Background Briefing

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“Genocide” and fears of a “Tutsi empire” 

The growing risk of armed conflict feeds and is fed by heightened fear and hatred between ethnic groups, emotions that are both real and at the same time exaggerated and manipulated by political leaders for their own ends. The increasingly frequent invocation of “genocide,” beginning with Nkunda’s use of the term at the time of the Bukavu attack and continuing now in describing the Gatumba massacre is evoking on the other side increasingly frequent reference to the decades-old myth of a Tutsi intention to create a “Tutsi-Hima” empire in central Africa.

Rwanda was not immediately and necessarily involved in the Gatumba tragedy in the sense that it did not involve Rwandan citizens and was not executed on Rwandan soil, yet Rwandan authorities beginning with the president made clear that Rwanda would play a major role in the developing political and ethnic struggles. Given the Rwandan capacity and readiness to participate in conflicts outside its own boundaries, such statements give heart to some seeking further Rwandan involvement in the Congo while conversely inspiring dread among other.

In Rwanda itself questions of ethnic fear and hatred had been revived in April 2004 by the commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the genocide.  The Rwandan parliament had also made political use of these sentiments in labeling political dissent and civil society autonomy as forms of “divisionism” and “genocidal ideology” in reports in May 2003 and June 2004. These measures in themselves and in the pretext adopted of preventing genocide risk promoting resentment and anger that could be directed into ethnic channels, particularly if a new war is fought in the immediate region. 

With the rhetoric spawned by Gatumba massacre still echoing, some groups and persons turned to action.  In the ten days after the Gatumba massacre, two persons were lynched in interior provinces of Burundi after they were rumored to be Tutsi using medical injections to poison Hutu with the intention of reducing their numbers to approximate those of the Tutsi. These accusations recalled talk of a “Simbananiye plan” to gradually equalize the numbers of Hutu and Tutsi, an accusation made against Tutsi since Tutsi soldiers slaughtered massive numbers of Hutu in 1972. In Congo  RCD-Goma members from other groups refused to follow the lead of  Kinyarwanda-speaking leaders—mostly Banyamulenge and Tutsi—when they announced withdrawal from the government, suggesting the party itself has divisions along ethnic lines. Meanwhile two persons from South Kivu—a place now presumed to be hostile to RCD-Goma were killed on the road outside Goma. Although robbery appeared to be the primary motive, others from South Kivu quickly interpreted the incident in regional and ethnic terms. The story spread that the killers had said the murders were reprisals for the Gatumba killings.  Persons opposed to the presence of people from South Kivu in Goma circulated pamphlets against them and in at least one case paraded through a part of Goma largely occupied by people from South Kivu chanting threats against them.

These fears and hatreds extend to personnel of the UN as well. Following the Bukavu attack in early June, Congolese elsewhere attacked UN staff and installations because MONUC was accused of having favored the Banyamulenge. Once it became known that Secretary-General Annan mentioned the apparent implication of Mai Mai and Rwandan rebels as well as FNL in the Gatumba massacre, people in Uvira again demonstrated their hostility against the UN, seen to be again favoring the “Tutsi” version of events. 

Invoking “genocide” elicits an almost automatic reaction from people inside and outside the region who bear the burden of guilt for their failure to halt the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. For some survivors and Burundian authorities, the “genocidal” nature of the Gatumba massacre demonstrated that Rwandan rebel “Interahamwe” had to have been in charge of the killing at the refugee camp. Asked for more details, they talked of the brutal and intimate nature of the killing by machete and yet the vast majority of victims at Gatumba were killed or injured by gunfire delivered at a distance, sometimes from outside the tent, or by grenades also thrown from a distance. Journalists too seized on the massacre to revive once again the images of genocide, unquestioningly accepting information from the field that reinforced the clichés stored in their own minds.

Those who are themselves inclined to respond quickly and positively to invocations of genocide may not be sufficiently aware that Tutsi fears of genocide are increasingly mirrored by Hutu fears of measures that may be taken on the pretext of preventing genocide. The responsibility to remain always vigilant of the danger of genocide carries the simultaneous responsibility to remain firmly rooted in the facts; overuse of the term itself stimulates further fear and raises the likelihood of violence. The killings at Gatumba, like some of those at Bukavu, were clearly done on an ethnic basis. Recognizing that raises concern that further killing will follow directed at one ethnic group or another. In this context, it is less important to arrive at a legalistic determination of the nature of the crime than it is to identify its perpetrators and to punish them.

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