On the evening of Friday 6th June, at least 33 unarmed Congolese civilians were killed in and around the village of Mutarule, on the plains of the Ruzizi river, 9 km from Sange, between Uvira and Bukavu.
The Minister of Communication and spokesman of the Congolese government, Laurent Mende, called the incident a revenge attack by the community of a cattle herder killed during an attempt to steal cows belonging to another farmer. The victims (8 children, 17 women and 8 men) belonged to the ethnic community of the Bafuliru.
The area around the Ruzizi is very conflict sensitive, not only because of the cohabitation between farmers and livestock-breeders, but also because of the proximity of borders.
Between Bukavu and Kamanyola the river Ruzizi separates Rwanda from Congo, and from Kamanyola to Gatumba the river is the border between Congo and Burundi.
On Saturday evening, the UN mission in DR Congo MONUSCO issued a statement saying that "fierce fighting" had taken place the night before between the Bafuliru on one side and the Barundi and Banyamulenge on the other.
The biggest source of conflict on the Ruzizi plains in recent years was the killing of the chief of the administrative unit (the chefferie) in April 2012. Since the colonial period, the Barundi and the Bafuliru have shared this chefferie and have lived in permanent competition over the control of land for farming and grazing.
The cohabitation of the two communities is complicated by the fact that the Bafuliru are considered to be autochthonous Congolese, while the Barundi, who have lived in Congo since at least the early 19th century, are related to the people on the other side of the border and also speak Kirundi. They are considered by many to be foreigners.
In 1928 the territory of Uvira was divided into 3 chefferies: one ruled by the Bavira, one by the Bafuliru and one by the Barundi. By granting each a chefferie, the Belgians gave them the customary rights to the land. The Bafuliru contested this several times during and also after independence.
The tensions and competition between the two communities became sharpened by poverty and underdevelopment, by poor management of land issues and by the governance crisis caused by the absence of the state at a local level. This absence created a lot of space for a customary chief (mwami) whose role is important, but rather vaguely described in the laws.
In 1996, Mwami Ndagaboye of the Barundi was deposed by Laurent Kabila's advancing AFDL. He went in to exile but he came back in 1998 as an RCD officer. For the Bafuliru, choosing the side of a rebellion against the DRC government meant that he lost a lot of legitimacy as mwami of the chefferie.
In 2004, the government in Kinshasa formalized the position of a Mufuliru as customary chief. For the Bafuliru community, this decision terminated what they had previously considered to be an absurdity: the fact of being ruled by foreigners.
In the years after 2004, the Mufulero customary chief was increasingly criticized, particularly within his own community, for his mismanagement of matters related to land.
In early 2012 he was dismissed from his office by the minister of the interior and customary affairs and Kinshasa decided to reinstall Mwami Ndabagoye. This decision took control over the chefferie away from the Bafuliru and gave it back to the Barundi. It triggered a new wave of inter-community violence in the months after the troubled elections of November 2011.
On April 25th 2012, on the eve of his reinstallation as customary chief, Mwami Ndabagoye was killed. His death intensified the violence in the region. A code of conduct between the two communities was been facilitated by the government but it was not able to reconcile Bafuliru and Barundi, nor to restore stability.
Hoes, cows and guns
The tension and violence between Bafuliru and Barundi has been a major concern for years, but with the information we have today, it seems unlikely that the massacre in Mutalera is directly linked to this problem.
The area is also vulnerable because of the difficult cohabitation between agriculturalists and pastoralists, especially during the transhumance period (the seasonal movement of people with their livestock).
Transhumance itself can become a source of conflict: not only does the passage of herds often causes damage to the farmers' crops, it also touches the sensitive area of access to and control of land. The cohabitation between pastoralists and agriculturalists used to be regulated by traditional institutions, through a tenure system uniting land applicants and land managers.
But these institutions have been dismantled by war: the emergence of guns and armed groups undermined the space for non-violent settlement of cattle-related conflict.
Weapons are used by farmers to prevent herders from accessing pastures, and by herders to force access to pastures. People are regularly killed - the question in such cases is always how to manage the situation so that the incident remains between individuals, rather than becoming an issue between communities.
But what happened on June 6th on the Ruzizi plains is probably not directly linked to transhumance either. Some sources on the ground consider the massacre to have been a reaction from Banyamulenge - the Tutsi community of South Kivu - to a series of kidnappings and killings of members of their community, including an army colonel.
One day prior to the massacre, a Munyamulenge herder was killed and decapitated during a cattle raid. It is still unclear which individuals were responsible for the massacre and what exactly the role was of Banyamulenge soldiers or the military hierarchy. One of the key issues in the coming days and weeks is whether there will be revenge actions from Bafuliru against Banyamulenge.
But so far we do not know exactly what happened on the 6th and the 7th of June in and around Mutarule. Some sources have not excluded the possibility that the murders weren't committed by Banyamulenge at all, but by members of a Bafuliru militias trying to settle the intra-community discussion on who would be their candidate to lead the chefferie as mwami.
Skirmishes north of Goma
Less than a year ago, Congo was still fighting the M23 - a rebellion led by Tutsi of North Kivu and supported by Rwanda. The movement started in early 2012 as a protest against the Congolese government's non-respect of the agreements of March 23rd 2009, when the CNDP was integrated into the army.
The rebellion brought Congo to the rim of implosion by taking the capital of North Kivu, Goma, in November 2012. Afterwards, different diplomatic initiatives crystalised in to the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework Agreement (PSCF), signed in Addis Ababa on February 24th 2013.
This Agreement led to the defeat of M23 through the deployment of an extra Monusco intervention brigade with soldiers from SADC countries and a military victory by the FARDC. Once M23 was defeated, the challenge was to dismantle the other armed groups, including ADF-Nalu and the FDLR. For as long as these remain unachieved, the achievements of the military victory against M23 are provisional.
One of the reasons why M23 has remained rather small compared to previous Tutsi-led rebel movements is the fact that it hasn't received a lot of support in eastern Congo. M23's capacity to mobilize and recruit people generally remained lower than in the days of earlier rebels with their roots in the Rwandophone communities in Congo.
They not only managed to mobilize a big part of the Tutsi community, but many Hutus as well. This was not the case for M23. Very few Hutus joined M23 and an important segment of the Tutsi community also refused to come on board.
The Banyamulenge distanced themselves from M23 from the start, and their loyalty to the Congolese state remains intact. A new polarization in South Kivu between Banyamulenge and other communities might put pressure on this loyalty.
On June 11th, only a few days after the Mutarule massacre, the Congolese and Rwandan armies clashed near the border between the 2 countries, 20km North of Goma. Both Rwanda and Congo reported that one FARDC soldier was killed on the spot. Apart from that, claims made by the 2 countries differ substantially, particularly in terms of who crossed into which territory and/or who provoked who.
Fortunately, the fighting did not escalate further and the number of casualties remained relatively low. However, the incident clearly shows how nervous all actors in Kivu are and how fragile the peace process remains.
The skirmishes occurred in the middle of a 30 day 'surrender process' previously announced by the FDLR. They consider it to be a "conditional surrender" in search of a peace deal in which they offer demobilization but demand amnesty for returning FDLR members and an inter-Rwandan dialogue.
At this stage, the Congolese government, together with ICGLR (International Conference on the Great Lakes Region) and SADC (Southern African Development Community), want to give time to this process. This automatically implies that no military action will occur during this period against the FDLR.
Rwanda, on the other hand, is unwilling to start a dialogue with the FDLR and will without any doubt continue to insist on the military option against the FDLR.
It is quite likely that we will soon have a debate about 'believers and non-believers' on the relevance and the honesty of FDLR's proposal and of its combatants who , since mid-May, left the maquis and effectively laid down their arms. The credibility and the future of the PSCF depends on a solution to the FDLR problem.
Elections in Burundi
Another factor complicating the situation in the south of South Kivu are the forthcoming elections in neighbouring countries.
At the time of the war in Burundi, the Hutu rebel organisations fighting the Tutsi dominated army operated from Congolese territory. When the key actors of the Burundian opposition decided to leave the electoral process in 2010, the government in Bujumbura feared that some of them might try to set up a new rebellion in South Kivu.
For the last few years, the Burundians and Congolese have worked intensively together in order to keep the south of the province under control. This collaboration implies joint missions.
The new electoral cycle in Burundi will start in early 2015 and it is expected that, as in 2010, the regime will use Imbonerakure, the youth league of ruling party CNDD/FDD, as an instrument to intimidate the electorate at a local level, closing down the political space.
Recently, rumours have circulated (without convincing evidence) that Imbonerakure members have received weapons and training from the Burundian army on Congolese soil. As Benjamin Chemouni has previously written on this blog, the potential for violence during the Burundian elections further complicates the situation in South Kivu.
The enduring vulnerability of the Kivus
The conflict in the southern part of South Kivu exemplifies several important aspects of Congo's many-layered problems and illustrates the enduring vulnerability of the Kivus.
It starts with a local competition between communities for scarce resources, historically rooted. It is related to land and the fact that the local methods of regulating land issues are not functioning effectively due to the absence of the state at the local level.
The conflict is linked to the fact that armed groups in the communities have started to lead their own life in the absence of a truly united, disciplined, well-trained national army. The local situation is complicated by the existing and potential conflicts on the national and regional level and could trigger off violence on a much larger scale.
Kivu will remain vulnerable as long as these big challenges are not addressed: bad governance and poverty are endemic, the land issue remains a time bomb, the Congolese state is still very fragile and cannot rehabilitate the instruments it needs to guarantee the rule of law.
Much will depend on the question of whether Congo is willing and able deliver results in reforming the security sector, democratising its institutions and establishing an efficient and transparent administration.
Kris Berwouts has, over the last 25 years, worked for a number of different Belgian and international NGOs focused on building peace, reconciliation, security and democratic processes.Until 2012, he was the Director of EurAc, the network of European NGOs working for advocacy on Central Africa. He now works as an independent expert on Central Africa. Kris' current field research is made possible by a working grant from the Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism. He is currently preparing writing a book on the conflicts in eastern Congo to be published in 2015 by ZED Books.