Minembwe Rural Commune, is situated in Fizi Territory, South Kivu Province, and it is situated about 370km from south west of Bukavu town. It is inhabited by various tribes including Babembe, Bafuliru, Banyamulenge, Banyindu and others. The main activities are agriculture, livestock and artisanal mining. The population of Minembwe and surrounding area, including the highlands of Mwenga and Uvira, are about 200,000 people. However, this number might be less due to constant displacement of people fleeing armed conflicts in the area. There are about 200 primary and secondary schools, 3 high education institutions, 2 hospitals, and over 50 health centers, 1 community radio and telecommunication networks. The region has limited access by roads, access is only possible during the dry season (Minembwe center and Itombwe). Bijombo area has no road access. There is an airstrip in Minembwe, which is the only viable, but expensive means of transportation. Most people walk for about 30km to reach the road in Lusuku, which is the link to Bukavu via Fizi and Uvira.
Conflict and its consequences
Currently, over 20,000 people are displaced with no shelter nor food. Half of those are concentrated in Minembwe center. People have lost lives. Their villages have been burnt to ashes along with their food stores, which were run from their houses; livestock has been destroyed, and others have been looted. Note: There is no complete evaluation of casualties as it is still unsafe to reach some areas.
This time of year is the beginning of agricultural harvest for maize and beans, which are the main staple food to all local communities. Any crops that are not destroyed by fire, were left in fields, which will be destroyed without care. Remaining villages around Minembwe center, schools and churches are hosting fleeing families with tired old people, children and women. The concentrations of displaced people are in 3 main locations: In Minembwe center and surrounding villages; Kigazura, Mikenge and Kasilo in Itombwe, and Kalumio in Kamombo. In all these locations, people hosted and welcomed displaced families from all different tribes. They are all seeking refuge together and are being helped by local communities indiscriminately.
This is happening months after another conflict that broke out in Bijombo location sending more than 6,000 people seeking refuge in other safe locations. Many reached Minembwe in August-October 2018. The Center for Research and Community Development at UEMI and LaOlam Ministry organized emergency programs to help only 350 families through agricultural activities and training in theology of work and peace. Some of the villages that had hosted displaced families from Bijombo were this time also attacked and/or burnt down. These include: Kalingi, Bidegu, Kamombo, Rwitsankuku, Kitasha, among others. Many families are being displaced and losing everything twice in less than 8 months. Many hundreds of pupils and students were taken in schools to allow them to study with no charge in October 2018. Eben-Ezer University and its primary ans secondary schools have more than 100 students from those displaced families, frm different tribes of last year. Today, those in schools are 2 months away from completing their school year, and their families have again been displaced. Resilience of local population is worning out!
Due to the limited access to Minembwe and surrounding area, there are no humanitarian organizations intervening. Local communities, churches, and local NGOs have taken the responsibility of sharing everything they have for the last 10 months, basically ever since August 2018 to the present. The influx of displaced families has contributed to food scarcity in Minembwe, where 25kg of smooth maize flour now costs moved from $16 to $25, whereas the price for 1kg of beans went up from $ 0.43$ to $ 1.30 in less than 5 months. Food shortage in this period has become a pressing issue. Even if the armed conflict is stopped, the war on hunger must be conquered as well. Also health issues must be addressed. Minembwe has a hospital and clinics, but with very limited equipment and medicines to cater for thousands of people concentrated in the Minembwe area. Given the poor living conditions of the displaced people, there is now the danger of dysentery. Eben-Ezer University is about to complete its water project in Minembwe, which would help people to get clean water in Kiziba villages and the central market.
The cause of conflict
Different actors give different reasons for the outbreak of the current conflicts:
- A common explanation focuses on tribal issues. For many years, conflicts in the Great Lakes Region have been thought of as tribal or ethnic. This explanation provides an easy way for those who aim to exploit and polarize the situation politically. Local populations from different tribes have lived together for centuries and do have shared survival interests. Even if there have been domestic conflicts, traditionally there have always been ways to solve them. Unfortunately, the region has had so many uncontrolled local and regional extremists, bandits, armed groups and rebels who do not necessarily represent the interests of their ethnic or tribal groups. Whoever commits crime does so on the back of their communities. Today, affected families from all tribes are seeking shelter together and helping each other regardless of their tribal affiliation. Innocent people are victims of politics. Tribes of Bantu origin accuse Banyamulenge of being foreigners, having no rights to land and administrative entity, regardless of having been in the region, which is now the current Congo for centuries. Extremists contest the erection of Minembwe to Rural Commune, even when it is inhabited by all tribes. On the other hand, Banyamulenge tribe accuses their neighboring tribes of hatred and envy against their prosperity. The coalition of armed groups from different tribes against one tribe is a dangerous sign of division and discrimination based on tribal/ethnic differences. However, they all belong to the same country. Their tribal and cultural diversities are power and wealth for their own respective development.
- Another explanation focuses on exploitation of incidents and a prolonged state of injustice. Eastern Congo has been a theatre of many atrocities committed by armed groups (killings of innocent people and many other human rights violations). In rural locations, it becomes even worse, as there, voices of the weak die in silence. The context of hopelessness, despair and revolt of many are expressed, unfortunately, through violent actions, which end up hurting everyone’s neighbor. Lack of state authority, in these rural places, is a serious challenge. Whenever there are incidents involving people from different tribes, they are exploited beyond the individual to community levels.
- Another issue that needs to be addressed has to do with poverty and the lack of community development programs. Young people from different tribes who turned into gangs, criminals and militia are equally born free and hopeful to build their lives and their country. Lack of socio-economic and political cadres to help them grow as good citizens, make them enemies of themselves and of their own communities. These challenges are put on the doorsteps of government and the international community, who miss opportunities to initiate sustainable programs to curb unemployment among youths, provide formal and vocational training, as well as possibilities for educational advancement and programs in entrepreneurship. Lack of road is a major handicap to rural peace and development. When youths have nothing to do, they are recruited into armed groups not as a coice but only as a means of survival. But as a result they lose their future.
- Furthermore, the current conflict is triggered by the killing of a local chief by an armed group whose members are from the Banyamulenge tribe, who had accused the local chief of killing their member. Similar incidents have provoked other similar tribal fighting in the past, where militia from other tribes killed members of the Banyamulenge community. Due to the lack of government authority in these rural areas to maintain order and administer justice the whole region is affected. Today, hundreds of villages are burned down, people have lost their lives, livestock and other goods have been destroyed or looted, and more than 20,000 people are now displaced with no shelter or food.
Current Situation in June 2019
According to reports by humanitarian organizations and local authorities, about 57 000 people were displaced in the whole region of high plateaus of Minembwe by May 2019. Early June, after intervention of the regular army, many went back to their destroyed villages. About 18000 are still in refuge waiting for calm to be restored in their areas. I was able to visit some of the affected villages near Minembwe and I saw many disturbing scenes but also some stories of hope. Families that went back to their villages because:
- Access to food. Affected families needed food badly. As it was harvesting time, many food were burned in houses. But they ones that were still in fields needed to be protected and harvested as well. Lack of humanitarian system to intervene, people force their way to unsafe places sometimes by escort to get food in their fields. “My village is Biziba. It was burned down, and we all fled and sought refuge at Kabingo. We lost everything and we are sheltered by relatives who shared the little they had with us. Now, twice a week, men do escort us in the field to get food (dried maize) and beans. It is still unsafe for us to go back and start rebuilding” recalls Madam Nangorore.
- In Minembwe center few local ONGs and sons and daughters of Minembwe in Diaspora distributed food to affected families. Although, the quantity is not enough, but the action is highly appreciated.
- Protection of remaining properties. Not all houses were burned, not all cows and goats were looted. Villagers were making risky movement of return to their villages to protect what remained after fighting. “I lost my parents’ houses and 10 of my goats were looted. But food in the fields, cows and my own houses which were not destroyed needed my attention. I decided to comeback” said Pastor Osee in Kivumu village. In his house, he sheltered his parents and another family from different tribe, whose houses were also destroyed. “People are sharing everything they have: clothes, food and household utensils, but these are not enough for all of us”.
- A displaced family from Rwitsankuku sought refuge at Lunundu. The head of the family Semabanga, an old man, was among 7 civilians killed by militia. “After a week, we went back to our village to bury our dead. It was devastating, the body of my brother was wrapped in a small sheeting in decomposition! With the help of neighbors, we put his body with respect in the ground. Our houses were all destroyed, the health center systematically looted and vandalized. It is difficult to imagine how we shall rebuild our lives!” A survival of the family pondered.
- Presence of government soldiers and MONUSCO. Although, soldiers cannot be in every village, areas that have military posts are attracting people to go back. Moreover, the presence of MONUSCO in Minembwe and in Mikenge also contribute to maintain peace. “Now, I have decided to comeback with my family, and most of our neighbors are also back in their houses because soldiers are here and provide security that we need to stay” said Rutaramirwa in the village of Rutigita. I am back with my family; we have no place to stay. All our houses were burned, but my son’s house was spared and that is where we all live” said a mother from Bafuliru tribe. People are taking courage to go back due to military presence. But soldiers are not in every place. Consequently, militia attacks are recurring.
- Building peace and security. As my colleague Eric and I were leaving one of the affected villages of Rudabagiza, a young girl of 2 years old, with her siblings who accompanied us outside the village, and she asked us “do you know where is Mahuno?” I quickly responded, “who is Mahuno?” Her older sister said, “Mahuno is a neighbor’s child, but they fled the conflict and had not yet returned”. The young girl is from Banyamulenge tribe and Mahuno is from Bafuliru tribe. But for this young little girl, tribes mean little to her, conflict that separates people is a confusion to her! Friendship, peaceful cohabitation is what matters! Beyond tribal lines, thousands of people from different tribes, want and are working tirelessly for peace, stability and development, whereas, fewer who do not represent people, exploit, intoxicate and kill in the names of tribes.
- Students and staff from Eben-Ezer University and primary and secondary schools are working for peace programs. In student peace clubs, members are organizing themselves and pay visits to affected villages with a simple message: Peaceful cohabitation is our ultimate goal. Local church leaders from different religious groups are preparing for a meeting on 26 June 2019 at Eben-Ezer Conference Hall to discuss about peace of the region and offer a prayer for those affected by conflicts. Eben-Ezer University officially inaugurated its clean water project, which is being used at the market place, villages around and at university.
- Over 100 local chiefs from different tribes, police and the army representatives from Minembwe and its environs, met for 2 days (10-12 June 2019) in Lulenge to discuss about peace and reconciliation process. They all agreed to work for unity of people living in Minembwe regardless of their tribal differences and to denounce any wrongdoers (members armed groups) who disrupt harmony. They called on government to end the culture of impunity and instore its authority. Moreover, some humanitarian agencies are arriving in Minembwe to assess the needs.
To the government and its partners in peacebuilding to intervene in areas of:
- Food, clothing, medicine, households’ equipment is urgently needed to help thousands of displaced people, particularly women and children.
- Deployment of government soldiers, alongside MONUSCO, in different locations to restore security and allow people and their goods to regain their villages.
- Reconstruction of houses, villages and health centers is urgent for people returning to their destroyed villages. What is most needed is roofing.
- Education for sustainable peace and development; and support for local peace initiatives.
- Investment in durable infrastructures for rural development, namely road and electricity to allow young people access to other alternatives of survival; to enable them to establish sustainable socio-economic conditions for themselves and their communities; help them exchange gun with another valuable and non-harmful tool.
Report in Photos
Returned families in a destroyed village. Cooking and schooling being done in the open in Rudabagiza
Hosted family from Rwitsankuku to Lunundu and returned families in Rutigita and Ruhemba
Meeting of hope and reconciliation at Ilundu, together with UEMI students
UEMI projects in clean water in Minembwe