A Decade After Rwanda, War Stalks Congo

By Marc Perelman

Published April 08, 2005, issue of April 08, 2005.
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GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — A decade after the genocide in neighboring Rwanda spilled over into this border town, unleashing years of warfare in this immense country, the scent of hatred is filling the air once again.

Listen to Dieudonné Jacques Bakungu Mythondeke, a vice governor of North Kivu province, as he blasts Rwanda’s “predatory” intentions, questions the loyalties of the local “Rwandophone” population — and warns ominously of swift military action.

Listen to Félicien Hitima, a spokesman for the Rwandophone community, as he describes the mischievous strategies hatched by the central government in faraway Kinshasa to punish his long-despised kinsmen — and explains their plans to “defend” themselves.

The eastern Congo provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu have seen repeated outbursts of factional violence over the past year, brought on by a power struggle between Rwanda and Congo, exacerbated by longstanding local disputes over citizenship and land.

It is a low-level conflict by international standards, but it is one of the several that have been quietly bleeding Congo for close to a decade, killing its population through disease and hunger rather than guns and machetes. The death rate is about 31,000 a month, according to a recent survey by the International Rescue Committee. Since 1998, according to the committee’s figures, the war in Congo has killed some 3.8 million. No other conflict in the world is remotely as deadly.

In recent months, international attention has centered on resurgent violence in the northeastern province of Ituri. But the Kivus are where the fighting started, and the simmering tension here is a stark reminder that the underlying causes of the war — or wars — remain unaddressed.

Two main wars have engulfed Congo in the past decade. The first was a rebellion against the longtime dictator and American ally Mobutu Sese Seko, led by former Marxist rebel Laurent Desire Kabila. Backed by Rwanda, Kabila toppled Mobutu in 1997.

Not long after seizing power, Kabila turned against Rwanda, setting off a second conflict two years later, in 1998. It became a mad scramble, with five neighboring states and a host of local warlords vying for power, position and resources. The war came to a standstill in 1999 and a peace accord was eventually signed three years later.

In the interim Kabila was murdered. His son Joseph replaced him in January 2001. Since the signing of the peace accord the next year, he has ruled as head of an unwieldy transitional coalition of feuding regional leaders. General elections are supposed to take place in June. Few observers believe they will be held on time.

The conflict in Congo is inseparable from the civil war that wracked Rwanda a decade ago, a murderous bloodletting between the two main ethnic groups, the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis. In 1994, Hutu extremists, after slaughtering 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates in a six-week genocide, were driven from power and fled en masse across the border to refugee camps in Congo. Cross-border skirmishing between the two groups eventually fueled the two regional wars. Peace agreements and international intervention have not stilled the ethnic tensions.

Indeed, the virus continues to morph and spread. Repeated incursions into Congo by Rwandan troops have led to “anti-Rwandese — mostly anti-Tutsi — hate sentiment that pervades all levels of Congolese society,” said a diplomat in Kinshasa. “This leads to all kinds of manipulation that are laying the stage for future massacres. Working for national reconciliation in the Kivus is an urgent necessity.”

The fractured politics of North Kivu are painfully apparent in the governor’s lakeside compound, an ensemble of pale yellow one-story buildings stretching around a manicured lawn that once served as Mobutu’s personal retreat.

The governor is Eugene Serufuli, vice president of the Rwanda-backed RCD-Goma party, which rules the region. Sitting in his office overlooking the majestic lake, under an official portrait of President Kabila, he denies any Rwandan presence on the ground and rejects United Nations claims that he controls a 10,000-strong local militia.

At the other end of the compound sits the vice governor, Bakungu Mythondeke, recently appointed by Kinshasa. “Rwanda wants to control our natural riches,” he declares. “We will sweep them out if they insist on staying.”

Paradoxically, here in eastern Congo, Hutus and Tutsis are frequently lumped together as “Rwandophones.” In addition to the post-1994 refugees, the group includes several million Hutus and Tutsis who settled here decades ago and have lived in uneasy coexistence with their neighbors.

Rwanda and its local allies have been eager to foster a strong regional identity, shared by Tutsis and Hutus. The central Congo government, in turn, uses the ancient Hutu-Tutsi hatred as a tool to assert itself.

Rwandophones and native groups lived in uneasy coexistence until 1994, when the Hutus fleeing Rwanda were welcomed by the Mobutu regime and tipped the balance in the area, fueling resentment among native Congolese groups.

Violence began when the so-called genocidaires, who had entered Congo with the refugees, began using refugee camps in and around Goma as bases for raids on their homeland.

The Tutsi-led Rwandan government of President Paul Kagame retaliated by backing the Kabila rebellion, which unseated Mobutu in 1997. The rebellion was accompanied by revenge massacres against exiled and local Hutus in North and South Kivu.

Two years later Kabila switched sides, using remnants of the Hutu genocidaires to fight against Rwanda and its main ally, Uganda. Rwanda, in turn, set up a proxy force inside Congo, the RCD-Goma.

Under the 2002 peace agreement, all foreign belligerents were to withdraw their troops from Congo. Kinshasa agreed to disarm the Hutu genocidaires, now grouped under the so-called Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR. But Rwanda only recalled its forces from eastern Congo last year, two years late, under international pressure. The Congolese government still has not dismantled the Hutu-led FDLR.

The Hutu rebels have been considerably weakened — they are estimated at 8,000 to 10,000 — and do not threaten the Kigali regime. However, they can still wreak havoc. More important, they provide an excuse for Rwanda to continue meddling in the region, keeping tempers at a boil.

In June 2004, rebels aligned with the pro-Rwandan RCD-Goma captured Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, and held it for two weeks until forced out under international pressure. The rebels claimed they were acting to protect the local Rwandophone population — mostly Tutsi — against persecution. Whether or not the persecution was real, their retreat unleashed a wave of virulent anti-Tutsi rhetoric and violence. Thousands of Tutsis fled across the border into Rwanda and Burundi.

To regain control, Kabila, who has been careful to bolster his Congolese nationalist credentials — partly to dispel persistent rumors that his mother is a Tutsi — ordered 10,000 troops into the Kivus. This prompted fears within an increasingly divided RCD-Goma that it could lose its last stronghold in resource-rich North Kivu. (In addition to coltan, a metallic ore used to make cellphones, North Kivu also produces cassiterite, an ore processed to make tin.)

Their concerns deepened when 160 Congolese Tutsi refugees were killed in a refugee camp in Burundi in August 2004. A Burundian extremist group claimed responsibility, but Rwanda and its RCD-Goma allies blamed the Congolese government and its FDLR Hutu allies. The accusation was dismissed by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch.

Tensions have mounted steadily since then. In October, the U.N. and other outside observers said North Kivu Governor Serufuli was distributing weapons to RCD-Goma sympathizers- a claim he denies.

Despite a flurry of international mediation efforts, fighting resumed in November 2004 when Kagame declared that he was sending his army into Congo to go after the FDLR. In response, Kinshasa dispatched 10,000 additional troops to the region. They were soundly defeated by RCD-Goma fighters in early December near the town of Kanyabayonga. Rwandan troops were reportedly seen in the area, though their numbers and role are unclear.

The U.N. mission, which has faced intense criticism for its passivity, eventually established a buffer zone and announced the dispatch of additional forces to signal a tougher stance. In recent months a tense standstill has taken hold.

Some observers see reason for hope. As of last summer, up to 1.2 million people had been forced by the fighting to flee into the disease-filled jungles of North Kivu, according to the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Goma, Patrick Lavand’homme. But the number has since decreased to between 600,000 and 800,000, he said.

Even more promising, some see signs that the local militias may be starting their long-delayed integration into the national army.

Another promising development took place last week when the Hutu-led FDLR announced for the first time that it was renouncing the use of force. Condemning the 1994 genocide, the group said it was willing to return peacefully to Rwanda and cooperate with international justice mechanisms.

Still, the interethnic tension is rife in Goma. Racist hate-speech is on the rise, ominously recalling the venom that preceded the 1994 genocide. Increasingly, the venom is not between Hutus and Tutsis but between the two groups and other Congolese. In December 2004, local Tutsi and Hutu leaders jointly published a “Memorandum of Congolese Rwandophones,” detailing a list of woes from hate speech and denial of citizenship to outright violence. They called on the national government to address the bigotry instead of blaming the country’s ills on Rwanda.

“Congo has shrunk for us,” said Hitima, a Hutu lawyer.

Aloys Tegera, director of the Pole Institute, a local analysis organization, pointed to political shifts behind the local Rwandophones’ complaints. The Congo Rwandophones, he said, had ironically been empowered by the conflicts of the 1990s, after years of second-class citizenship. “For the first time, they had power, politically, military and economically,” he said. The new power-sharing agreement and Rwanda’s troop withdrawal represent a threat to this newly acquired status, he added.

That sense of embattlement helps explain the formation of a new local militia around the governor, as well as last year’s military confrontations in Bukavu and Kanyabayonga.

Local Congolese groups say they are willing to fight back if the Rwandophone mobilization continues. To Dufina Taku, the head of the local Congolese volunteer association, the Rwandophones are a “fifth column” that needs to be dealt with forcefully.

For Karen Stauss, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, the siege mentality and the victimhood talk on one side and the hate rhetoric on the other bode ill for the tortured region.

“The tensions are not under the surface,” she said. “They are already at the surface.”






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