By Georges Budagu Makoko

Banyamulenge refugees

While cities and towns around the globe are shut down, with people silently quarantining in their homes, and focused on one of the worst pandemics that the world has ever experienced, the infamous and bloody Mai-Mai militias and their allies in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are actively pursuing genocidal plans against the Banyamulenge, who live in the high plateau of South Kivu Province.

The Banyamulenge are a Tutsi minority tribe that has lived in what is now DRC for many years, since before the demarcation of African boundaries by the colonists. For several decades, from around the time of the beginning of the 1996 Congo War, the Banyamulenge have been the target of hate speech, massacres, and abuse by a succession of political leaders, soldiers, and militia fighters. In the past few years, Mai-Mai militia groups, reinforced by Interahamwe and other regional armed groups, have killed hundreds of Banyamulenge villagers, burned more than 200 villages to the ground, and stolen more than 150,000 livestock in an attempt to make it impossible for the tribe to survive in South Kivu. As a result, more than 200,000 Banyamulenge have been internally displaced, and thousands more have escaped the country and are now living as refugees in Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya.

Mahoro Peace Association members in Washington, D.C. marching against the killings in Mulenge.

On April 18, 2020, two beautiful young mothers, Nyamwiza Francine and Nyiramutarutwa Naziraje, were tortured, sexually violated, and killed in an ambush in South Kivu. The women had been on their way back to their village of Minembwe from fields where they had harvested cassava. A female survivor of the ambush told villagers that according to the perpetrators, unless the Banyamulenge return to Rwanda or Egypt, where they came from generations ago, the plan is to exterminate them. They told the woman who survived that the worst is yet to come.

The cruel brutality of the way in which the women were violated and killed sent shockwaves through the Banyamulenge community around the world, because of the similarity to murders during the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Personally, when I saw pictures of the dead bodies, I felt as though my lower intestines were set on fire, and I became disoriented, with emotions of desperation overwhelming me so that I could not sleep.

Dismayed by the loss of everything she has worked for

The recent murders are taking a heavy toll on the Mulenge villagers. Retrieving the victims’ bodies from the killing site, and bringing them home for burial, was unimaginably hard on them. During the burial ceremony, testimonies were excruciating, and told of the alliance between the perpetrators and the Congolese army, and of the mass killings that show no signs of stopping.  All mourned the young lives cut short, with the grief of the victims’ husbands and children blending together with the villagers’ deep and sorrowful singing to express the horror of living in a world without compassion, justice, and protection. The villagers are now terrified at the thought they too may experience a violent death at any time.

In the face of terrible atrocities, the world is totally silent. The month of April is often spoken of as the darkest month in modern history. It is unthinkable that 26 years after the infamous genocide in Rwanda, where one million Tutsis perished in a span of three months – beginning in April – at the hands of Hutu paramilitary forces, another genocide is taking place against Tutsi Banyamulenge at a distance of just 142 km from the Rwandan frontier, in the high plateau of Mulenge.

Refugees in Minembwe who have lost their homes.

The Congolese government and the United Nations peacekeeper mission (MONUSCO) have failed to protect these innocent people. International humanitarian organizations based in the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa have failed to provide aid for the thousands of refugees who are without food, health care, and sanitation supplies. Despite their desperate need, no humanitarian organizations in the region have reached out to them. Thousands of people, including children, are starving to death.

History seems to be repeating itself. In 1994, Tutsi victims ran to the UN asking for help, but found gates shut, leading to their massacre near the UN compound. The current lack of response from the UN recalls that time. It is heartbreaking that when humanitarian tragedies occur, such as in Rwanda in 1994, or South Kivu today, the response is far too often crying and outrage and regret – after the fact – for a lack of action and intervention, followed by complete silence until another genocide happens. No serious preventative measures have been developed to stop the next tragedy from happening.

Elderly man fleeing

The native citizens of Minembwe are facing three enemies simultaneously. Continuous attacks directed by the Mai-Mai and other armed forces; serious famine after being overwhelmed in the last four months by over 70,000 refugees who have been forced out of the 200 villages burned to the ground throughout the Mulenge area; and last but not least the current COVID-19 pandemic. Because the Minembwe area is currently overwhelmed with quadruple its normal population, if Covid-19 reaches the area, it will be completely devastating for the Banyamulenge.

Refugees receiving assistance from Mahoro Peace Association and UGEAFI

That all of this is happening under the watchful eyes of the Congolese army and 18,000 UN Peacekeeper forces – whose mandate is to protect innocent civilians – is beyond comprehension.  The Banyamulenge elders have asked many times for protection. Hundreds of letters and petitions have been submitted to the UN in New York and the UN commissioner in DRC, as well as other powerful humanitarian organizations, all to no avail. On April 27, 2020 a letter on behalf of the international Banyamulenge community was delivered to H.E. António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, with copies to H.E. Félix Tshisekedi, President of the DRC, and thirteen other key figures in government and human rights protection. The heading of the letter was ‘Call for Action to Stop the Ethnic Cleansing of the Banyamulenge in Minembwe/hauts plateaux of South Kivu Province in the DRC.’

The letter states, “In view of the multiple recent attacks and hate speech reflected in the barbaric killing of the two women, we are very worried that our parents, mothers, brothers, and sisters face clear threats of genocide if nothing is done to stop the attacks by the coalition of Mai Mai and regional armed groups, with possible complicity of elements of regular Congolese armed forces. What is certain is that the systematic, widespread, and multifaceted attacks against the Banyamulenge, as described above, constitute criminal acts under international law.”

I call upon the U.S. government, which has graciously offered refuge to thousands of Banyamulenge who have fled the atrocities devastating Congo, to ask the Congolese government and the UN to protect the Banyamulenge, establish a durable peace in the Congo, and bring to justice all perpetrators of genocide. I urge humanitarian organizations to help those without food and health and sanitary supplies.

A story that is not told dies in someone’s mind and the truth goes along with it. Evil flourishes whenever it is not pointed out. There is no room for more graves in the DR. The killings must stop.

Most of these photos were taken by contacts on the ground in Minembwe, and depict people fleeing their villages and receiving aid from the Mahoro Peace Association.  Mahoro Peace Association is a community-based organization of the Banyamulenge diaspora whose mission is promoting peace and reconciliation between all tribes in the Congo.

A few photos are from the march in Washington, D.C. Please share this editorial with your contacts. This is a crisis few people in the international community know about and it touches the lives of many people in Maine.