By Matthew Casey
The new president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) took office in January. Al Jazeera reported that his first message was one of reconciliation in the vast and diverse country located in sub-Saharan Africa.
Refugees living in Phoenix say Félix Tshisekedi, the new president, got more specific at the end of June, calling for an end to conflict in parts of eastern DRC. The area is home to people named Banyamulenge, an ethnic minority with Rwandan ancestry.
The Congolese government jailed Rugabirwa Ruhorimbere and other Banyamulenge decades ago. He was nearly executed.
“Thank God we have a new tone from the current president. Hopefully, hopefully, this issue can be resolved,” Ruhorimbere said.
Millions of people have been killed in DRC since the 1990s. Millions more fled their homes.
Congolese are now the fastest growing refugee population in Arizona, and tension born almost 9,000 miles away is still felt by those who escaped the deadliest conflict since World War II.
In July, the Banyamulenge Community of Phoenix went to state officials — Republican and Democrat — to seek U.S. help in making sure DRC’s new president keeps his word.
Banyamulenge want Tshisekedi to defeat all armed militias in eastern Congo, Ruhorimbere said.
“Protect everyone. All people. From all tribes,” he said.
The civic action by the local Banyamulenge community did not sit well with other Congolese in Arizona. They want pressure put on all countries involved in the conflict in eastern DRC. Not just the Congolese government. The disagreement is a window to the immensely complex situation in DRC, which has come up in Phoenix.
Matthew CaseyCongolese protesters march on West Adams Street toward the Arizona State Capitol
With a police escort, about 50 Congolese protesters marched through summer heat, toward the Arizona Capitol. The protesters gathered at the flagpoles near the House and Senate, and Lumba Onakoy read a memo responding to Banyamulenge action.
“We are here to advocate [for] a durable and sustainable peace,” he said.
Onakoy said DRC has a long record of welcoming refugees from other countries, like Rwanda, where millions fled in the 1990s. Onakoy said it hurt to see people turning against the country that took them in.
“And massacre our population. Rape our mothers, sisters and daughters,” he said.
Onakoy laid out a eight requests. One was for refugee resettlement groups to stop giving Congolese nationality to people without official DRC government documentation.
“We have seen many people from other countries who come to the United States as a Congolese by just living in some of those camps,” he said.
Séverine AutesserreSéverine Autesserre
Questions about nationality were repeatedly used by Congolese politicians to target Banyamulenge in the past. The government even once ordered Banyamulenge to go back to Rwanda, wrote Séverine Autesserre, a professor, author and researcher who works regularly in DRC.
“It’s as if someone was telling you, ‘Go back to Europe, or go back to Ireland’ or wherever your ancestor[s] came from 200 years ago. It makes no sense,” she said.
Autesserre wrote that Rwandan Tutsis came to DRC in waves long before, and during Belgian colonization in the 19th century. They later renamed themselves to distinguish from people who arrived during the 20th century.
But people with Rwandan ancestry — especially Tutsis — were blamed for war in DRC during the 1990s, she wrote. Ethnic violence raged. Autesserre said Banyamulenge have been both targets and perpetrators.
“Banyamulenge leaders have been responsible for atrocities just like leaders from other ethnic groups have been responsible for atrocities,” she said.
Tension among Congolese refugees forced to flee home is common, Autesserre said. It’s come up in Belgium, New York and Washington, D.C. Autesserre said she thinks there is blame on both sides, but deciding who is right and wrong is not the best approach.
“Given all of this history. And given all of these antagonisms. And all of these really, really hard memories for all of the people in Congo, how can they move forward so that they can live in peace?”
Peace is something both local groups say they want for DRC, where many have relatives, family and friends. On the Banyamulenge side, Ruhorimbere said Congolese living in Arizona should get to know each other.
“Let’s meet. I would love to do that. Let’s meet. Let’s talk,” he said.
One protest leader said he’s willing to meet with Banyamulenge in Phoenix. Another said she needs to talk it over with her constituents first.