November 29, 2019

How Rwanda’s Ethnic Conflicts Have Played Out In Congo’s Kalehe Region Since 1950s

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Map of the region showing the location of Kalehe adapted from the report

Thirty-one (31) Congolese refugees are currently facing trial in a court in Karongi district which could see them jailed for many years.

In February 2018, unrest broke out in Kiziba refugee camp, Karongi, western Rwanda. They were reportedly protesting poor conditions and demanded increase in food rations. Amidst refugee riots, and violence, the police shot and killed seven refugees. These events revived discussions about the repatriation of these refugees, who have been living in Rwanda for over two decades.

This evolution added to existing concerns about a potential return of Congolese refugees of Rwanda origin among different communities in Kalehe territory (South Kivu), from where many refugees had originally fled in the 1990s.

Throughout history, Kalehe has been characterised by various patterns of migration and competition over access to resources and political representation. But this only led to open conflict after the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees from Rwanda, triggered by the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, which fed into regional dynamics and lead to the two Congo wars (1996-1997 and 1998-2003).

Since the first war in 1996, Kalehe territory has been the scene of massive violence and a proliferation of armed groups, often organised along ethnic and tribal lines.

In this context marked by recent memories of violent conflict and fierce competition between communities over land and power, the potential return of Congolese Banyamulenge refugees adds to existing social tensions and has fueled discourses of “autochthony” by some armed groups and political elites claiming to be the original inhabitants of the area. The Kalehe case illustrates how (anticipated) refugee returns can fuel struggles over resources and power and have significant potential to trigger conflict, especially when the absence of clear policies by regional governments and UNHCR and of reliable information feeds speculation and the politicisation of issues related to refugee returns.

Research was carried out by a consortium including the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), Groupe d’études sur les Conflits et la Sécurité humaine (GEC-SH), Actions pour la Promotion Rurale (APRu) and the Conflict Research Group (CRG). It explains the ongoing ethnic war raging in South Kivu.

Migration and communal conflict in Kalehe

The territory of Kalehe is located between the cities of Bukavu and Goma and covers an area of 4,082 square kilometres. It is one of eight territories in the province of South Kivu and has a population of approximately 550,000, mainly from six communities: the Batembo, the Bahavu, the Barongeronge, the Hutu and Tutsi (Banyarwanda) and the Batwa. This complex social composition and cultural diversity is the result of a history of migration.

In the 1950s, the first Hutu migrants settled in the area, as part of colonial efforts to facilitate the migration of Hutu labourers from Rwanda to Congo’s plantations. Some of these migrants came from Masisi in North Kivu, where they had first settled. In addition to working in the plantations, Havu and Tembo customary chiefs granted them access to unoccupied land in Kalehe’s Hauts Plateaux area.

From 1959 on-wards, political turmoil and government-instigated attacks on Tutsis in Rwanda forced Tutsis to move to neighbouring countries, including to Congo. Some of them settled in Kalehe, were they also gained access to land on the Hauts Plateaux.

Both migration processes had a significant impact on the social composition of Kalehe, particularly on the Hauts Plateaux, with intensified competition over land between migrant and local communities, as well as between Tutsi pastoralists, who needed grazing space for their cattle, and Hutu agriculturalists. The land disputes that followed were reinforced by various forms of land governance based on customary practices. Against the backdrop of contestation around political representation and citizenship of these migrant communities, disputes become more and more politicised.

As in other parts of eastern Congo, identity politics, triggered by intensified political competition around the 1990 democratisation process, became connected to existing land competition and affected social cohesion in Kalehe. The citizenship status of Congolese Tutsi became one of the key sources of mobilisation by armed groups in eastern Congo, reinforcing a cleavage between Rwandophone and other communities.

Until 1994, these conflicts had not turned violent. This changed after the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees in the wake of the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. With these refugees came members of the former Rwandan army and the Interahamwe, a militia involved in the genocide, who started to target Congolese Tutsi communities.

These attacks forced Tutsi communities living in Kalehe to leave their lands and move to refugee camps in Rwanda, joining other Tutsi who had returned to Rwanda following the military victory by the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). Prior to their departure, most of them made arrangements regarding their land, either selling it or leaving it to custodians or guardians. Others were forced to abandon their land. These arrangements drastically changed land distribution patterns. Large parts of these lands now fell under the control of new landowners. Where no guardian was appointed, customary chiefs sometimes redistributed land to members of their communities. Many of the new occupants did not anticipate a potential return of the original owners and considered themselves the new and legitimate owners of these lands.

When the first refugees started to come back in 1997, this instigated new dynamics of competition and social tensions.

As described below, there have been three distinct dynamics related to the return of refugees in Kalehe as a result of successive waves of return migration. First, the potential return of Congolese Tutsi refugees has reinforced a discourse centred around identity, and the fear of loss of livelihoods by new landowners has caused animosity, in turn leading to some groups taking up arms. Secondly, competition over land became tied up with national and regional power dynamics and led to a repositioning of communities, including Congolese Tutsi. Thirdly, a lack of commitment by national authorities and international actors to organise or support return processes has further contributed to existing concerns and tensions.

These dynamics show how the sporadic and anticipated return of refugees in Kalehe, framed around land, has a deleterious effect on inter-ethnic cohabitation. Growing frustration around the return of Tutsi landowners partly explains the persistence of armed groups operating in a logic of self-protection, such as the Nyatura, a Hutu group operating in Kalehe’s Hauts Plateaux, and the Raia Mutomboki, a franchise of local self-defence militias.

Fragmented return

The factors behind the movement of Congolese Tutsi refugees from Kalehe are closely connected to regional conflict dynamics, as is the case with other refugee movements in the region. While the main factor that forced Congolese Tutsi to leave DRC was the security threat posed by the arrival in 1994 of Rwandan Hutu refugees in Congo, from 1996 on-wards, the Congo wars created a number of conditions facilitating their potential return to Kalehe.

Congolese Tutsi support for the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaïre (AFDL) rebellion during the first Congo war, and the active participation of Congolese Tutsi youths in the AFDL, drastically changed the political and military power balance, both nationally and in Kalehe, as the AFDL acceded to power.

The Rwanda-backed Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD) rebellion, which instigated the second Congo war in 1998, reinforced the power of the Congolese Tutsi community, yet at the same time confronted it with intensified armed resistance, particularly in the context of increasing concern by foreign powers about Rwandan seeming expansion and influence.

In Kalehe, this led to a further militarisation of society, largely centred around perceptions of ethnic or community identity.

Despite the fact that many Congolese Tutsi refugees from Kalehe remain in Rwanda, others have returned to the DRC. The first wave of returns, which included a form of “armed return” via participation in rebel movements, took place in the second half of the 1990s, in the wake of the 1994 victory of the RPF. Most of these returnees were young Congolese Tutsi who, on arrival in the DRC, joined the AFDL armed movement against the then Congolese president Mobutu Sese Seko. Having contributed to toppling the Mobutu government, several of these Congolese Tutsi combatants secured influential positions in the new Congolese army.

A respondent interviewed for this study recalled that between 1996 and 1998, returnees would often use their political and military influence to reclaim by force the land they had left behind or sold off when going into exile.

The second wave of returnees took place between 1998 and 2005, when the RCD rebel group controlled vast parts of eastern Congo. In this period, some Congolese Tutsi who had not had the opportunity to sell their land in 1994 came back either to sell or appoint guardians for their land within the community or to formalise their land ownership, for instance through the negotiation of a land title.

The third episode of spontaneous return took place around 2010. With considerable but temporarily improved security conditions as a result of military operations, peace deals and the demobilisation and integration into the army of several militias and armed groups, numerous Congolese Tutsi refugees returned from Rwanda with their cattle, settling near their old grazing lands, mainly in the area around Numbi in northern Kalehe.

Despite the fact that UNHCR, Rwanda and the DRC had signed a tripartite agreement, neither UNHCR, nor national or provincial Congolese authorities were directly involved in this wave of voluntary and spontaneous return. This explains why these returnees were not documented and there are no reliable figures. This return came as a surprise to other communities in Kalehe, especially those who had acquired land formerly owned by Congolese Tutsi refugees, and sparked several land-related conflicts. As a consequence, community relations became increasingly militarised and public discourse became increasingly radicalised around perceptions of identity.

The fourth wave of returnees can be described as “exploratory visits.” As respondents from Lemera and Numbi testified, over the years there had been regular ‘go-and-see’ visits by Congolese Tutsi refugees living in Rwanda to meet family members, inquire about the security situation and check on the status of the land they (used to) own. This also led to tensions, as several of these returnees found their land occupied by others and sought to reclaim it through customary or formal justice mechanisms or local mediation bodies.

Finally, a fifth category of returnees is perceived by other communities as “delocalised” returnees.

This refers to people who are considered fully integrated Rwandan citizens, often even part of the political and economic elite, but have continued to own and use land in Kalehe.91 Interviewees in Numbi were convinced that these people would come back to pursue their business interests in the DRC — a claim that is difficult to verify. It is also difficult to assess the numbers of this group of returnees. Some are considered dual nationals (although dual nationality is not allowed under Congolese law), while others are seen as foreigners who had been excluded from national citizenship in the 1980s.

Narratives of distrust

Several factors complicate the return and reintegration of refugees and their cohabitation with other communities in Kalehe. A first is the connection between displacement and the use of language relating to identity, which has been reinforced by the impact of conflict and violence on local politics and society. As confirmed by several respondents, social life and inter-communal relations in Kalehe continue to be strongly marked by distrust and suspicion, based on previous experiences of returnees and fed by speculation about an imminent and “massive” return of Congolese Tutsi refugees.

An important contributing factor in the proliferation of this kind of discourse is the absence of reliable and verifiable data about the number of Congolese Tutsi refugees from Kalehe who fled to Rwanda and the number of those who have already returned or could return in the near future.

Questions also remain about the policies which will be implemented and the profile of people who would eventually be eligible for return: “Are they registered as refugees, or have they acquired Rwandan nationality?” One of the consequences of this lack of reliable information and of clearly communicated policies is the war of numbers in which different actors try to promote a version that suits their interests.

Leaders and members of other communities tend to minimise the estimated number of Congolese Tutsi families who fled from Kalehe to Rwanda between 1994 and 1996, while armed groups seem to inflate the estimates, thus reactivating the mobilising appeal of conspiracy discourses that further divide communities.

Meanwhile, UNHCR in Rwanda officially states that only 6,746 refugees from the whole of South Kivu province were registered in Rwanda as of July 2019, meaning that the proportion of people originating from Kalehe would be less. (There are over 17,000 refugees in the Kiziba camp today, coming from different other regions of the Kivus).

Even if people in Kalehe are not categorically opposed to the return of Congolese Tutsi refugees, there are suspicions and reservations regarding plans to organise the repatriation of people from Rwanda.

An interlocutor from Kalonge told researchers: “A candidate for return recently visited here. Twenty-five years ago, he was young, and he left alone. Now he wants to come back, but with his children and grandchildren. I have nothing against this fellow countryman, but we have to admit that this is quite problematic, and it is likely to affect the social cohesion in Kalonge.”

Throughout the years, various narratives about return and returnees have continued to circulate in Kalehe. These narratives are a mixture of rumours, speculation, suspicion and conspiracy theories, often infused with factual observations and informed by previous experiences of return and of violence. Regardless of their veracity, they have become part of the perceptions through which community-aligned political and armed actors mobilise and seek legitimacy.

Reference to nationality, citizenship and loyalty to land are themes that typically come up when discussing return. A common assumption encountered during fieldwork was that these refugees had acquired Rwandan nationality. An agent of the Congolese immigration department indicated that sometimes people would try to return as refugees despite having a Rwandan passport, like their family members who were already in the DRC. With Rwanda allowing for dual nationality, while the DRC does not, the question of nationality is complicated, especially in view of an organised return of Congolese Tutsis who fled to Rwanda. But for respondents from other communities, the issue had far wider implications beyond legal and administrative questions.

They articulated an emotional attachment and a sense of belonging to Congolese territory and their ancestral lands, which they thought was not the case for the Tutsi returnees. In the words of a civil society representative: “For them, Congo is a field, but Rwanda is home”.

These perceptions are also rooted in the memory of earlier episodes of return and violence, such as during the first Congo war in 1996, when Congolese Hutu were killed by the RPF-supported AFDL rebel movement.97 The connection between Congolese Tutsi and what was perceived as a Rwandan occupation force during the Congo wars has fuelled suspicion about the real identity, motives and loyalties of the returning refugees, a view reinforced by the observation that several returnees have left their families in Rwanda.

These aspects have convinced people in Kalehe that refugees consider Rwanda their real home, and at best, have dangerously divided loyalties or, at worst, nefarious motives. These issues all play into sentiments of indigenous identity but are also infused with fear of alleged ambitions of territorial expansion by Rwanda. “The Tutsi haven’t finished their mission to conquer Congo and annex it to Rwanda”, said one interlocutor. In this logic, an organised return is seen, first and foremost, as a means to serve Rwanda’s territorial expansion.

Competition over land and resources

As explained above, the issue of land is crucial to understanding the attitudes of different communities towards returnees and towards the idea of an imminent “great return” of refugees residing in Rwanda. Whereas initially, the land left behind or sold off by Congolese Tutsi was mainly grazing land, the stakes have changed. Since 1996, the artisanal exploitation of mineral deposits – cassiterite, coltan, manganese and tourmaline – in the area has gained importance as a source of income and speculation, provoking competition for control of these areas.

This is particularly the case for the area between Numbi and Lumbishi, where the mining sector is governed by a multiplicity of competing military and private actors, and where control over land is seen as a way of accessing the artisanal mining sector.

The different waves of sporadic returns have also sparked land-related disputes and conflicts. Since 1996, several of these disputes have been ended through violence, with the help of armed groups. More recently, returnees sought to reclaim the land they left behind through mediation and judicial means, in most cases successfully. So far, these land disputes have not escalated into larger scale violence, thanks to a fragile equilibrium between local self-defence militias, on the one hand, and Banyarwanda political and military networks in the army and in the capital, on the other.

Local mediation committees and NGOs have been able to manage these disputes, but it is clear that these cases still generate tension among those who have occupied the land, legally or illegally. These tensions end up affecting ethnic cohabitation in Kalehe. As one respondent stated: “Disputes between individuals are never really individual. They always involve the community to which one belongs.”

Return and armed mobilisation

The position of Tutsi refugees has also contributed to a militarisation of politics and society in Kalehe and to the proliferation of armed groups, even if it was not the reason for their creation.

The first armed groups operating in Kalehe territory were created as a direct consequence of the Masisi war, which in 1993 killed thousands of farmers and displaced many more. This war originated in an intensified struggle over land and political representation between indigenous and Banyarwanda communities.

In Kalehe, this affected cohabitation between Batembo and Hutu communities. The subsequent Congo wars have had similar effects, dividing local society between those supporting the AFDL and RCD rebel movements and those allying with armed groups resisting those movements. While these groups used the language of “autochthony” to justify their actions, they also collaborated with Rwandan Hutu rebels against what was perceived as a Rwandan Tutsi-led occupation force.

At a local level, the proliferation of armed groups also militarised land conflicts opposing different communities.

Since the end of the Congo wars in 2003, the position and claims of Tutsi refugees continued to be part of the discourse of armed groups and proved to be a fertile basis for mobilisation. The return of these refugees has been one of the demands of Tutsi-dominated armed groups such as the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) and the March 23 Movement (M23). Former CNDP recruits who were integrated in the Congolese army have also tried to facilitate the return of Tutsi refugees.

Other armed groups have resisted the growing military influence of Congolese Tutsi. In March 2007, the Patriotes Résistants Congolais (PARECO) emerged out of different Mayi and Hutu militias to organise and coordinate resistance against the CNDP. While various communities were involved in its creation, the Hutu wing became the most important component of PARECO.

In 2011, two years after PARECO’s integration in the Congolese army, a new wave of Hutu armed groups emerged with the creation of the Nyatura (“those who hit hard”) armed groups. In 2017, more than 15 Nyatura branches were active in the Kivus. Those operating in parts of Kalehe claim to defend the interests of Hutu communities and have expressed concern about the return of Tutsi refugees.

Similarly, Raia Mutomboki factions, which started to operate in Kalehe in 2011 in order to counter the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR, a Hutu rebel group with elements from the Interahamwe in its ranks), have gradually shifted their focus to the return of Tutsi to Kalehe’s Hauts Plateaux.

Even if the security situation has improved in some parts of Kalehe recently, there are still considerable risks that political and military actors could exploit these perceptions of return, undermining recent efforts to mediate between communities and reduce levels of violence. These risks are tangible, as some communities feel that protecting their ancestral lands from external invasion (exemplified by a potential return of Tutsi refugees) justifies resorting to armed violence.

Land conflicts related to recent return movements have not sparked any major violence, and there have been considerable efforts by NGOs such as APC, the UN peacekeeping force MONUSCO and local mediation committees (Comités de Dialogue et de Médiation, CDM) to defuse tensions between communities, with positive effects in reducing violence in Kalehe. Research on perceptions of return within communities carried out for this project found more nuanced positions about people who left and less hostile attitudes towards those who returned, compared to those expressed by armed groups and certain political actors.

Several returnees interviewed said they did not currently experience significant problems in their daily interactions with members of other communities. “Except for those who are involved in land disputes, we are all happy to have returned,” confirmed a village chief who is himself a returnee.

However, when asked why they thought other Congolese Tutsi refugees had not come back, interviewees speculated that insecurity of returnees was an important reason. This may have been a reference to violence against returnees and their cattle by the PARECO and Nyatura armed groups in the mid-2000s. But overall, interviewees did not consider that incidents of violence were specifically directed against Tutsi or against returnees: “Nobody is killed just because he is a Tutsi. All communities are affected by the problems and conflicts.”


The Kalehe case study shows that in a context of complex and protracted conflict, issues of return can be highly politicised and militarised and require a specific approach. Although UNHCR has not planned or started a large-scale repatriation of Congolese Tutsi refugees from Rwanda, the idea of such a return looms large over society and inter-communal relations in Kalehe.

Two factors feed into these perceptions, often linked with previous episodes of sporadic return. First, there is the issue of land, with both economic stakes and implications for identity and regional dynamics. Second, there is the memory of past conflict, particularly the participation of Congolese Tutsi alongside Rwanda-backed armed groups in horrific violence.

The problematic way in which return is perceived by other communities in Kalehe is further complicated by the failure of the Congolese and Rwandan governments and UNHCR to clearly articulate positions and concrete policies, illustrated by the absence of reliable information and statistics about Congolese Tutsi refugees in Rwanda and their possible return to the DRC. Despite recent demobilisation efforts, rumours, speculation and unsubstantiated allegations continue to circulate, reinforcing feelings of insecurity and the perceived threat of an invasion, and further polarising the language of identity and belonging.

The risks of further militarisation and renewed violence remain tangible. In this sense, international agencies and governments bear a great responsibility for not just managing refugee populations, but also managing information about refugees and their possible return. In Kalehe, local institutions and actors have the capacity to mediate in inter-communal conflict.

However, without proper information, it is difficult for them to work towards reducing or preventing social tensions related to return.

This text was adapted from the 44-page report, “Returning to Stability? Refugee Returns in the Great Lakes Region“, published October 16, 2019. This text has been slightly edited to add relevant context for easy and comprehensible reading.

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