Follow our new WhatsApp channel

See updates
  1. Home
  2. Africa

IRIN Briefing on the conflict in South Kivu

During September 1996 a growing number of reports testified to human rights abuses against Zairean Tutsis, known as Banyamulenge, by the army and local people in and around Uvira in South Kivu, Zaire. It soon became clear that at the same time a conflict between the Banyamulenge and the army was taking place, and as refugees began to arrive in Rwanda and Burundi, the Governments of Zaire and Rwanda traded accusations over responsibilities for the escalating crisis. As tensions between the two countries mounted, mortar fire was exchanged between Bukavu, Zaire and Cyangugu in Rwanda over several days.

This briefing describes developments in September and seeks to put them in their historical context. It gives an account of the immigration of Banyamulenge into Zaire, examines their claims to Zairean nationality and describes how they have been stripped of their nationality and targetted by the local authorities, army and local people since April 1995. Drawing parallels between this crisis and developments in Masisi and Rutshuru over the past year, it examines the accusations of both Zaire and Rwanda, as well as the humanitarian and regional implications of the crisis.

Developments during September 1996

On 9 September local people in Uvira town mounted a demonstration against Banyamulenge, declaring Uvira a 'ville morte', calling on the 'foreigners' to leave the country and attacking their homes and property. The demonstration followed a weekend in which soldiers from the Zairean Army had broken into several religious establishments in the town, arresting local church members and missionaries and seizing vehicles, documents and communications equipment. The events prompted the German arm of Caritas to announce it had suspended its activities in the town.

Reports soon emerged that during the weekend of 6 - 8 September, five Banyamulenge had been killed by Zairean soldiers. One man, Bolingo Karema, was allegedly beaten and stoned to death in Uvira town, while four others were killed in surrounding villages. The offices of a local Banyamulenge NGO, Groupe Milima, had allegedly been looted by soldiers, while its director, Muller Ruhimbika, was in hiding after a warrant had been issued for his arrest. Mr Ruhimbika had played a prominent role in drawing attention to the situation in Uvira during 1995 and the first half of 1996 (see the following section), and is currently living in exile.

Over subsequent days the army sought out Banyamulenge, arresting men while allowing women and children to go free. The arrests were reportedly carried out at the instruction of the District Commissioner of Uvira, Shweka Mutabazi. Amnesty International singled Mr Mutabazi out for criticism, citing reports that he had encouraged the takeover of Tutsi property and authorized the enrolment of youths into the armed forces to fight the 'Tutsi armed group'. Amnesty also undertook to investigate reports that more than 35 Banyamulenge had been 'extrajudicially executed' by the Zairean authorities and more than 50 others 'disappeared' at the start of the month.(1)

Reports of fighting between Banyamulenge militia and Zairean soldiers also began to emerge, with three soldiers reported killed during the week beginning 9 September. The Zairean Army declared the Uvira area a 'military zone' and was reported to be reinforcing its presence with troops from Goma, Bukavu, Shaba and Kinshasa. On 13 September the Zairean Government accused Rwanda of having enrolled 3,000 Banyamulenge in its army and of training and infiltrating them to destabilize eastern Zaire, with Burundi providing them with rear bases. Both Governments categorically rejected the charges.

At the same time Banyamulenge, some of whom had been held in detention, were refouled or fled the country and began entering Rwanda and Burundi. Several hundred refugees were reported as having reached Cyangugu in Rwanda and others as having gone to Cibitoke and Bubanza provinces in Burundi. At the end of the month UNHCR estimates put the number of recent Banyamulenge arrivals at over 500 in Rwanda and over 400 in Burundi. Of this number 535 people had been 'refouled' by the Zairean authorities and the rest had left Zaire spontaneously.

During the weekend of 14 and 15 September Zairean television reported accusations by the authorities that the UNHCR and IOM (International Organisation of Migration) had been assisting armed groups to infiltrate Zaire from Rwanda and Burundi with the aim of destabilizing Kivu. Following these accusations two UNHCR staff were beaten up by Zairean soldiers. On 17 September the claims were dismissed by the UN Secretary-General, as being 'completely unfounded'. The Secretary-General subsequently sent Ibrahima Fall as a UN Special Envoy to Zaire to seek clarification on the allegations. The Zairean authorities, meanwhile, confirmed that the activities of IOM throughout Zaire had been suspended.

On Sunday 22 September the growing tension between Rwanda and Zaire manifested itself in an exchange of mortar fire between the two countries. This was repeated during the following two days, killing one Zairean and injuring five others. It also prompted the United Nations to relocate 23 'non-essential' expatriate aid agency personnel to Nairobi and the International Federation of the Red Cross to evacuate three of its delegates, after two shells landed in the garden of a hotel where IFRCS staff had been staying.

Rwanda and Zaire accused each other of having started the exchanges of fire. On 23 September the Government of Rwanda released a statement detailing its version of events. It accused the Government of Zaire of targetting Kabembe town in Cyangugu prefecture with automatic weapons fire and artillery shelling between 6pm and 11pm on 22 September. These attacks were said to have caused neither injuries nor material damage.

The Rwandan Government linked this alleged 'act of aggression' with an attack in mid-September on the prison in the neighbouring commune of Gishoma, in which a group of infiltrators had sought to free prisoners. According to the statement, the RPA 'repulsed the attackers, who fled under cover of automatic weapons fire from the Panzi camp in Zairean territory.'(2) The dispute over who had started the attacks continued, however, although a ceasefire was agreed on 25 September. Zaire alleged that Rwanda broke the ceasefire on 26 and 29 September, a claim denied by Rwanda.

At the same time a Banyamulenge spokesman in exile reported that on 22 September the Zairean authorities had executed 40 Banyamulenge being held in detention. They had been arrested by the authorities the previous week at Baraka in Fizi zone. The summary executions were said to have been in retaliation for the killings of Zairean soldiers by Banyamulenge militia. Independent confirmation of this incident has yet to be obtained.

On 22 September the Zairean authorities also repeated allegations that soldiers were infiltrating into Kivu from Rwanda and Burundi in order to support the Banyamulenge militia. Government spokesman Oscar Lugendo was quoted in the press as saying that Zairean troops killed three 'Rwandan' soldiers and captured five others at Kiringye in Uvira region on 31 August. He claimed that the infiltrators were being commanded by Banyamulenge who had been officers in the Zairean Army but had gone to Rwanda after the victory of the RPA in July 1994. (3) The authorities said the soldiers had infiltrated Uvira via Cyangugu in Rwanda and Cibitoke in Burundi.


Different historians give different dates for the migrations of Tutsi pastoralists from the historic kingdom of Rwanda to what is now Zaire. All of the estimates, however, date the migrations between the 16th and 19th centuries (4). The atlas of the Republic of Zaire produced by Jeune Afrique in 1978 provides a map showing the routes of the major historical population movements into and within what is now Zaire, and dates the movement of pastoralists from Rwanda into Kivu between the 17th and 18th centuries. This was part of the migration which also brought Rwandan Tutsis to Masisi and Rutshuru zones in what is now North Kivu.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Zaire states with confidence that 'ever since 1797, under the rule of Yuhi IV Gahindiro, Rwandan Tutsis have emigrated to the Congo, settling in Kakamba, in the plain of Ruzizi and in the higher regions (Mulenge Hills), because of the climate and to feed their cattle.' (5)

These Tutsis established their first settlement at Mulenge and became known as Banyamulenge (people of Mulenge). They settled in Uvira, Mwenga and Fizi zones, where they are to be found to this day (although there are now Banyamulenge living further south, in Shaba, and in major towns around the country). Establishing their own settlements they lived side-by-side with indigenous Bantu ethnic groups - the Babembe, Bafulero, Banyindu, Barega, Barundi and Bashi. They speak a variant of Kinyarwanda (the language of Rwanda), recognized as a separate dialect by linguistic authorities (6). Today estimates of their number range from 250,000 to 400,000 people, roughly comparable with other ethnic groups in the area (the Barega have been estimated at 400,000, the Babembe at 252,000 and the Bafulero at 275,000).(7)

The Banyamulenge lived in relative peace and harmony with their neighbours for most of this century. It was not until the Mulele rebellion in Kivu in 1964 that Banyamulenge found themselves in opposition to other local people. The Mulelists, espousing a variant of communist philosophy in which property, land and cattle were to be shared among local people, drew support from other ethnic groups in South Kivu. The Banyamulenge, however, did not share their neighbour's enthusiasm for these goals and helped the then Congolese National Army to crush the movement in South Kivu. This episode instilled a deep and lingering resentment against the Banyamulenge within other ethnic groups in the area.

The Banyamulenge, however, continued to prosper economically and also succeeded in securing political representation at both the local and national levels. In 1980 however, Mr Gisaro, the sole Banyamulenge MP in the Zairean Parliament, died in a car crash. In 1981 the Zairean Parliament passed new legislation relating to Zairean nationality. This sought to nullify the 1972 legislation under which all persons of Rwandese origin who established their residence in the Kivu province before 1 January 1950 and who had continued to reside in Zaire were collectively granted Zairean nationality as of 30 June 1961.

Henceforth nationality would be acquired on an individual basis only and any other mode of acquisition of Zairean nationality was null and void. In effect, people of Rwandese origin in Zaire were rendered stateless persons. According to informed legal opinion, however, the 1981 law was arbitrary and discriminatory and therefore unlawful under international conventions to which Zaire is a party. If this analysis is accepted, the Banyamulenge retained a strong claim to Zairean citizenship.

They were, however, refused permission to stand as candidates or to vote in the 1982 Parliamentary elections. Banyamulenge in Mwenga zone protested against the decision by burning ballot boxes being used in the elections. The same was true for the 1987 Parliamentary elections, when again the Banyamulenge could neither stand for office nor cast a vote. This time there were protests in Uvira and Fizi and again ballot boxes were burnt.

The tensions aroused by these disputes were further exacerbated by the refugee crises of 1993 and 1994, when Hutu refugees first from Burundi and then from Rwanda, flooded into the area. Local people are said to identify themselves with Hutus and to hold Tutsis responsible for heaping the refugee problem upon them through the coup of October 1993 in Burundi and their struggle for power in Rwanda after the RPF invasion of 1990. In this analysis the genocide of 1994 was characterized as the culmination of a war rather than the planned and purposeful extermination of Rwanda's Tutsi minority.

On 28 April 1995 the High Council of the Transitional Parliament passed a Resolution in order, ostensibly, to prevent Rwandan and Burundian refugees from acquiring Zairean nationality. The Resolution followed a visit to Kivu by the Vangu commission of inquiry, which had been established to look into these questions. The most surprising aspect of the Resolution was that it treated the Banyamulenge as recent refugees. The Resolution included a list of people to be arrested and expelled, the cancellation of any sale or transfer of assets which benefited 'immigrants who have acquired Zairean nationality fraudulently', the replacement of existing governors and commanders with new officials, and the banning of Tutsis from all administrative and other posts. (8) The Resolution was signed by the Speaker of the Parliament, Anzuluni Bembe Isilonyonyi, who claims to come from Uvira and have Babembe ancestry.

It wasn't long before the Resolution was put into action. On 19 September the District Commissioner of Uvira, Shweka Mutabazi, wrote to the official responsible for urban planning in Uvira telling him to make a list of the properties and land owned by Banyamulenge, that all building work by Banyamulenge was to be brought to a halt and that all abandoned Banyamulenge houses should be identified and itemized. He also charged the same official with informing the head of the Banyamulenge community about these developments.

During late 1995 and early 1996 acts of harrassment as well as evictions of Banyamulenge were an increasingly common occurence. On November 21 1995 the authors of a petition to the authorities were detained, shortly after one of their number, Muller Ruhimbika, had been interviewed by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Zaire, Roberto Garreton. During his January 1996 report Mr Garreton noted that some Banyamulenge had already been expelled from Zaire while others were under an expulsion order. The Special Rapporteur also reported that he had been informed that 'local tribes were arming in readiness for a struggle against the Banyamulenge, forcing the latter to do the same.'(9)

The immediate precursor to the events of September was the banning of Groupe Milima, the non-governmental organization run by Mr Ruhimbika, on 9 August, again at the instigation of the District Commissioner for Uvira. Groupe Milima, a rural development organization which had lobbied for the nationality rights of Banyamulenge to be recognized, was clearly proving to be a thorn in the side for the authorities. The letter announcing the ban accused Mr Ruhimbika of political lobbying, travelling without the permission of the authorities and drawing the nationality issue to the attention of the Carter Centre. It also alleged that Mr Ruhimbika had been trafficking arms to the Banyamulenge.


In many respects recent developments in Uvira bear an uncanny resemblance to developments in Masisi since November 1995. There too, Zairean Tutsis have been targetted by the local authorities, army and local people and forced to flee their country. In the case of Masisi there is substantial evidence that Rwandan Hutu refugees, in particular members of the interahamwe militia and the former Rwandan Army, have fuelled the conflict by bringing arms and hatred to an already volatile situation (10). In the case of Uvira the alleged involvement of Hutu refugees in targetting the Banyamulenge remains just that - an allegation. With Masisi as with Uvira, the conflicts have resulted in mutual recriminations between Zaire and Rwanda.

Yet the obvious difference between the two conflicts is that in the case of Masisi the Tutsis were forced out of their country without putting up a fight. This is not proving to be the case in Uvira, where the Banyamulenge have been arming and preparing themselves for the current confrontation. As one Banyamulenge spokesman in exile explained, "They have seen what has happened in Shaba with the Kasai who were unarmed. They saw what happened to their 'brothers' in Masisi and Rutshuru, who were defenceless and were killed and evicted. The Zairean authorities say the Banyamulenge must go. The only option they had was to get arms. They are saying, 'we're not going to allow this to happen to us'."

How the conflict will evolve is a matter of speculation. While reports from the area do support claims that Rwandan Hutu refugees are assisting the Zairean Army, it is unclear to what extent local people from other ethnic groups in South Kivu are willing to take up arms against their neighbours. In the case of Masisi, it was the involvement of local Hutus in league with refugees and occasionally the army that really made the position of the Tutsis untenable and forced them to flee.

What is abundantly clear is that unless the legitimate claims of the Banyamulenge are recognized and the differences between Zaire and Rwanda resolved, the region faces yet another escalation in its crisis of insecurity. This will be unwelcome to the international community, as it counts the cost of assisting yet more internally displaced people and refugees. It will be bad for the countries of the region, whose development can only be hindered by worsening relations and violent disruption. And it will be a disaster for local people, who will be condemned to further deaths, displacement and flight from their own country.


1. Amnesty International, 'Zaire: Amnesty International condemns Human Rights Violations against Tutsi', 20 September 1996.
2. Statement by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Rwanda, 23 September 1996.
3. Arthur Malu-Malu, Reuters News Service, 'Zaire hits out at aid groups, neighbours, 22 September 1996.
4. Kagame Alexis (1972), Maquet, J and Hiernaux, J (1954), Weis (1959), Depelchin (1974), cited in 'Memorandum on the Tragedy of the Rwandaphone Zaireans with some Proposals and Recommendations', June 1996.
5. Mr Roberto Garreton, 'Report on the situation of human rights in Zaire', 29 January 1996.
6. Barbara F. Grimes, Ed., 'Ethnologue: Languages of the World', Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc., Dallas, Texas, 1992.
7. As for 6.
8. Le Haut Conseil de la Republique - Parlement de Transition, 'Resolution sur la Nationalite', Kinshasa, 28 April 1995.
9. As for 5.
10. UN DHA IRIN, Situation Report on Masisi and Rutshuru, 10 May 1996 and Update on Masisi, Rutshuru and Lubero Zones, 15 August 1996.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.