How Millions Have Been Dying in the Congo

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.)

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.