Trench Warfare in Southeastern Congo, 2000

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. 4739-4774 (pp. 273-274):

It was just north of Pweto, in the small village of Mutoto Moya, that, amid the long elephant grass of the savannah, one of the war’s most important battles took place. Located in the middle of gently rolling plains, the village stood at the gateway to Lubumbashi, the capital of the mineral-rich province, just four days away by foot along good roads.

Around 3,000 Rwandan and Burundian troops had been held at a stalemate for months by twice as many Zimbabwean and Hutu soldiers. The two forces stared at each other across 8 miles of twin trenches, separated by a one-mile stretch of empty land.

Mutoto Moya was one of the only instances of trench warfare in the Congo. Both sides had dug man-high trenches that meandered for miles. Inside the muddy walls, one could find kitchens, card games, makeshift bars, and cots laid out for soldiers to sleep. This was one of the few instances when Africa’s Great War resembled its European counterpart eighty years earlier.

For the Rwandan and Burundian soldiers, many of whom had grown up in cooler climates, the conditions were poor. It was hot and humid, and huge, foot-long earthworms and dung beetles shared the space with the soldiers. When it rained, the soldiers could find themselves standing knee-deep in muddy rainwater for hours, developing sores as their skin chafed inside their rubber galoshes.

Many came down with malaria and a strange skin rash they thought was caused by the local water supply. Termites from the towering mounds nearby ate into the wooden ammunition boxes, and jiggers lay eggs under soldiers’ skin. Luckily for the Rwandan staff officers, every couple of months they could go for much-needed R&R on a nearby colonial ranch, where there were dairy cows, electricity, and a good supply of beer.

It was telling that the most important front of the Congo war was being fought almost entirely by foreign troops on both sides. “The Rwandans didn’t trust the RCD with such an important task,” remembered Colonel Maurice Gateretse, the commander of regular Burundian army troops. “They had behaved so badly that we radioed back to their headquarters, saying they should be removed. They would use up a whole clip in thirty minutes and come and ask for more. These guys were more interested in pillaging the villages than fighting.”

A cease-fire negotiated between the two sides held until October 2000, when Laurent Kabila unilaterally launched his offensive. In an effort to prevail by sheer numbers, the Congolese cobbled together a force of over 10,000 soldiers, including many Rwandan and Burundian Hutu soldiers. With the support of armored cars and Hawker fighter aircraft from the Zimbabwean army, the Congolese forces overran the enemy trenches and pushed their rivals back to Pepa, a ranching town in the hills some thirty miles away. There, Laurent Kabila’s troops took control of the strategic heights overlooking the town. Zimbabwean bombers pursued and bombed the retreating troops, forcing them to hide during the day and march at night.

Back in Kigali, President Kagame was furious. He radioed his commander on the ground, an officer nicknamed Commander Zero Zero, who was known for his brutality and his love of cane alcohol. Kagame told him that if he failed to retake Pepa, “don’t even try to come back to Rwanda.” The Burundian commander, Colonel Gateretse, received a similar warning from his commander back home, who told him he would have to walk back to Burundi—three hundred seventy miles through the bush—if he lost.

In order to retake Pepa, they would have to scale a hill with almost no cover and with thick buttresses prickling with heavy machine guns and mortars at the top. “It was like those movies I saw of the Americans at Iwo Jima,” the Burundian commander commented. “We would have to hide behind every hummock and bush we could find.” They received reinforcements over the lake from Burundi: An additional 6,000 Rwandan and Burundian troops arrived on barges for the onslaught.

They launched their challenge early in the morning. Thousands of young soldiers clambered up the steep slopes toward the fortifications above. There was little brush for cover; this was cattle country, and all the trees had been chopped down for pasture. “It was a massacre,” Colonel Gateretse remembered. Kabila’s army “sat at the top with their heavy machine guns and just mowed the kids down. You would hear the mortars thunder, the rat-tat-tat of the machine guns and screams as our boys fell.” One by one, the walkie-talkies of their officers trying to scale the hill went dead.

The Rwandan light infantry eventually outflanked Kabila’s forces, attacking from behind, slaughtering many and routing the rest, who were ambushed again and again all the way down to a little fishing village on the Luvua River, where they had to abandon and destroy most of their remaining tanks and military vehicles as they retreated into Zambia.

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Filed under Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, war, Zambia, Zimbabwe

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