Author: Sebarenzi, Joseph
Date published: January 1, 2012
The hope that peace and reconciliation will prevail in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is what sustains the Banyamulenge people as they recover from the massacre at the village of Gatumba in the country of Burundi eight years ago. On August 13, 2004, 166 Banyamulenge Congolese were brutally killed in Burundi, and more than 100 others were seriously wounded. This massacre hit hard a population already traumatized by a history of persecution by political authorities and rival ethnic groups.
On that sad day, armed groups attacked a refugee camp in Gatumba (near Burundi's capital, Bujumbura) where hundreds of Banyamulenge refugees were sheltered. The refugees had fled increasing violence in eastern DRC and growing animosity against them. They expected to be safe in Burundi, but their fate turned out to be catastrophic. They were mercilessly killed with gunfire, grenades, and machetes.
The prime suspect in these killings is a Burundian armed group known as Forces Nationales de Libération (FNL), formerly known as PALIPEHUTU. According to a report released in September 2004 by Human Rights Watch, the FNL was responsible for the slaughter; the FNL's spokesperson, Pasteur Habimana, accepted responsibility for the attack. Another suspect is the Congolese armed group known as Mai Mai, which allegedly crossed the border into Burundi and joined the FNL in that deadly attack.
The massacre took place in a context of endemic ethnic violence and war in the DRC and Burundi. First, the Banyamule - who are descendants of Tutsi from Rwanda- emigrated to eastern DRC in the eighteenth century from Rwanda. Although they have lived in the DRC for centuries, some Congolese extremists among the indigenous ethnic groups consider the Banyamulenge as Rwandans or not authentically Congolese. This situation has led to repeated discrimination and attacks against the Banyamulenge since the 1960s. In their quest for some recognition, the Banyamulenge eventually participated in the 1996-97 warthat removed President Mobutu Sese Seko from power after thirty-two years of authoritarian rule. The subsequent president, Laurent Desire Kabila (1997-2001), was favorable to the Banyamulenge before he turned against them in 1998 following the conflict between the DRC and Rwanda.
In 1998, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda sent their troops into the DRC to support Congolese rebel movements opposed to President Kabila. The countries of Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia came to the president's rescue. A peace agreement between President Joseph Kabila (2001-present) and rebel forces was reached in 2002 to end the war, but armed groups had multiplied and were fighting each over the control of territories and mineral resources; the conflict is ongoing as of this writing. Innocent civilians continued to suffer enormously as hundreds of thousands were raped and/or killed, and their homes destroyed. It is in this context that hundreds of Banyamulenge fled their homes, crossed the border into Burundi, and settled in a refugee camp in Gatumba, near the Congolese border.
Burundi was, however, not a safe refuge. The country was recovering from a ten-year civil war. The FNL was still fighting against the Tutsi-dominated army. Because Banyamulenge are Tutsi, the attack against them by the FNL was purportedly an act of vengeance against the Burundian army. The FNL's spokesman alleged that his soldiers killed the Banyamulenge in pursuit of Burundian soldiers who had fled to the refugee camp after they attacked FNL positions. There is, however, no evidence to support this claim; no fighting was reported, and the victims of the attack were all civilian refugees, including women and children.
Shortly after the massacre, the international community reacted with unequivocal condemnation. Both the United States and the United Nations Security Council strongly condemned the attack and called upon the authorities of Burundi and of the DRC to cooperate actively so that the perpetrators could be brought to justice. Eight years have passed since this tragedy occurred, yet not a single suspect has been prosecuted.
In the meantime, a number of survivors were resettled by the government in the United States, thousands of miles away from their home country. Children now go to American schools; adults attend college or have joined the workforce; and virtually all Banyamulenge immigrants are active in community life. This would not have been possible without the compassion of the American people.
While some survivors will remain affected by the trauma of the massacre, many survivors have recovered and retain hope despite the ugly past. Smiles in their faces radiate courage and hope, not despair; joy in their hearts has bred forgiveness, not desire for revenge. Young people like Sandra Uwiringiy'imana understand that extremists killed her loved ones, but they could not kill her spirit. No one can possibly forget the past, yet the future deserves utmost attention. I know firsthand how it feels to lose loved ones for I, myself, lost my parents and my seven siblings in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. I also know firsthand how healing it is to maintain a positive attitude.
Our hope is that the massacre of Banyamulenge was a reminder that the DRC and Burundi suffer endemic violence. It was a reminder that individual perpetrators and individual armed groups are fundamentally the result of a history of violence and political instability, not a result of intrinsic malevolence. Hence forgiveness, reconciliation, and democracy are appropriate solutions to break the cycle of violence. These values ought to be taught to young people if future generations are to live in peace.
Our hope is that the "Survivors" exhibition at Visual Studies Workshop will be another opportunity to remind the international community that the Banyamulenge people continue to be targeted (seven Banyamulenge were shot dead as recently as October 4, 2011). The exhibition will also be a reminder that the perpetrators of the Gatumba massacre remain on the loose. In all, the 2012 exhibition will be a call to nations and individuals to help build democratic institutions in the DRC and other states in the region. Only democratic institutions can nurture a culture of human rights for all and foster peace and reconciliation.
In the meantime, the Banyamulenge people struggle to reunite with their family members scattered across Africa and to provide humanitarian assistance to survivors still in the Gatumba refugee camp. Any help in this endeavor will be greatly appreciated. Our hope is that however bad the past was, the future will continue to be brighter.
by Dr. Joseph Sebarenzi
DR. JOSEPH SEBARENZI was speaker of the Rwandan Parliament from 1997 to 2000. His book God Sleeps in Rwanda: A Journey of Transformation (2009) chronicles his personal experience as a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and his insights on how to remain kind despite the sufferings we endure in life. Known as a gifted public speaker, Dr. Sebarenzi currently serves on the faculty of CONTACT (Conflict Transformation Across Cultures) at SIT-Graduate Institute.