Category Archives: Congo

Mercenary Roles in Yemen, 1963

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 176-179:

When I returned to the Yemen in November, 1963, I went in through Aden and Beihan; by then I had met Johnson and Boyle, who had informed the mercenaries in the field of my impending visit. The first of the British to arrive there was Major Johnny Cooper, who had commanded one of the SAS squadrons that served under me in the attack on the Jebel Akhdar in Oman. Shortly after that operation he had left the SAS, having reached the age limit, but returned to Muscat as one of the Sultan’s Contract Officers and did extremely well. He later became the first of Johnson’s recruits. At the time of my arrival in Aden he had already established his headquarters with a wireless set and operator in the Khowlan area, not far from Sana, with one of the princes.

It is worth recording that at the height of the mercenary effort, when I was commanding them, they never numbered more than 48, of whom 30 were French or Belgian and 18 British. They were broken down into small missions — usually one officer, one NCO wireless operator, and one NCO medical orderly — and deployed according to the wishes and needs of the Royalist commanders. It is important to realize that none of the mercenaries actually fought in the war; their job was to advise the commanders, train their troops and provide communications and medical services. The medical situation in Royalist areas was particularly desperate; there were virtually no trained doctors. Until quite late in the war the International Red Cross operated only in Republican territory; but even when it sent a mission to the Royalists its hospital was situated a long way from the fighting and the doctors spent most of their time treating the local civilians for endemic diseases. This was no fault of the Swiss doctors, who would gladly have served at the front, but of the Red Cross directorate, which gave them categorical instructions not to go near it.

I flew to Aden on 14 November, and on to Beihan two days later. There I spent the night in the village of Naqub, twenty miles north of the State capital, in the ‘safe house’ allocated to the mercenaries by the Ruler. I shared it with three Frenchmen, who were in wireless contact with Johnny Cooper and the other missions, and seven British, who arrived in the middle of the night after a drive of three days in a lorry from Aden; in the morning another Frenchman joined us — Colonel Bob Denard, a veteran of the Congo who now commanded all the mercenaries in the Yemen except the British. His Frenchmen and Belgians, though very polite to me, were seldom chatty or communicative outside their own circles; some of them, I knew, had belonged to the OAS and so had little love for General de Gaulle, but I never discussed politics with them. Their attitude to the work was strictly professional; they were there for the money, but they meant to give good value in return. Most of them, as I have said, had seen service in the Congo, and many of them alternated between the Congo and the Yemen, serving now in one theatre, now in another. The reason, I discovered, was that in the Congo they had all the drink and women they wanted, but seldom received their pay; whereas in the Yemen they had regular pay but no women or drink. And so when they had earned enough in the Yemen they went off to the Congo to enjoy it.

The British, on the other hand, were more often inspired by enthusiasm for the Royalist cause or a simple thirst for adventure, although there were some deplorable exceptions — one fairly senior officer, in particular, was strictly on the make; unfortunately mere enthusiasm was an unreliable guide to efficiency, and I discovered later on that, while the NCO specialists did excellent work, the British officers who proved their worth were those who understood some Arabic.

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Filed under Arabia, Belgium, Britain, Congo, disease, France, language, military, NGOs, war

Katanga Surrenders, 1963

From Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World, by Christopher Othen (History Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. ~4646:

On 21 January, Tshombe signed an official declaration that the secession had ended. Along with Munongo, Yav, Muke, Kimba and Kibwe, he dined with UN officials in Kolwezi.

‘Atmosphere friendly’, a UN man telegraphed to Léopoldville, ‘but throughout our conversation we felt Tshombe and Cabinet are extremely REPEAT extremely bitter about Europeans in general, Belgians in particular.’

Munongo publically renounced any further resistance or guerrilla warfare. Tshombe announced that he was prepared to work with Léopoldville to solve the Congo crisis. On Tuesday, Joseph Ileo arrived in Elisabethville to take over the province for the central government and Tshombe returned to the presidential palace to await his fate. UN and Congolese flags flew over Katangese towns.

Since 1960, the UN had lost 135 men in the Congo, including fourteen Irish soldiers (nine of those killed by Baluba at Niemba), thirty-nine Indian, nineteen Swedish and forty-seven Ghanaian soldiers. Only around half the total died at the hands of the Katangese. Baluba, the Léopoldville ANC and Gizenga’s men killed the rest. On the other side, perhaps only thirty-two mercenaries were killed in action during the secession. No one counted dead gendarmes, but they must have been in the low thousands. Civilian deaths on all sides amounted to at least 10,000 and were probably much higher.

In Léopoldville’s boulevard Albert, 600 students chanted ‘Tshombe to the gallows!’ Others stormed the British embassy as Congolese police sat in their jeeps and laughed. Léopoldville agreed an amnesty for Tshombe and his men. The UN soon discovered that the gendarmes were only prepared to surrender if no ANC men were in the area. Kasa-Vubu gave a speech:

Officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the former Katangese Gendarmerie, in addressing myself particularly to you this evening, I do so on behalf of the entire country, the entire nation, to congratulate you and pay you a tribute for your patriotism because it was thanks to your understanding and to your refusal to use the murderous weapons placed in your hands by foreigners that the secession was ended, without too great a loss of human life or shedding of blood.

On 25 January, the last of the Katangese armed forces crossed the border into Portuguese Angola. They would return, but to fight for a different cause and against a different enemy. Katanga had failed as a country.

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Two Congo Rebellions End, 1962

From Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World, by Christopher Othen (History Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. ~3909:

On 1 March 1961, Albert Kalonji declared himself chief of chiefs for all Baluba in Kasaï. As the new Mulopwe, Kalonji was supposed to sacrifice a family member to ensure invulnerability, take his pick of local virgins and allow villagers to eat dirt from beneath his feet. He disappointed local witchdoctors by agreeing only to the dirt eating.

Kalonji told his friends that traditionalist-minded tribal chiefs had pushed the position of Mulopwe on him. His critics, including South Kasaï prime minister Joseph Ngalula, thought Kalonji had suggested the whole thing as part of a plan to become dictator. Ngalula complained so loudly that he was exiled to Léopoldville, the Mulopwe having bought the co-operation of Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu with profits from his diamond mines. The UN had banned the export of conflict diamonds but Kalonji smuggled the stones across the River Congo to Brazzaville, where Youlou pretended he had dug them up himself.

Rich and worshipped, the Mulopwe underestimated how much Léopoldville hated his secession. By the end of the year, Ngalula had persuaded the Congolese government to revoke the parliamentary immunity that had kept Kalonji safe during earlier visits to the capital. Mobutu’s men arrested the Mulopwe in Léopoldville on 30 December.

The cell doors slammed on Antoine Gizenga a few weeks later. Parliament had stripped the deputy prime minister of his position after Stanleyville ANC troops invaded north Katanga at the end of 1961. On 8 January, Kasa-Vubu ordered him to return to the capital. Gizenga refused. A more charismatic man could have caused trouble but Gizenga spent his time in clammy introversion by the river. Not even his troop of female bodyguards, pearl-handled revolvers on each hip, made him look like a leader. Stanleyville fell apart while he brooded, and his supporters turned on him.

‘We have had enough of the anarchy and terror that reign in our province,’ said one of Gizenga’s soldiers.

International support had also faded away. American money persuaded previously loyal African leaders to abandon Gizenga. The USSR preferred to focus on Germany, where the construction of the Berlin Wall had increased tensions between east and west. Moscow’s interest in exporting the Cold War to Africa faded further when Afro-Asian nations refused to back Khruschev’s post-Ndola plan to replace the post of UN Secretary General with a three-pronged system that would have boosted Soviet influence. The suitcases of cash stopped arriving in Stanleyville.

‘[Gizenga’s] group has become disillusioned with Russian promises which never materialized,’ cabled US ambassador Clare Timberlake to Washington.

In his damp villa, Gizenga issued daily orders that no one followed. The few cars limping along the roads outside were wrecks and the roads themselves not much better. General Victor Lundula declared his allegiance to Kasa-Vubu, carrying most of the Stanleyville ANC with him. Gizenga ordered the general’s arrest but none of the 300 gendarmes still loyal would obey. Lundula moved on the evening of 12 January. A gun battle left eight Gizenga loyalists dead in the streets at the cost of six attackers. Gizenga’s all-female bodyguards never fired a shot. UN troops moved in and disarmed the remaining gendarmes.

Gizenga sent a cable to Adoula: ‘PUT MY OFFICE AND RESIDENCE IN ORDER. INFORM THE COUNCIL, THE PARLIAMENT AND ALL THE PEOPLE.’

When he arrived in Léopoldville, the police arrested him. The only international protests were a few sparsely attended marches in the Soviet bloc. No one seemed to care when Gizenga was imprisoned on Bula Bemba Island off the coast. The South Kasaï and Stanleyville rebellions were over. Tshombe was the last man standing.

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Filed under Congo, military, nationalism, U.N., U.S., USSR, war

Congo Stanleyville in 1960

From Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World, by Christopher Othen (History Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. ~1797:

Stanleyville was a town of pastel inter-war buildings more suited to the French Riviera than Africa. It was there, after Lumumba’s arrest, that Antoine Gizenga declared himself Prime Minister of the Congo, dismissing Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu as traitors. The Congo now had two rival governments to go with its two secessionist states. Gizenga, a depressed-looking 35-year-old with a mouth like a trout, appealed to the Soviet Union for help.

‘If the imperialists think that we will surrender’, he said, ‘or if they think they will kill off the Congolese people’s liberation movement, they are wrong’.

Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev authorised a $500,000 payment to Pierre Mulele, the Stanleyville representative in Cairo. Spies suggested that Mulele skimmed some cash for himself. The Soviets looked the other way. Gizenga needed money to keep his 6,000-strong version of the ANC loyal.

‘It is clear that if the army does not receive wages it will refuse to fight,’ reported Czech newsman Dushan Provarnik from Stanleyville:

The Gizenga government has to pay its soldiers at least the same money that Mobutu gives his own soldiers, i.e. 2,000–6,000 Congolese francs depending on grade. Under the existing circumstances, when the government has no revenues, as taxes have not been raised, these expenses are a heavy financial burden.

Attempts to supply Gizenga with arms and advisors were less successful. A Czech air bridge from Prague through Egypt failed when Nasser refused access to his airspace. Lumumba’s former confidant Kwame Nkrumah seemed happy to help but somehow Soviet weapons sent via Ghana never reached the Congo. The Ghanaian leader did not reveal he was talking trade treaties with the Americans.

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Filed under Belgium, Congo, Czechia, economics, Egypt, Ghana, military, nationalism, U.S., USSR, war

First Wave of Congo Mercenaries, 1960

From Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World, by Christopher Othen (History Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. ~1640:

By the end of September, reporters had forgotten about Bas’s recruits. The airport controller put fifty of them on a flight to Elisabethville. Commandant Armand Verdickt, head of intelligence for the Katangese gendarmes, ran background checks on the new arrivals. He discovered that the men from Le Cosmos and L’Edelweiss [bars] had done more time than a clock. Army deserters, burglars, car thieves and a rapist. The few without criminal records were alcoholics or drug users, behind on alimony payments, in trouble for driving unroadworthy taxis. Marcel Poelman wrestled, unsuccessfully, under the name ‘the Black Angel’.

‘These are not soldiers,’ said Verdickt. ‘Ils sont les affreux!’ (They are horrors!).

The mercenaries joined Groupes Mobiles: fifteen white soldiers and fifteen Katangese gendarmes packed into a few jeeps, supported by another thirty Katangese gendarmes in a lorry, led by a regular Belgian officer who had stayed on as a volunteer. The regulars always seemed to be bulky men with cropped hair, beer bellies and dainty moustaches, wearing crisp combat fatigues and bush hats with the brim turned up at the left. Les Affreux looked different. They had neck scarves, stubble, cigarettes tucked into the corner of their mouths, rolled up sleeves, revolvers on hips, shorts and socks.

‘Reputed to be bad boys’, wrote a journalist for the Libre Belgique newspaper, ‘with the air of pirates (long hair, droopy moustaches) and frightening in combat’. Their reputation outstripped their performance.

In November, some Affreux in Groupe Mobile D set up residency in Kabongo, near the border with Kasaï, to protect the town’s airstrip. The group quickly fell apart when Poelman the wrestler convinced the other mercenaries to desert with him. Only Charles Masy, blonde-haired and goggle-eyed with a wife back home and ambitions to own a bar, refused to quit. Masy had been 14 when German tanks rolled into Belgium. After three years of occupation, he joined the resistance, playing the innocent well enough to fool the Gestapo when they arrested him. At the liberation, he joined the Belgian SAS but things went wrong and he ended up in Katanga to escape a charge for beating up a Brussels policeman. He was not the kind to run away from a fight.

Other Affreux haunted Elisabethville’s bars and brothels, telling tall stories to journalists and showing little enthusiasm for the bush. Locals avoided them.

‘They were swaggering around all over the place, pissed out of their heads, with large whores on their arms,’ said Irish journalist Alan Bestic. ‘If you angered them they would shoot you in a minute. It was an ugly scene.’

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The UN Enters the Congo, 1960

From Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World, by Christopher Othen (History Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. ~1026:

Ralph Bunce had passed on Lumumba’s request for help to the United Nations Secretary General, a Swedish civil servant with blonde hair and grey-blue eyes calm as a frozen lake. Dag Hammarskjöld turned it down. The UN’s job was peace.

The United Nations had been around since the end of the Second World War. Its optimistic goal of world harmony was often compromised by the competing desires of America and the Soviet Union, its strongest members. American pressure sent UN troops to the Korean War in 1950 and Soviet demands made them sit and watch as the Red Army crushed anti-communist rebels in Hungary six years later. Most of Hammarskjöld’s energy went into persuading the superpowers occasionally to vote the same way.

The Swede did not want the UN to be used as a private army to take back Katanga. The Congo’s biggest problem, in his view, was the threat of a clash between Belgian soldiers and the ANC. He twisted some superpower arms and secured a mandate from the Security Council in New York to replace the 7,400 Belgians in the Congo with UN soldiers. The first peacekeepers, a Tunisian contingent, arrived in Léopoldville on 14 July, followed by units from Ghana, Mali and Morocco. Belgian soldiers reluctantly gave up their positions to blue-helmeted UN men and flew home. The process was surprisingly smooth, even surviving a kick in the teeth from Lumumba, when he declared it too slow and asked the Soviet Union to intervene independently. Moscow officially declined but saw a chance to sink its claws into Africa. Soviet aeroplanes and lorries and Czechoslovak technicians began to arrive secretly in Stanleyville. Cold warriors in Brussels were horrified.

‘The Congo will become communist within two months,’ said Harold d’Aspremont-Lynden, a close colleague of the Belgian prime minister.

Soon after, Harold d’Aspremont-Lynden was on his way to Katanga as head of the Mission Technique Belge (Belgian Technical Mission – Mistebel), a high-powered group of experts full of ideas on how to run the new country. Minister of Foreign Affairs Pierre Wigny was not happy. He had been arguing against taking sides in Katanga ever since Tshombe declared independence, but lost any support in the Cabinet after Léopoldville accused Brussels of organising the secession and broke diplomatic relations.

 

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Filed under Africa, Belgium, Congo, military, nationalism, U.N., U.S., USSR

Che’s African Farce, 1965

From Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America, by Alma Guillermoprieto (Vintage, 2001), pp. 81-82:

Che was unable to deal with his disapproval of the course that Fidel was taking and his simultaneous love for the man; with his disillusionment with the Soviet Union and the self-satisfaction of the burgeoning Cuban bureaucracy; with the palace intrigues of the new regime (particularly those of Fidel’s brother Raúl); and, probably, with the gnawing awareness of his own failings as a peacetime revolutionary. It seems reasonable to interpret his decision to leave Cuba as Castañeda does—as the result of his need to get away from so much internal conflict. (In the course of explaining this decision, Castañeda provides an extraordinary account of the ins and outs of Cuban state policy, Cuban-Soviet relations, and Castro’s dealings with the United States.) Che was leaving behind a second wife, six children, his comrades, his years of happiness, and the revolution he had helped give birth to; none of these were enough to convince him that he belonged.

Guevara’s original intention was to return to his homeland and start a guerrilla movement there. A 1965 expedition to the Congo, where various armed factions were still wrestling for power long after the overthrow and murder of Patrice Lumumba, and his last stand in Bolivia, Castañeda writes, followed improbably from Fidel’s anxious efforts to keep Che away from Argentina, where he was sure to be detected and murdered by Latin America’s most efficient security forces. Castro seems to have felt that the Congo would be a safer place, and the question of whether it was a more intelligent choice doesn’t seem to have been addressed either by him or by the man he was trying to protect. (In Cairo, Jon Lee Anderson notes, Gamal Abdel Nasser warned Che not to get militarily involved in Africa, because there he would be “like Tarzan, a white man among blacks, leading and protecting them.”)

As things turned out, the Congo episode was a farce, so absurd that Cuban authorities kept secret Che’s rueful draft for a book on it—until recently, that is, when one of his new biographers, Taibo, was able to study the original manuscript. Guevara was abandoned from the beginning by Congolese military leaders, such as Laurent Kabila, who had initially welcomed his offer of help. He was plagued by dysentery and was subject to fits of uncontrollable anger, and emerged from seven months in the jungle forty pounds lighter, sick, and severely depressed. If he had ever considered a decision to cut bait and return to Cuba, that option was canceled weeks before the Congo expedition’s rout: on October 5, 1965, Fidel Castro, pressed on all sides to explain Che’s disappearance from Cuba and unable to recognize that the African adventure was about to collapse, decided to make public Che’s farewell letter to him: “I will say once again that the only way that Cuba can be held responsible for my actions is in its example. If my time should come under other skies, my last thought will be for this people, and especially for you.”

Guevara was sitting in a miserable campsite on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, bored, frustrated, and in mourning for his mother, when he was told that Fidel had publicized the letter. The news hit him like an explosion. “Shit-eaters!” he said, pacing back and forth in the mud. “They are imbeciles, idiots.”

Guevara’s final trek began at this moment, because once his farewell to Fidel was made public, as Castañeda writes, “his bridges were effectively burned. Given his temperament, there was now no way he could return to Cuba, even temporarily. The idea of a public deception was unacceptable to him: once he had said he was leaving, he could not go back.” He could not bear to lose face.

A few months later, having taken full and bitter stock of his situation, he made the decision to set up a guerrilla base—intended as a training camp, really—in southern Bolivia, near the border with Argentina. From there, he convinced himself, he would ultimately be able to spark the revolutionary flame in Argentina and, from there, throughout the world.

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Congo’s War for Mining or Peace for Mining?

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. 5014-5042 (pp. 288-289):

The Congo is often referred to as a geological scandal. This is not an exaggeration. In the late 1980s, it was the world’s largest producer of cobalt, third largest producer of industrial diamonds, and fifth largest producer of copper. It has significant uranium reserves—infamous for having contributed to the Hiroshima bombs—as well as large gold, zinc, tungsten, and tin deposits.

Like so many of the country’s problems, the mismanagement of these assets dates back to colonial times. In 1906 already, the Belgian government gave the Société générale de Belgique, a powerful trust affiliated to the state, a mining tract of 13,000 square miles in Katanga, the size of Belgium. Under the exceedingly favorable terms of the deal, the company would get a ninety-nine-year monopoly over any mineral deposits it could identify in the next six years. It was also granted the management of the state railroad line that would help export the copper and cobalt ore, for which the colonial state would provide local labor. Société générale set about creating the three most powerful companies in the Belgian Congo: the Upper Katanga Mining Union, the Bas-Congo to Katanga Railroad Company, and the International Forest and Mining Company. Mineral and agricultural exports from the Congo fueled the creation of some of the biggest Belgian conglomerates and personal fortunes, developing the Antwerp port and creating a copper smelting industry.

Mobutu nationalized the Upper Katanga Mining Union in 1967 and rebranded it Gécamines, while other mining companies in the Kivus and Katanga were also converted into state-owned enterprises. The government proceeded to use the mining company as a cash cow, systematically milking it for money to fund Mobutu’s patronage network instead of reinvesting earnings in infrastructure and development. In order to carry out this scheme, the autocrat forced all mineral exports to be sold through a state mineral board, which would then hand over its revenues to the state treasury. Nonetheless, thanks to rising world copper prices, Gécamines remained the country’s largest source of employment and income, providing over 37,000 jobs at its peak, running thirteen hospitals and clinics, and contributing to between 20 and 30 percent of state revenues.

A confluence of factors brought about Gécamines’ demise in the 1990s. Copper prices plunged as low-cost producers such as Chile stepped up production and world demand dipped. The army pillages of 1991 and 1993, along with the ethnic purging of Kasaians from Katanga in 1993, drove much of the experienced expatriate staff out of Gécamines and contributed to the cutting of foreign development aid that had helped prop up the ailing mining sector. Finally, the years of mismanagement took their toll. In 1990, the huge underground Kamoto mine collapsed, leading to an abrupt drop in production of 23 percent. Exports declined from a high of 465,000 tons in 1988 to 38,000 tons just before the war, while cobalt production slipped from 10,000 to 4,000 tons in the same period. Similar trends affected all other mineral exports, leading to a vertiginous contraction of the country’s GDP by 40 percent between 1990 and 1994.

Pressured by donors to relinquish the state’s grip on the economy and desperate for revenues, Mobutu allowed his prime minister, Kengo wa Dondo, to begin gradually privatizing the mining sector in 1995. Most of the contracts that were later negotiated with the AFDL, including the American Mineral Fields and Lundin agreements, were amendments to and confirmations of deals that had already been struck with Mobutu’s government in 1996. The notion that the war was fueled by international mining capital eager to get its hands on the Congo’s wealth does not hold water; the war slowed down privatization of the sector by a decade, as insecurity and administrative chaos prevented large corporations from investing. It was not until 2005 that major new contracts in Katanga were approved and investors began to invest significant funds.

I hadn’t realized the extent to which Canadian companies have dominated mining in the Congo.

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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

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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