are asymmetries in the socio-political dynamics of this crisis, which represent not just a conflict over local authority but a struggle for equality among Banyamulenge. A common claim is that many neighbouring communities, not just Banyamulenge, are minorities, but this disregards other factors. Most communities, including Banyindu, Bafuliro, Bavira, and Babembe, display a higher sense of identification with each other as “indigenous” communities. Meanwhile, the Banyamulenge have historically faced persecution as pastoralists considered “outsiders.” Banyamulenge have sought to redress their history of being excluded from local political power since colonial rule through the creation of the Minembwe municipality. This would have a similar status to other decentralized entities and could enhance Banyamulenge political representation. Yet, behind some legalistic arguments, the selective opposition to its creation by public figures, who have portrayed it as a Rwandan plot to “balkanize” the DRC, has exposed the high levels of intolerance towards the Banyamulenge. Furthermore, the municipality remains associated with a territory created during the Congo Wars (1996-2003). Though all sides perpetrated abuses during the wars, and Banyamulenge were among the main targets, abuses by Banyamulenge fighters, who joined Rwanda’s invasion, have stood out in people’s memories and reinforced their label as “outsiders.”
The names and histories of each armed group also indicate asymmetries in their ideals and purposes. Mai-Mai mainly originated in the 1990s and share the ideology of “indigeneity” or “autochthony.” One member of the current Plateaux-based Mai-Mai coalition is called Biloze Bishambuke, meaning “If we have to destroy, let’s destroy” in Kifuliiru. This name alone does not necessarily provide a causal explanation for the group’s violence, but its overtness conveys a certain boldness and destructive mentality. In contrast, the name of Banyamulenge group Twirwaneho translates as, “Let’s fend for ourselves,” while Gumino means “Stay here” in Kinyamulenge. Their actions do not always reflect these names, and both armed coalitions have perpetrated counter-attacks attributing collective responsibility to whole communities. However, Banyamulenge group names reflect their community’s victimhood. Gumino has a relatively long, complicated history as an offshoot of an earlier group. However, Twirwaneho became active more recently, reviving another past group, when insecurity increased and Banyamulenge fell into another vulnerable and isolated position from 2015. Additionally, Mai-Mai had begun stepping up expressive violence towards Banyamulenge in 2011, meaning they aimed to inflict pain for identarian reasons. Overall, the Mai-Mai’s exclusionary ideology differs from the Banyamulenge groups’ fight for acceptance and survival.
Certain socio-cultural and socioeconomic dynamics have also displayed asymmetries. All communities experience cattle-looting, particularly Banyamulenge. As a pastoralist community, cows are central to their livelihoods and culture. Therefore, Mai-Mai use cattle-looting to attack Banyamulenge where it hurts the most, portraying this as self-defense by capitalizing on frustrations around transhumance (movements of cattle). Sometimes, Banyamulenge cows trample on farmers’ crops, which is considered a trigger of violence. In a context of widespread socioeconomic insecurity, this causes distress for farmers. However, the region lacks a suitable legal framework for farming. Furthermore, a common problem worldwide is that settled communities are normatively favoured over pastoralist and nomadic communities, who are often considered threatening trespassers by default when moving onto territories. Hence, challenges related to transhumance link with the Banyamulenge’s structural marginalisation. Another regular trigger of violence is the killing of customary chiefs, which are considered symbolic acts against entire communities. This symbolic effect in killing Banyamulenge leaders can additionally mark an expression of the rejection of Banyamulenge as Congolese and can weaken the community socio-politically. This effect has also been seen in the military. The recent assassination of a Banyamulenge major, cheered on by a mob, caused pain and fear throughout the community.
A combination of quantitative asymmetries and tactics adopted by the Mai-Mai have signified the Banyamulenge’s vulnerability. Kivu Security Tracker (KST) has documented similar numbers of abuses by both armed coalitions. However, their focus on perpetrators creates limitations in understanding the impact on different civilians. The UNJHRO’s report from August 2020 documented abuses in the Plateaux from February 2019 to June 2020, finding that 38% of victims of documented abuses were Banyamulenge, while 25% were Bafuliiru, 13% Banyindu, 12% Bashi, and 9% Bembe. The report omitted some areas but demonstrated the seriousness of the crisis. While such asymmetries by no means suggest Banyamulenge are the only people suffering, they reflect power dynamics that render them particularly vulnerable. Mai-Mai have attacked Banyamulenge in their villages and again in a Minembwe internally displaced persons (IDP) camp from multiple directions, demonstrating their levels of coordination as a coalition. Other communities have suffered from displacement, such as the Bafuliiru struggling to survive in another camp. Yet, Mai-Mai have additionally used tactics to effectively besiege Banyamulenge IDPs, directly threatening the community’s survival. Their physical attacks have been compounded by their mental effects on Banyamulenge, which serve as reminders of the community’s status as an “unwanted” people.
Existing peacebuilding initiatives have not only overlooked different drivers of this crisis. They have also relied on neutral dialogues between armed groups and elites that have exposed their unequal positions. Some talks have failed due to decisions by members of both coalitions, often reflecting feelings of uncertainty among Banyamulenge representatives. However, many such failures have reflected the deep distrust towards the Banyamulenge among “autochthonous” representatives. Altogether, the data limitations, chronic underreporting, and narratives downplaying asymmetries demonstrate that the international community has yet to take this crisis seriously. Until incongruences between verified data on the crisis and higher estimates by Banyamulenge researchers can be further and independently investigated, the threats signalled by the dynamics of the crisis still need addressing. Asymmetries alone are not necessarily signs of genocide, but they can indicate certain vulnerabilities that inform this interpretation. Highlighting the disproportionate suffering of Banyamulenge need not undermine the suffering of others. In every death and abuse, there are members of communities whose human rights have been violated. Rather, it underlines threats that necessitate specific interventions. It can also give Banyamulenge more assurance that their story has been heard and can be situated within this crisis and the DRC’s multitude of challenges.
Tom Shacklock is a Senior Research and Advocacy Manager at Genocide Watch.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Genocide Watch.