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How Millions Have Been Dying in the Congo

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Marcus Bleasdale/VII
A poster of President Joseph Kabila on a campaign car two days before the run-off election that returned him to office, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, October 27, 2006

The brassy title of Jason Stearns’s book, more like that of an old rock album than a history, comes from a speech by Laurent Kabila. President of the Congo from 1997 until his murder in 2001, Kabila had replaced the interminable tyranny of Mobutu Sese Seko with his own much shorter and more erratic tyranny. He said: “Who has not been Mobutist in this country? Three-quarters of this country became part of it! We saw you all dancing in the glory of the monster.”

The remark is like Kabila himself: ambiguous, weirdly alluring, useless. It seems to accept that everyone with ambition will naturally be drawn into the dance around the autocrat, and yet (“We saw you all…”) to threaten those dancers with retribution. Who are “we”? The one quarter of the Congolese who did not become “part of it”? And does that mean that the nondancing minority has the right to rule the capering majority? It leaves you wondering if you have to be a monster in order to be glorious.

Jason Stearns himself does not believe in the glory of monsters. Neither does he accept a “Heart of Darkness” view of the Congo as a zone of hopeless, endemic monstrosity. This is a country he knows well (if it is possible to know well a place so enormous and so roadless). Stearns led the 2008 UN mission to study violence there, and worked on conflict and human rights in the Congo with a series of agencies and charities.

He does not swallow the rhetoric about a “failed state.” For him, the appalling events in the belt of Africa between the Atlantic and the Great Lakes are about remediable human failure: jerrybuilt social and political structures that collapse at the first tremor, lack of trained elites, the alternate meddling and indifference of the outside world, and—above all, for Stearns—the weakness of nation-state authority. “Failed state”? If independent Congo/Zaire had ever possessed a state coherent enough to fail, matters might have been less disastrous.

His book has been put together out of many dozens of interviews, sustained research, and Stearns’s personal experiences. He mentions that in the Congo a politician requires un bon carnet d’adresses—a high-value contact book. His own, judging by the access he has acquired, must be a very valuable carnet indeed.

This is not the story of the Rwanda genocide in 1994, in which 800,000 people—almost all civilians—were massacred by their ethnic rivals in the space of a hundred days. That great atrocity is now relatively well known. Instead, this book tells of the war that broke out in the same region two years later, and that was in many ways its consequence.

The conflict that became international in October 1996, when tiny Rwanda invaded gigantic but inchoate Congo, has been called “Africa”s First Great War.” At different times in the course of its three phases, the two local adversaries were joined by armed forces from Zimbabwe, Angola, Uganda, Chad, Namibia, and Burundi. (Cuba, which had sent troops under Che Guevara to fight in the Congo in the 1960s, stayed out of this one.) The war lasted, with one pause, for six years. Beyond overthrowing Mobutu, who fled the country after the first year, it achieved absolutely nothing.

The Thirty Years’ War in Europe (which Stearns occasionally refers to as a comparator of human savagery and destructiveness) did at least end in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, leaving the charred continent with a better system of conflict resolution. Africa after “Africa’s Great War” remains much as it was before. If there are differences, they are that governments and leaders are exhausted, and their treasuries empty. And, of course, in some parts of the continent there are fewer people.

How many people died in the Great Congo War? There’s no agreement even on this basic fact. The quick response by journalists is “five million.” Jason Stearns is more careful: “In 1996, a conflict began that has thus far cost the lives of over five million people.” (The population of Congo/Zaire at the time was over sixty million; that of Rwanda less than ten million.) The International Rescue Committee thought that 3.8 million people had died “because of” the second phase of the war, which began in 1998. Some Belgian researchers have put totals far lower, at under a million.

Some of these differences are simply about definitions. Death, but how? Stearns puts his finger on what may be the most shocking statistic of all:

The number of deaths is so immense that it becomes incomprehensible and anonymous, and yet the dying was not spectacular. Violence only directly caused 2 percent of the reported deaths.

In other words, the overwhelming majority of the victims died of easily treatable diseases, or of hunger and exposure. The Congo wars were not a Rwanda-style genocide, although they led to horrific genocidal incidents—the massacres by Rwandan Tutsis and Congolese forces of Hutu refugees, for example. The great dying was the result not of bullets or slashing pangas but of displacement.

Relief workers know what displacement can do, but historians have been slower to learn. In human catastrophes, millions of families are displaced and take flight, bringing with them only what they can carry (babies, blankets, a water container). What kills them is not usually enemy soldiery or burning lava but a compound of exhaustion, hunger, and disease that takes the old, the sick, and the infants first. Most of the Irish Famine victims perished not from direct starvation but from the consequences of being forced to abandon their homes in search of relief. They died of exposure and above all from “camp” epidemics brought on by lack of hygiene and overcrowding.

And the Congo itself had already been through colossal tragedies of displacement, generated by Leopold II’s infamous “Congo Free State” in the 1880s and 1890s. Everywhere in the interior, communities left their villages and fled into the rain forest to escape Force Publique terror squads sent to extort rubber and ivory quotas. Thousands were killed by colonial violence, but unknown millions died quietly beside jungle paths or on the banks of uncrossable rivers. And over a hundred years later that pattern repeated itself during the six-year Congo war that lasted until 2002. Thousands were killed in battle or foully cut to pieces in atrocities. But millions of families, driven from their homes as refugees, went into the forests and were simply not heard of again. Stearns adds: “Almost half of the victims were children.”

Many of those refugees had already lost their homes once. At the core of the whole tangled narrative of the war are the Hutu people from Rwanda, the pop- ulation group that engaged in the 1994 genocide of their neighbors, the Tutsis. The genocide took place at the end of a civil war that the ruling Hutus were losing, and can be seen as a final, insane act of vengeance. When it was over, more than a million Hutus—accompanied by their army (the FAR) and the Interahamwe militia that had committed much of the slaughter—fled across the border into Congo/Zaire. There they were interned in enormous camps close to the frontier.

All over east-central Africa, for several centuries, there has been tension between two ways of life that have also been two human silhouettes: the tall, graceful cattle-people and the shorter, sturdier agriculturalists. They have different names in different places, but in Rwanda and Burundi they are the Tutsi and the Hutu. There was almost always bad feeling between them. The Tutsi pastoralists were mobile, and often drove their herds into lands used by others for farming. But the tension seems to have become lethal only when Belgian colonial administrators selected the Tutsi as their “collaborating class.” Murderous intercommunal violence broke out as soon as the Congo lurched into independence in 1960, and the 1994 genocide came at the end of a thirty-year crescendo of pogroms.

The flight of the Hutus (les génocidaires) into eastern Congo created a new situation. Back in Rwanda, the insurgent Tutsi army (RPA) had captured the battered capital, Kigali, and was precariously in control of the country. But how could the new Rwanda regime tolerate the existence of this hostile Hutu mass encamped in Kivu just across the border, with heavily armed former soldiers and militia members, unpunished and committed to reconquest? In addition, the Hutu refugees were being supported by the president of Congo/Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu had been a close friend of the previous Rwandan president, the Hutu leader Juvénal Habyarimana. When his plane was shot down in April 1994, Mobutu gave asylum not only to his widow but to his corpse, which he kept in cold storage for years.

The Rwandans, under their new Tutsi leader Paul Kagame, hatched an outrageously ambitious plot. The only way they could destroy the Hutu camps and their armed forces was to destroy the vast Congo itself, or at least to overthrow the Mobutu regime. The fact that their target was ninety times as large as Rwanda, and that its capital Kinshasa was nearly a thousand miles from the Kivu refugee camps, did not deter them. But they needed a Congolese ally who could rally the country’s opposition to Mobutu and be rewarded with the presidential throne in Kinshasa.

This turned out to be the elderly firebrand Laurent Kabila. Then living in obscurity in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, Kabila belonged to the generation of visionary Marxist revolutionaries who had led armed struggles for African liberation in the 1960s. Back then, Che Guevara thought Kabila had “genuine qualities of a mass leader,” but lacked “revolutionary seriousness.”

Kabila was certainly a legend. But one of the senior Rwandans who now sought him out told Jason Stearns that the “old man seemed like a relic of the past.” The point was that “we just needed someone to make the whole operation look Congolese.” The Rwandans flew him to Kigali, still in his grubby safari suit and sandals, and constructed around him a “front” organization known as the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL).

To be fair, the Rwandans did not always see invasion as the only option. At first, they had demanded that the civilian refugees should be physically separated from their FAR soldiers and militias, who should be deported to new camps safely distant from the Rwandan frontier.

On paper, this made sense. Had it been done, the Congo wars might have been avoided. But the price proved too high for the Security Council. The separation could only be done by force, and it was reckoned that the cost of mustering 8,000 UN soldiers to shift 30,000 FAR members and their families across Congo/Zaire would be over $100 million. (French attitudes did not help. France, whose small force had lamentably failed to protect the Tutsi against genocide in 1994, now chose to regard the whole crisis as a linguistic power game: Mobutu and the Hutu were “francophone” clients of Paris, whereas Kagame and the Tutsi RPF were English-speaking tools of a new Anglo-Saxon imperialism led by Madeleine Albright.)

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