All Banyamulenge remember October 8, 1996. On that day, Lwasi Lwabanji, the vice governor of the province, made his way to the governor’s office in Bukavu in a motorcade, accompanied by a pickup bristling with soldiers. The town was alive with rumors of the impending Rwandan invasion.

Bukavu is a border town in the eastern Congo, built on five hilly peninsulas on the southern end of Lake Kivu, separated only by a narrow river from Rwanda. From the main street, one could see the Rwandan army positions in the hills to the east, low camouflaged bivouacs with soldiers milling about. A few weeks before, the Zairian army had exchanged artillery fire with these positions, provoking mortar and machine gun fire into Bukavu’s residential areas. Travelers arriving from the south brought stories of nightly infiltrations from Rwanda across the Rusizi River and fighting between Zairian troops and rebels there.

Lwabanji was of medium build, with an urbane manner he had cultivated during his studies in Kinshasa. With the military governor a thousand miles away in the capital Kinshasa, the task of dealing with the day-to-day administration of the province had fallen to him. The threat of an attack did not daunt him; on the radio, he had boasted of the Zairian army’s prowess. “We will crush Rwanda if they try something,” he promised, bolstered by the anti-Rwandan sentiment simmering in Bukavu’s streets. No one imagined that Rwanda, a country ninety times smaller, could seriously challenge Zaire—in terms of size, it would be like Switzerland trying to conquer all of western Europe.1

At the governor’s office, a crowd of local and international journalists awaited him, as well as several dozen legislators in suits and ties. The building’s conference room, like much of Zaire’s infrastructure, had fallen into disrepair. Windows were cracked or nonexistent, the yellow paint was peeling, and corridors smelled faintly of sewage. The vice governor had come to address the issue on everybody’s minds and lips: the approaching rebels, referred to by most as “the Banyamulenge.”

The Banyamulenge are a small community of Tutsi, the minority ethnic group in Rwanda, who emmigrated from Rwanda and Burundi to the Congo between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, settling in the remote highland pastures to the south of Bukavu. Only a few years earlier, most people in Bukavu had never heard of them. The war, however, catapulted them to national ignominy; it came to be known as the Banyamulenge’s war.

Lwabanji resorted to the kind of anti-Tutsi hyperbole typical of many Congolese politicians: “In some villages of the highlands in which the Banyamulenge regularly exterminate civilian population, the latter are already defending themselves with their bare hands, knives and sometimes they capture firearms from the Banyamulenge.” He cleared his throat. “I demand the population in the highlands to descend to the shores of the lake. We will consider everybody who stays in the high plateau as rebels.” Striding out through the hallway afterwards, a journalist accosted him. How much time would they give the Banyamulenge to pack their belongings and leave? “I think a week will be enough,” he said. “Six days.”2

In times of tension, radios were almost like an appendage for many Zairians, the only means of getting reliable information. The first sound in villages, before even the cock’s crow, is often the crackle of a shortwave receiver, as people tune in to the 5 o’clock Radio France International or BBC Swahili Service broadcast, which is relatively static-free in the early morning hours. In Bukavu, on their way to work, pedestrians typically walk with their radios in front of them or clasped close to their ear, listening to the news.

Many Banyamulenge heard Lwabanji’s speech huddled around radios. Others heard of it by word of mouth, the details distorted with every retelling. Within several days, the news had spread that the vice governor had tendered a six-day ultimatum for all Banyamulenge to leave for Rwanda or be attacked. Lwabanji later protested that the regrouping of the Banyamulenge community was for their own protection, and in villages in Zaire, not in Rwanda. His explanation was to little avail; for the Banyamulenge, his name was henceforth tied to eviction from their country.3


Lwabanji was not alone in singling out the Banyamulenge community. Ask a random Congolese what the root of the war was, and he or she will usually answer, “Rwanda,” or “the Banyamulenge.” As the war dragged on, their notoriety grew, spreading far afield from their home in the highlands of the eastern Congo. This despite their size: The Banyamulenge make up only several decimal points of the entire Congolese population, between 100,000 and 300,000 people out of 60 million. However, given the Banyamulenge’s close ethnic ties to the new Rwandan government—both belong largely to the Tutsi community—the war catapulted their leaders to the front of the political scene. From complete obscurity, they became arguably the country’s most hated group, attracting venom from church leaders, human rights activists, and politicians alike.

Benjamin Serukiza emerged as a leading figure in the Banyamulenge community during the war. He was vice governor of South Kivu throughout the war, representing the community at the highest level in their home province. When I saw him in his apartment in downtown Kinshasa in November 2007, he was unemployed, having left politics. Dressed in an untucked pink shirt and plastic flip-flops, he told me he was tired of politics—“that never helped us much”—and was trying to leave the Congo to get a job in an international organization.4

Serukiza’s features conformed with the stereotypes many Congolese have of Banyamulenge. He was over six feet tall, with high cheekbones, a thin and hooked nose, and slightly protruding teeth. In Congolese French, some words are known to illiterate farmers that educated Belgians and French rarely use. Morphologie was one of them; Banyamulenge would learn it as children, knowing that it connoted a vulnerability, a danger. “His morphology is suspicious,” one sometimes heard people saying when they suspected someone of being Tutsi. As if you could tell someone’s subversion by his bone structure or the slant of his nose.

The postwar housing of the former rebels can be revealing. Serukiza’s threebedroom flat next to the justice ministry was bare and run-down, a far cry from the gaudy interiors of some of his former colleagues. The windows were draped with slightly dirty voile curtains, the tables covered in cheap plastic spreads. The toilet—to my embarrassment—did not flush, and the doors were loose on their hinges, sticking in their frames. Most tellingly, in a country where importance can be measured in the number of cell phones and frequency of calls, he only had one phone, which remained silent throughout our three-hour meeting.

When I asked Serukiza about the war, he seemed weary of the subject, like a witness interrogated a dozen times but with little faith in justice. Instead of beginning in 1996, however, he started four generations earlier, with his ancestors’ arrival in the country. Like other persecuted minorities, the Banyamulenge have an obsessive sense of history, clinging to names and dates. “The truth is, we have no idea when we left Rwanda. According to historians, it was in the mid-nineteenth century. All I know is that my great-grandfather was born in the Congo. But they still call us Rwandans! Imagine calling Americans British.”


The controversy surrounding the Banyamulenge focuses on when they arrived in the Congo. Their detractors dismiss them as recent immigrants who are more Rwandan than Congolese. They often refer to colonial maps of tribes, pointing out that no “Tutsi” or “Banyamulenge” marker is to be found until after independence in 1960. Most academics, not to mention thousands of Banyamulenge, disagree. Isidore Ndaywel, a leading Congolese historian, writes in his General History of the Congo: “[The Rwandan immigration] is confirmed by oral sources from Rwanda that evoke the departure of lineages from Kinyaga (Rwanda) in the 19th century to install themselves in Mulenge. The reasons for this movement was reportedly the search for better pastures, but in particular also the flight from attacks by King Kigeri Rwabugiri (1853–1895), who was determined to bring an end to Kinyaga’s autonomy.”5

It is likely that roaming pastoralists had been visiting the high plateau for centuries, fleeing the frequent fighting between different clans in densely populated Burundi and Rwanda and trying to find new pastures for their cattle to graze. The nineteenth-century wars in Rwanda just fueled these migrations.6 Other factors probably contributed to their exodus, including a devastating rinderpest epidemic that killed up to 90 percent of cattle in some parts of Rwanda, as well as the arrival of Europeans with smallpox and other diseases around the same time.7 Most Banyamulenge have only a vague idea, passed on through their elders, of when their ancestors first came to the Congo. Before the war, almost none had known relatives in Rwanda.

The Banyamulenge’s original exodus took the cattle herders across the Rusizi plain into what is today Congolese territory. There the immigrants and their cattle fled the malaria that is endemic at lower altitudes and scaled the Itombwe mountain range. They settled in the town of Mulenge, from which they derive their name. Tensions with their neighbors soon arose. The Tutsi are pastoralists, and their cows trampled their neighbors’ fields. The newcomers also ate different food, had their own myths, and adhered to particular conjugal habits. The Banyamulenge poet Muyengeza distilled these tensions, along with his community’s defiance, into a stanza:

They came across 

They came across the shores of Lake Tanganyika 

They were swallowed by a python 

It found them too strong to crush.8

As in much of Africa, land in the eastern Congo was managed by traditional chiefs. While initially the local ruler from the Fuliro tribe was happy to lease land to the newcomers in return for cows, relations deteriorated when the traditional chief hiked up their tribute in the 1920s, prompting Banyamulenge to move to higher, less accessible pastures away from his control. The Banyamulenge’s resentment was also stoked by the Belgian colony’s refusal to give them their own administrative entity for fear of alienating neighboring communities.

The hunger for land rights became a central concern in Banyamulenge politics and religion. During the upheaval of the 1960s, several evangelical prophets came forward, all claiming that they had received prophecies about a promised land, their own Canaan. In 1972, a prayer group received divine instruction that they should go to a place called Nyabibuye, where they were told by God to look to the west, the east, the north, and the south—“the land surrounded by horizons that your eyes are seeing, I will make it your dwelling place.”9


The postindependence period was a tumultuous time for the Congo, as the country crumbled into chaos following the assassination of its independence leader and first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. In April 1964, the rebellion reached the eastern Congo, led by Lumumba’s followers and fueled by local communal grievances against the central state. One of the leaders sent to mobilize the locals from neighboring Burundi was Laurent-Désiré Kabila, a hitherto little-known youth leader from Katanga province. Black-and-white pictures show a grinning twenty-five-year-old Kabila with long sideburns and a budding afro, his chubby face somehow too big for his still relatively trim frame, accentuated by bell-bottomed jeans.

It was into this tense environment that Serukiza was born in 1964. He remembers his mother telling him stories about rebels streaming through their villages armed with bamboo, machine guns, and machetes and shouting “Mai!” invoking the ritual water, or mai, they believed made them invincible to bullets. She also told him about a group of white soldiers who spoke a foreign language and were only known by the order they arrived in the country: mojambilitatu (one, two, three in Swahili), and so on. Serukiza smiles. “It was only much later that she found out that these were Cubans and that tatu, the third to arrive in the country, was Che Guevara.” In the cold war world of international proxy warfare, the mountains of Mulenge had become a battleground between Cuba and the United States.

The rebellion exacerbated the tensions between the communities, as Kabila’s rebels began to prey on the Banyamulenge’s cattle. “It was some sort of bizarre Marxist approach,” Serukiza said, “anyone with cattle was rich and therefore bourgeois and close to Kinshasa. But we were peasants!” Thousands of Banyamulenge fled to the shores of Lake Tanganyika, where they thought they could find protection and aid, but many died of malaria and malnutrition, unaccustomed to the hot climate. Desperate, the Banyamulenge sent a delegation, including one of Serukiza’s uncles, to convince Mobutu’s army to come to their rescue.

The Banyamulenge’s siding with Mobutu marked their entry into regional politics and the origin of open hostilities with the neighboring communities. In 1966, Kabila’s rebels attacked a Banyamulenge village, forcing dozens into a church and massacring them, prompting hundreds of Banyamulenge to join Mobutu’s Forces Armées Zairoises (FAZ) and beat back the rebels from their pastures in the high plateau.10 Kabila’s troops’ abuses led Banyamulenge, who attach great value to cows, to dub him “the one who cuts cows’ teats.” Serukiza’s mother told him that no milk would flow where Kabila had been.

“There are many ironies in our history,” Serukiza philosophized as a cool breeze blew in off the Congo River. “Who would have thought that Kabila would lead us many years later to overthrow Mobutu?”


When asked about discrimination, many Tutsi in the Congo immediately bring up schoolyard taunts. As everywhere, schools were places of socialization, where the ground rules were laid out. The most common insult was bor, which was local slang for “thing” as well as “penis.” “For them, we were no better than objects,” Serukiza remembered. Across the border, in Burundi, where many Banyamulenge fled, they were call kijuju after a local plant that looked like cassava but couldn’t be eaten—a useless, treacherous substance. “They had songs they used to sing about us,” Serukiza said. “They were all variations on ‘Banyamulenge, go home to Rwanda.’ They also called us ‘RRR’: ‘Rwandans Return to Rwanda,’ or kafiri, uncircumcised—that was a huge insult for us. We aren’t Rwandans.” For many communities in the eastern Congo and elsewhere in Africa, elaborate circumcision rituals mark the graduation to manhood; Banyamulenge are usually not circumcised.

Most Banyamulenge live in the remote villages of the high plateau, where the discrimination is less obvious and biting. But since they do not have good high schools, hospitals, or administrative offices, all Banyamulenge have to conduct regular pilgrimages to the lakeside towns of Uvira, Baraka, or Kalemie, where they are treated with disdain. “When you want to obtain a birth certificate, take a national exam, or get an ID, you had to walk three days to town,” Serukiza said. “There, they threw stones at us and called us names.”

A sociologist from the Bembe tribe (the neighboring community and the majority in the area), Kimoni Kicha, distilled this prejudice succinctly: “Bembe consider the Tutsi as no-gooders, weaklings, uncircumcised, an inferior people who do not do anything but drink milk all day long, and who do not cry over their dead brethren but over their deceased cows.”11


Sitting on his beige, faux-leather sofa, Serukiza sought out dates like rosary beads, fingering them for reassurance and circling back to them as the conversation went on. April 24, 1990: That was a big one, he nodded. Mobutu, a deeply superstitious man who employed at different points in time West African marabouts (Muslim religious mystics), Indian gurus, and Catholic priests, chose the date because it contained the number four, a lucky number for him. He had been born on October 4, 1930; his first coup d’état took place on September 14, 1960, his second on November 24, 1965.

This date, as opposed to the others, was a black day for Mobutu. After twenty-five years of autocratic misrule, his grip on power had slipped. The cold war—in which he had masterfully positioned himself as an ally of the west, garnering billions of dollars in aid—had come to an end. Several months before, his friend the Romanian president Nicolae Ceauşescu was accused of abuse of power and put in front of a firing squad with his wife, an event that deeply affected Mobutu. Shocked, he watched on television as Romanian soldiers manhandled the dictator’s limp, bloody body. Pressure was already coming from the United States, Belgium, and France, which had all supported him for many years, to reform. The economy had stagnated. Congolese wages were lower than at independence thirty years earlier. Inflation had climbed to over 500 percent.

Comprenez mon emotion,” went his now legendary appeal to the country on national television, wiping a tear from beneath his glasses. A rumble went through the rows of his loyalists who had lined up in the Nsele Party headquarters: They could not believe their ears. After twenty-three years of one-party rule—every man, woman, child, and even corpse was constitutionally required to be a member of the Popular Revolutionary Movement (MPR)—he legalized other political parties and stepped down from the helm of his own. Several months later, under continued domestic and international pressure, he bowed to the demand for a national conference of civic leaders that would name a prime minister and draft a new constitution, paving the way for elections.

“You know, for westerners democracy is a good thing. But I don’t think for you and us that wonderful word means the same thing,” Serukiza said. As his power slipped in the late 1980s, Mobutu began to pit different communities throughout the country against each other in order to distract from opposition against his regime. The advent of democracy saw mass mobilization, often along ethnic lines, and the autocrat tried to take advantage of these communal cleavages to divide his opposition. For the Banyamulenge, this divide-and-rule gambit focused on their citizenship and thus their eligibility for taking part in elections. Already in 1982, their candidates were barred from running for office in the MPR’s central committee because of their “dubious citizenship.” Serukiza laughed. “Oh God, that term has plagued us!”

The transition to a multiparty democracy only made things worse for the Banyamulenge population. In 1989, playing to anti-Tutsi sentiment in the East, Mobutu promised to settle the citizenship question once and for all by conducting an “identification of citizens” in the East. This despite the existence of dozens of other cross-border communities elsewhere in the country—the Kongo people, for example, regularly cross back and forth into the Congo from Angola, and the Nande migrate back and forth from Uganda.

The 1989 census ended in disaster. While Tutsi in Kinshasa and in some villages in the Kivus were given identification cards, others were turned back. Thousands of Banyamulenge in Uvira were refused citizenship.12 According to Serukiza, the authorities tried to force a special identification card on his village, which left them with an ambiguous status. “It didn’t say we were foreigners, but it wasn’t the usual ID either.” At the time a fresh graduate from the University of Lubumbashi with a degree in international relations, he rallied fifteen Banyamulenge leaders to boycott the registration. The authorities called in the army and arrested the chiefs, while Serukiza only barely escaped, jumping from an army truck and hiding in the houses of local family members. He then fled to neighboring Burundi.

The National Sovereign Conference, widely hailed as a success for stemming Mobutu’s authoritarianism, was another setback for Congolese Tutsi. Under pressure from other communities in the Kivus, all Tutsi delegates were banned from participating in the conference, where over 3,000 delegates convened to discuss the country’s future. A special subcommission was created to deal with citizenship. The opposition, initially sympathetic to the Tutsi’s entreaties, backpedaled to gain the support of the large and important Kivu delegation.


The Tutsi’s woes may have gone unaddressed if not for developments in Zaire’s two tiny neighbors to the east. Since independence, the fates of Rwanda and Burundi had diverged. Both countries were former Belgian colonies inhabited by a Hutu majority and a Tutsi minority, but in Burundi the Tutsi elite had held power since independence, while in its neighbor to the north a Hutu government had ruled. In Rwanda, Hutu governments had led pogroms against the Tutsi. In Burundi military juntas organized the mass killing of Hutu in 1972 and 1988. These dynamics reinforced each other: For the Rwandan Hutu, the killings of their brethren to the south was a portent of what might happen if Tutsi came to power there; the opposite mind game was occurring among the Tutsi leaders of Burundi.

In October 1993, Burundi’s first elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated just months after his inauguration, prompting a spate of ethnic violence that drove tens of thousands of Hutu into Zaire. Less than a year later, the Rwandan genocide sent another million Hutu into camps across the border.

“Life became unbearable for us,” Serukiza recalled. “The Rusizi plain [forming the border between Zaire, Burundi, and Rwanda] became white like snow with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tents. The refugees’ slogan was: ‘They are still alive?’” The sizable Banyamulenge population in Uvira was harassed and threatened. He recalled his mother not being able to leave the house to go to the market and being forced to ask neighbors to buy food for them.

With over half a million Tutsi massacred in Rwanda, the threat to the Congolese Tutsi was not hypothetical. Hutu militia posted a sign at the Cyangugu/ Bukavu border as a reminder: “Attention Zaireans and Bantu people! The Tutsi assassins are out to exterminate us. For centuries, the ungrateful and unmerciful Tutsi have used their powers, daughters and corruption to subject the Bantu. But we know the Tutsi, that race of vipers, drinkers of untrue blood. We will never allow them to fulfill their dreams in Kivuland.”13

The influx of refugees further poisoned relations between the Tutsi and other communities, while politicians in Kinshasa cynically drew on anti-Tutsi sentiment to boost their popularity. After sending a commission to the Kivus to figure out what to do about the refugee camps, Mobutu’s government voted on simultaneous resolutions on April 28, 1995, regarding citizenship and the refugee crisis.14 The resolutions demanded “the repatriation, without condition or delay, of all Rwandan and Burundian refugees and immigrants.”15 In case there was any misunderstanding, Uvira’s mayor issued a circular to his officers, responding to a Banyamulenge letter of protest: “I have the honor to transmit the memorandum of a certain ethnicity unknown in Zaire called Banyamulenge. ... I should also add that at the latest by 31.12.1995, they will all be chased from the national territory.”16

Kinshasa asked administrative officials to catalogue all property and real estate belonging to this group of “refugees and immigrants”—clearly understood in the Kivus to include the Banyamulenge—in view of their expropriation. In Bukavu, officials drew up lists of all Tutsi living in their respective neighborhoods.

Anti-Tutsi sentiment was exacerbated by a small group of Banyamulenge youths who, seeking adventure and responding to the call of their kin across the border, left in the early 1990s to join the RPF rebellion in neighboring Rwanda. Between 300 and 1,000 Banyamulenge joined this insurgency, although most did so surreptitiously, even stealing money from their families before quietly sneaking across the border at night.17 To many Congolese the Banyamulenge’s participation in the RPF war smacked of treason and reinforced their belief that, in their heart of hearts, the Banyamulenge were Rwandan.

In 1994, with the town of Uvira teeming with Hutu refugees from Rwanda and Burundi, Serukiza decided to leave for Rwanda with his wife and sister-in-law. He smiled, “We had to give my sister a different name for the bus manifest.” He laughed: “Her real name was Nyira Batutsi—that wouldn’t pass.” They changed her name to Chantal. At the border in Bukavu, Mobutu’s soldiers stopped him and stripped him of his Zairian ID and his briefcase, which contained his only copy of his university dissertation on Banyamulenge history. “You are no longer Zairian. You don’t need this anymore,” they told him.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!