Discrimination of Banyamulenge Refugees in Burundi: An Expansion of their Fate in DRC
Congolese refugees from the Banyamulenge community in Burundi are under ethnically-driven discrimination by Burundian security forces. Burundi has been a host country for Banyamulenge refugees for decades. However, a suspicious political mood has suddenly turned against them for no apparent reason. The new political turning point against Banyamulenge refugees has gone public after nearly four months President Evariste Ndayishimiye sworn in as Burundi’s new president. Last week, Banyamulenge refugees were arbitrarily and selectively arrested in different Burundi cities and sent back into refugee camps. It is widely believed that the current political upheaval against the Banyamulenge community in the Democratic Republic of Congo causes these discriminatory arrests. Banyamulenge refugees have experienced other hardships during late President Pierre Nkurunziza’s reign, but not in a discriminatory manner. Why only experiencing such discrimination now? Is there any other massacre being prepared against Banyamulenge refugees? Who is President Ndayishimiye, and what could be his motive and role in allowing refugees’ discrimination to occur in his country? President Ndayishimiye’s friend has recently told AFP that Ndayishimiye is “easy at first…. But unlike Nkurunziza, [he] can be quite angry and gets carried away very easily” (Aljazeera, 2020, Uphill Battle section, paras. 6-7). Has he been told bad things about Banyamulenge?
The Current Political Tension in DRC
The south region of South Kivu, specifically the highlands of Uvira, Fizi, and Mwenga territories, also known as Mulenge, has been under a continuous political upheaval for more than three years. In April 2017, armed groups began attacking members of the Banyamulenge community. Different Mai Mai factions with the help of Burundian militia groups, namely, Red-Tabara of Alexis Sinduhije, FNL-Palipehutu of Aloys Nzabampema, and FOREBU of Godefroid Niyombare, have killed more than 300 innocent Banyamulenge civilians, have destroyed hundreds of Banyamulenge villages, and have looted more than 250,000 heads of cattle from them.
The situation took a different route when Lwabanji Lwasingabo, the South Kivu provincial minister of interior affairs, officially inaugurated Minembwe to a rural municipality on September 28, 2020. The visit of the United States ambassador and a UN representative in Minembwe two days after the installation stirred anger among millions of Congolese across the globe. Congolese citizens who opposed the inauguration of Commune Minembwe argued that creating the new entity in Minembwe was a fraud. Due to high pressure from different directions, especially from a local and national government elected officials, on October 8, 2020, President Felix Tshisekedi canceled a decree that created Commune Minembwe. He instead announced that there would be a commission sent to Minembwe to re-evaluate the limits of the newly-created entity. A ministerial order of 2013 created the Minembwe commune.
Discrimination Against Banyamulenge Refugees in Burundi
Possible Vanguard of Discrimination
A few days before recent incidents among Banyamulenge refugees in Burundi, an unknown individual spread a hate speech message on one of the popular social media, WhatsApp. The person who produced the audio message identified himself as a member of the Bembe community. The person threatened that Burundi would be notified to attack Banyamulenge refugees. Banyanyamulenge members couldn’t ignore the audio file’s message, although the voice’s owner was unknown.
On October 12, 2020, a letter supposedly from FDLR was shared on social media. The document with the FDLR’s letterhead, titled, “Declaration de soutien de forces democratiques de liberation du Rwanda,” transmits a support declaration of democratic forces for Rwanda’s liberation to Burundi. The letter appeared to have been signed by FDLR’s president, Victor Byiringiro, in Walikale. The letter claimed that FDLR was ready to help the Burundian government to force Hamites invaders out of the country. However, on October 15, 2020, another document supposedly from FDLR was shared on social media. The title of the letter was “Communique de Presse No. 006/2020 des FDLR.” Signed by Cure Ngoma, FDLR’s spokesperson, the letter denounced the letter of October 12, saying that it was a false letter and did not come from FDLR.
On October 6, 2020, Rwandan security officials presented 19 fighters from the Red-Tabara Burundian armed group to the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism (EJVM) (Rwanda Broadcasting Agency, 2020). The New Times also reports that the fighters had crossed from Burundi into Rwanda, that is, 600 meters on the Rwandan soil, before being arrested on September 9, 2020 (Bizimungu, 2020). The EJVM comprises several African countries in the region under the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) to promote peace.
Incidents of Discrimination
Some financially able refugees, not just Banyamulenge, live outside refugee camps. Refugee students, for example, attend schools in cities. On Tuesday, October 6, 2020, about 64 Banyamulenge refugees were arbitrarily and selectively arrested in Gitega and transported back into the refugee camp. On Friday, October 9, twenty-seven (27) Banyamulenge families in Muyinga were also arrested. Some of them had been living in Muyinga since 2007. One of the refugees was brutalized and beaten after being demanded to look into the sun. The next morning the refugees were transported back into the refugee camp. Banyamulenge refugees were accused of working for the Rwandan government and housing fighters. Burundian officials also stated that they had had a hard time distinguishing Banyamulenge refugees and Rwandans. In a refugee camp located in Rugombo, Cibitoke, Burundian officials turned several Congolese refugees into Congolese officials’ hands on October 9, 2020. Upon arriving in Uvira, Congo, officials separated refugees, and dozens of Banyamulenge refugees were arrested and placed in three different jails. With intervention from the Uvira’s prosecuting officer, officials released them. On Thursday, October 15, 2020, members of the Banyamulenge community who live in Gatumba were selectively arrested for no apparent reason before being set free.
Red-Tabara’s Fuel into an Active Fire
A verbal complaint was given to one of the refugee camps’ administrators in Burundi about discriminating against Banyamulenge refugees. In contrast, other refugees remained in cities. Burundian officials stirred existing tribalism among refugees. The refugee administrator acknowledged the discrimination and promised to do something about it. The administrator advised that some fighters from the Red-Tabara rebel group captured in Kayanza spoke Kinyarwanda and claimed they had been fighting alongside rebels from the Banyamulenge community.
Burundians Were Asked to be Vigilant of Banyamulenge
According to the Voice of America in Kirundi and Kinyarwanda (2020), Burundian security officials claimed that Banyamulenge refugees were in Gitega without permission. The spokesperson of the ministry of interior and security, Pierre Nkurikiye, has recently asked Burundian nationals to remain vigilant of Banyamulenge and other people who speak Kinyarwanda or other similar languages, such as Kinyamulenge. He started, “Security officers have captured suspicious people, Congolese refugees, Banyamulenge, who were supposed to be in refugee camps. Some had permission from the camp administration. But most of them did not have permission” (Voice of America, 2020). The Burundian government decided to take all Banyamulenge refugees back into their respective camps while investigating who is allowed to live in cities. Nkurikiye continued, “What we are asking Burundians is to be vigilant. Whoever speaks Kinyarwanda or other languages that don’t belong to Burundi, make a whistle blow to security officers to ask such a person what they are doing” (Voice of America, 2020). The Burundian police have reported that captured rebels who attacked Kayanza, Rumonge, and Bujumbura two weeks ago spoke a language similar to Kinyarwanda and Kinyamulenge. Burundian officials in the security sector have also warned to watch closely Banyamulenge members who remain in cities.
A member of the Banyamulenge committee in Burundi has told the Voice of America that his community members have reasons to live outside camps, including attending school and getting medical treatment. The committee member has denounced Nkurikiye’s claim. He said his members are not associated with those who attack Burundi. He argued that his community couldn’t work with fighters who have attacked Burundi since Banyamulenge members have fled Congo, and Burundi has hosted them. He said members of his ethnic group are willing to point fingers at those fighters because they are his community’s enemies.
Reactions of Other Congolese Refugees
Since last week, social media users have shared audios from allegedly refugees in Burundi from other Congolese communities about Banyamulenge. For example, an unverified male voice (n.d.) in the Kifuliro language on WhatsApp recounts what occurred. The voice says that there was a Banyamulenge refugee whose house was confiscated in Gitega. The voice continues that the homeowner attempted to resist the removal, which resulted in being beaten by officials. The voice is heard saying that “real Congolese citizens” remained in the city. The male voice says that all Bafuliro community members did not experience any problems, as long as they had paperwork that allowed them to live outside the camp. The voice adds that “all Rwandans” were removed and transported back into refugee camps. The unidentified voice finishes by saying that the individual behind the voice was “your son,” originally from Kinanira, Sange, Congo. The person behind the voice confirms that this information was not handed to him. Instead, he witnessed what had happened because he and the Banyamulenge refugees who were kicked out of Gitega were close neighbors.
A Preparation of Another Massacre?
Banyamulenge members around the world have been concerned about how the Burundian government is treating their loved ones. The recent acts of discrimination remind them of the Gatumba massacre in 2004. One of the unanswered questions is whether removing those scattered in several cities across the country does not mean bringing them together to conduct another killing. The reader should be reminded that no justice has been done for the victims and survivors of the Gatumba massacre. Another massacre is believed to occur because the Burundian government has clearly and publicly placed the Banyamulenge community in insecurity.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The current political upheaval in the Democratic Republic of Congo against the Banyamulenge community is believed to have caused the Burundian government to discriminate against refugees from such an ethnic group. It is, unfortunately, unclear who is orchestrating all these mishaps. Recently captured fighters from Red-Tabara who claimed they had been fighting alongside rebels from the Banyamulenge community cannot be seen to act independently. Although the person(s) behind this manipulation is unknown, the plan is loud and clear. The plan is likely related to what is going on in Congo, a slow genocide against Banyamulenge. It appears to be its extension on the Burundian territory.
To the Burundian President Evariste Ndayishimiye: Please stay convinced that Banyamulenge refugees have nothing to do with what is going on security-wise in Burundi. They are not enemies of your beautiful country, a nation that has hosted them for decades. It does not make any sense to associate them with Red-Tabara fighters. These fighters have killed hundreds of Banyamulenge in Congo. Banyamulenge refugees have fled them because they have nearly destroyed their motherland and plundered almost all their cattle in the last three years.
To the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Please do not allow refugees who have fled to you to be massacred again. The blood of the Banyamulenge refugees who were burned alive in your green tents in Gatumba in 2004 is still crying for justice. Please prevent discrimination against the Banyamulenge refugees as soon as possible.
To the International Community: Tears from helpless Banyamulenge refugees in Burundi must be loud enough to be heard from all corners of the world. Governments, human rights organizations, and others, please assist in protecting these refugees’ lives whose government has forsaken.
Aljazeera. (2020, June 18). Evariste Ndayishimiye: Who is Burundi’s new president? Aljazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/6/18/evariste-ndayishimiye-who-is-burundis-new-president#:~:text=Evariste%20Ndayishimiye%20at%20his%20inauguration%20ceremony%20as%20Burundi%27s,the%20elites%20who%20helped%20put%20him%20in%20power.
Bizimungu, J. (2020, October 10). What next for Burundian militants captured in Rwanda? The New Times. https://www.newtimes.co.rw/news/what-next-burundian-militants-captured-rwanda
Rwanda Broadcasting Agency. (2020, October 6). 19 Burundian fighters from RED-Tabara militia paraded. RBA. https://www.rba.co.rw/post/19-Burundian-fighters-of-RED-Tabara-militia-paraded
Unverified Male Voice. (n.d.). A human voice on WhatsApp. [WhatsApp group]. WhatsApp.
Voice of America in Kirundi and Kinyarwanda. (2020, October). Pierre Nkurikiye reporting to news media. [WhatsApp group.] WhatsApp.
Criminal Justice: Homeland Security
Helms School of Government
Liberty University, Virginia