Skip to main content

Congo Violence: Déjà Vu All Over Again?



A force of armed combatants massacred at least 152 Congolese civilians and wounded another 106 at Gatumba refugee camp. The victims were largely Banyamulenge, a group often categorized with Tutsi. At the intersection of two faltering peace processes, the attack underlined the continuing political conflicts. Most victims were women and children. Loosely called “Interahamwe,” some of these Rwandan combatants may have participated in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda as members of the Interahamwe militia (FDLR) or of the Rwandan Armed Forces (Forces Armees Rwandaises, FAR) before fleeing to Congo.

Sound familiar? Most readers will be surprised that this (truncated) account, prepared by Human Rights Watch, is almost five years old and represents an incident that took place in Burundi in August 2004. The perpetrators have never been brought to justice, but some of the same players have continued to wreak havoc and hell in the DRC today.

The HRW report is somewhat at odds with the “official” United Nations version and condemnation of the politics behind what happened at Gatumba. There is argument in the historical record as to whether the attack was motivated solely by ethnic hatred or was part of a more complicated regional conflict. What is known for certain is that the group principally responsible, the Burundian Forces for National Liberation (FNL) was a Hutu extremest group led by Agathon Rwasa. Getty images has a current photo of Rwasa getting a medical checkup in April 2009. Alive and well, he has yet to be brought to justice and operates with impunity in neighboring Burundi. In 2007, Rwasa demanded $12 million to stop killing people. This was widely reported in the world press.

There is also no doubt that members of the FDLR were involved. The FDLR is under condemnation for its actions in DRC today and, like Rwasa who operates a short distance across the border, functions with no recourse for its victims and in alleged collusion with the current Congolese government under Joseph Kabila.

The incident at Gatumba is also noteworthy because it was the impetus behind Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda’s break in 2004 with the government of Kinshasa and his declared rationale for defending ethnic Tutsi’s (Banyamulenge) until his detention by Rwandan authorities in January 2009. Rwanda’s betrayal of its former ally marked the beginning of what has now become a faltering peace process in which the integrated “peacekeeping” forces are led by an internationally wanted war criminal, Bosco Ntanganga, whom HRW claims is responsible for the 2008 massacre of civilians at the village of Kiwanja in DRC.

What has not been reported consistently is the continuing fear, shared by the innocent, that the bloodshed, raping, killing, kidnappings and displacement of 1.2 million plus another 350,000 since January will continue. It is not an idle fear and all signs point to the fact that the Congolese “are facing the end,” in the words of one government source. Congo can hardly be called a country under these conditions.

This historical déjà vu is no imaginary psychic phenomenon.



One look at the photos of Gatumba presented here is, hopefully, enough to make readers understand what it is like to be an innocent civilian in DRC. Atrocities happen on a daily basis and there seems to be no end in sight. Imagine knowing that the man responsible for these photos is a political operative in neighboring Burundi and that he has the audacity to demand millions of dollars to stop slaughtering innocents.

One must ask whether it is fair to present these photos, or whether they represent an attempt at sensationalism. This crime has not been punished. The victims’ families live with this fact on a daily basis. Documentation of this humanitarian disaster, a disaster perpetrated by men and not by nature, screams to experience the light of truth. Current photos of atrocities are sanitized for public consumption. Perhaps if the public is assaulted with reality, there will be a collective cry for it all to stop.

The “news cycles” in the beleaguered and war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo wax and wane depending upon the attention span of news organizations and readers, and are augmented by a scramble for audience shares and ad revenue. This is reality in the world of internet and cable news and puts the onus squarely on the backs of readers to educate themselves about humanitarian disasters and political history in distant regions of the world. The moral duty falls upon the reader when journalists no longer shoulder that burden.

This “attention deficit” tendency is not peculiar to Congo, but is symptomatic of coverage of world-wide disasters, and one can certainly make the case that the loss of six million lives in DRC qualifies as a disaster For example, Hurricane Katrina claimed less than 2,000 lives and received non-stop coverage for weeks in American media. In contrast, when Bam, Iran, lost 60,000 to an earthquake in 2003, US media barely covered the story. Is it the remote location of these stories, or is something else at play here? Is it simply lack of funding for news bureaus in remote areas of the world, or is the lack of funding due to America’s narcissistic fascination with a celebrity culture that garners most of the attention and funding in news sources?

The Woodrow Wilson Center whitepaper on media cycles has a great quote about the necessity of fresh public relations in the news.

It is important to understand the nature of the news cycle. Its wavelength in this age of real-time reporting from conflicts becomes ever shorter. The consequence is that the media’s attention span is diminishing proportionately.

The news cycle has a voracious appetite for new information. It shows no mercy. It is uncharitable and ungenerous. Data and video are updated and replaced rapidly. Information becomes stale more rapidly than ever, unless freshened up regularly. The absence of new details, material, or angles means an issue drops swiftly out of the news cycle, replaced by something fresher.

What happened in 2004 in Burundi is happening on an almost daily basis in DRC. Here is a synopsis of a series of news briefs from DRC from the week of May 10-15. Do we need to “refresh” the Gatumba tragedy to ramp up recent atrocities?

United Nations graphic showing location of Gatumba in border region

United Nations graphic showing location of Gatumba in border region

The week in news from DRC began with a press release from Human Rights Watch calling on the United Nations Security Council to focus on the protection of civilians, justice, and human rights during its upcoming visit to Africa, from May 14-21, 2009.

“Millions have suffered the disastrous effects of armed conflict in each of these African countries,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Security Council should urgently address serious human rights abuses with national leaders and the African Union.”

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, killings, rape, abduction, and displacement persist, and the humanitarian and human rights situation in eastern Congo remains dire. Human Rights Watch urged the Security Council to ensure that the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUC) has the troops and resources it needs to protect civilians. It also called on the council to provide urgently needed helicopters, as well as rapid-reaction, logistical, and intelligence support. Human Rights Watch has pressed both the peacekeeping mission and the Security Council to develop and put in place a more detailed and transparent strategy for protecting civilians.

There is no doubt for anyone who has followed events in DRC that HRW has worked relentlessly for justice and relief from human rights abuses against civilians. HRW has also taken an unpopular stance with both the United Nations Mission (MONUC) and the government of Joseph Kabila with its call for the arrest of Bosco Ntaganda for war crimes.

Bringing to justice those responsible for serious human rights abuses is also essential for the current and future protection of the Congolese people, Human Rights Watch said. The council should ensure that known human rights abusers such as Bosco Ntaganda, who has been given a leadership role in the Congolese army despite an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC), are immediately removed from military duties, and it should condition future MONUC operational support on their arrest.

“MONUC and the Security Council are shamefully turning a blind eye to Ntaganda’s ongoing military role,” added Gagnon. “What kind of signal does it send to military commanders when they see an alleged war criminal getting a free pass?”

Rebel Territory DRC in 2009 Credit G. Nienaber

Rebel Territory DRC in 2009 Credit G. Nienaber

HRW has not shied away from criticizing the seemingly Teflon-proofed government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and called openly for him to acknowledge that the now ruling party of Rwanda is responsible for war crimes. These crimes date back to 1994 and the liberation of the capitol city of Kigali during the last days of the Rwandan genocide, when up to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were exterminated.

In Rwanda, the Security Council should urge that all defendants in cases from the 1994 genocide be tried expeditiously in a jurisdiction that respects basic fair-trial rights. Human Rights Watch also called on the council to encourage President Paul Kagame to acknowledge that the Rwanda Patriotic Front, now the governing party, committed war crimes in 1994 and urge him to allow the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to do its work unimpeded.

Within days of this HRW press release, humanitarian aid organizations OXFAM and the International Rescue Committee issued press releases which documented what HRW had been saying for months. The “joint-peacekeeping” operation between Rwanda and Congolese government soldiers (FARDC), led by war criminal Bosco Ntaganda, was a dismal failure and had produced a humanitarian crisis of another 250,000 displaced since January 2009.

The U.N. mission in Congo (MONUC) is providing logistical and military support for the army’s efforts to combat a rebel resurgence in North Kivu. It’s also backing the military as it prepares to extend operations into neighbouring South Kivu. “A joint military offensive by United Nations peacekeeping forces and the Congolese army is causing untold death and suffering” among civilians, international aid agency Oxfam said on Wednesday.”

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

OXFAM also warned that another 100,000 were in the process of leaving their communities because of fear of reprisals from the Rwandan FDLR remnants of the genocidaires. This is the same group that participated, along with Agathon Rwasa, in the slaughter at Gatumba.

This is real, it is immediate and the situation is largely ignored. An IRC aid worker, Stefan Lehmeier, this account last week:

According to accounts my team is hearing from civilians who have managed to escape from the bush, hundreds of houses have been burnt by rebels over the last three weeks to punish communities for “supporting” the army.

The reality of course is that these communities have no choice in the matter.

They certainly don’t invite the army to cross through their territory to pursue rebels and they are powerless to stop it. In the process, many of the villagers have been forcibly evicted from their homes, raped, or forced to serve as human mules. Now they desperately need help. But sadly, they are out of sight and out of reach.

Coverage in the United States was slim to none.

Recent village burning DRC Credit HRW

Recent village burning DRC Credit HRW

Anneke van Woudenberg , Senior Africa Specialist at HRW, in a phone conversation, told us of the latest attack on civilians in a remote village and spoke of a “culture of impunity.” Van Woudenberg apologetically used public relations imagery in our conversation.

Lubero is a hot area, if I can call it that, and there are a range of human rights abuses committed by the FDLR, the FARDC and the Mai Mai which are nominally under the Congolese army but who operate independently. We have criticized all sides and demanded protection for all civilians regardless of their ethnicity. The FDLR have been deliberately attacking civilian, especially near Lubero, Walikale and Masisi. We have not had specific attacks against Tutsi; all ethnic groups are being targeted.

In the attack there are 60-90 dead, it appears by the FDLR, but is not clear. Reports are trickling in, since it is a remote area. This is largest number in one single incident in Busurugngi.

She also responded to local, unsubstantiated complaints that a “Colonel Yav” of the FARDC has committed atrocities in the Lubero area. “The last I heard Yav was in Masisi. It might not be the same Colonel Yav.” However Van Woudenberg did confirm that a “Yav” was a colonel in the Congolese Army, even though she had not received the following local report that has not yet surfaced in any “news” sources.

From CNDP sources: On Wednesday 29 April, early morning, this Senior Officer of the government army (Yav) whose repeated barbaric acts against civilian population has made famous, unleashed against the inhabitants of Bunagana his anger accumulated during the months of inactivity. Inhabitants of this part of Rutshuru territory in North Kivu have experienced a real ordeal. The military operation was essentially a punitive expedition that aligned a battalion of FARDC led by the Colonel himself! On the menu: rape of women, beatings, verbal abuse, arbitrary arrests, looting of properties (pets, household appliances, mobile phones, bedding, cooking utensils, money, generators, etc..) Those poor people experienced an unprecedented nightmare that early morning.

If we had a budget, we could check this out, although it most likely pales in comparison to other atrocities. Yes, budgets and time require that atrocities be ranked in terms of the news cycle. Independent journalists most often work on their own dime, and it isn’t cheap to fly to Congo.

But, wait. There are still more atrocities to report that are vetted this week.

From the UN:
According to a news release issued by MONUC, in an unrelated incident, rebels raided the north-eastern village of Butolonga on the night of 8 May, firing guns and burning houses. Around 131 houses were burned, and two Congolese soldiers were killed.

UN peacekeepers dispatched to the scene found the village empty as residents had fled into a nearby bush. They are only now returning to their homes, the Mission noted.

The ethnic Hutu rebel FDLR have recently been carrying out retaliatory attacks against civilians after being targeted by a joint Congolese and Rwandan military offensive. The group has been operating in eastern DRC since the 1994 genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says an estimated 100,000 people in the eastern province of South Kivu have been displaced by fear of armed groups since the beginning of the year.

The FDLR and other Rwandan militias have also been a key factor in the resurgence of violence in North Kivu province, where another 100,000 civilians have been uprooted by fighting in the past two months, in addition to the many hundreds of thousands previously displaced.

The BBC has reported that the FDLR has drawn up a “hit list” of Congolese who aided the peacekeeping mission. Lubero is high on the list and FDLR forces are in command of a number of mining operations in this region.

These, except for the report about Yav, are all “official” news sources. Plenty of grist for the mill, but does it pass the sensationalism test?

There are the pleas we receive from Congolese Tutsi sources that fit the context of present day massacres. These sources are at odds with HRW, saying that the organization has not come out in defense of Nkunda and has instead blamed him, a Tutsi, for crimes when the true culpability lies elsewhere.

As you can see the world could not see the threat against Congolese Tutsi in south and north Kivu. Even when they perpetrated the Gatumba massacres, the international community continued blaming the ‘‘victims’’ instead of looking for the perpetrators. The repression of hatred crimes is a need for every victim, all persons and organizations wishing to justice even if it has often proved unrealistic. The Congolese government did not launch any investigation, can we see in this silence culpability? All the states’ institutions including judges and NGO’s are under pressure and intimidation to ask for the condemnation of General Nkunda for some thing that he did not do while the perpetrators of the Gatumba massacre are ruling in Kinshasa and Burundi. Is that justice?

It is in this context that the Gatumba massacres committed mainly against the civilian population of Banyamulenge remain unpunished today. Similarly, several decades of impunity in Rwanda have convinced leaders than any crime, even the most heinous of heinous, would be tolerated. What is next for the Congolese Tutsi ?

As for Anneke Van Woudenberg’s report about the attacks a few days ago near Walikale, MONUC has begun yet another investigation and condemns the attack in Busurungi as it dispatches a “joint protection team.” This must feel a little late for the families of the murdered civilians MONUC is mandated to protect.


More than the memory of Gatumba haunts DRC. What the Congolese need is a good PR agent who can milk past and present day atrocities and get some front page coverage.

For more background read this HRW report.

Georgianne Nienaber

Georgianne Nienaber is an investigative and political writer. She lives in rural northern Minnesota, New Orleans and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill Magazine, The Ugandan Independent, Rwanda's New Times, India's TerraGreen, COA News, ZNET, OpEdNews, Glide Magazine, The Journal of the International Primate Protection League, Africa Front, The United Nations Publication, A Civil Society Observer, Bitch Magazine, and Zimbabwe's The Daily Mirror.