By Kathreen Harrison

“We need help from Mainers, from our community. We need their support to raise awareness of what is going on to our people in DRC.”

Claude Rwaganje, Westbrook City Councilor

The international Banyamulenge diaspora community would like the world to wake up and start paying attention to what they say is a “slow, silent” genocide taking place against their people in the Kivu areas of Democratic Republic of Congo. Genocide Watch has labeled the crisis a “genocide emergency.”

Until now, the mainstream international media, as well as the Congolese media, has almost entirely ignored the crisis, which has been ongoing for four years. In addition to the silence of the media, members of the diaspora say that the Congolese government of Felix Tshisekedi, along with U.N. peacekeeping forces on the ground in the region where ethnic cleansing is taking place, and international powers, including the U.S., are ignoring their people’s desperate plight. They also say that international humanitarian assistance has not been provided to internally displaced people suffering daily because of the crisis.

On May 14, in an organized attempt to awaken the world and rally assistance, Banyamulenge protestors and their allies, gathered and marched in cities around the world. Globally, the protests were organized by Gakondo, the newly formed platform intended to unify the Banyamulenge diaspora. The protests took place in Canada, Europe, and Australia, as well as the United States. According to estimates, the displaced Banyamulenge number over 200,000 people.

In the U.S., the Mahoro Peace Association, which unites the U.S. Banyamulenge community, organized the protests that took place simultaneously in many cities, including Indianapolis, Phoenix, and Portland, Maine, and cities in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, New York, and Texas. According to Alexis Semuhoza, president of the Maine chapter of Mahoro Peace Association (MPA), more than 300 Banyamulenge people live in the state. The Maine chapter was founded in 2004. The largest centers of Banyamulenge people in the U.S. are in Texas and Arizona, said Semuhoza.

The protest in Portland started in Monument Square. Claude Rwaganje, Westbrook City Councilor and a member of Mahoro Peace Association, introduced the event, which included a march down Elm Street, Park Avenue, and Congress Street, and ended with the delivery of letters to the offices of Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Chellie Pingree. Members of Mahoro spoke at various stops along the route, including Portland City Hall. The speakers included children, who read prepared remarks they had written themselves.

Representatives of the Mahoro Peace Association have met with the Maine delegation in the past on this issue. On May 18, representatives of MPA met with Collins, who promised to urge the U.S. Committee on Foreign Relations to work actively for the protection of the Banyamulenge.

Rwaganje said, “This [crisis] has been going on for a very long time, at least four years. We are not satisfied with the advocacy to date. We need others to reach out. Sen. Collins has promised to write letters again, and meet with colleagues, to plead and advocate on this issue. And she says she will reach out across party lines, including to Sen. [Chris] Coons of Delaware, and see if a hearing can be organized in the African Affairs Committee of the Senate. The Banyamulenge would like Michael Hammer, U.S. Ambassador to DR Congo, to testify at such a hearing. He knows what’s going on – he has been in the villages, has flown over Minembwe. His voice is strong.”

According to Mahoro Peace Association, the perpetrators of the current violence include the Mai-Mai, Red Tabara, Forebu, and FNL militia groups – all supported by the local Congolese army. Speakers at the protest in Portland implicated Congolese army members themselves in the killing and looting. After four years of genocidal efforts, which include murder and rape on a large scale, 95% of Banyamulenge villages have been burned to the ground and wiped off the map of the DRC, and 90% of the livestock (on which the people depend for their livelihood) has been stolen.

The Banyamulenge are a minority tribe in DR Congo. According to speakers at the protest in Portland, the Banyamulenge have been living in Mulenge for over 400 years. Strained relations between the Banyamulenge and other local tribes date back to colonial times, when the Belgians favored certain groups over others and allocated power accordingly. However, it wasn’t until the genocide of 1994 that systematic violence erupted. A new round of attacks began in 2017. Mid-March and April 2021 were marked by another escalation in violence.

“The fact that a largely outnumbered Banyamulenge minority community is undergoing this ordeal in this month of April, when the world remembers the genocide that targeted the Tutsi of Rwanda ̶ with sad episodes of international failures in places like Bisesero, but also in other contexts such as Srebrenica ̶ is disturbingly ironic and displays the international community’s inability to learn from past mistakes. While the hauts plateaux area is difficult to access, the world cannot, again, hide behind a lack of knowledge or information on this avoidable tragedy,” reads the letter to the Maine delegation. (Readers should note that the 1994 genocide in Rwanda began in the month of April.)

According to Genocide Watch, dehumanization is a common tool of genocide that is being widely used against the Banyamulenge in DR Congo. It takes the form of a constant barrage of hate speech and allegations to other Congolese that the Banyamulenge are invaders. The effect of such dehumanization campaigns, according to Genocide Watch, is that other tribes begin to believe “We are better off without them.” The world has seen this tool used many times before, against Jews, Armenians, and the Rohingya Muslims, to pick just three examples.

The letter to the Maine delegation speaks of a recent turn of events in “a new area [in DRC that] has been nearly totally cleansed of any Banyamulenge presence. People have either been killed, forced to flee, or are in hiding in the bush, tracked by assailants … This latest wave of attacks has created a humanitarian disaster, whereby those fleeing the attacks – women, men, children, old, and young, are forced to walk more than 50 km through inhospitable environments with no assistance and in constant fear of extermination to try and reach safety. Many are stranded in Bwegera, with no assistance and limited security guarantees.” Once again, the international community is turning a blind eye.

The Banyamulenge living in Maine are traumatized by what is happening to their people back home. Beatrice Mucyo, the executive director of the Intercultural Community Center, said, “All the people in Maine have family, friends, relatives back home. Sometimes we get news about what is happening as it is happening – as they are being attacked, we get messages. You can’t believe a human being will do something to another human being like what is happening – cutting women’s breasts, hands, rape. People will live with the scars all the days of their lives. Last month, my family went to North Carolina for the memorial service of my grandmother. She was burned alive in her house because she was old and couldn’t run.”

“Every morning before I go to work, I open my phone,” Semuhoza said. “We experience people dying every day. All Banyamulenge are facing this. We are forced to relive traumatic experiences. I can’t go to work and perform well.”
Rwaganje agreed. “Normally, we all are being productive, but we can’t concentrate – this issue is dominating our mind, posing stress, anxiety, pain, mourning. We gather, protest, spend a lot of time exchanging emails and WhatsApp messages. The situation is costing time, energy, money, as we all have to take off work.

“The community in Maine is affected. We want people to know that we are experiencing trauma because our people are affected. We are having trouble doing our jobs. We need support. We would like Mainers to call Pingree, Collins, King – please tell them there is a silent genocide going on in Congo. Tell them to stop aid to Congo unless the killing stops. Tell them to issue travel bans and sanctions against leaders who participate in the crisis. We need help from Mainers, from our community. We need their support to raise awareness of what is going on to our people in DRC.”