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Rwanda genocide: 30 years on, why Tutsis are at the centre of DR Congo’s conflict

A group of women seated outdoors, many wearing cloth wraps and headscarves
Banyamulenge women at a funeral in South Kivu, eastern DRC on 7 October 2020. Alexis Huguet/AFP via Getty Images

The Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994 has in complex ways fuelled violent conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the past 30 years. At the centre of these tensions are the Congolese Tutsi communities – the Banyamulenge who live mainly in South Kivu and the Banyarwanda who live in North Kivu.

These two regions of the DRC border Rwanda and Burundi. Although both groups are small in number, they loom large over eastern DRC conflict – and possibly its resolution.

Both groups fought alongside the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) during the Rwandan civil war (1990-1994) and helped the RPF end the genocide in 1994. The violence of that cataclysm is still being felt, especially in the DRC where conflict rages in the east.

As a genocide studies academic, I have researched the conflict across the DRC and Rwanda. I have worked with Banyamulenge soldiers involved in the war to end the genocide in Rwanda to understand how experiences of genocide shaped their identity and narratives.

My research with Congolese Tutsi communities has explored why they have had – and continue to have – an outsized impact on events in the region. This has happened in at least two ways.

First, many Congolese Tutsi held leading roles in the formation of the first new government in Congo since the 1960s. Soldiers I interviewed saw great hope in a new Congo offering stronger ties with post-genocide Rwanda. This future was dashed with the collapse of this alliance. This created a view of Tutsis controlling Congo, in turn feeding conspiracy theories.

Secondly, this outsized impact is felt in how Rwanda itself shapes conflict in the region using Congolese Tutsi communities to centre its claims of a continued threat of genocide. The narrative of a minority under attack in Congo creates stronger legitimacy for Kigali’s aggressive regional security involvement and support of rebel groups.

A stock illustration of the  DRC
A stock illustration of the DRC. kosmozoo/ Getty Images

Governments in both Kigali and Kinshasa continue to play their part in subverting reconciliation to end tensions and conflicts in the east of the DRC triggered by the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

Both governments claim their involvement in conflicts in the eastern part of the DRC are linked to protecting ethnic populations. In reality, however, the persistent fighting is destroying economies and livelihoods.

The Rwandan government has justified its involvement with rebel groups in the area on the grounds that it is protecting Tutsi populations from further genocide. For example, Kigali’s support for the Congolese Tutsi March 23rd Movement (M23) follows this logic. The government offers no outright denial of its military involvement. Instead it legitimises M23 operations against the common foe: namely those believed to be still committed to killing the Tutsis

For its part, the government in Kinshasa continues to work with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Formed in 1994 by people implicated in the Rwandan genocide, the group collaborates with the Congolese government.

The M23 and the FDLR are fewer in numbers than other armed groups in the east. However, their outsized representation in public discourse and regional negotiations shows the long-term impact of the Rwandan genocide in the region.

Tutsi communities in the DRC

The Banyamulenge have self-identified by this name since the 1960s. They are a pastoral community of Congolese citizens who speak Kinyarwanda, one of the dozens of languages in the DRC.

The Banyamulenge trace their heritage to South Kivu generations prior to the arrival of European colonists in the 19th century. The contemporary connection to Rwanda arose when a generation of young Banyamulenge men joined the RPF in the 1990s. They became foot soldiers in the new RPF state as military officers, police and intelligence operatives.

The Congolese Tutsi in North Kivu, or Banyarwanda, have a similar background. Some claim that their ancestors arrived in Congo before colonisation. Others say they were moved there from Rwanda through colonisation. Some sought refuge across the border in Rwanda following the 1960s Hutu revolution and subsequent decades of Hutu elite rule.

Banyarwanda were also heavily recruited by the RPF in the early 1990s.

Fallout from the genocide

The 1994 genocide against the Tutsi exploded across the border into a long-term conflict orbiting around Hutu and Tutsi identities. Following the mass evacuation of Hutu genocidaires as part of over 1 million Rwandans, many fearing reprisals by the RPF, war soon broke out again in 1996.

Collaboration between Rwandan Hutu forces and Mobutu Sese Seko’s military targeted Congolese Tutsi across the east. This drove new RPF recruitment of Congolese Tutsi who were increasingly targeted by Hutu extremist aligned forces. This led to a rebellion under Kigali’s leadership claiming to stop another genocide of Tutsi.

In ongoing research, my team examines how during the First Congo War (1996-1997), the RPF and its Congolese allies turned refugee camps into massacre sites for both Rwandan and Burundian Hutu refugees.

From 1998 to 2003, the conflict raged amid fracturing rebels and foreign military with continued Hutu and Tutsi targeting. In these battles both Banyamulenge and Banyarwanda communities were targeted throughout the war, as well as fighting as combatants and in turn targeting other civilians.

Crucial to this period is the formation of various Hutu and Tutsi armed groups, especially the Hutu FDLR and the Tutsi movements resulting in today’s M23. These are among the dozens of armed groups in eastern DRC today.

Hutu and Tutsi conflicts in DRC today

The FDLR today is severely diminished in numbers but still aims to take power in Kigali. This aim is increasingly impossible given that its leaders – many of whom were involved in the Rwandan genocide – seem more concerned with enriching themselves through plunder.

In addition, soldiers, many of whom are Congolese, seem preoccupied with surviving.

Congolese Tutsi groups similarly vary in their objectives. The M23 is still seeking implementation of prior agreements with the DRC government aimed at military integration in Congo.

These promises include increased security and the safe return of the tens of thousands of Congolese Tutsi from Rwanda back to North Kivu.

But the government in Kigali consistently encourages and facilitates a military solution to these political problems.

The M23 is part of a long saga of the RPF using Congolese Tutsis to enhance its political influence in the east through occupation and sowing chaos that requires Kigali to act as a power-broker. Rwandan access to natural resources like gold has also been a factor.

Banyamulenge communities are themselves not all on the same page. Though some have avoided connections with Rwanda, some support the M23 at least through social media, while others facilitate the direct recruitment of their young people.

Moving forward across the region

Competing military solutions come from across the region, especially in tensions between Kigali and Kinshasa.

These do little to address concerns of marginalisation or mass atrocities targeting groups like Congolese Tutsi and other civilians. Political solutions such as those attempted in the Nairobi and Angola negotiations need more backing from international partners and donors to the region.

Without concerted efforts, the reverberations of the Rwandan genocide and subsequent related violence will continue to be felt by all communities in the DRC.

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