Congo, Democratic Republic of

By Gérard Prunier 

The massive conflict lasting from 1996 to 2003 that drew in seven African countries and led to about three million deaths—the greatest number of fatalities in any war since World War Two—started as a direct consequence of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The Rwandan genocide, in which approximately 800,000 people were killed in a hundred days, took place between April and June 1994. Following the overthrow of the genocidal Hutu regime by Tutsi rebels, over a million and a half Hutu refugees fled Rwanda, with the majority going to Zaire (as it then was). Some left of their own free will but most were herded by the leaders of the génocidaire government, which intended to use them as political hostages. The United Nations, having done nothing to stop the genocide, treated the massive refugee exodus simply as a humanitarian crisis, and provided the refugees with food and medical help. If this seemed an appropriate response, given the fact that most of the refugees were innocent civilians, it meant that the UN closed its eyes to the presence of 50,000 armed men from the former Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR) and of perhaps as many armed militiamen from the notorious Interahamwe militia, a paramilitary force that had been at the forefront of the killing.

Thus over 100,000 armed men, guilty of the most heinous crimes, were allowed to settle a few miles away from the border of the country where they had committed a genocide. Like the rest of the refugees, they were fed by the international community, even as they trained to invade their country of origin. After two years of useless arguments with the United Nations, the new Rwandan government decided to take matters into its own hands and invaded Zaire in 1996.

After such a long wait, Rwanda had come to the conclusion that the UN was toothless and that Rwanda could do what it wanted in Central Africa. Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s strongman, made a discreet deal with Washington: he—and a group of allied African countries that included Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Angola and Uganda—would rid the Americans of the ageing and now useless Zairian leader, President Mobutu, at the same time as dismantling the Rwandan refugee camps. The ensuing “military campaign” was in fact a long walk through the enormous expanse of Zaire. The last stand of the Zairian tyranny was left to the troops of Jonas Savimbi, Mobutu’s old Angolan guerilla ally, who fought a desperate pitched battle at Kikwit to try to stop the advance on the Zairian capital Kinshasa. The attempt was unsuccessful and long columns of victorious and exhausted boy-soldiers walked into the capital under the cautious cheers of a populace that did not know what to make of this extraordinary “campaign.”

Meanwhile the Rwandans had taken advantage of their march across Zaire to track down and kill between 200,000 and 300,000 Hutu refugees. Some of those may have taken part in the genocide but the vast majority of the victims were women, old people and children—in other words, those who had no weapons and could not escape. Most of the real génocidaires, armed young men in good health, managed to get away, some of them walking as far as Congo-Brazzaville or northern Angola.

The Rwandan government picked a forgotten Congolese radical, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, to be head of the new government. However it was the Rwandans who occupied all the key positions, civilian and military. For the next fourteen months, tiny Rwanda tried to run giant Zaire (which was now renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo to erase any memory of the Mobutu regime) as a kind of colony. As was predictable, this attempt failed.

“Africa’s first world war”: this is the name that many Africans gave to the massive conflict which re-ignited from the still-warm embers of the previous one on August 2, 1998. What happened was that all the participants in the first (or so-called “Mobutu”) war fell out among themselves, taking sides with a kind of mindless automatism reminiscent of the deadly alliances which had set Europe on fire in August 1914 .

The war was initiated by President Kabila when, in July 1998, he suddenly decided to dispense with his overbearing Rwandan minders and sent them packing. Within a week the ousted Rwandans were back. They hijacked a number of civilian planes in the Eastern Congo and flew them to Kitona air base, near Kinshasa, hoping to take the capital by storm. Since Kabila’s army was almost nonexistent, the Rwandan assault nearly succeeded. The only thing
that stopped it was the decisive military intervention of the Angolan army, whose combat helicopters slaughtered the Rwandan troops as they approached Kinshasa.

The Angolan government came to Kabila’s defense because it feared that if the Rwandans won they would strike an alliance with the Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, the head of the UNITA movement. Zimbabwe and Namibia quickly followed Angola’s lead and sent troops to Kabila’s assistance. Meanwhile, in alliance with Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi had occupied large chunks of the Eastern Congo. Once the Rwandan blitzkrieg had failed, the conflict turned into a bloody and slogging unsuccessful attempt at a remake of the “Mobutu war.”

Instead of the confused rabble which had made up Mobutu’s army, the Rwandans were now facing professional troops who knew how to fight and who had reasonably good equipment. This time the fighting was fierce.

On the Northern front, the Mouvement de Libération du Congo (MLC), a Congolese rebel group sponsored and armed by Uganda, attempted to fight its way down the course of the Congo River to Kinshasa. The main fighting on this front was bloody but broadly complied with the rules of war. But massive violations of humanitarian law occurred in the rear of the fighting, where the MLC was trying to control diamond and gold mines. Mining towns were taken, lost and retaken in a wild melee and many civilians were killed. Rebel troops were repeatedly accused of cannibalism at the expense of their pygmy guides. Here cannibalism was not linked to traditional practices but was a deliberate modern form of terrorizing the population.

By far the worst crimes took place on the war’s eastern front, which extended from the Province Orientale bordering on the Sudan, through North and South Kivu down to northeastern Katanga. In this region, the Ugandan and Rwandan armies supported various factions of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD), a largely artificial organization made up of ambitious politicians, disaffected military men and child soldiers. Here the war reached its worst horrors. The Rwandan army, on the pretext of finding and destroying the former génocidaires, behaved in the most brutal fashion, slaughtering civilians and remorselessly stripping the country of all the mineral assets it could lay its hands on. This behavior triggered a violent reaction from local tribal militias called Mayi-Mayi who rose against the Rwandans and fought them. But given their undisciplined character and their use of child soldiers, these nationalist militias were often as cruel and destructive towards civilians as the Rwandans and their local allies. Villages were repeatedly looted by all sides, women were raped and adolescent boys forcibly inducted into the various armies. People fled the towns, hiding in the forest. Since malaria was rife and hospitals had run out of medicines, thousands died. In this most fertile country the fields were abandoned (cultivating them was too dangerous) and the refugees starved in the forests. Traders who still dared to venture on the potholed roads were attacked and the markets closed down.

Further north, the Ugandan Army had at first kept a modicum of respect for civilians, but it eventually became involved in a bloody agrarian conflict in the Ituri area of the Province Orientale. Ugandan officers sided with local warlords and condoned massive atrocities. During the years 1998 to 2001, at the height of the conflict, the whole eastern part of the Congo became an inferno of violence. In addition to the exactions of the Rwandan and Ugandan Armies, the RCD, and the Mayi-Mayi, the Interahamwe former génocidaires also committed atrocities in order to force the local peasants to give them support.

The war officially ended in April 2003 through a compromise peace sponsored by the South African government and all foreign military forces withdrew from the Democratic Republic of Congo. A coalition government was set up in Kinshasa, with the various rebel groups joining the government of Joseph Kabila (Laurent-Désiré Kabila had been murdered in January 2001 by one of his own bodyguards and his son had succeeded him). Nearly three million people had died, more than three-quarters through starvation and lack of medical care rather than the direct effects of combat. The country’s infrastructure, already poor because of the neglect and corruption of the Mobutu years, had practically disappeared. There were no more roads, most schools were understaffed and in shambles, and the health system was almost nonexistent. The war had had another disastrous effect: thousands of women had been raped, many of them by men who were HIV positive. As a result AIDS spread rapidly throughout Eastern Congo. There was not the slightest foundation for a system of anti-retroviral drug distribution and even condoms were largely out of the reach of people who did not even have enough money to buy second-hand clothes (in this highly religious land attendance at Church services dropped drastically because people were ashamed to come into the house of God in dirty rags).

The peace agreement called for the creation of a national army but this proved difficult to achieve as the various armed groups were accustomed to obeying only their militia commanders and refused any centralized discipline. In Ituri, the Ugandans were reluctant to leave and continued their support of rival warlord militias, which colluded with them in looting the country through most of 2004. Ultimately a more aggressive approach by UN peacekeeping troops brought a modicum of order to this region in early 2005. However in North and South Kivu, armed groups of “demobilized” young men and children (often orphans) continued to brutalize the region, looting, killing and raping. In many ways, most of Congo remained hostage to the unending confusion of the East, where Rwanda kept its ties to armed groups in the hope of retaining influence and perhaps of one day making a military and economic comeback.

In Kinshasa, the transitional government remained divided between former rebels and former Kabila loyalists. Progress towards holding elections was slow, but after being postponed in 2005, legislative and presidential elections were held in June and July 2006 respectively. The elections were largely peaceful, except in Kinshasa where the rivalry between the incumbent Joseph Kabila and his closest rival, former MLC leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, exploded in an armed confrontation causing several casualties. In the second round of the presidential elections, held at the end of October 2006, Kabila secured a decisive victory and began a new five-year term as the country’s elected leader. Early in 2007, the Congolese war became the subject of the likely first trial before the International Criminal Court, when a pre-trial chamber approved charges of forcibly recruiting child soldiers against the militia leader Thomas Lubanga.

For the Democratic Republic of Congo, the ghosts of the last war still seem uncomfortably alive, even though they are largely contained in the Eastern part of the country. It is to be hoped that a progressive normalization will follow the elections, and that the country’s prodigious mineral riches and huge hydroelectric resources (Congo could supply power to the whole continent) will finally be harnessed for the economic development of what is potentially Africa’s richest nation.

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