As the sun set over Lake Kivu in late January, members of the Banyamulenge community recounted their plight to a visiting delegation of Americans outside a hotel in Bukavu, in the South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ethnic Tutsis who compose just a few percent of the population in this province, the Banyamulenge first moved to the region some 200 years ago. Ever since the First Congo War of 1996-7, when Rwanda led an invasion of Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire, they have found themselves foreigners in their own country, accused by other residents of disloyalty. During the conflict, as a UN report later documented, armed groups working with the Zairian national army massacred hundreds of Banyamulenge civilians.
According to the community representatives assembled that evening, things had gotten demonstrably better. No longer would people refuse to get in a taxi with a Banyamulenge or refrain from buying milk at the market from one. But all was not well. Recently, a church with a Banyamulenge pastor had been burned.
Zachée Muhamiriza, the chief of the Banyamulenge community in Bukavu, described the “first problem” of his group’s plight in South Kivu: the widespread practice of making morphological judgements that deem Hutu as Congolese and Tutsi as Rwandan. “If you are Congolese, you must have a big nose,” he said. “If you have a pointed nose, it’s a problem.”
He then claimed that even though the Banyamulenge had said no to the M23—the Rwandan-backed rebel group, composed mostly of Tutsis that began fighting in Congo in April 2012—the rebellion had put his community in a much more precarious position. “Some people in Rwanda would like to use the Banyamulenge community like a ladder to come and intervene in Congo,” Muhamiriza said.
Leading the American delegation was Russ Feingold, a former Wisconsin senator who now serves as the U.S. special envoy to the region; he was on his seventh trip to Africa in the position. It had been a full day of back-to-back meetings with religious leaders, local officials, civil-society members, national police and UN peacekeepers. Unlike the previous meetings, however, this one was a forum for those outside the in-group. It was a position Feingold seemed to understand.
“I am deeply troubled to hear of racial discrimination and stereotyping—anyone is troubled by this,” Feingold told the audience. “But I am Jewish, so this affects me in a very personal way. I can imagine how terrible it is for you to be treated differently based on appearance.”
As a minority that became the target of government propaganda and then full-scale genocide, the Tutsis have often drawn comparisons to the Jews (and modern Rwanda to Israel). Feingold remembers as a child watching "Let My People Go," a documentary about the birth of Israel that was broadcast on American television in 1965. As the footage showed corpses being piled on top of one another, his parents told him, “These are our relatives.” Eight of his grandfather’s 16 siblings were killed in the Holocaust.
The attendees seemed flattered, if a bit perplexed, by the attention Feingold and his team were granting them. As Jacques Rukeba, who is South Kivu’s minister of transportation, said, “To see a great nation like the United States get interested in a little community like the Banyamulenge, it’s exceptional.”