Category Archives: Rwanda

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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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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Yet Another Personality-cult Liberation Movement

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. 3896-3936, 4050-4054 (pp. 225-226, 233):

It was in the midst of this KigaliKampala catfight that the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) was born. Bemba, who had been working for several months with friends from the Congolese diaspora on drafting statutes and a political program, quickly called the BBC radio service to announce his new rebellion.

The MLC’s beginnings were shaky. Applying himself to the rebellion with the same tenacity as he did to his business empire, Bemba managed to recruit a hodge-podge of young men and women from the business and political class of Kisangani. Of the founding members of the MLC, there was a journalist for the state radio station, the local manager of Bemba’s phone company, a territorial administrator, two former Mobutu officers, and several businessmen. None of them was over forty years old. For the most part, they were political unknowns.

Slowly, Bemba began to take over control of the military wing of the MLC from the Ugandans. He leveraged his contacts among Mobutu’s former officers to rally some of the most capable around him, making sure to stay away from the most infamous and corrupt. It had not been for lack of experience and knowledge that Mobutu’s army had lost the war, and hundreds of officers, marginalized or in exile, were eager to get back into the fray. Bemba handed the military command over to Colonel Dieudonné Amuli, the former commander of Mobutu’s personal guard and a graduate of several international military academies. Other officers’ résumés included stints at Fort Bragg and Fort Benning (United States), Sandhurst (United Kingdom), Nanjing (China), Kenitra (Morocco), and academies in Egypt and Belgium. Although the Ugandans continued to provide military support, in particular through artillery, training, and logistics, by early 1999 the Congolese were largely the masters of their own rebellion, expanding their rebel force from 150 to around 10,000 troops within two years.

Slowly, on the back of the MLC’s growing reputation, a second wave of political figures began to board flights from Europe to join up. Their pedigree was as impressive as those of the military officers. This time it was the well-heeled diaspora, the members of the Kinshasa elite, educated in Europe and the United States. There were the young and westernized, like Olivier Kamitatu, the son of a founding father of the Congo who had been Bemba’s inseparable friend in business school in Brussels. Then there were the Mobutists-turned-opposition-activists, including former prime minister Lunda Bululu and two other former ministers, and the businessmen, such as the erstwhile heads of the Congolese business federation and the Congo-Belgian chamber of commerce. In groups of two or three, they arrived on Ugandan military planes in Gbadolite [“Versailles of the Jungle”], which by mid-1999 had become command central of the rebellion. They walked around the pillaged town dumbstruck.

Then came the luck, and with it the birth of the Bemba myth. From the early days of rebellion onwards, the portly MLC leader, who had had less than a month of formal military training in his life, was present along the front lines and insisted on participating in military operations. When the Chadians and Kabila’s troops tried to attack the MLC base in Lisala, Bemba flew into town under gunfire and drove around in a pickup truck, rounding up and regrouping his scattered soldiers. “If you have to believe in miracles, that wasn’t the only one,” he later wrote. A day later, a rocket-propelled grenade whistled by him, missing him only by several feet. The day after that, amid a shower of gunfire, a Ugandan transport plane landed, unloaded, and took off again without major damage. “It was incredible,” a friend, who had been in touch with Bemba on a monthly basis by satellite phone, recalled. “It was as if he was blessed with special powers.”

The MLC leaders began constructing a myth around Bemba’s exploits, a panegyric that fit well into the Congolese tradition of praise singing. The youths called him “Baimoto,” a dazzling diamond that blinds the enemy. Radio Liberté, the MLC radio station, began transmitting programs infused with Bemba’s legend. It was supposed to provide the glue to keep the disparate elements of the MLC together: Bemba the soldier, Bemba the liberator, always on the front line, always with the troops. “It did the trick,” a former MLC commander told me and then laughed: “The problem was he began to believe it himself.”

Bemba adopted the title of Chairman of the MLC, in part reference to his business upbringing, in part a wink to Chairman Mao’s cult of personality. Progressively, his ego became more and more bloated, even as he himself put on more weight. “Bemba was the MLC,” said José Endundo, the MLC’s former secretary for the economy. “He was an incredible egomaniac.” His commissioners and counselors couldn’t just go and visit him in his house in Gbadolite; they would have to wait to be called. At the entrance to his house, soldiers would frisk the MLC leaders, even the frail professor Lunda Bululu, Zaire’s former prime minister, who was in his sixties. Inside, officials sprawled on Bemba’s leather couches, but even there, they were obliged to call him Mr. President or Chairman. For some of the leaders, who had boozed and danced with Bemba in high school or had known him when he was still in diapers, this treatment grated.

Nonetheless, during its heyday, the MLC was as good as it gets for a Congolese rebel movement. Although supported by Uganda, it was run by Congolese under a more or less unified command, supported by the local population, and relatively disciplined. But the MLC also shows us the limitations of rebellion in the Congo. Like most rebellions, it was run by an educated elite, while all of its foot soldiers were local peasants. There was little ideology that took hold at the grassroots level other than opposition to the enemy and tribal loyalty.

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Congo War Realignments, 1998

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. 3298-3323:

With a mutiny festering in the slums of Kinshasa, and rebels advancing rapidly from the west, Kabila knew that he would not be able to hold out without the support of the region. A regional summit of the South African Development Community was quickly called, and Rwanda, Uganda, Congo, Angola, and Zimbabwe glowered at each other across a table without coming to a conclusion.

It was a decisive moment in the war. In 1996, almost the whole region had jumped on the bandwagon against Mobutu, while world powers looked the other way. It had been a continental war, inspired by security interests but also by ideology. In 1998, the odds were stacked differently. The region split down the middle, with Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi on one side and Angola, Namibia, Chad, and Zimbabwe on the other.

This time, the motives for deployed troops were less noble. Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, for example, was of the same generation as Laurent Kabila and had provided arms and money for the first war effort; Kabila still owed him somewhere between $40 and $200 million dollars for this first engagement. More importantly, his own besieged government was fraying at the edges after eighteen years in power. A mixture of corruption, poor economic management, and the expropriation of 1,500 white farms had prompted food riots, a fiscal crisis, and international opprobrium. As expensive as the military adventure in the Congo was, it also offered many much-needed business opportunities for Mugabe’s inner cabal. Shortly after toppling Mobutu, his state ammunition factory obtained a $500,000 contract from Kabila’s government, a Zimbabwean businessman extended a loan for $45 million, and businessmen close to Mugabe began negotiating potentially lucrative transport, food, and mining deals with the Congolese. When Rwanda attempted anew to overthrow the regime in Kinshasa, this time without rallying a regional alliance around them, Mugabe saw his investments in jeopardy.

Angola’s interests were much more related to its twenty-three-year-old civil war with UNITA. For decades, the rebels had maintained rear bases in Kinshasa, where Savimbi had frequently met with Mobutu and CIA operatives and had sold tens of millions of dollars of diamonds. In May 1998, Jonas Savimbi’s rebels had scuppered a peace process that they saw as increasingly biased toward the government. They launched attacks throughout northern Angola, close to the border with the Congo. In addition, another Angolan rebel movement, the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), appeared to be making inroads in Cabinda, a tiny Angolan enclave just north of the Kitona airbase, where around 60 percent of Angola’s oil is drilled, providing it with about half of all national revenues. According to French government officials, FLEC had been in touch with the Rwandan government before the Kitona airlift.

The diplomatic tug-of-war continued for several days, with South African president Nelson Mandela attempting to mediate between the two sides to prevent a continent-wide war breaking out. His attempt earned him the scorn of Mugabe, who told him to shut up if he didn’t want to help defend the Congo. Kabila’s office was equally blunt, suggesting that “age had taken its toll” on the venerable African leader.

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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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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.

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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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