An ethnic cow: Myth and ideology behind looting and killing ''Tutsi'' cows en masse in eastern DRC

The ongoing crisis in DRC is rooted in its history of predation, corruption, and the continuing aftermath of the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. Actors fluctuating from states, insurgencies, and foreign militias to local armed groups, caused countless victims and there seems to be no end to the violence in sight. The unrelenting cycles of violence, and their subsequent effects, embodied by severe human rights violations put the conflict itself among one of the world’s largest, most acute, and complex warfare of our time.

The warfare of our time in history, as denoted by Marry Ann Cejka et al (2003) is not principally warfare between national states. As many scholars and commentators have noted, internal conflicts of various kinds killed far more people during the twentieth century than did conflicts like the first and second world wars. Particularly, Since 1996 when the conflict erupted widely, it has been reported by several sources that around 6 million Congolese have died due to direct or indirect consequences of such violence. Besides, due to the intricacy of violence, the Democratic Republic of Congo is ranked number one with most new displacement by conflict and violence, with almost 2.2 million new cases, more than twice the number in 2016 and more than the next three worst-affected countries in the region combined(iDMC 2018).

Throughout the eastern Congo conflicts,Uvira and Fizi territories manifested particular traits related to ethnicity which is arguably one of the key precursors to the conflict. Historically, Fizi and Uvira zones have always been ethnically polarized. Moreover, both zones are among the most Christianized communities in the region. Nominally speaking at least, they display a remarkable demographic expansion of the Christian movements. Despite fraught tensions which could rise, ethnic groups cohabited peacefully for centuries. Embedded cultural values and religious practices played a central role in fostering unity and reconciliation thus preventing conflicts to go beyond control. The Babembe, Bavira, Bafuliru, Barega, Batembo, Bahavu, Bashi, Babuyu, Banyindu, Barundi, Babangubangu, Babwari, Banyamulenge, are the main ethnic groups inhabiting the area, inter alia. Despite seldom anthropological differences such as cultural heritage, they all organized around a relatively common way of living, and their relationships were generally good in the past regardless of occasional fraught tensions(Gatimbirizo1988:22). Regardless  of observed tensions, reconciliation and community healing concepts which found their expression in the culture and religion fostered their relationships for centuries.For example, blood was a symbol of reconciliation rather than conflict and revenge.

Numerous customs, such as friendship ties sanctioned by blood pacts between individuals, families, and tribes, whereby parties involved in the process became one for life and death, prevented the possibility of  harming or even be in conflict with each other. Furthermore, in the event of domestic or local conflicts arising between Banyamulenge and their immediate neighbors, elders from the conflicting communities would sit together and settle issues as they shared a drink, and fines were charged according to the weight of the offense (Rukundwa2004:381). Thus preventing escalations and proliferation of conflicts.

Importantly, Christianity reinterpreted the concept of reconciliation by annexing it with the divine. As a result, the local church became a central symbol and an agent of God’s reconciliation. This  double character as a subjective bodily means of expression and a collective divine means of life now occurs in its highest form thus preserving life and chastising all forms of profanation.

However, regardless of such strong Christian and cultural heritage, individual people were involved en masse in looting and killing. Principally, there is a manifestation of a rancorous ideology among Babembe, Fuliru, and Nyindu ethnic groups, as well as the FDLR militia from Rwanda aimed at annihilating the Banyamulenge cows by cataloging them with a metaphorical ethnic( Tustis) group.

For centuries domestic animals are regarded as an indispensable part of the household economy. Particularly a cow may have an additional emotional or spiritual value attached to it given a society. it is the case in most Tustis communities especially the Banyamulenge ethnic group in the eastern Congo. Besides sustaining the livelihood of the community, it is a symbol of life and pride. Therefore, despite cultural differences amongst communities, it seems malformed for a cow to be hunted down and killed just because it is kept by a Munyamulenge or a Tustis for that matter.

The rise and practice of this ideology saw a hundred thousands of cows and their keepers killed in different places and times. From the 1960s to date, innumerable cases of hunting down Banyamulenge cows are reported. It is obvious that when cows are targeted their owners are never spared. It happened many times in Vyura, Inganji, Kundondo, Mibunda, Minembwe, Lulimba, Lulenge, to name but a few and even in neighboring countries such as Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. In all these instances, countless cows and people are killed and there seem to be no end to this evil ideology.  

It should be noted that the character and ideology of the people that make up the human element of a state and its influence on the territory, government, and sovereignty could help determine the inherent measure of peace or conflict—No state can be imagined without people. Annihilating the Banyamulenge cows or targeting the so-called Tustis cows is a genocide ideology aiming at exterminating them from Uvira and Fizi territories. Such an ideology should be contested by all means.

The church as a credible moral guide in the region has a special role to play. We should be once again teaching people to preserve life including that of a cow. For it is just an animal whether it is kept by a Munyamulenge or a member of the other tribe. There will never be such thing as Tustis cow. Farming should always be seen as part of the micro and macro economy, not as part of violent conflicts.

©Paul Mutama S.

©A Cup for Humanity.