III. Background

Congolese who speak Kinyarwanda (Rwandophones) represent less than five percent of the population of Congo and live largely in the two eastern provinces of North and South Kivu. Congolese Tutsi are a small part of the larger group of Rwandophones, numbering several hundred thousand and constituting between one and two percent of the total Congolese population of some 60 million.1 In South Kivu, Tutsi are known locally as Banyamulenge, but this term does not apply to Tutsi living in North Kivu. The rapid rise of Tutsi to national political prominence in the 1990s followed by a sharp decline in their power, as well as the anti-Tutsi hostilities accompanying the process, form the essential context of the current political and military crisis in eastern Congo.

Rise of Tutsi Influence

Despite their small numbers and limited geographical base, Congolese Tutsi have played an extraordinarily significant role in Congolese political life in the past 15 years, in part because of their cooperation with the neighboring state of Rwanda. Backed by Rwandan—and for a time also by Ugandan—military might, Congolese Tutsi provided substantial support for the rebellion that ousted the long-entrenched dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. Following a second war (1998-2003) the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD, superseded by a splinter group later known as RCD-Goma), a party identified with Congolese Tutsi, secured one of four vice-presidencies in a government headed by President Joseph Kabila. Kabila himself was once part of the Rwandan-supported forces that overthrew Mobutu, as was his father Laurent Kabila, who preceded him as president (Kabila Sr. was assassinated in 2001).


The post-2002 national army, and Tutsi opposition to “brassage

The Global and All Inclusive Accords of 2002 established the objective of an integrated national army, meant to include all the previously hostile forces that had been loyal to the different Congolese political contenders. The transitional government was to accomplish this task before holding national elections, but it was far from having finished the process when the 2006 elections took place.

The integration process (called brassage) required soldiers to be trained for 45 days and then to be deployed in a region other than that in which they had previously fought. At the time of processing, soldiers could also choose to be demobilized and return to civilian life.

In 2004 Laurent Nkunda, a Rwandan-trained Congolese Tutsi who was in command of the RCD’s 81st and 83rd brigades based north of Goma in Masisi, was named a general in the new national army, with orders to report to Kinshasa for brassage. He refused, as did many of the men under his command. As Nkunda himself explained to Human Rights Watch researchers in August 2006, most Rwandaphone soldiers feared the integration process. He said, “We have no confidence in the army. Most people of Rwandan origin who go to brassage choose demobilization rather than face death in the army.”2

Tutsi are well represented in command positions in the national army. Ordinary Tutsi soldiers have, nonetheless, been attacked on occasion by soldiers of other ethnic groups. In an incident in Kindu in 2004, the 51st battalion (8th brigade) was disbanded after its officers, who were Tutsi, were told by their superiors that they were not Congolese. According to the former commander, soldiers who joined other units were beaten, imprisoned, and tortured, and four were killed.3 In a more recent incident at a training camp in Bas-Congo province in February 2006, a soldier of Banyamulenge origin was blamed for the death of a fellow combatant of another group, and he and other Banyamulenge soldiers were attacked and several injured.4

By 2004 RCD-Goma was losing strength, even in its original stronghold of the Kivus. Dissatisfied with the erosion of their party’s strength and reluctant to join the integrated national army where, they said, their security would not be assured, troops loyal to RCD-Goma mutinied in Bukavu, South Kivu, in May 2004. In ensuing military operations, national army troops killed more than a dozen Banyamulenge civilians. Laurent Nkunda, a renegade since his refusal to join brassage, led troops he commanded in North Kivu south and took and briefly held Bukavu. Nkunda claimed that the operation was “to protect his people,” but his troops and those of his collaborator Jules Mutebutsi also killed civilians and committed widespread sexual violence.5 After the mutiny was put down, the Congolese government issued, but did not execute, a warrant for Nkunda’s arrest on charges of war crimes, and he retreated to Masisi in North Kivu, where the RCD-Goma still had some popularity.6

The 2006 elections

The increase in the political prominence of Congolese Tutsi sparked negative reactions from other Congolese, particularly those who suffered from abuses and exploitation by Rwandan troops during the wars of 1996-97 and 1998-2003. Political leaders of other ethnic groups, eager to profit from anger against and fear of Tutsi, stepped up anti-Tutsi rhetoric during the 2006 electoral campaign. In May 2006, for example, Abdoulaye Yerodia, one of Congo’s four vice-presidents and a supporter of presidential candidate Joseph Kabila, verbally attacked Congolese Tutsi at a rally in Goma:

These people, we will tell them to leave our territory. You who stay here, you must go back to where you came from. If you don’t want to go back from where you came from, we will put sticks into your backsides to make sure you go back.7

As arrangements were being made for the elections, many Tutsi in North and South Kivu expected the national government to recognize the territorial status of Minembwe, an administrative division established in South Kivu by RCD authorities when they controlled the region. Banyamulenge represented the majority population of Minembwe and recognition of Minembwe as a territory would have virtually guaranteed them local administrative control and representation in the provincial and national assemblies. Shortly before the elections, however, the national government refused to recognize Minembwe as a territory. Some Banyamulenge and other Congolese Tutsi saw the decision as an effort to limit their participation in national political life.

The 2006 election confirmed the political eclipse of RCD-Goma. From having been one of the four political forces governing the country during the transition period, it fell to having virtually no political significance at the national level. Alarmed by the precipitate decline in political strength of RCD-Goma and the anti-Tutsi rhetoric of the electoral period, and highly aware of previous violence against Tutsi in Congo, Burundi, and, of course, in Rwanda, many Congolese Tutsi expressed fears of possible future abuse by other Congolese groups.

An early August 2007 riot in Moba, a large town in Katanga province, seemed to confirm such fears. Hundreds of Moba residents rioted and attacked UN staff following the dissemination of false rumors about a UN-assisted return of Tutsi refugees to the area.8 The suddenness and violence of the demonstration suggested a conscious effort to whip up anti-Tutsi feeling, and MONUC denounced the deliberate incitement to ethnic hatred in public meetings and in the media.9

Laurent Nkunda Gains Power

Laurent Nkunda, who kept a low profile during the elections, played an increasingly public role in the months after, presenting himself as spokesman for and protector of Congolese Tutsi. With some Tutsi leaders—particularly those resident in North Kivu—highly aware that their political clout had shrunk following the 2006 elections, some of them also insisted that Nkunda’s troops constituted their last bulwark of protection and must not leave the Kivus.10 One important Tutsi businessman in Goma told a Human Rights Watch researcher that without adequate political representation, the Tutsi of Congo were facing “a time-bomb.”11 Another businessman summed up the importance of Nkunda by saying, “The presence of Laurent Nkunda reassures the Rwandophones. If Nkunda were not there, few Rwandophones would stay.... We are not asking for much, just survival.”12 In fact, important Tutsi businessmen looked to Nkunda not just for their “survival” but also for protection of their property. During the period of RCD control of North Kivu, some Tutsi were able to obtain extensive land holdings in regions outside Goma (see Chapter VIII, below). They supposed that Nkunda would provide assurance that they would retain these holdings.

Nkunda’s self-designated mandate extends also to Congolese—many of them Tutsi—who had fled earlier periods of ethnic violence and are living in refugee camps in Rwanda. Nkunda insists on the immediate return of refugees who, he says, are dying massively from harsh conditions in the camps. The refugees, numbering approximately 45,000, live under the supervision of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and must endure the privations usual in refugee camps, but do not appear to be suffering from exceptionally high mortality or to be at risk of “genocide of hunger” as Nkunda has claimed.13


When the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi-dominated Rwandan rebel group based in Uganda, defeated the Rwandan government responsible for genocide in 1994, more than a million Rwandans fled to Congo (then Zaire). Among them were members of the Interahamwe militia and Rwandan army soldiers who had committed genocide. Thousands of these militia and soldiers settled among civilians in refugee camps near the Rwandan border where they regrouped and rearmed to resume the war against the new government of Rwanda, led by the RPF. In 1996 Rwanda sent its troops across the border into Congo to forestall any possible attack.

Rwandan soldiers, together with their Congolese Tutsi allies, attacked the camps, killing untold numbers of civilians as well as armed combatants. Hundreds of thousands of survivors returned to Rwanda, many against their will, and hundreds of thousands of others fled into the forest where many would finally be killed by Rwandan and Congolese Tutsi troops or would die from lack of food, water, and medical attention.

In the decade since the attacks on the camps, Rwandan combatants have tried several times to reorganize their forces in eastern Congo. The FDLR, the result of the most recent such effort, comprises groups of combatants scattered in North and South Kivu. Although sometimes called Interahamwe from the name of the 1994 genocidal militia, most FDLR combatants played no role in the genocide. Some are Rwandans too young to have been active in 1994; others are Congolese who joined the combatant groups for the immediate profit to be obtained from military activity. Some FDLR live in relatively harmonious relations with the Congolese communities around them, while others engage in ruthless exploitation and predatory attacks. Such relationships depend on the relative strength of the FDLR groups and of the local authorities, and are also subject to rapid change depending on military or political conditions.14

In the last decade Congolese national governments showed general tolerance for the several Rwandan rebel organizations in eastern Congo. In 1998 Congolese national army soldiers joined forces with these Rwandan rebels, drawing on the latter’s superior training and discipline to try to repulse soldiers of the Ugandan, Rwandan, and Burundian government armies.  Since the Global and All Inclusive Accords ending the 1998-2003 war, the Congolese government has been nominally committed to disbanding Rwandan rebel groups and facilitating their return to Rwanda. Despite this engagement there have been frequent reports of continued Congolese government assistance to the FDLR in the form of weapons, military support, and collaboration.  In late 2006, Congolese forces requested and received the assistance of FDLR troops in their battles against Nkunda’s forces near Tongo in Rutshuru.15  In an interview with Human Rights Watch researchers, one FDLR combatant who fought there and later fled, estimated that about 80 FDLR combatants supported the Congolese army attacks.16   In early 2007 representatives of the national government renewed assurances that the Congolese army would help eliminate FDLR groups, but as ethnic tensions rose Congolese army soldiers once again refrained from attack on the FDLR.  In August the Congolese government was again accused by Rwandan military officers of providing arms to the FDLR17 and on October 2 the BBC reported that one of its journalists had found evidence of continued military cooperation between the Congolese army and the FDLR. 18In early 2007 representatives of the national government renewed assurances that the Congolese army would help eliminate FDLR groups, but as ethnic tensions rose Congolese army soldiers once again refrained from attack on the FDLR. 

1 Some Rwandophones are descended from lineages resident in Congo for several centuries; others arrived as recently as the 1990s. In the past their rights to citizenship and to stand for office have been disputed, but at present these rights have been assured by a recent Congolese law on citizenship.

2 Human Rights Watch interview with Laurent Nkunda, Kirolirwe, August 26, 2006.

3 Human Rights Watch interview with former commander in the national army (name withheld), Kingi, August 28, 2006.

4 “‘Rutshuru-Kitona’, sanctions against troublemakers” (“‘Rutshuru-Kitona’ – des sanctions contre des agiteurs”), Le Potentiel,  Kinshasa, February 11, 2006, (accessed August 16, 2007).

5 Human Rights Watch, D. R. Congo – War Crimes in Bukavu, June 2004,

6 Another Rwandan-trained officer and the original leader of the mutiny, Jules Mutebutsi, fled to Rwanda with scores of his soldiers. The Congolese government issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of war crimes that also has never been executed.

7 Campaign speech, Yerodia Ndombasi Abdoulaye, Goma, May 18, 2006. Yerodia used similar language in 1998 just before incidents in which hundreds of Congolese Tutsi were killed. Belgium issued an arrest warrant against him for inciting violence, acting under its Universal Jurisdiction Law, but the International Court of Justice voided the action.

8 “Calm returns after anti-Banyamulenge demo – UN,” IRINnews, August 2, 2007, (accessed August 2, 2007); “UN Flee Ethnic Riots in DR Congo,” BBC News Online, August 1, 2007, (accessed August 2, 2007).

9 “‘Hate speech’ threatens to unleash ethnic violence in DR Congo – UN,” UN News, August 3, 2007, (accessed August 15, 2007).

10 Human Rights Watch interviews with a businessman (name withheld), Goma, August 26, 2006, and a MONUC official (name withheld), Goma, February 21, 2007.

11 Human Rights Watch interview with a businessman (name withheld), Goma, August 25, 2006.

12 Human Rights Watch interview, Goma, August 25, 2006.

13 Human Rights Watch interviews with Laurent Nkunda, Kirolirwe, August 26, 2006, and with UNHCR official, Kigali, Rwanda, February 12, 2007.

14 Hans Romkema has prepared the most recent and most detailed study of the FDLR and other foreign combatant groups in eastern Congo. See Hans Romkema, “Opportunities and Constraints for the Disarmament & Repatriation of Foreign Armed Groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, The Cases of the FDLR, FNL, and ADF/NALU,” report commissioned by the secretariat of the Multi-Country Demobilisation and Reintegration Programme, June 2007.

15 Human Rights Watch interviews, MONUC official, Goma, May 12; Laurent Nkunda, July 31, 2007; and FDLR combatant, Rumangabo military camp, Rutshuru, May 14,  2007.

16 Human Rights Watch interview, FDLR combatant, Rumangabo military camp, Rutshuru, May 14,  2007.

17 Human Rights Watch interviews with Gen. James Kabarebe, Rwandan Defense Force chief of staff, Kigali, Rwanda July 27, 2007; Joseph Nzambamwita, director general, External Security, Office of the President, Kigali, July 26, 2007; and a Rwandan military officer  who requested anonymity, Kigali, July 26, 2007.

18 BBC, “DR Congo Hutu front 'helps' army,” October 2, 2007,