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How Millions Have Been Dying in the Congo

Marcus Bleasdale/VII
A child mining for gold in Watsa, Ituri Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, October 2004

After several ultimatums ran out, the Rwandan army invaded Congo/Zaire in October 1996. Mobutu’s forces put up little resistance. The Hutu camps emptied, and most of the refugees, between 400,000 and 600,000 human beings, fled westward into the Congo forests.

By now, Rwanda was leading an international coalition against Mobutu. Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, had been backing the Tutsi and their armed forces for years; Angola blamed Mobutu for supporting the UNITA rebellion; Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Eritrea, and Ethiopia were all involved, and all subscribed to rhetoric about an “African Renaissance.” Mobutu had provoked this alliance by his own disastrous habit of assisting rebel uprisings on the territory of his neighbors. But he had done nothing to prepare for the backlash. Although Mobutu had been heavily subsidized by the United States and others as a bulwark of anti-communism, he failed to pass wealth on to the army. As Stearns recounts, one general was running a taxi fleet on army gasoline, another did cross-border smuggling in army trucks, and a third was renting his troops out as security guards. Mobutu consoled his unpaid soldiers with the immortal words: “You have guns; you don’t need a salary.”

As the Rwandan invaders penetrated into the eastern Congo, atrocities broke out. The Rwandans murdered the Hutus who had not fled. The indigenous population turned on local Tutsi communities, who had been living in Kivu for over a hundred years, and butchered them. Village vigilante squads armed with machetes and bludgeons killed anyone who looked unfamiliar. Mobutu’s army did nothing to stop this as it retreated. Talking to Stearns, one Congolese officer recalled his dialogue with mutinous soldiers:

“We think you are a traitor. Every time you send us into battle, we get attacked!”
“But that’s what war is about!”
“You are a sadist!”

Not surprisingly, the invaders easily took Congo/Zaire’s second city, Kisangani. Soon they were marching into Katanga, the province where mining wealth was concentrated. Laurent Kabila, now a conqueror at the head of an army partly composed of heavily armed children in black Wellington boots, entered the Katangan capital, Lubumbashi, in April. As he did so, Stearns writes, a flock of executive jets landed at the airport, carrying gentlemen from Goldman Sachs, First Bank of Boston, the Anglo American Mining Corporation, and other firms. In their briefcases, they brought mineral concession contracts ready for Kabila to sign.

Meanwhile, the Rwandans and their AFDL allies pursued the Hutu refugees through the rain forests. When they caught up with them, they slaughtered them. The huge temporary camp for refugees at Tingi-Tingi attracted international concern for a time, until Kabila’s AFDL troops overran it in February 1997. They killed only the men and the boys; the others ran away into the jungle. Trying to give a figure for the fate of all the refugees in this period, the charity Médecins Sans Frontières has calculated that over 60,000 were murdered, while another 180,000 remain “missing.” More than half the victims were women.

On May 16, 1997, Mobutu was driven to the airport followed by ten carloads of luggage. Most of the cars and their contents were abandoned on the tarmac, as he left his country forever, flying to Togo and then Morocco. Laurent Kabila now moved into Kinshasa, a city he hadn’t seen for over thirty years. Eccentric and lonely, “his quixotic plans for the country were stymied by the disorganization around him,” but one would have liked Stearns to explain what those plans were. Democracy was clearly not high on the list, but neither was socialism. He used what now seemed old-fashioned rhetoric about “US imperialism.” But his attempt to bring Congo capitalism under state control ended with the creation of COMTEX—a bundle of state assets converted into a private trust whose beneficiaries were the ruling elite.

Kabila is now remembered with some contempt. The journalist Howard French dismissed him as “a frontier bandit and small-time terrorist…highwayman and mountebank.” It’s hard not to suspect that he was more interesting than that. Certainly, he turned out not to be the compliant stooge the Rwandans had expected.

Fifteen months of uneasy peace ensued, as relations between Kabila’s followers and their Rwandan sponsors rapidly turned sour. His army leaders tried to edge Tutsi colleagues out of influence, and they responded by making conspiratorial contact with Mobutu’s officers in exile. They were not the only plotters. When the Rwandans discovered that Kabila was making secret advances to the FAR, the remnants of the old Hutu army, they decided to dethrone him. In early August 1998, Tutsi units in Kinshasa mutinied, Rwandan forces again invaded the Congo, and Rwandan commandos hijacked a plane to fly a thousand miles west and seize the airfield at Kitona, on the Atlantic.

The second Congo War had be- gun. But who began it is a question Stearns admits he can’t answer. Kabila’s approach to the FAR was crazily provocative. Equally, the Rwandan decision to depose him by another transcontinental offensive was typically reckless and overconfident.

Once again, there was a search for allies. This time, Kabila could enlist only Zimbabwe and Angola, but their troops managed to beat back the Rwandan column advancing on Kinshasa. The Rwandans, for their part, were helped by a Ugandan army that thrust into the northern Ituri region. And, as in 1996, the Rwandans invented a dummy Congolese rebellion (this time known as the Rally for a Democratic Congo, or RCD).

Its first leader, and one of the few attractive characters in Stearns’s book, was the intellectual Ernest Wamba. Surreal as it may sound, he had settled in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in order to study the post-Marxist thought of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, before becoming an adviser to President Julius Nyerere in Tanzania. Sadly, Wamba was not very worldly. As Congolese president-designate, he sold the rights to found a new central bank to the ambassador of the Dominion of Melchisedek (i.e., a dummy state created in 1986), otherwise Allen Ziegler on the run from the US Securities and Exchange Commission. Soon afterward, Wamba fell out with his RCD colleagues (he wanted to check their bank accounts) and was removed, eventually returning as a senator after the war.

Meanwhile, a new power broker had emerged in the northern province of Equateur. In the liveliest section of his book, Stearns introduces Jean-Pierre Bemba, a young man who lost all his businesses when Mobutu fell and who then decided to join the “second war” to unseat Kabila. With Uganda’s backing, this large, exuberant figure rapidly established himself as a warlord at Gbadolite, the remote jungle city that Mobutu had designed for himself with three palaces, a nuclear bunker, and an airstrip built for Concordes. But Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), nicknamed “les Effaceurs” by its victims, turned out to be as prone to rape and murder as any other militia. (Bemba is now on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for rape, torture, and pillage committed by his men.)

The war dragged on, with fighting constantly breaking out between troops supposed to be allies. In May 1999, a horrific conflict exploded in the city of Kisangani as its foreign conquerors, the Ugandans and the Rwandans, battled with heavy weapons in the streets. Thousands of Congolese civilians died, then and in the second round of fighting a year later. In October 2000, Kabila’s forces launched a full-scale offensive in Katanga. But after early victories, the attack was broken and Kabila’s forces were routed. His commanders, including his son Joseph, abandoned their tanks and transport and fled across the border into Zambia.

Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola pulled their troops out of the war, warning Kabila to negotiate for peace. The end was close. But it came in a way that nobody had foreseen. On January 17, 2001, one of Kabila’s bodyguards, a young man who had been a child soldier, shot him dead.

To this day, nobody knows why, Stearns included:

Sometimes it seems that by crossing the border into the Congo one abandons any sort of Archimedean perspective on truth…as if the country itself were the stuff of some postmodern fiction.

That seems overwrought. As Stearns himself confirms, motives to assassinate Kabila were anything but mystifying; they were almost too abundant to choose from. Apart from being a target as a war leader, he had—among other offenses—wrecked the currency, engaged in murky diamond dealings with Angolan rebels, and executed the adored young leader of his boy soldiers.

Laurent was succeeded by his son Joseph. The hard-bitten caucus that chose him may have expected that this reclusive young man would be pliant. They were as wrong as the Rwandans had been about his father. Joseph Kabila (still the president today) immediately showed independence; he sacked his cabinet, announced that the war must end, and toured Europe and the United States to “normalize” relations. Under American pressure, Rwanda agreed to withdraw from the Congo, and a transitional government was set up including both Kabila and Jean-Paul Bemba. It ruled until the 2006 elections, which returned Joseph Kabila to office with a large majority.

Peace was finally agreed on by the Congolese factions in December 2002. It remains only relative. A long insurrection in eastern Congo led by General Laurent Nkunda ended three years ago when he was unexpectedly arrested by the Rwandans. But communal hatred still smolders like a volcanic fissure all along the Kivu region that borders Rwanda. For Stearns, this is the third phase of the unfinished Congo war. It is a war that will never finish until the mineral wealth of eastern Congo is torn out of the hands of the militias, the armed gangs who occupy the mines and use their profits to buy weapons.

Peter Eichstaedt’s short book, Consuming the Congo: War and Conflict Minerals in the World’s Deadliest Place*, takes up the story where Jason Stearns leaves off. Eichstaedt, a formidable journalist and Africa expert, traces the whole grimy trail of exploitation. It begins with ragged villagers digging the gold, tin, or coltan (used in computers and cell phones), continues up through the militias who tax the diggers ruthlessly, on to the négociants who in turn sell to the comptoirs in the eastern Congo cities of Goma or Bukavu, who deliver the ore to international smelting corporations, mostly in Asia. So far efforts to smash this chain—which still finances the militias in their campaigns of mass rape and massacre—have been unsuccessful.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is not only a wise and lucid unraveling of political history. As well as “big men” actors, Stearns questioned many survivors of battle and massacre, and it is their words that will haunt his readers. The tale of Michel in the village of Kilungutwe, for instance, who was saved by an angel. When the others in his hiding place were being dragged out to have their throats cut, a woman in white—“she seemed to be glowing”—appeared beside him and in words “coming…from inside my head” told him how to escape through the roof. Or the pseudoscientific words that in Congo French can signify life or death: génocidaire, envelopperie (mass bribery), effaceur (terminator), and—deadliest—morphologie, meaning the way you can tell one of Them by his shape, his walk, the angle of his nose.

Stearns does not take the easy line that neocolonial interference brought the catastrophe about. Again and again, he returns to the absence of credible authority and, like other foreign writers, laments the destruction of the old precolonial kingdoms. Stearns would probably agree with the Columbia professor Mahmood Mamdani in blaming the damnable principle of “nativism,” which defines local government according to ethnic exclusivity: “The only viable means of popular mobilization remains ethnicity, although even that has been gutted of much of its moral content….” In contrast to the Holocaust, the Congolese millions were slain not by a state bureaucracy but by its absence.

  1. *

    Lawrence Hill Books, 2011. 

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