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Congo's Tutsi Minority Enveloped In Complex Conflict


It's hard to tell whether the ongoing conflict in Eastern Congo is a battle between rival ethnic groups, or a fight for resources. There are so many militant groups in Eastern Congo with so many shifting alliances and demands. But a tiny ethnic minority in Congo has been at the center of this conflict for the past 20 years. NPR's Gregory Warner tells their story from the Eastern Congoli city of Goma.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: There's a song that Joseph Mwugira heard over and over as a kid on the playground growing up. It's a song that almost every Tutsi in Congo has learned by heart. He refused to sing it for my microphone but agreed to speak the words.

JOSEPH MWUGIRA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: It means the Tutsi are stuffed into the Katindo building, and it refers to a seemingly minor incident in 1959 before Joseph was even born when a wave of Tutsis fleeing persecution in Rwanda crossed the border into Goma and were put up for a few months in an unfinished tenement building abandoned by the Belgians.

JASON STEARNS: It sounds extremely innocent. In other words, you're just saying that there was a lot of Tutsi came and they stayed in this house.

WARNER: But, says Jason Stearns, author of the book "Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: A History of the Congo Wars," underneath that ditty two vicious stereotypes are hiding. First, the Tutsi as outsider.

STEARNS: This emphasizes the immigrant nature of the Tutsi community. In other words these people are not Congolese. Remember how they came in across the border in the 1960s?

WARNER: And second is that verb, stuffed, like you'd stuff a chicken or a thing, Tutsi is something less than human. This hate song that's persisted for 50 years shed some light on why Joseph Mwugira and many other Tutsis say they support the rebels known as the M23. As he puts it, Tutsis need protection in Congo and they're not going to get it from the government.

MWUGIRA: (Through Translator) We live a political situation that not only does not answer to or deal with the real problems of the Congolese but they want to give the excuse that scapegoats are the Tutsi.

WARNER: The M23, for its part, is led by accused war criminals. So to get some idea of why Congolese Tutsi would still support their presence in the country we have to step back to 1996. This is two years after the Rwandan genocide, where up to a million Tutsis were killed. The Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, dispatches troops into Congo to organize militias and hunt for Hutu genocidaires who crossed the border and were now attacking Congolese Tutsis.

But the Tutsi militias did not stop at military protection. They actually took over the city of Goma and installed a more Tutsi friendly administration. Jason Stearns says Tutsis in Congo immediately felt the difference.

STEARNS: People felt safe, safer at least. People felt culturally more accepted. They saw their own people in power. They saw their own people running customs, administration, the police under the rule of these various Rwandan-backed rebellions in Eastern Congo that controlled Goma between 1996 and 2006 roughly.

WARNER: The M23 is just the latest in a series of Tutsi-led rebellions, although they don't formally describe themselves as a pro-Tutsi group. In the kaleidoscope of military factions marauding Eastern Congo, it can be hard to keep track of anyone's platform. In fact, the M23 rebels, who at least report to protect Tutsi interests, have now teamed up with other militants spouting Tutsi hate speech, groups who have raped and killed Tutsis.

Fidel Bafilemba tracks crimes against humanity as a researcher for the Enough Project, a D.C.-based advocacy group. He says the M23 is nothing but a criminal syndicate out to control as much of Congo's mineral wealth as possible.

FIDEL BAFILEMBA: So please do not blame or frame this as a Tutsi community struggle. It's an insult even to the Rwandan genocide Tutsi victims.

WARNER: Even a few Tutsis are publically rejecting the group. Enock Sebineza is a leader of Congo's largest Tutsi community, the Bunyamulenge of South Kivu. I reached him on an awful cell phone connection from his home.

ENOCK SEBINEZA: (Through Translator) Powerful countries like Rwanda have deceived the international community by saying they are in Congo to protect us. Rather, this war aims to feed the hatred against us. This is a goal.

WARNER: He says the M23 is stoking the ethnic war, making Congolese hate Tutsis even more. And he and others have received death threats just for saying this. Gregory Warner, NPR News.


WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.