Putting the Kamanyola killings into perspective

(screenshot of Kamanyola area, Google Maps with amendments)

On 15 September 2017 in the afternoon, the Congolese border town Kamanyola witnessed the deadliest killing spree that has occured in South Kivu’s Ruzizi Plains since 2014’s Mutarule carnage. At least 36 Burundian refugees and two Congolese (a soldier and a policeman) were killed in what seemed a spontaneous outbreak of violence, just a few hundred meters away from a nearby UN base. Almost two weeks later much remains unclear. So, what do we know about the incident?

Since Pierre Nkurunziza’s successful attempt to run for a third term, a concomitant coup attempt by a small cohort of leading army officers and a spat of clashes pitting Burundian security forces against armed and unarmed opposition, tens of thousands of Burundians have fled to the neighbouring DRC alone. The Lusenda refugee camp, located at the shores of Lake Tanganyika between the cities of Uvira and Baraka, hosts over 30,000 of them. Many more have crossed into DRC in the past two years, often not registered by the Congolese national refugee commission (CNR) and/or not living in CNR/UNHCR-run camps like Lusenda.

At the same time, the arrival of Burundian refugees from mid-2015, Uvira and Fizi territories witnessed a new wave of Burundian armed mobilization setting up rear-bases in eastern DRC. In a first step, an organization called RED-Tabara – close to opposition politician Alexis Sinduhije – tried to get a foothold in the Ruzizi Plains and the Moyen Plateaux. Following a damning UN report in mid-2016, however, it became difficult for RED-Tabara to maintain its levels of outside support and the group weakened after various clashes with local Congolese militias. From then it was another armed branch of opposition that became more important – the FOREBU, now known as FPB. As opposed to Tabara, the FOREBU existed from the early stages of the public contestation around Nkurunziza’s third-term bid, but it did not seek to establish any foreign rear-bases as quickly as Tabara. First led by putschist general Godefroid Niyombare, it later split and developed a DRC-based branch under the leadership of other Burundian army defectors. Like the FNL since many years, both of these more recent Burundian groups are reported to have entertained short-lived alliances with local Congolese armed groups in Uvira and Fizi territories.

The existence of armed Burundian opposition on DRC soil appears to have pushed Burundian security services to intensify incursions into DRC territory and cross-border collaboration with the Congolese army (FARDC), and potentially to have engaged in weapon supply for Congolese armed groups suspected to be hostile to Bujumbura’s foes. While cross-border collaboration usually works orderly, it has in at least one case led to fighting between the two national armies when, in late December 2016, Burundian soldiers opened fire on the FARDC which they might have believed were FNL-Nzabampema or other Burundian rebels.  Overall, though, the nature of the Burundo-Congolese collaboration and a concomitant climate of suspicion, with many Burundians detained for insurrectional activities on DRC soil, have led to a situation where both refugees, combatants, and cross-border traders and day labourers are considered potentials rebels. Accounts of forcibly repatriated Burundians, alongside instances of mistreatment, have made the news within Burundian refugee communities and amplified pre-existing fears.

What does this have to do with Kamanyola? A bustling border town and historic lieu (in 1964, the Zairian army landed a key victory against the Mulelist insurgency here), Kamanyola is a place of tension and friction but also, by its mere geography, of encounter and economic exchange. Since late 2015, followers of a religious splinter group led by ‘Euzebia’ or ‘Yezebia’ had arrived in several waves, with latecomers joining earlier arrivals. Most of the roughly 2000-3000 refused being registered and claimed they had fled Burundi for having been associated to opposition party FRODEBU (the party of murdered president Melchior Ndadaye, whose current leadership mostly lives in exile as well) and that any CNR registration would lead to cantonment in Lusenda or elsewhere and subsequent exposure to hidden reprisals by the Burundian army or imbonerakure squads.

Lately, they began to run their own evening and night patrols – further increasing the suspicion of Congolese authorities (who just in March 2017 had detained two dozen alleged militia conspirers hiding in a house) in Kamanyola. On 12 or 13 September – accounts vary on this question – four Burundians were detained by police and brought to the Congolese intelligence (ANR) for performing such nightly patrols wearing clubs (no guns though). In a video that filmed their interrogation all of them said they had arrived from Burundi within the last 5-6 months. Fearing these four would be forcefully repatriated, fellow Burundians went to demonstrate on 15 September and, from around 11am, gathered in Rubumba borough, close to the ANR’s office. According to the South Kivu civil society, local authorities had decided to send them to UNHCR in Uvira – which many Burundians believe leads to forceful repatriation. Eyewitnesses reported that the situation escalated from around 1530, when demonstrators became impatient and began throwing stones while demanding the release of the fellow Burundians.

The modest number of Congolese policemen and soldiers was unable to perform efficient crowd control; eventually demonstrators managed to overwhelm one soldier (some witnesses say a policeman), steal his weapon and shoot. At this point – around 1600 – Congolese security forces riposted with live fire – certain eyewitnesses spoke of a sub-machine gun – into the crowds and were subsequently reinforced by additional FARDC troops. At least 36 Burundians, one FARDC and one PNC element were reported dead after the clash. Immediately after the carnage, the rumour mill was boasting with an alleged dispatch of imbonerakure – the Burundian ruling party CNDD-FDD’s youth wing – that had received FARDC uniforms, but those were never substantiated. Additional sources in turn reported cross-border movements of Burundian soldiers near Uvira, even though these information remained speculative.

The nearby MONUSCO base – situated between 300 and 400 metres away from the carnage – reacted only after 1700, with the UN communiqués later stating the shooting had not begun long before that time (a claim contradicted by all other sources). However, not all of the victims seem to have been killed in the shooting: Even before 15 September, a systematic pattern of intimidation of the Burundians in Kamanyola was reported, including public threats by local and customary authorities – likely motivated by some of Burundians had settled on Bashi ancestral land near the centre of Kamanyola. Subsequent anti-Burundian rabble-rousing repeatedly led to pillages and the stoning of at least 3-4 Burundians earlier in the morning of 15 September – a situation some observers claim is remotely manipulated by actors considering the refugees as a security threat to the current Burundian government.

Over two weeks after the killings, the situation remains tense around Kamanyola, many Burundians have regrouped near the MONUSCO base in hope of protection but an actual solution to the problem(s) is yet to be found, it seems.

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