Pygmy people have been targeted in repeated attacks by armed Mai Mai groups made up by members of the Baluba tribe in Katanga province, in the south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Our Observer met some Pygmies who fled their traditional forest homes to escape the ongoing violence. He says that they are facing “extermination.”
The number of violent attacks has increased dramatically since mid-June in several regions in the Upper Katanga district, especially in Kabalo, Nyunzu and Manono. Most of the violence seems to target the Pygmy people, traditional hunters and gatherers of the region [Editor’s Note: The name Pygmy includes people from several tribes including the Twa, Baka, Mbuti, Aka, and others].
Mai Mai armed militias are the principal perpetrators of the violence. These Mai Mai are made up of Baluba people, the ethnic majority of the region. The militia members blame the Pygmies for having collaborated with Congolese soldiers and accuse them of sharing strategic information.
In response to the increase in violent attacks, the Pygmies have formed their own self-defence groups. These enemies have clashed, causing numerous deaths on both sides. The United Nations estimates that at least 28,000 people have been forced to leave their homes due to these clashes since the beginning of July of this year.
"The Pygmies are completely disoriented outside of their territory”
I met 400 Pygmies who had fled on foot from their village, seeking shelter about 50 kilometres away, after being attacked by a Mai Mai militia in mid-July. During the attack, the Pygmies had quickly realised that, armed with only arrows, they stood no chance against their attackers, who had guns. That’s why they decided to flee.
Their stories were shocking: there were seven-year-old children who had fled with nothing after losing both their parents. There were women who had been raped because of local superstitions that having sex with a Pygmy woman can cure illness.
The Pygmy refugees are receiving next to nothing in terms of humanitarian aid and assistance. They live in makeshift huts built with the limited resources on hand. Their living conditions are appalling.
Pygmies live traditionally by hunting and gathering, and they have a serious problem with access to resources when displaced from their land. They were completely disorientated. Some of them had never held money before and have no notion of financial exchanges. To help them, the local government distributed sacks of beans, but there were not enough for everyone.
"Anyone identified as a Pygmy is in mortal danger here”
In its report, the organisation spoke of “genocide crimes” and said there had been "massacres, murders, acts of cannibalism, mass rapes and house burnings.” Our Observer confirms that this is the reality on the ground:
The situation of the Pygmy people has never been good because the Balubas have always considered them inferior sub-humans who come from the forest with no education [Editor’s note: Only about 2% of Pygmy children go to school, according to UN figures.] Many Baluba exploit the pygmies by hiring them as workers and paying them next to nothing, and sometimes even taking their land.
Beginning in 2012, events organised to raise awareness and educate local communities started to bring Pygmies out of the forest to meet other communities. But some Pygmies took advantage of the situation to rebel, sometimes going so far as to rape female members of their enemies’ tribes. This caused more Baluba to join Mai Mai militias to get revenge. The escalation of violence has meant that, today, if a Pygmy encounters a Baluba, he considers him an enemy whether or not he belongs to a militia. Conversely, any person identified as a Pygmy by a militiaman in this region is in mortal danger, whether he is on his own land or not.
Some Pygmy children lost their parents in the clashes and fled with other members of their village.
"Ten years of work ruined in a few weeks”
Moreover, since 2012, many organisations advocating for the rights of indigenous people have run regular awareness-raising campaigns, allowing Pygmy and Baluba communities to have as many interactions as possible.
But, according to our Observer, this latest round of violence has caused a terrible setback to these advances.
Relations between the Pygmy people and the Bantus [Editor’s Note: The name Bantu designates a group of people that includes the Balubas] had started to get better in the Upper Katanga region where we work: the Pygmies were more and more integrated in community activities. For example, some Pygmies had even participated in local radio programmes and we sought out their traditional knowledge about the forest, consulting with them on questions of forest management and how to use resources with respect to nature.
I have worked since 2005 trying to bring together these communities. I feel like in a few weeks, a decade of work has been destroyed.
Many Pygmies own official documents that attest to the rights of indigenous peoples on their land [Editor’s Note: One law, for example, stipulates that indigenous populations receive 10 percent of the profits gained from use of their land] They often show us these documents, but they don’t understand them. Sure, these texts exist but their application is difficult. The regions where they live are often quite remote, and it’s difficult to bring in permanent police forces – especially when they face militias that are sometimes better armed.