Background Briefing

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

The Context

Inside Burundi

Following nearly ten years of civil war with several rebel movements, the Burundian government had reached agreements with all but one by the start of 2004. The government and the Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Forces pour la défense de la démocratie, FDD), formerly its most powerful challenger, have supposedly been  demobilizing their forces and creating a new integrated army since early in the year. But neither the government army nor the FDD has moved its troops into designated sites and their forces remain deployed throughout the country in an informal de facto collaboration against the FNL, the main rebel movement to remain outside the peace process.2  The political wing of the FDD, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie, CNDD)3 entered government, but the uneasy coalition of parties meant to guide Burundi through a transition set to end October 31, 2004, has failed to adopt the necessary legislative measures, including a constitution and electoral law. Faced with this lack of progress on the military and political fronts, various international actors initiated a series of talks but progress continues to be slow.4 In late June and July, a number of predominantly Tutsi parties demanded revision of a previously arranged division of power on an ethnic basis. In early August eleven of them were still unable to agree on this issue with the predominantly Hutu parties.5

In mid-July 2004 Special Representative of the Secretary-General Carolyn McAskie sought to broker negotiations between the government and the FNL. She also helped work out an agreement between the FNL and the FDD, locked in an increasingly bitter conflict over control of the contested province of Bujumbura rural.6 But that agreement soon collapsed in the face of continued combat.

Since 2003 the FNL had been steadily losing political strength to the FDD, which had been profiting from its inclusion in the government. Since June the FNL had also been under increasing diplomatic pressure after the regional heads of state imposed a travel ban on FNL leaders and threatened to ask the African Union for sanctions if the movement did not accept negotiations within three months. Militarily, too, FNL forces suffered increasingly severe attacks by Burundian army and FDD combatants in late July and early August, apparently reflecting growing determination by some military leaders to defeat the FNL militarily.7 In these attacks there were a number of civilian casualties and some 30,000 civilians forced to flee their homes. An attack on a major FNL base in the Rukoko forest in the days just before the Gatumba massacre reportedly killed several FNL officers. 

Despite all these setbacks, FNL forces showed new strength towards the end of July. They launched attacks in former strongholds like Kabezi, Bujumbura rural province, but also in other areas like Ngozi province. They issued a pamphlet warning people in Bujumbura rural province that they would be punished if they supported the FDD.8  Then at the end of July and in early August, FNL forces reportedly were responsible for two sets of killings near Gatumba. Three persons were killed in each case, supposedly for cooperating either with the FDD or with the government. In one case, the killers supposedly left behind a message explaining that they had killed the victim because he had denounced them to authorities.9  The FNL later told ONUB that it would attack “pro-Government civilians” as long as civilians in Bujumbura rural, its own base of power, continued to suffer from government-led military operations.10

The increase in FNL activity may result at least partly from support by one hundred to two hundred Rwandan rebel combatants who arrived from the Congo in two groups, one in April and another in early July.11  Loosely called “Interahamwe,” some of these Rwandan combatants may have participated in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda as members of the Interahamwe militia or of the Rwandan Armed Forces (Forces Armees Rwandaises, FAR) before fleeing to Congo. Other Rwandans opposed to the current Rwandan government joined their ranks after 1994; although these recruits played no role in the genocide, they are usually labeled “Interahamwe,” a name that inevitably carries association with the genocide. Some Rwandan rebels accept the leadership of a political movement known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Force Democratiques pour la Liberation du Rwanda, FDLR) but others operate autonomously.  It is unclear whether those who have moved to Burundi since April 2004 represent independent groups or those linked to the FDLR.

The movement of Rwandan rebel combatants into Burundi appears to be one facet of growing integration between rebel forces based in Congo and those in Burundi. The FNL, which has for years sporadically operated from bases in Congo, has reportedly shown interest in reinforcing these bases.12

Inside the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Like Burundi, the transitional government in Congo is mired in continuing power rivalries that have stalled the peace process and kept the uneasy coalition of former rebel forces from being an effective national government. Elements of the former rebel movement RCD-Goma have offered some of the greatest resistance to the transitional process.  They sought to retain their influence over North and South Kivu and they encouraged or permitted military officers from within their own ranks to challenge central government control.

Closely affiliated with Rwanda, RCD-Goma has in the past often championed the cause of the Banyamulenge, a Kinyarwanda-speaking people who live largely in the high plateaus of South Kivu. The Banyamulenge association with Rwanda has drawn upon them the hostility of many other Congolese, particularly in the wake of the two wars that Rwanda waged on Congolese soil that cost an estimated three million civilian lives. Even after the Rwandan troops largely withdrew in 2002, other Congolese continued to see the Banyamulenge as more “Rwandan” than “Congolese” in their loyalties.13

As the transitional government sought to assert its control over the Kivus in early 2004, soldiers still loyal to RCD-Goma engaged in skirmishes with other troops of the national army. In an atmosphere of growing tension in late May, national army soldiers participated in ethnically-based attacks against Banyamulenge civilians in Bukavu, the major town of South Kivu.  Two officers associated with RCD-Goma, Brigadier General Laurent Nkunda (a Tutsi from North Kivu) and Colonel Jules Mutebutsi ( one of the Banyamulenge), led  several thousand troops in attacking Bukavu and occupying the town for a week, displacing General Mbuza Mabe, the regional commander of the national army. Nkunda and others charged that the killings of Banyamulenge in Bukavu constituted genocide. During Nkunda’s march toward Bukavu and the subsequent occupation of the town, his troops killed several civilians, raped scores of women and girls, and systematically looted property.14  

Troops of the UN peace-keeping force in the Congo, United Nations Mission in the Congo, (MONUC), helped negotiate the withdrawal of the insurgent forces from Bukavu and escorted Colonel Mutebutsi to the Rwanda border while Nkunda withdrew with his men towards Minova, north of Bukavu.

Thousands of Congolese people from Bukavu, Uvira, and the Rusizi plain, including many associated with RCD-Goma, fled to Rwanda and Burundi to escape the violence. Banyamulenge in particular fled because they feared reprisals might be directed against their ethnic group for the uprising led by Mutebutsi and Nkunda. It was some of these Banyamulenge and several dozen people from other ethnic groups, particularly those from Uvira and its environs, who were sheltered in the Gatumba refugee camp.

With the defeat of the Mutebutsi-Nkunda effort, the effective control of RCD-Goma shrank back to the southern parts of North Kivu15 and military officers and administrators tied to the national government replaced RCD-Goma partisans in positions of authority in South Kivu, except around Minova. The transitional government deployed thousands of troops to the eastern region, saying it feared the possibility of another Rwandan invasion, echoing the concern of local groups and the press who launched increasingly sharp verbal attacks on Banyamulenge and Congolese Tutsi. Those groups responded in turn with charges that other Congolese harbored prejudice and potentially genocidal intentions against them. Rwanda itself also threatened that it would return to the Congo if its own security concerns and those of the Kinyarwanda-speaking populations were not addressed by the national government.

In attempting to solidify its hold on the east, the transitional government sought to win and keep the loyalty of Mai Mai, members of locally based groups of combatants originally organized to protect their communities against the violence that had engulfed eastern Congo since 1996. It has succeeded in integrating some Mai Mai leaders into the government army and administration, but others remain relatively autonomous.16 

In the past the Mai Mai have sometimes fought against, sometimes on the same side as Rwandan rebel groups (“Interahamwe”), depending on the situation.

Asked after the Gatumba massacre about the relationship between Mai Mai and Rwandan rebels, one Mai Mai leader insisted there was no long-term link either between Mai Mai and Rwandan rebel groups or between Mai Mai and FNL but he did not rule out the possibility of occasional participation by some “isolated elements” of Mai Mai in joint operations for immediate benefit.17

[2] See Human Rights Watch, “Suffering in Silence: Civilians in Continuing Combat in Bujumbura Rural, Briefing Paper, June 2004.

[3]In August 2004, the party held a congress and adopted the official name CNDD-FDD-Inama y’Abanyagihugu.

[4] Human Rights Watch, “Burundi: Civilians Pay the Price of a Faltering Peace Process,” February 2003.

[5] United Nations Security Council, “First report of the Secretary-General,” paragraphs 2-6.

[6] Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, 17 and 25 August 2004.

[7] United Nations Security Council, “First report of the Secretary-General,” paragraphs 10-12, 32-33.

[8] Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, August 17, 2004.

[9] Human Rights Watch interview, Gatumba, August 20, 2004.

[10] United Nations Security Council, “First report of the Secretary-General,” paragraph 33.

[11]Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, August 17 and 21, 2004.  A previous alliance between FNL and Rwandan combatants between 1997 and 2000 ended abruptly when the FNL murdered scores of their Rwandan fellow-combatants. Human Rights Watch, “Burundi: Neglecting Justice in Making Peace,” Volume 12, Number2 (A), April 2000.

[12] Leonard Nyangoma, said to be leading a small Burundian rebel movement, reportedly has also sought bases in Congo. Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, August 17, 2004.

[13] Some Banyamulenge RCD-Goma soldiers under Commander Patrick Masunzu  rejected the Rwandan link in 2002 causing a continuing split in the Banyamulenge community.

[14] See Human Rights watch Briefing Paper, DR Congo: War Crimes in Bukavu, June 2004 at

[15] Despite numerous efforts, RCD-Goma has never controlled the “Grand Nord,” the northern part of North Kivu, including Beni and Butembo.

[16] Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura August 17, 2004; by telephone from London, August 20, 2004.

[17] Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, August 17, 2004.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>September 2004