Monthly Archives: May 2011

Mobutu’s Mercenaries, 1996

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 2126-2158:

There were few memorable battles for the rebels as they crossed the country. Bukavu was one of the fiercer ones, as the Zairian army tried to put up some resistance; later, they knew better. Goma fell quickly as a result of treason, as Mobutu’s officers sold equipment and intelligence to their enemies in the months prior to the invasion and then did little to defend the town. Simultaneously, Ugandan troops had crossed the border to the north and taken the town of Mahagi with only thirty soldiers. A rebel commander told me that three of his men on a motorcycle defeated two hundred Mobutu soldiers in another town in the northeast.

Where there was resistance, it was often because of foreign troops. Rwandan ex-FAR [Forces Armées Rwandaises] were fighting alongside the Zairian army, trying to protect the retreating refugees. In Kindu, along the upper reaches of the Congo River, over a thousand ex-FAR joined Mobutu’s troops, although they were poorly coordinated and soon scattered. Mobutu’s officers, however, had not given up. They decided to make a stand in Kisangani, the country’s third largest city and the gateway to the east, located at a bend in the Congo River. The city had a long airstrip and was a major river port. The army’s high command flew in reinforcements and also mined the airport and the main roads leading to town from the east. Diplomats speculated that Mobutu would be history if the town fell.

Mobutu’s generals began frantically organizing other foreign support. Using their contacts in Belgrade and Paris, they managed to hire around 280 mercenaries, mostly French and Serbs, under the command of Belgian colonel Christian Tavernier, along with some attack helicopters and artillery.

It was too little, too late. The area they had to cover was too large, and the Zairian army too disorganized for them to have much impact. The soldiers of fortune were also perhaps not of the best quality. A French analyst described them as a mixture between “Frederick Forsyth’s ‘dogs of war’ and the Keystone Kops.” He went on to disparage the Serbs’ performance in particular: “They spent their days getting drunk and aimlessly harassing civilians. They did not have proper maps, they spoke neither French nor Swahili, and soon most of them were sick with dysentery and malaria.”

Tavernier chose as his operational base Watsa, a remote town in the northeast that had little strategic importance, but where he had obtained mining rights. The colonel himself was seen more often in the upscale Memling Hotel in Kinshasa than on the battlefield, haranguing foreign correspondents, boasting of his feats, and complaining of government ineptitude.

Internal tensions also hampered operations. The French, mostly former soldiers from the Foreign Legion, were better connected and paid up to five times as much as the Serbs—up to $10,000 per month for the officers. But the Serbs controlled most of the aircraft and heavy weaponry, old machines leased at inflated prices from the Yugoslav army. The French accused their counterparts of amateurism; the Serbs retorted that the last time the French had won a serious battle was at Austerlitz in 1805.

On the battlefield, everything fell apart. The Serbs never provided the air support the French demanded, complaining of missing parts and a lack of fuel. On several occasions, they even bombed Mobutu’s retreating troops, killing dozens. Mobutu’s security advisor remembered the episode: “We had two different delegations from Zaire recruiting mercenaries separately. What was the result? We had mercenaries from different countries who spoke different languages…. We bought weapons from different countries that didn’t work together. It was a veritable Tower of Babel.”

The mercenaries behaved abysmally toward the local population. Even today, residents of Kisangani remember the deranged Serbian commander Colonel Jugoslav “Yugo” Petrusic, driving about town in his jeep, harassing civilians. He shot and killed two evangelical preachers who annoyed him with their megaphone-blasted prayers. He was sure that AFDL rebels had infiltrated Kisangani, and he arrested civilians for interrogation, subjecting them to electroshocks from a car battery and prodding them with a bayonet.

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Filed under Belgium, Congo, France, military, Rwanda, Uganda, war, Yugoslavia

The Hutu Jacobin Revolution, 1959

From The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, trans. by Klara Glowczewska (Vintage, 2002), Kindle Loc. 2251-2292:

The Tutsis are not shepherds or nomads; they are not even breeders. They are the owners of the herds, the ruling caste, the aristocracy.

The Hutus, on the other hand, constitute the much more numerous and subordinate caste of farmers (in India they are called Vaisyas). The relations between the Tutsis and the Hutus were authentically feudal—the Tutsi was the lord, the Hutu his vassal. The Hutus lived by cultivating land. They gave a portion of their harvest to their master in exchange for protection and for the use of a cow (the Tutsis had a monopoly on cattle; the Hutus could only lease them from their seigneurs). Everything according to the feudal order—the dependence, the customs, the exploitation.

Gradually, toward the middle of the twentieth century, a dramatic conflict arises between the two castes. The object of the dispute is land. Rwanda is small, circumscribed, and densely populated. As often in Africa, a battle erupts between those who make their living raising cattle and those who cultivate the land. Usually, however, the spaces on the continent are so great that one side can move onto unoccupied territory and the sparks of war are extinguished. In Rwanda, such a solution is impossible—there is no place to go, nowhere to retreat to. Meantime, the Tutsis’ herds increase and need ever more grazing land. There is but one way to create new pastures: by taking land from the peasants, i.e., by ejecting the Hutus from their territories. But the Hutus are already cramped. Their numbers have been swelling rapidly for years. Making matters worse, the lands they farm are poor, for all intents and purposes infertile. The mountains of Rwanda are covered with a very thin layer of soil, so thin that when the rainy season comes each year, the downpours wash away large stretches of it, and in many places where the Hutus had their little fields of manioc and corn, naked rock now glistens.

So, on the one side, the powerful, expanding herds of cattle—the symbol of Tutsi wealth and strength; and on the other the squeezed, huddled, increasingly displaced Hutus. There is no room, there is no land. Someone must leave, or perish. Such is the situation in Rwanda in the fifties, when the Belgians enter the picture. They have suddenly become highly involved: Africa is just then at a critical juncture, there is a surging wave of liberation, of anticolonialism, and there is pressure to act, to make decisions. Belgium is among those powers whom the independence movement has caught most by surprise. Thus, Brussels has no game plan, its officials do not really know what to do. As is usual in these circumstances, their response is to delay finding real solutions, to stall. Until now, the Belgians ruled Rwanda through the Tutsis, leaning on them and using them. But the Tutsis are the most educated and ambitious sector of the Banyarwanda, and it is they who now are demanding freedom. And they want it immediately, something for which the Belgians are utterly unprepared. So Brussels abruptly switches tactics: it abandons the Tutsis and begins to support the more submissive, docile Hutus. It begins to incite them against the Tutsis. These politics rapidly bear fruit. The emboldened, encouraged Hutus take up arms. A peasant revolt erupts in Rwanda in 1959.

In Rwanda, alone in all of Africa, the liberation movement assumed the form of a social, antifeudal revolution. In all of Africa, only Rwanda had its siege of the Bastille, its dethronement of the king, its Gironde and its terror. Groups of peasants, enraged, inflamed Hutus armed with machetes, hoes, and spears, moved against their masters-rulers, the Tutsis. A great massacre began, such as Africa had not seen for a long time. The peasants set fire to the households of their lords, slit their throats, and crushed their skulls. Rwanda flowed with blood, stood in flames. A massive slaughter of cattle began; the peasants, often for the first time in their lives, could eat as much meat as they wished. At the time, the country had a population of 2.6 million, including 300,000 Tutsis. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Tutsis were murdered, and as many fled to neighboring states—to the Congo, Uganda, Tanganyika, and Burundi. The monarchy and feudalism ceased to exist, and the Tutsi caste lost its dominant position. Power was now seized by the Hutu peasantry. When Rwanda gained its independence in 1962, it was members of that caste who formed the first government. At its head was a young journalist, Grégoire Kayibanda. I was visiting Rwanda for the first time then. My memories of Kigali, the capital, are of a small town. I was unable to find a hotel; perhaps there wasn’t one. Some Belgian nuns finally took me in, letting me sleep in the maternity ward of their neat little hospital.

The Hutus and the Tutsis awoke from such a revolution as from a bad dream. Both had lived through a massacre, the former as its perpetrators, the latter as its victims, and such an experience leaves a painful and indelible mark. The Hutus have mixed emotions. On the one hand, they vanquished their masters, cast off the feudal yoke, and for the first time attained power; on the other hand, they did not defeat their lords in an absolute way, did not annihilate them, and this consciousness, that the enemy was painfully wounded but still lives and will seek vengeance, sowed in their hearts an insuppressible and mortal fear (let us remember that fear of revenge is deeply rooted in the African mentality, that the immemorial right of reprisal has always regulated interpersonal, private, and clan relations here). And there is a lot to be afraid of. For although the Hutus seized the mountainous fortress of Rwanda and established their rule there, a Tutsi fifth column, numbering around 100,000, remains within its borders; furthermore, and perhaps even more dangerously, the fortress is encircled by the encampments of Tutsis expelled from it yesterday.


Filed under Belgium, democracy, economics, nationalism, Rwanda, war

Scope of the Great War of Africa, 1996–?

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 130-146:

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a vast country, the size of western Europe and home to sixty million people. For decades it was known for its rich geology, which includes large reserves of cobalt, copper, and diamonds, and for the extravagance of its dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, but not for violence or depravity.

Then, in 1996, a conflict began that has thus far cost the lives of over five million people.

The Congolese war must be put among the other great human cataclysms of our time: the World Wars, the Great Leap Forward in China, the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides. And yet, despite its epic proportions, the war has received little sustained attention from the rest of the world. The mortality figures are so immense that they become absurd, almost meaningless. From the outside, the war seems to possess no overarching narrative or ideology to explain it, no easy tribal conflict or socialist revolution to use as a peg in a news piece. In Cambodia, there was the despotic Khmer Rouge; in Rwanda one could cast the genocidal Hutu militias as the villains. In the Congo these roles are more difficult to fill. There is no Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin. Instead it is a war of the ordinary person, with many combatants unknown and unnamed, who fight for complex reasons that are difficult to distill in a few sentences—much to the frustration of the international media. How do you cover a war that involves at least twenty different rebel groups and the armies of nine countries, yet does not seem to have a clear cause or objective? How do you put a human face on a figure like “four million” when most of the casualties perish unsensationally, as a result of disease, far away from television cameras?

The conflict is a conceptual mess that eludes simple definition, with many interlocking narrative strands. The New York Times, one of the few American newspapers with extensive foreign coverage, gave Darfur nearly four times the coverage it gave the Congo in 2006, when Congolese were dying of war-related causes at nearly ten times the rate of those in Darfur.

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Filed under Cambodia, China, Congo, Darfur, disease, publishing, war

Africa’s New Leaders vs. Mobutu, 1996

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 993-1030:

By mid-1996, Museveni [of Uganda] and Kagame [of Rwanda] had stitched together an impressive alliance of African governments behind their drive to overthrow Mobutu. The war that started in Zaire in September 1996 was not, above all, a civil war. It was a regional conflict, pitting a new generation of young, visionary African leaders against Mobutu Sese Seko, the continent’s dinosaur. Never had so many African countries united militarily behind one cause, leading some to dub the war Africa’s World War. Unlike that war, however, the battle for the Congo would not be carried out in trenches over years, leading to millions of military casualties. Here, the battles were short and the number of soldiers killed in the thousands, figures dwarfed by the number of civilians killed. Unlike World War II, the African allies banded together not against aggressive expansionism, but against the weakness of the enemy.

The leader of this coalition was its youngest, smallest member: Rwanda. It was typical of the RPF, who had played David to Goliath several times before and would do so again later. At the outset, it seemed to be the perfect embodiment of a just war: Kigali was acting as a last resort based on legitimate security concerns.

What seems obvious in hindsight—that Mobutu’s army had been reduced to a mockery of itself, that Mobutu’s hold on power had crumbled—was a vague hypothesis in RPF intelligence briefings at the time. When Kagame told his officers that they would go all the way to Kinshasa, they nodded politely but in private shook their heads. That was a journey of over 1,000 miles, through unknown terrain, similar to walking from New York to Miami through swamps and jungles and across dozens of rivers. They would have to fight against 50,000 of Mobutu’s soldiers as well as perhaps 50,000 ex-FAR and Interahamwe. It seemed impossible. “We never thought we could make it all the way to Kinshasa,” Patrick Karegeya, the Rwandan intelligence chief, told me.

It is easy to forget, now that greed and plunder claim the headlines as the main motives for conflict in the region, that its beginnings were steeped in ideology. The Rwandan-backed invasion was perhaps the heyday of the African Renaissance, riding on the groundswell of the liberation of South Africa from apartheid, and of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Rwanda from dictatorships. It was an alliance motivated in part by the strategic interests of individual governments, but also by a larger spirit of pan-Africanism. Not since the heyday of apartheid in South Africa had the continent seen this sort of mobilization behind a cause. For the leaders of the movement, it was a proud moment in African history, when Africans were doing it for themselves in face of prevarication from the west and United Nations. Zimbabwe provided tens of millions of dollars in military equipment and cash to the rebellion. Eritrea sent a battalion from its navy to conduct covert speedboat operations on Lake Kivu. Ethiopia and Tanzania sent military advisors. President Museveni recalled: “Progressive African opinion was galvanised.”

Absent from these talks, however, were the Congolese. Their country was to be liberated for them by foreigners who knew little to nothing of their country. And of course, these foreigners would soon develop other interests than just toppling Mobutu. Within several years, the Congo was to become the graveyard for this lofty rhetoric of new African leadership as preached by Mbeki, Albright, and many others. Freedom fighters were downgraded to mere marauding rebels; self-defense looked ever more like an excuse for self-enrichment. Leaders who had denounced the big men of Africa who stayed in power for decades began appearing more and more like the very creatures they had fought against for so many decades.

In 1996, however, the future remained bright.

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Filed under Congo, democracy, economics, Eritrea, Ethiopia, nationalism, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, war, Zimbabwe

Help the Victims of Genocide and the Perpetrators?

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 454-466:

In southwestern Rwanda, the Hutu flight was stalled by the deployment of a UN-mandated French military mission, dubbed Operation Turquoise, intended to protect the few remaining Tutsi in that region as well as aid workers. It was one of the many absurdities of the Rwandan crisis: The French government and its contractors had made thirty-six shipments of weapons to Habyarimana’s government between 1990 and 1994, worth $11 million, and had deployed seven hundred fifty French troops, who helped with military training, planning, and even interrogation of RPF prisoners. Just months after they had finished helping to train the Interahamwe, the French, wolves turned shepherds, announced a humanitarian intervention to bring an end to the killing.

The French troops did save Tutsi lives. They also, however, refused to arrest the Habyarimana government and army officials in their territory who were known to have organized massacres. Hate radio continued broadcasting unhindered from the area controlled by the French, exhorting the population to continue the extermination of Tutsi. Meanwhile, across the Zairian border in Goma, the base of French operations, at least five shipments of weapons from France were delivered to the ex-FAR leadership who had fled from Kigali. To add insult to injury, French president François Mitterrand personally authorized a donation of $40,000 to Habyarimana’s wife, one of the most extremist members of the president’s inner circle, when she arrived in Paris fleeing the violence in country. The donation was labeled as “urgent assistance to Rwandan refugees.”

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Filed under France, migration, military, nationalism, Rwanda, war

Help the Victims of Genocide or the Perpetrators?

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 608-620:

The refugee camps were set up in July 1994 and stayed in place for over two years. Some would swell to contain more than 400,000 inhabitants, becoming the largest refugee camps in the world and larger than any city in eastern Zaire. Together they housed over a million people. In a perverse way, they provoked a mobilization of international resources that the genocide never had. Within days of the first arrivals, aid workers detected a cholera outbreak; the virulent parasite spread fast in the unhygienic and cramped quarters. Without proper health care, the disease killed the weak refugees within days, emptying their bodies of liquids through violent diarrhea and vomiting until their organs failed. By July 28, 1994, a thousand bodies were being collected a day and dumped unceremoniously into chalk-dusted pits by the dump-truck load.

Foreign television crews who had not been able to reach Rwanda during the genocide now set up camp in Goma; the pictures of hundreds of chalk-dusted bodies tumbling into mass graves suggested a strange moral equivalency to the recent genocide, except that this catastrophe was easier to fix: Instead of a complicated web of violence in which military intervention would have been messy and bloody, here was a crisis that could be addressed by spending money. Over the next two years, donors spent over $2 billion on the refugee crisis in eastern Zaire, more than twice as much as they spent on helping the new Rwandan government. The RPF was furious. Vice President Paul Kagame lamented, “Personally, I think this question of refugees is being overplayed at the expense of all our other problems. We no longer talk about orphans, widows, victims [in Rwanda]. We’re only talking about refugees, refugees, refugees.”

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Filed under Congo, disease, migration, NGOs, Rwanda, war

From Clan and Class to Ethnicity in Rwanda

From Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 387-420, 431-40:

Ethnic-based violence, the most extreme form of which was the genocide, is so often associated with the Congolese and Rwandan wars that it is worth trying to understand its causes. We tend to see the history of Rwanda as the history of a struggle between two ethnic groups, the agriculturist Hutu and the cattleherding Tutsi. An honest interrogation of the past, however, would require us to throw most of these crude concepts out the window, or at least to deconstruct them. The Rwandan state in its current geographical and political form did not come into existence until the twentieth century, after centuries of fighting between competing kingdoms and princely states.

Ethnic identities behind the rift between Hutu and Tutsi are being constantly contested and redefined with the changing political, cultural, and economic landscape. Until the eighteenth century, for example, ethnicity was less important than class and clan-based identities, which themselves coexisted alongside several layers of regional and social identities. Thus, each of the twenty major clans in Rwanda includes both Hutu and Tutsi, and among each ethnic group one can find poor, landless peasants as well as wealthier princes. To label someone a Hutu and leave it at that neglects that she may, depending on the social context, see herself more as a southerner, a member of the Abega clan, or a follower of the Pentecostal church. This is not just hair-splitting; much of contemporary Rwandan politics has been shaped by these competing and overlapping identities.

The polarization of Rwandan society into Hutu and Tutsi increased with King Rujugira’s consolidation of the Rwandan state in the eighteenth century. He expanded his armies and began subjugating much of what is today Rwanda, including areas where these ethnic distinctions previously had little traction. His armies’ long military campaigns required more revenues and deeper administrative penetration of society. The military, which was led by Tutsi, became the basis for a bureaucracy that administered land and collected taxes. Progressively, the loose distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi tightened and became more hierarchical. By the late nineteenth century, when the first colonizers arrived, many Hutu depended on Tutsi chiefs for land to farm and had to pay tithes as well as provide free manual labor. Still, ethnic identity remained fluid, with intermarriages between ethnic groups and the possibility, albeit rare, for rich Hutu to become “promoted” to Tutsi if they owned many cattle and had power in society. At the local level, Hutu remained influential, in particular in the administration of land. Still, social arrangements varied greatly between different regions, with some, like Gisaka in eastern Rwanda, not showing much ethnic polarization until much later.

The conquest of Rwanda—first by Germans, then Belgians—radically altered social structures. A tiny group of white administrators was faced with ruling a complex, foreign country they barely understood. As elsewhere in Africa, the new rulers chose to rule through what they thought were well-established, existing structures. They thus empowered the Tutsi monarchy, which they saw as the “natural” elite, abolished checks and balances on the royal family, and streamlined the local administration by ousting Hutu chiefs and vesting all power in a Tutsi-dominated administration. At the same time, they helped the royal court double the territory under its control, conquering kingdoms and princely states around its periphery. The delicate social balance between the farmers and the pastoralists, the royal elite and the peasantry, the rich and the poor was brutally disrupted. Whereas Hutu peasants had previously been able to appeal to their relatives in case of abuses by the government, or at least play different chiefs off against each other, now they were left at the mercy of a Tutsi administration.

The European rulers grounded their rule in an ideology and ethnography heavily influenced by racial theories popular in the United States and Europe at the time. John Hanning Speke, one of the first British explorers in the region, had written in 1863 about a distinct “Asiatic” sophistication among some of the people, presumably Tutsi, he encountered. “In these countries,” he wrote, “government is in the hands of foreigners, who had invaded and taken possession of them, leaving the agricultural aborigines to till the ground.” Speke, dabbling in history and religion, conjectured a link between these tribes and Ethiopia and proposed a “historical” basis for what he claimed to observe: “The traditions of these tribes go as far back as the scriptural age of King David.”

The first German governor of Rwanda, Count von Goetzen, theorized “the Tutsi are Hamitic pastoralists from Ethiopia, who have subjugated a tribe of Negro Bantus,” while Catholic prelate Monsignor Le Roy put it differently: “Their intelligent and delicate appearance, their love of money, their capacity to adapt to any situation seem to indicate a Semitic origin.” Armed with rulers and measuring tape, craniometric Belgian administrators went about rigidifying with physical measurements the previously more fluid boundaries between Tutsi and Hutu identities. These colonial fantasies soon became engraved on the consciousness of the colonized, as well. The Tutsi elite, long favored under the Belgians, seized on the myths to justify their continued superiority, imbibing the stereotypes of Hutu—as espoused by a Belgian priest—as “the most common type of black, brachycephalic and prognathous, with agronomic taste and aptitudes, sociable and jovial … with thick lips and squashed noses, but so good, so simple, so loyal.” Hutu dissidents, in the meantime, appropriated the stereotypes of Tutsi as a race of crafty herders from Ethiopia to rally support against “the foreigners.”

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Filed under Belgium, economics, Germany, nationalism, Rwanda