Videos of anti-Rwandan protests are circulating on social media as Kinshasa accuses Kigali of backing rebels in the eastern DRC.
Life in Kinshasa was going well for Zawadi, a mother of two from Rwanda, until faraway fighting stoked Congolese anger against her country and videos of men with machetes prowling the city streets in search of Rwandans surfaced on social media.
The trouble started in May, when the M23 rebel group summarized heavy fighting against the military in the eastern reaches of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after years of relative quiet.
The DRC accuses Rwanda of supporting M23, which Rwanda denies.
Hundreds of kilometers to the west, in the Congolese capital Kinshasa, Zawadi watched in horror the videos of anti-Rwandan demonstrations circulated on social media and people who knew started posting anti-Rwandan images and slogans.
“I can’t take my children to school. I can’t go to the market. I have to stay at home,” said Zawadi, who declined to give her family name because of safety concerns.
She is no longer able to work too.
“Even my business partners, when they see me, they hurl hateful words,” said Zawadi, speaking in her home where she spends hours every day with her two young children, following the latest developments on her phone.
In early June, a video that circulated widely showed some men, armed with machetes and faces wrapped in Congolese flags, loitering on a Kinshasa street in front of a Rwandan-owned shop.
Another video, shot during a protest in the city on May 30, showed a crowd cheering as a picture of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, defaced with a Hitler-like mustache and swastika, was torched.
Protesters, including some well-known political figures, have demanded the closure of the Rwandan embassy.
The provincial commissioner of police, General Sylvano Kasongo, said officers were under orders to arrest anyone dressed in paramilitary outfits and adopting a threatening attitude, and some arrests had already taken place.
“The people of Kinshasa are hospitable,” he said, condemning the anti-Rwandan protests and attributing them to a minority.
Kinshasa Governor Gentiny Ngobila urged residents not to take out their anger on Rwandan citizens.
“We should not slip into that xenophobic rhetoric because it would give ammunition to those who would use the excuse that Rwandans are persecuted in Congo, therefore it is necessary to go to their rescue,” Ngobila said.
He was alluding to a justification given by Rwanda for invading DRC in 1996 and 1998. But the calls for restraint have done little to ease Zawadi’s fears.
“Everywhere you go, you think people could kill you, people could harm you,” she said.