Kasika, 1998: Congo’s Srebrenica the World Ignored?

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. 4335-4367 (pp. 250-251):

So how did Congolese experience the violence? Many Congolese never did; they only heard about it and suffered the economic and political consequences. But for millions of people in the east of the country, an area roughly the size of Texas, daily life was punctuated by confrontations with armed men.

By 2001, fighting along the front line in the middle of the country had come to a standstill as a result of several peace deals. The east of the country, however, had seen an escalation of violence, as local Mai-Mai militias formed in protest of Rwandan occupation. This insurgency was fueled by rampant social grievances and by Laurent Kabila, who supported them with weapons and money. The Mai-Mai were too weak to threaten Rwanda’s control of main towns and roads, but they were able to prompt a violent counterinsurgency campaign that cost Rwanda whatever remaining legitimacy it once had.

It was this proxy war fought between Kigali and Kinshasa’s allies that caused the most suffering for civilians. Without providing any training, Kinshasa dropped tons of weapons and ammunition at various airports in the jungles of the eastern Congo for the Hutu militia as well as for Mai-Mai groups. The countryside became militarized, as discontented and unemployed youth joined militias and set up roadblocks to “tax” the local population. Family and land disputes, which had previously been settled in traditional courts, were now sometimes solved through violence, and communal feuds between rival clans or tribes resulted in skirmishes and targeted killings.

The RCD rebels, Rwanda’s main allies in the east, responded in kind. In both South Kivu and North Kivu, governors created local militias, so-called Local Defense Forces, to impose rebel control at the local level. By 2000, at least half a dozen such forces had been created by various RCD leaders. But instead of improving security, these ramshackle, untrained local militias for the most part just exacerbated the suffering by taxing, abusing, and raping the local population. Local traditional chiefs, who were the de facto administrators in much of the hinterlands, either were forced to collaborate or had to flee. In South Kivu, half of the dozen most important customary chiefs were killed or fled. In some areas, new customary chiefs were created or named by the RCD, usurping positions that had been held for centuries by other families.

The Rwandan, Ugandan, and Congolese proxies eventually ran amok, wreaking havoc. These fractious movements had not been formed organically, did not have to answer to a popular base—after all, they had been given their weapons by an outside power—and often had little interest other than surviving and accumulating resources. The dynamic bore a resemblance to Goethe’s sorcerer’s apprentice: As with the young magician’s broom, the rebel groups split into ever more factions as rebel leaders broke off and created their own fiefdoms, always seeking allegiances with regional powers to undergird their authority. According to one count, by the time belligerents came together to form a transitional government in 2002, Rwanda, Uganda, and the Congo had over a dozen rebel proxies or allies battling each other.

The massacre in Kasika, a small jungle village a hundred miles west of the Rwandan border, was a prime example of these tactics. Kasika has attained mythical status in the Congo. Politicians have invoked its name in countless speeches when they want to drum up populist support against Rwanda. Children in Kinshasa, who had never been close to the province of South Kivu, are taught about Kasika in classes intended to instill patriotism; Kabila’s government cited it prominently in a case it brought against Rwanda in the International Court of Justice. It was here that the RCD took its first plunge into mass violence just days after its creation in August 1998, massacring over a thousand villagers in reprisal for an attack by a local militia. Kasika is nothing more than clusters of mud huts built around a Catholic parish on a hill overlooking a valley. It was the headquarters of the customary chief of the Nyindu ethnic community, whose house and office sat on a hill opposite the parish, a series of large, red-brick structures with cracked ceramic shingles as roofing, laced with vines.

During the massacre, some of the Kasika villagers with radios nicknamed their village “Kosovo,” which was receiving round-the-clock coverage by international media, but no foreign journalist visited Kasika until a decade after the fact (p. 261)—and that journalist may have been Stearns. There is a BBC news report via the Vatican, because priests and nuns were killed, and a later UN investigation. The name “Kasika” doesn’t appear anywhere in Wikipedia’s coverage of the Congo Wars. This book’s chapter on Kasika, based on eyewitness accounts, is horrifying, as well as disgusting and depressing.

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Filed under Congo, military, nationalism, publishing, Rwanda, U.N., Uganda, war

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