RÉGINE AND RUFFIN BOTH LIVED IN BUKAVU, THAT LOVELY town on Lake Kivu along the Rwandan border—but that was all they had in common. When Mobutu announced the end of the single-party state, Régine was thirty-five and Ruffin was seven. Régine was headmistress at a Catholic girls’ school, Ruffin was just learning to read at a Catholic boys’ school across town. Régine had organized the teachers’ sit-in a few years before. When she heard that the MPR had lost its primacy, all she could do was dance. Ruffin was too young to understand the historical portent of the turnaround. He played soccer with his friends and began to dream of life as a priest. Yet both of them would become involved in the dictator’s fall, in totally different ways and at totally different moments, Régine in 1992, Ruffin in 1997. When it came to falling, Mobutu took his own sweet time.
Régine Mutijima thought it might all go very quickly. “We really wanted Mobutu to step down after the elections and go on living honorably inside the country.”1 But in the period 1990–97, Mobutu kept hold of power with a stubbornness and cunning no one had thought possible. These were the death throes of a dictator taking his country along with him in his fall.
In 1905, when Leopold II could no longer deny the atrocities taking place in the Free State, he tarried for three years before turning over his conquered land to the Belgian state. Mobutu’s attitude after 1990 was no different. The results of the public sittings caused him at first to slacken the reins, only to tighten them again afterward. There was, as far as he was concerned, no big hurry with those elections. He had applied his creativity in 1970, 1977, and 1984 to get himself elected, but knew that that trick would no longer work in 1991. The democratic genie was out of the bottle. Still, he succeeded in remaining in power for another seven years, this time without any elections.
Mutijima knew all too well that Mobutu owed his power to two things: money and violence. Money from abroad, violence at home. But how long could he keep that up, now that the Cold War was over? On May 12 and 13, 1990, a few weeks after his emotional speech, Mobutu ordered the student protests in Lubumbashi crushed by military force, for the students were once again the first to take to the streets. For the West, that was the last straw. Reports spoke of hundreds of casualties, but the exact number has never been stated (there were perhaps only three, Mutijima heard later). Belgium suspended all development aid, France froze all relations, America no longer had any need of Mobutu. In the early 1990s, his former foreign allies were glad to see the back of him. Even the IMF expelled Zaïre as a voting member.
What remained was: violence. But the army was unreliable and, now that more and more bans were being lifted, the intelligence services had lost their grip on the people. The official media, too, had stopped monitoring the flow of information. Government newspapers with “authentic” titles like Elima and Salongo were overtaken by new periodicals with French names like L’Opinion, Le Phare, and above all Le Potentiel. Those periodicals did not make it all the way to Mutijima in Bukavu, but they were very important in the capital. At the newsstands along Boulevard Lumumba there arose the phenomenon of the parliamentaires debout (the standing members of parliament), groups of the unemployed who read the front pages of the newspapers that were hung up on display and discussed them all day long. A public space, peopled with critical citizens. The founder ofLe Potentiel was Modeste Mutinga: “We were completely independent. We didn’t even maintain ties with other opposition movements, like the UDPS or the Church. I bought a second-hand printing press in Strasbourg. It wasn’t until later, after that period of détente in the early nineties, that things got worse again. The DSP burned our presses and the presses at other papers too. Everything was demolished.”2
Besides the newspapers, democratization expressed itself in other ways. In between the powers-that-be and the masses, there arose a full-blown société civile (civil society). Hundreds of new associations were set up: for rural women, for taxi drivers, for altar boys . . . associations for agrarian development, for solidarity between laypeople, for health care . . . even associations for the chairmen of associations.3 Trade union organizations shot up like mushrooms: in 1991 there was only one state-aligned union; by 1991 there were 112.4 And, just like in the late 1950s, there was an explosion of political parties. Mobutu had advocated a three-party system at first, but soon had to allow a full multiparty system. In no time, the all-powerful MPR had to countenance some three hundred rivals large and small. Some of them had no more than one member. News of the upcoming abdication caused some people to dream of a bid for power. Mobutu watched ruefully: the proliferation of parties confirmed his fears of disintegration and sectarianism. “But if you can’t beat them, join them” he must have thought; in an attempt to weaken the power of the opposition, he paid some loyal followers to set up parties that advanced his own views. “Alimony parties” those were referred to mockingly, or “taxi parties,” because their members could all fit in one taxi cab. Was this the mulitpartisme Mobutu had promised? It looked more like multimobutisme!5
In the end, the restless political field crystallized around two poles, with Étienne Tshisekedi’s UDPS—the so-called Union Sacrée de l’Opposition (Holy Alliance of the Opposition)—on one side, and the MPR and Mobutu loyalists—the mouvance présidentielle—on the other. Between them one had the mugwumps. The church sympathized with the opposition, but was often prepared to compromise. Mutijima did not feel called to serve. “I had been a member of the UDPS for a while, when it was still clandestine, but I didn’t feel at home in politics. For me, the most important thing in 1990 was the birth of the société civile.”
The opposition gained a major victory when Mobutu agreed to the organization of a national conference. With that, he hoped to cut a good figure abroad and regain Western support. The plan was to bring together representatives to discuss the past and set out tentative lines for the future, analogous to a similar conference in Benin that had recently reformed that country in ten days’ time. The Kinshasa conference was intended to give form to the shift from the Second to the Third Republic; today it is best known by the name given it later, the Sovereign National Conference. The participants were to include not only politicians and dignitaries, but also the rank and file, representatives of the associations and the churches. The meeting would be held in the capital, but with delegations from all the provinces. Everything was to be broadcast live on radio and TV, a high mass of town-hall democracy.
In distant Bukavu, Mutijima donned her battle dress: “The other women teachers in Bukavu said: ‘You have to go to Kin!’ So I ended up in the South Kivu delegation. All the tribes were represented, we didn’t want to think along ethnic lines. At the Sovereign National Conference we were going to denounce everything. We were going to depose Mobutu and demand his head on a platter.”
Mutijima went to the capital as one of the twenty-eight hundred delegates, no more than two hundred of whom were women. “There were too few women, not even 10 percent. A lot of women were afraid to express themselves. They were badly informed about how such a meeting worked and about the importance of lobbying.” But she herself would prove her mettle. The Sovereign National Conference started on August 7, 1991, and was intended to last three months. The opening session was held in the Palais du Peuple, the national house of parliament. That colossal structure, thrown up by the Chinese, was only a few hundred yards from the new soccer stadium. In the parking lot, Citoyen Jacques Tshimbombo Mukuna, one of the big cheeses in the regime, stood passing out banknotes from a cardboard box to anyone interested in starting a little, off-the-cuff political party. The money was free, all you had to do was stick up for Mobutu . . . . 6 Tshimbombo was the man who once, on the president’s behalf, had presented the members of the national women’s basketball team with twenty-two Mercedes sedans for winning the Africa Cup, and kept eleven of them for himself . . . . 7 Now that the people saw him standing there with his box of money, they jokingly began referring to him as the “guardian of the national treasury.” Mobutu was clearly out to thwart the purposes of the conference, by hook or by crook.
“He kept trying to compromise us by offering us hotel rooms, giving us presents or offering to let us stay at the Nsele conference grounds,” Mutijima said, “but we refused. The South Kivu delegation was very militant. We even spent two nights sleeping on the ground in front of the doors of the house of parliament! People brought us food. It was the first time in my life that I tasted manioc bread. And in Kinshasa you had these big, fat mosquitoes. We didn’t have any of that in the mountains of South Kivu.”
Mobutu was prepared, if need be, to agree to an extensive transitional government with a certain amount of room for dissenting votes. A government of national unity with great power for the opposition, however, was too much for his taste. He had stipulated that he would appoint the conference’s chairman himself and entrusted the task to an old supporter, a man whose nom kilométrique (mile-long name) alone showed how fanatically “authentic” he was: Kalonji Mutambai wa Pasteur Kabongo. The old man’s name still makes Mutijima sigh in despair: “He was a complete marionette. He was hard of hearing and didn’t even understand what we said! “Pasteur wa Farceur” was what we called him, the Honorable Joker. I remember thinking: did we come two thousand kilometers to let ourselves be jerked around? We told each other: We need to silence this man! But how? Every morning we had to walk past the police guards and be frisked. We started smuggling in whistles, those little plastic ones. I had five of them tucked away in my shoes and in my braids. Every time the chairman took the floor, we started whistling until he stopped.”
The first weeks of the conference went agonizingly slowly, with endless quibbling over procedural questions and interminable haggling over who was to take part in the committees. Mobutu, who followed it all from a distance, must have relished the bickering. A failed conference, after all, would serve him well. But there was growing unrest outside the walls of the Palais du Peuple. On September 23 the soldiers at the paratroopers’ center at Ndjili staged a mutiny. They went to the nearby airport and shut down the control tower. From there they cut a swath to the center of town, plundering department stores, shops, gas stations, and even private homes along the way. Everything worth anything was up for grabs: the mutineers dragged away television sets, refrigerators, and photocopy machines; entire warehouses were pillaged, trading companies sacked. With the desperation of the hungry and the poor, the people joined in. It was a great rush, a party, the moment for the Big Snatch. At last the people could do what their leaders had been doing for a quarter of a century! A delirium, the reversal of all values. Forbidden and fantastic! The upheaval spread to other cities, and the plundering went on for days. The Belgian and French armies intervened to free their own nationals. Some 30 to 40 percent of all the urban businesses were destroyed, 70 percent of the small retailers were ruined. Some 117 people were killed and some 1,500 injured.8
And Mobutu? He didn’t react. He simply let his troops go about their business. Many suspected that he had provoked the mutiny himself in an attempt to scuttle the Sovereign National Conference. Even his loyal press officer Kibambi Shintwa, when we spoke later on the balcony of his little apartment, said he suspected the president of opportunism. “Mobutu wanted to break the country. Maliciously. His pride was deeply wounded by Tshisekedi’s popularity, and he wanted revenge. It’s like someone with a nice cell phone.” He held up his own phone by way of illustration. “The kind of cell phone that other people would like to have, but can no longer afford. So what do you do then?” He lowered the hand holding the phone until it was beside his chair. “You drop it, so it breaks and no one else can have it either. That’s what Mobutu did. When the Sovereign National Conference started, he moved out to Gbadolite, permanently. He knew that his people despised him. At three in the morning the soldiers sacked the airport and he didn’t do a thing to stop them. It was really a case of: après moi le déluge. He saw the pillaging as the people’s just deserts. I was very disappointed when he ruined the country like that. For the first time, I was more afraid of being killed by the people than by Mobutu.”9
Once the ransacking stopped, the conference got a new chairman: this time by popular vote. Laurent Monsengwo, the popular archbishop of Kinshasa and chairman of the national synod, was chosen without delay to replace Pasteur wa Farceur. Monseigneur Monsengwo: the very name prompted great expectations. With his purple vestment and moral authority, he seemed poised to become the Desmond Tutu of Zaïre. The opposition liked him: the Zaïrian synod of bishops had often expressed sharp criticism of the Mobutu regime. Under Cardinal Joseph-Albert Malula the church had evolved into the major counterforce in the Second Republic. When the new civil society awakened, many organizations, even the more secular among them, drew inspiration from the grassroots groups and liberation theology of Latin America.10 Monsengwo was perhaps not the most radically progressive of Catholic clerics, but the church itself enjoyed credibility among the opposition (which referred to itself—not at all coincidentally—as sacrée). There was no doubt about it in Mutijima’s mind: “Monsengwo was our candidate, but he even received votes from a few Mobutu supporters!”
Mobutu was not pleased. His relationship with the church had always been ambivalent: he had fought and feared it for almost twenty years. On the eve of the pope’s visit in 1980, he had quickly arranged a marriage in the church with his mistress, Bobi Ladawa. He built a cathedral at Gbadolite—he, the man who had once tried to outlaw the liturgy and liked to surround himself with West African miracle workers and soothsayers. With Monsengwo at the head of the conference, the time had come to watch his step. Having surrendered the power to choose the chairman of the national conference, he would now make sure he decided about that other central position in the transitional government: the prime minister. Zaïre had eight different prime ministers between 1990 and 1997, seven of whom were given a leg up by Mobutu himself. The longest term of office had been three years, the shortest three weeks. The latter had been his archenemy, Tshisekedi. In October 1991, after the pillaging was over, Mobutu appointed him to chair the cabinet. Had the uprisings forced the Steersman to acknowledge that he could no longer get around Tshisekedi? Or was it a cunning move to discredit him with his own following? The standing members of parliament along Boulevard Lumumba chattered about it for days, but three weeks later the prime ministership was over. Mobutu immediately replaced Tshisekedi with Bernardin Mungul-Diaka, another of his old enemies. He remained in the saddle for one month. Then it was Nguza Karl I Bond’s turn; yet another dissident from the distant past. Le vagabondage politique (political merry-go-round) was once again running at full speed, and meanwhile nothing was happening. In January 1992 Mobutu declared that the Sovereign National Conference had come to an end. The game had lasted long enough in his eyes, and to his relief nothing had been achieved. This reef too had been skirted and he had kept his firm grip on the wheel of state.
“The delegates had their trips home paid for them,” Mutijima said, “but we couldn’t go home empty-handed. The people of my province demanded results. Those elections had to be held. The government finally withdrew our travel allowance, but we stayed in Kinshasa, thanks to the people’s support.” The Congolese were not about to relinquish the hope for a change.
AND THEN IT WAS FEBRUARY 16, 1992, a day as important in Congolese history as January 4, 1959, when the riots broke out in Léopoldville. Here too, the immediate cause was a banned demonstration and here too that led to large-scale protests in Kinshasa and a bloodbath. The churches wanted to protest against the closing down of the conference, but the government refused permission. The charismatic priest José Mpundu, a cleric who stood closer to the masses than to the hierarchy of the church, was directly involved in the organization of the protests. I spoke to him in his plainly furnished house just outside the old soccer stadium. He was wearing short pants—a rarity among Congolese men—and—even rarer—he addressed me right away with the familiar tu.
The bishops had already called for the conference to be reopened. The priests had mentioned that during mass on Sunday. A number of laypeople said: well then, let’s do something about it. I went along with their initiative and attended their preparatory meetings, where I talked about nonviolence. Within the bishops’ conference, you see, I was secretary of the commission for justice and peace. But Cardinal [Frédéric] Etsou, the new archbishop, wouldn’t give permission for the march and Monseigneur Monsengwo felt that bishops should talk, not act . . . . Anyway, we mapped out the routes and decided that the banners would say: “Unconditional reopening of the Sovereign National Conference.” Later I was kicked out of the bishops’ conference for that.
The march began on Sunday, February 16, after the nine o’clock mass. Starting in Kinshasa’s more than one hundred parishes, people left their churches and converged along the broken boulevards and avenues of the capital. They were simple believers, not diehard dissidents or dyed-in-the-wool politicians, merely schoolchildren, students, young parents, poor people, people who felt supported by the common clergy, like the nonconformist Father José. They waved fronds and sang songs. The Protestants, the Kimbanguists, and Muslims took part too. Similar marches were held in Matadi, Kikwit, Idiofa, Kananga, Mbuji-Mayi, Kisangani, Goma, and Bukavu. More than a million people took to the streets, it was the biggest mass meeting in the country’s history. People referred to it as the March of Hope.
“I was on my way from Limete to Pont Kasavubu,” Mpundu told me, “but when we got to Saint-Raphaël we encountered a battalion of heavily armed soldiers. I was up in front. We had agreed beforehand: if anything happens, we all sit on the ground. Sitting beside me was an old woman, looking in disbelief at those soldiers who were maybe sixteen or seventeen years old. One of them looked her right in the eye, and she said: ‘Mwana na nga, est-ce que omelaki mabele ya mama te?’ [My son, didn’t you ever drink at your mother’s breast?] The boy didn’t know which way to look. That’s the power of nonviolence, of the truth.” For a moment Congo resembled the India of Mahatma Gandhi. “Then they dispersed us with tear gas. We ran away, but regrouped again a little farther along. We marched on, and we kept singing. At Kingabwa we ran into bodyguards, I think they belonged to Prime Minister Nguza. They threatened to kill us. ‘Don’t sing, just march,’ they shouted. But I said: ‘If we keep marching, they’ll shoot at us.’ A burly fellow with a revolver tried to grab me, but the people held on. The buttons on my cassock popped off. My chain broke. One of the parishioners picked it up. White priests were beaten up too.”11
The March of Hope ended in a bloodbath. At least thirty-five civilians lost their lives that day.12 The guardsmen shot at anyone they saw, even from very close range, even at children. They not only used tear gas to disperse the crowds, but also a highly inflammable product rarely used outside military operations: napalm. During one of my many conversations with Zizi Kabongo, at a picnic table outside the canteen at the public broadcasting company, he said: “After that march, Mobutu was afraid he would be excommunicated. The Sovereign National Conference was allowed to reopen, and he withdrew even more to Gbadolite. The conference became much more assertive. The fear was gone. ‘Did you really think you could kill us all?’ people said out loud. During the march, my wife saw bodies lying around. I was burned too.” He shifted his legs from under the table and rolled up his pants legs. I had known him for a few years already, but he had never talked about this or shown it to me. On his shins I saw big, pink spots, as though he were a white man wearing camouflage. A long silence descended. “Napalm,” he said at last.13
THE CONFERENCE RESUMED IN APRIL 1992 and this time it made a great deal of progress. It became truly sovereign: its decisions were no longer lukewarm recommendations, but expressions of popular will with the force of law. With the conference as the supreme state body, the process of democratization accelerated decisively. After the plenary sessions the delegates split up into twenty-three committees and a hundred subcommittees, spread around the city. Amazing work was done in many of those groups. Inventory was taken of existing problems and realistic alternatives were offered. Régine Mutijima ended up in the “Woman, child, and family” committee. “I was the acting secretary. We worked around the clock. Afterward, all the reports were read aloud during the plenary session, so they could be amended and ratified. The negotiations that finally led to consensus were a formidable lesson in democracy. The Mobutu supporters discussed openly with the opposition. We wanted to bring the country’s true history to the surface and give a voice to the powerless.”
The Sovereign National Conference voted on a provisional constitution; its most notable clause read that it was not the president who appointed the prime minister, but the conference itself. That constituted such a radical break with the past that the symbols of state had to change as well: Zaïre was to once again be called Congo and the country’s motto and national anthem would revert to those used before 1965.
And then something peculiar happened: Monsengwo left the conference and went to negotiate with Mobutu on his own. That step ran completely counter to all agreements concerning the conference’s sovereignty.14 Mobutu told the prelate in no uncertain terms that the country would continue to be called Zaïre; a name change was completely unacceptable to him. But he also intimated that he might settle for a more ceremonial presidency. Mutijima still has mixed feelings about that move: “I thought it was outrageous of Monsengwo to go off to Gbadolite, but I think he did it to keep more people from being killed.” The men of the DSP, Mobutu’s private army, were still well-armed; a civil war could have broken out. “Monsengwo was for gradual change. He didn’t want there to be winners or losers, because he feared that the latter would ultimately take revenge. Tshisekedi, on the other hand, wanted a fast victory, even at the risk of a serious conflict. Monsengwo chose for the gentle landing. He did his best to operate tactically in a complex situation.”
Zaïre remained Zaïre, but a new prime minister was elected directly for the first time in thirty years. On August 15, 1992, the Sovereign National Conference appointed Tshisekedi prime minister of the transitional government with 71 percent of the votes; his opponent, Thomas Kanza, received only 27 percent. Change did not come without a struggle, the offices of the UDPS had been destroyed only a few days earlier, but Étienne Tshisekedi, the man who had written that daring open letter to Mobutu a decade earlier, now became the first democratically elected prime minister since Moïse Tshombe in 1965.
Things went quickly after that. A transitional government was formed, and a transitional parliament: of the 2,800 delegates, 453 were to take part afterward in the Supreme Council of the Republic. A new constitution was drafted, based largely on the 1964 Luluabourg federal constitution, the only one Congo had ever known that was passed by referendum. An agenda was also established for the coming elections.
The democratic momentum seemed unstoppable. But Tshisekedi’s fresh new government excelled in neither vision nor strategy.15 The prime minister made no attempt to gain control over the government apparatus’s most essential instruments, the intelligence services and the army. The cabinet ministers wasted their time with visitors and public ceremony. Governing a nation took more than just sitting around in leather armchairs and talking for hours, but that was something these people, who had even less experience with democratic practice than the politicians of the First Republic, did not know. Tshisekedi himself seemed to have come down with Patrice Lumumba’s old ailment: charismatic as long as he remained in the opposition, capricious and unpredictable as soon as he came to power. Becoming prime minister seemed more important to him than providing leadership for Congo.16
The Sovereign National Conference was drawing to an end, but the reports from the two committees dealing with the most delicate issues still had to be read aloud: the committee on “unlawfully procured goods” (read: theft) and the committee dealing with the political killings. “Monsengwo wanted to hold those sessions behind closed doors,” Mutijima told me. “Mobutu sent tanks to the houses of parliament and had the broadcasts of the conference proceedings stopped.” The damning report on government corruption was read only in part; the worse of the two reports, about human rights violations, was not read at all. A few hundred printed copies of the report made the rounds, but missed any effect. “There were two other women with me in the South Kivu delegation. Neither of them could read or write,” Mutijima said. In a country where more than two generations had done without proper education and where the spoken word had more authority than the printed one, the lack of those moments of public disclosure were more than symbolic.
In early December 1992, after not three but seventeen months, the Sovereign National Conference closed up shop. The final balance was ambiguous. For the first time, Mobutu had been forced to accept a prime minister he had not appointed himself. The historical review had been of great importance, but the crucial reports were not read aloud and the legislative work remained unfinished. The democratic opposition had not always displayed its political maturity. And the long-awaited elections were still up in the air.17 Mutijima provided a sublime summary of the results: “We wanted to uproot the dictatorship, that’s right, but cutting down a baobab tree is not simple, because it can fall on you. You have to cut the roots one by one, and then work together to pull it down from a distance.”
THE PEOPLE WERE CRUSHED beneath the weight of the toppling baobab. The period of transition to the Third Republic was a true ordeal for many. In the period 1975–89 Zaïre experienced an average inflation of 64 percent annually; by 1990–95 that had risen to an average of 3,616 percent.18 In 1994, inflation actually peaked at 9,769 percent.19 A wheelchair in Zaïre had cost 750 zaïres in 1981, by 1991 that was 2.5 million zaïres.20 Pocket calculators did not have enough zeros to add up the bills. A simple stay in a hotel already ran to exponential figures.21 Salaries became meaningless. Purchasing power was a farce. The old people said: “In the Belgian days we ate three times a day. During the First Republic we ate two times a day. During the Second Republic that was down to once a day. Where is it all going to end?”22 Children died of starvation. Rather than making furniture, carpenters were now primarily engaged in building coffins, often for children. Child mortality in the cities was around 10 percent, in the countryside around 16 percent.23
Many hoped for a miracle. In the Zaïre of the 1990s games of chance became wildly popular. Lotteries and risky investment and pyramid schemes promised instant success, but in fact made many poor people even poorer.24 They took their money out of the bank, laid it on the line, won a bit, then lost everything they had. They turned to soothsayers and witchcraft to give luck a helping hand, because money and mysticism went hand in hand. Even Mobutu surrounded himself with powerful marabous and a whole array of féticheurs (healers). When he lost two sons to AIDS, he blamed that on occult forces.
In response to this mystic revival a new brand of Christianity awakened, one which was not classically Catholic, Protestant, or Kimbanguist, but evangelical and messianic. The congregations were referred to as Églises du Réveil (charismatic churches). They were often initiated by foreign missionaries, particularly from the United States.
The most conspicuous reborn Christian in Zaïre was Dominique Sakombi Inongo, who had been Mobutu’s main propagandist for years. The man who had thought up the concepts of authenticité, Mobutism, and political entertainment had now become God’s own spokesman. After a traffic accident on a highway outside Brussels (driving down the wrong side of the road at night, he had killed a Belgian woman), he’d had a mystical experience. In a dream, the Almighty spoke to him, saying: “Dominique, my son, I grant to you both life and death, but I recommend that you choose Life! For I shall save you and use you.” That took a little explaining.
“For years you had my people dance for a man, but from now on it is for Me and only for Me that you shall mobilize the people, so that they may praise Me and be set free at last.” Sakombi decided to make a clean break with the Mobutu regime, and personally advised Mobutu to do the same: “You must coexist with Tshisekedi. You must absolutely be converted . . . . I urge you, as a brother, to turn away for good from the marabous, the witches, the féticheurs [healers], the sorcerers, et cetera. They are liars . . . . Citoyen Président, do not resist the Lord’s call. He died on the cross for you as well.”25 To the former PR man, the symbols of the Second Republic were clearly bewitched. The national anthem, the flag, and coat of arms were of satanic origin. During long prayer meetings, Sakombi told his listeners that he had seen the prototype of the national coat of arms carved in stone in a cave, dozens of meters under the ground, in Egypt. There, close to one of the pyramids of Cairo, on the banks of a subterranean river, there had been elders, singing incantations . . . . The national currency, too, was bewitched: “One need only observe the cabbalistic symbols on it to believe that: they are all about magic. With such banknotes, one can never finance a country’s development . . . . You will recall that the recent series of banknotes caused troubles and even lay at the root of the conflict between Mobutu and Tshisekedi. And now you know why . . . because they are diabolical.”26
And indeed, there was something peculiar about that recent series of banknotes. Sakombi’s fantastical discourse did not come entirely out of the blue but put a religious twist on well-known public comment. In 1970 the largest denomination in circulation was the five-zaïre note, in 1984 it was five-hundred zaïres. That in itself was a sign of drastic inflation. But in 1990 there appeared a fifty-thousand-zaïre note, and two years later even one representing five million zaïres.27 At times, macroeconomics can be childishly simple. When the value of the biggest banknote rises that quickly, it means either that a country is becoming breathtakingly wealthy or that the currency is becoming breathtakingly worthless. Unfortunately, it was the latter: the five-million-zaïre note was worth only two dollars. Nevertheless, it showed Mobutu looking as unperturbed as he had on earlier bills. He stood there proudly in his white marshal’s uniform, the one tailored for him by Alfons Mertens, thereby making it one of the twentieth century’s most oft-depicted outfits. Printing new money on a massive scale, after all, was Mobutu’s favorite way to ensure cash for himself, especially now that he could no longer count on his international backers. He placed his order with the German firm of Giesecke and Devrient, printers of currency for customers from Hitler to Mugabe, and had huge shipments of banknotes brought in by cargo plane. In 1995 alone, 830 million new bills were flown in. Mobutu immediately had to exchange almost half that for dollars, in order pay the printer.28Printing money in order to pay the printer: economics can also be childishly tragic.
When Mobutu introduced the five-million-zaïre banknote in December 1992, Prime Minister Tshisekedi declared it unlawful. He wanted to call a halt to this thoughtless monetary policy, but that resulted in the new prime minister’s first serious clash with the president. In the streets of Kinshasa the banknote was soon given the nickname Dona Beija, after a lovely but extremely treacherous character in a popular Brazilian soap opera of that day.29 Mobutu used the money to pay his soldiers. As always, they took their pay right away to a moneychanger; the wages paid on Friday, after all, could lose a third of their value by Monday morning. The phenomenon of the cambistes had manifested itself all over the country, moneychangers (almost always women) who sat under a parasol along the side of the road, piles of banknotes beside them on a folding table. In Zaïre even the black market was colorful. One found them along the street behind the Belgian embassy in Kinshasa, soon referred to as Wall Street, but deep in Matonge too one soon found alleyways full of unofficial change offices. On payday the civil servant, traffic policeman, or soldier would take his plastic bag full of newly printed bills to the cambiste and exchange them for dollars. The moneychanger would later sell the banknotes to someone else, often to state enterprises that needed them to pay their own employees. In this way, Zaïre gradually became “dollarized.”30 Even today, dollars are the prime currency for all major expenditures; the local currency is used only for smaller purchases.
But the five-million-zaïre note was a catastrophe. After Tshisekedi declared it unlawful, the cambistes refused to accept it. The soldiers who saw their monthly pay dwindling away felt betrayed and decided to collect their wages themselves. From January 28–30, 1993, they went on another rampage. The consequences were terrible. In Kinshasa today, people still speak of the First and the Second Plundering, the one in 1991 and the other in 1993, for these were historical events that impressed themselves deeply on the nation’s memory. The Second Plundering was the most violent by far. This time it was Mobutu’s elite troops, the DSP itself, that mutinied and helped themselves to public and private property. Before the owners’ eyes they smashed shop windows and pulled chandeliers from the ceiling. Because the assortment was often meager, they even yanked the copper wiring and sinks out of the walls. Zaïre had now become the country of last things, a lawless, freebooting, hopeless country that had succumbed to banditry and greed. Thousands lost their lives during the Second Plundering, including the French ambassador and a member of his staff. Once again, French and Belgian paratroopers were mobilized. When it was over the city looked as though a horde of locusts had descended. The streets were littered with bits of paper, notebooks, chunks of debris, and shoes. Curtains flapped through broken windowpanes, brushing the sidewalk. Normal people tried to get a piece of the action as well, for in a bankrupt country even the most trivial takes on new value. Old paper, for example, became a costly commodity The archives at the Kinshasa zoo, a pitiful remnant of colonial days where a crocodile hatched in 1938 still lay basking in the sun (and still does today) were pillaged by city dwellers in search of packing paper.31 In the weeks that followed, anyone buying a handful of peanuts on the market in Kinshasa by way of evening meal received them wrapped in a piece of yellowed paper on which one could read of the wondrous life of the chimpanzee and the okapi.
HIS COUNTRY COULDN’T GO ON THIS WAY, Mobutu felt. A few months earlier he had celebrated the wedding of one of his daughters at Gbadolite. On that occasion she had worn $3 million worth of jewelry from Cartier and Boucheron. But that wasn’t the problem. The wedding was attended by twenty-five hundred guests. There had been caviar and lobster. Thousands of bottles of top French wines were consumed. But that was not the problem either. A plane had flown to Paris and back again just to pick up the cake, a four-meter-high (thirteen-foot-high) construction, from the bakery of chef-patissier Lenôtre. None of this, however, was the problem, no. In his eyes, the real problem was Tshisekedi, the man who had rejected a banknote with his picture on it and thereby unleashed the plundering. No, there was no way he could work with a stubborn fool like that.
In March 1993, after ten days in conclave with the leaders of the still-vital MPR, Mobutu decided to set up his own government with its own parliament, constitution, and prime minister. Faustin Birindwa, a former opponent, was the new flunky. He would see to a project of monetary reform in which a new currency, the nouveau zaïre, would replace three million old zaïres.
Zaïre now had a shadow government. In addition to the institutions established by the Sovereign National Conference, there were now those put in place by the much more sovereign president. The tremendous work fought for by people like Régine Mutijima now fell prey to the avarice of an old dinosaur. The historical irony was clear to all: in 1960 and again in 1965, Mobutu’s coups had been staged in response to Joseph Kasavubu’s twice appointing a prime minister of his own beside the democratically elected one (Joseph Ileo versus Lumumba in 1960, Évariste Kimba versus Tshombe in 1965); Mobutu was now doing the very same thing. This insufferable impasse was to last one year. Transnational organizations recognized the seriousness of the situation and feared an escalation like the one after independence. To negotiate a compromise, the Organization for African Unity and the United Nations sent emissaries to Kinshasa. That compromise was finally found in the form of a superparliament with seven hundred members, comprising two parallel bodies: the parliament approved by the Sovereign National Conference and the one imposed by the dictatorship. Within the rather clumsily named Haut Conseil de la République–Parlement de Transition (HCR–PT), the Mobutu faction held a majority. In July 1994 the prime ministership went again to Léon Kengo wa Dondo, a man of Polish-Congolese origin who had led two relatively stable governments in the 1980s and implemented the IMF’s structural adjustments. That made him acceptable to the international community; the Zaïrians themselves, however, had chilling memories of those years of spending cuts. Kengo never caused their hearts to leap in hope, the way Tshisekedi had. It was now his job to lead the country toward the elections originally projected for 1995; in 1995, however, they were postponed until 1997.
With this new construction (a parliament that listened to him, a prime minister who did not obstruct him, elections that were not going to happen tomorrow), Mobutu seemed to have once again saved his skin. Yet that was only appearance; Zaïre, the country he had unified and made grand, was gradually falling apart. In Kasai, the people refused to use the new currency, the nouveau zaïre: within that autonomous currency zone now lurked the threat of a new secession.32 In Katanga ethnic violence between the original inhabitants and the Luba migrants from Kasai had flared up again, due to the outright racism of provincial governor Kyungu wa Kumwanza, who dreamed of an independent Katanga and took an advance on that dream by running tens of thousands of immigrants out of the region. The worst violence, though, was seen in North Kivu. There the Banyarwanda, the Rwandan-speaking population, were increasingly seen as undesirable immigrants who unrightfully claimed wealth, land, and power. Most of them had settled in Congo between 1959 and 1962, in response to rioting in their own country. As long as Bisengimana Rwema, the father of the young man I spoke to on that boat on Lake Kivu, remained Mobutu’s cabinet chief, these Rwandan-speakers (mostly Tutsis) were seen as full Zaïrians and received the Zaïrian nationality quite easily. But a new law in 1981 purposely tightened the criteria for naturalization, and from 1990 the goal was to get rid of these Tutsi immigrants. The Banyarwanda were to Kivu what the Baluba had been to Katanga: undesirable elements, intruders, outsiders, profiteers, foreigners, people who didn’t belong. Rwandais became a term of derision. Children sang: “All Rwandans should go home, we don’t want them anymore.”33 The animosity between Zaïrians and “the Rwandese” grew to such heights that nationalistic militias arose, the Mai-mai. These ad hoc paramilitary groups were in favor of armed resistance against all foreign influences. They drew on the Simbas of 1964 for their bizarre rituals, but this time the enemy was not Mobutu and his Western allies, but the “immigrants” from the east.
“Je suis zaïrois!” a Mai-mai veteran told me proudly in December 2008, eleven years after his country had changed its name back to Congo. “At first we got along well with the Banyarwanda, but then they tried to eliminate the Hunde, the Tembo, and the Nyanga. I’m a Hunde. The Banyarwanda locked the Hunde up in their houses and burned them down.” The conflict, in essence, was about land. Rwanda and Kivu are Africa’s most densely inhabited agricultural regions. “It started in 1993. We became Mai-mai. To do that you had to belong to the Bantu race, you had to be highly patriotic and baptized with our special water. You received a ritual scar, traditional potions, and medicinal plants. Stealing and raping was forbidden. There was no raping back then. We adapted the rifles we usually used for bird hunting. We had no alternative. The Banyarwanda were foreigners who wanted to annex North Kivu as part of Rwanda.” Overcrowding, poverty, and an absentee state made for a deadly cocktail. In 1993 the tensions in North Kivu led to campaigns of ethnic cleansing that killed at least four thousand, by some accounts as many as twenty thousand, people.34 “Oh, I took part in at least forty battles myself.”35
In Goma I talked about this with Pierrot Bushala, a man who still looked back in amazement at the events of that day: “In the 1980s no one knew what ethnic group his classmates came from; that only started in the 1990s. My class at secondary school was un mélange total [a complete mix]. I had a Tutsi girlfriend at the time, and I didn’t even know that. But in the 1990s, when we wanted to get married, her parents wouldn’t allow it. I’m sure that ten years earlier they would have accepted me.” He was able to place his heartbreak within a historical context. “Look, when Belgium took over the mandate territories in 1918, the border with Rwanda became porous. The Belgians had exported thousands of Rwandan Hutus to the mines and the Tutsis moved spontaneously across the border. Under Mobutu those Tutsis had Zaïrian passports, but in the 1990s, tribalism grew. Suddenly people starting saying that the Tutsis were no longer loyal countrymen, because they supported their brothers’ struggle in Rwanda. ‘If you’re a Tutsi, then you’re a Rwandan,’ the Zaïrians said. That’s where things went wrong. I ended up marrying a Lega woman; her tribe originally comes from South Kivu.”36
In South Kivu, these Zaïrian Tutsis were increasingly referred to as Banyamulenge, the people of Mulenge, an ethnic moniker invented and applied to them by others. Ever since the nineteenth century, they had lived with their herds in the cold, misty highlands west of Lake Tanganyika, close to the town of Mulenge. With their height, their fine features, and their felt hats they confirmed the clichés of the Tutsi herder sauntering along behind his cows with his stick over his shoulder. And increasingly, they became the objects of abuse and hatred. They were like bats, a Congolese woman told me once, neither bird nor mouse, neither Rwandan nor Zaïrian, scary and slippery. And a bit dirty as well! Yes, another person chimed in, they earned lots of money with their cattle but the Banyamulenge had no culture. They bought the most expensive clothes, but all in bad taste. Their men wore women’s clothes. And their women used toilet pots to pound manioc. Ha ha! And the way they grimaced all the time! Was that because of their buck teeth? Or were they just cold?
Mobutu had tried to awaken national sentiment as an antidote to the tribal reflex; in times of scarcity, however, enmity was just around the corner. The Tutsis in Kivu (both the Banyarwanda in North Kivu and the Banyamulenge in South Kivu) in particular footed the bill for that. The racial hatred, in turn, caused them to behave increasingly as a group. Those reviled as Banyamulenge truly began feeling like Banyamulenge. They looked back on their history, recalled that they were indeed different from all the rest, that their roots lay in Rwanda, and that in fact, yes, now that you mention it, they had never been truly welcome in Zaïre. Groups form as soon as they are threatened. Ethnic identification became more important than national identification.37 Even the father of the nation had withdrawn to his native region and entrusted his safety to men of his own tribe. Mobutu, the advocate of unity, himself became a tribalist. Zaïre was once again transformed into a crazy quilt of tribes. Poverty led to aggression, hunger to atrocities.
No money, no foreign aid, and no functional army: Zaïre was crumbling and little would have been needed in 1994 to bring the dictatorship to its knees. But then, in Zaïre’s smallest neighbor, a humanitarian catastrophe took place that destabilized the entire region so badly that the international community once again came to see Mobutu as a beacon of stability, a wise elder, a bulwark amid the storm racing across Central Africa. That catastrophe was the Rwandan genocide, a foreign event that would impact the history of Zaïre like no other.
Like neighboring Burundi, Rwanda had become independent of Belgium in 1962. During the first democratic elections, the centuries-old ruling class, the Tutsis, a cattle-breeding minority, lost power. Ascendancy went to the far more numerous Hutus, a traditional farming people. The social and economic differences between the two groups were real enough, but the Belgian colonial regime had accentuated them and rendered them categorical. You were either a Hutu or a Tutsi. After independence, the new Hutu regime displayed great intolerance for its former masters. Many Tutsis fled with their herds to Burundi, Congo, and Uganda. From there, at the borders of their fatherland, they stared at the distant hills and vowed to return some day and seize power anew. In southern Uganda they banded together militarily in the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and fought beside rebel leader Yoweri Museveni in his campaign to oust Milton Obote. Museveni became president of Uganda and the RPF learned for the first time how one went about conquering a country. That military experience would serve them well. Paul Kagame, the current president of Rwanda, became their military leader. Starting in 1990, the RPF began crossing the Rwandan border and initiated a civil war with the Hutu regime. An estimated twenty thousand people were killed in that war between 1990 and 1994, and 1.5 million civilians became displaced. The attacks created so much bad blood among the Hutu population that the hatred toward anything Tutsi grew even further, even toward those Tutsis who had remained in Rwanda and behaved as good citizens. “Cockroaches” is what people called them.
On April 6, 1994, when Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, all hell broke loose. Kagame’s RPF had to be behind the attack, the Hutus reasoned, and they began murdering Tutsi citizens on a massive scale. This was no battle fought by soldiers with firearms, but by civilians with machetes. Civilian militias had been trained beforehand by the Hutu regime and equipped with machetes. These militias often consisted of teenage boys weaned on racial hatred, the infamous Interahamwe. They set about the business of genocide, egged on by the broadcasts of hate-radio Mille Collines, which kept repeating that the graves were not yet full and that there were still cockroaches scuttling around. Within three months, eight hundred thousand to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been slaughtered. Meanwhile, from the north, Kagame’s RPF continued to press on toward Kigali, the capital.
The international community was not on the ground. At the start of the genocide, the Rwandan government army had murdered ten Belgian blue helmets in order to chase the United Nations out of the country and clear the way for ethnic cleansing. Reporters and foreign journalists fled the country’s violence. The eyes of the world in those weeks were turned much more on South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was elected president. Few people knew exactly what was going on and France’s President François Mitterand was no exception. He saw the Hutus as victims of the Tutsi invasion and sent French troops to Rwanda to help them. The French support was unconsciously prompted in part by the fact that the Hutus were Francophone while the Tutsis in Uganda spoke English. What Mitterand did not know was that he was in fact protecting the perpetrators of the genocide. Under the name Opération Turqoise, the French troops established a safe haven to which Hutus could flee in the southwest of the country, away from Kagame’s advancing RPF, away from the reprisals that were sure to follow.
The genocide was intended to make Rwanda Tutsi-free, but those same Tutsis were now coming in to conquer it from the neighboring countries. The RPF’s military might had been sorely underestimated. The French soldiers took in hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees and helped them across the border. Here it was not only a people fleeing, but also a regime: the government army, the country’s ordnance, the administrative apparatus, and even the state treasury left the country. Some 270,000 people fled to Burundi and 570,000 to Tanzania, but the lion’s share of the refugees—approximately 1.5 million—ended up in eastern Zaïre.38 Mobutu had put his airports at the disposal of the French offensive and granted permission to lodge the refugees in his country. Most of them arrived in North Kivu, in and around the city of Goma (850,000 refugees), and to a lesser extent at Bukavu in South Kivu (650,000).
Along with Pierrot Bushala, the man who had lost his Tutsi girlfriend, I drove in December 2008 to Mugunga, west of Goma, the biggest of the former Hutu camps. It was still being used as a refugee center; since 1994, calm has never returned to Kivu. In the 1990s, under the auspices of the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee organization, Bushala had been involved in trying to maintain hygiene in the camps. “Can you picture it? This whole area was full of refugees, and there was nothing at all,” he said as his jeep bounced through a sinister lunar landscape overrun with garish green vegetation. The earth’s surface in this place consisted of black lava from the imposing Nyiragongo volcano a little farther along, and suddenly 850,000 people had been dropped here. Bushala was responsible for the sanitary conditions in one of the camps. “At first the people relieved themselves wherever they could. But then the UNHCR and the Red Cross brought in tents, and quicklime to sprinkle around. It was only later that toilets were built, over a hole in the ground.” As we walked around Mugunga itself, I realized how grim a task it must have been to dig toilet holes in that volcanic rock. Pierrot looked out over the desolate landscape of clotted lava covered with little huts and tents. “We combated flies, mosquitoes, we walked around with spray guns, we had teams to empty the toilets, we collected garbage.” But it was to no avail. Cholera and dysentery broke out in the camps. At least forty thousand people died. Their bodies were piled along the road. The stench was unbearable. The clouds of flies were so thick that drivers could barely see through their windshields.
The misery that came after the genocide restored Mobutu’s international respectability. The French were grateful to him for his assistance and soon invited him to an international summit at Biarritz. The United Nations recognized his role in taking care of the refugees. When the camps were struck by epidemics, dozens of NGOs and international aid organizations were allowed to descend on the country. The outbreak of the highly contagious Ebola virus in Kikwit one year later lent Mobutu the aura of victim, rather than villain. Now that the world was taking a milder view, Prime Minister Kengo wa Dondo could easily go about delaying and sabotaging the election process. There was no rush.
But providing shelter for a million and a half refugees within one’s own territory was of course a high price to pay for rehabilitation, particularly in a region that was already overpopulated and where hatred toward Rwanda had been growing for years. Just as the people tried their luck with risky games of chance, Mobutu too was playing for high stakes with those camps. At first his gamble yielded some returns, but in the end it was to be his downfall.
ON THAT SAME SATURDAY IN 1996, Ruffin Luliba was playing soccer with the locals. A sunny day. The sound of children’s voices calling for a pass, the dull thud of soccer slippers against the ball, a few screaming spectators, the arbiter’s whistle. Ruffin was thirteen by then. After elementary school in Bukavu he had gone to the Marist Brother’s boarding school in Mugeri and begun studying at the minor seminary there. On that particular Saturday his team was playing in the semifinals, and one of the spectators was Déogratias Bugera, a man who worked as an architect in Goma but liked to spend his weekends in his native region. “When the match was over, Bugera said he would like to sponsor our team. He gave us sugarcane, bonbons, and cookies. If we won the finals that next week, he said, he would pay for everything: all the equipment, the jerseys, even new soccer shoes.” Ruffin could hardly believe his ears: new soccer shoes! “That next week, there he was. We really wanted to win, and we beat the opponents by 2–0. We were all allowed to go along in his Daihatsu to pick up the new uniforms. It was one of those pickups with nets over it. There were thirteen of us. The oldest was sixteen, the others were fourteen or fifteen. My roommate Roderick went too.” But the boys’ exultation quickly changed to confusion.
We drove off in the direction of Bukavu, but we didn’t stop there. We went on, all the way to the Rwandan border. We crossed at the bridge over the Ruzizi. There weren’t even any customs formalities, no guards, no immigration service, nothing. We drove on until we got to an airfield. Wait here, Déogratias said, and he left. We didn’t know exactly where we were, we were just schoolboys. It was already five thirty in the evening and it was getting dark. We were afraid the headmaster at the boarding school would punish us, and we started crying. At seven o’clock a big truck came by and we had [to] climb in. The drive took five hours. “What’s the headmaster going to say?” we asked each other. That was our biggest worry. Finally, we arrived at the military training camp at Gabiro. We didn’t get soccer shoes, but they gave us rubber boots, not leather boots like the ones at home. There were a lot of children at that camp, all of them kidnapped from Goma and Uvira. There were also a few Bunyamulenge, but they were there as volunteers. They cut off our hair right away. It was one o’clock in the morning, and as a sort of hazing we had to crawl through the mud. You have to rid yourselves of Mobutu, they screamed, you are the new liberators of your country.39
Young Ruffin’s testimony is very important, not only because it describes the fate of what was then a relatively new phenomenon, the child soldier under duress, but also because it shows how Rwanda was preparing to invade Zaïre. The Tutsi regime that came to power in Kigali after the genocide was extremely wary of those 1.5 million Hutu refugees in Zaïre. Contrary to international directives, they were not a few dozen kilometers from the border, but bunched up almost right against it. In those camps, the recently routed Hutu regime was busy regrouping. They had money and weapons and were determined to retake Rwanda. Just as the Tutsis in exile had awaited their chance in Uganda from 1962 to 1994, the Hutus in eastern Zaïre were now waiting their turn. Most of the refugees, some 85 to 90 percent, however, did not belong to the national army in exile, had not taken part in the genocide, and had never belonged to Interahamwe.40 They were innocent civilians who simply wanted to go home again, but who feared for a genocidal countercampaign.
An invasion was being planned in the refugee camps. The international community was aware of the problem, but did not seem inclined to do much. After the debacle in Somalia, America had no desire to once again see the corpses of GIs dragged through the dust. Belgium did not feel like losing another ten paratroopers. And UN Secretary Boutros Boutros Ghali could not round up enough support to deploy an international force. Any international action in Zaïre, in any case, would be seen as support for Mobutu and no one wanted to go that far. And so Kagame decided to take things into his own hands: his Rwandan Patriotic Front, by then redubbed the Rwandan Patriotic Army, the new government forces, would just have to neutralize those camps itself. His old friend Museveni, president of Uganda, promised his support.
Raiding the camps, however, meant raiding a sovereign country, an act of aggression against a foreign power. Kagame therefore went looking for a stalking horse for his initiative, and found one among the frustrated Tutsis in Zaïre. Humiliated for years by the “real” Zaïrians, they were now being bowled over as well by 1.5 million Rwandan Hutus. Déogratias Bugera, the soccer fan who had kidnapped Ruffin and his teammates, was a Tutsi from North Kivu and the leader of the Alliance Démocratique des Peuples (ADP). Along the same lines, there was also Anselme Masasu Nindaga, a Tutsi from South Kivu who was politically active in Bukavu and led the Mouvement Révolutionnaire pour la Libération du Zaïre (MRLZ). But there were also older nationalists, like André Kisase Ngandu, a Tetela who harked back to the Lumumbist tradition. And then there was Laurent-Desiré Kabila, no Tutsi either but a Luba from Katanga, the man who had kept the area between Fizi and Baraka out of Mobutu’s hands ever since 1964 and made such a lamentable impression on Che Guevara. And if Kabila’s “rebellion” had been an utter mess in 1964, by 1996 it was showing little improvement. Kabila lived semipermanently in Tanzania and earned a living by smuggling a little gold, doing a little gunrunning, and organizing the occasional kidnapping: the mixed farming of African crime, in other words.
In October 1996, at Kagame’s instigation, these four men would set up the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération (AFDL). Kabila was their spokesman and, as the eldest of the four, received the honorable term of address Mzee, Swahili for elder. Bugera was the alliance’s deputy, Kisase its military commander.
Ruffin Luliba saw it all “live”:
During our training, we were introduced to the men who later set up the AFDL. We already knew Bugera. But Kisase Ngandu, Masasu, and Mzee came to visit too. Mzee even gave us two cows, which meant we had our first good meal in a long time! Normally we ate beans and corn from our mess tin. There were two battalions in the camp, and our training lasted six months. Three months of physical training for the battlefield and espionage, two months of ideological training to impress upon us the war’s objective. And one month of concrete preparations. The first part was especially hard. Some of us died. Roderick, my roommate at the minor seminary, succumbed to dysentery. We buried him in a blanket, there weren’t any coffins. At the end of our training we were given our real uniforms, and they told us again that we were “the new liberators” of our country.
It was clear from the start that Rwanda hoped not only to neutralize the camps, but to actually push on all the way to the capital, two thousand kilometers (about 1,250 miles) to the west. Kagame demanded that Mobutu step down, because he had given thegénocidaires shelter and protection. Minuscule Rwanda would force Zaïre, the giant of Central Africa, to its knees, and the AFDL had to make it look like a domestic uprising. This was to be Kagame’s third regime change in a Central African country: after Uganda and Rwanda, it was now Zaïre’s turn.
At the head of the invasionary force was the fresh-faced but dauntless Rwandan officer James Kabarebe, one of Kagame’s most trusted men. He was only twenty-seven: a boy with a baby face, but also with great charisma and a flexible conscience. The invading army was already known for youthfulness, because it made use for the first time of kadogos (child soldiers) from Zaïre. They were recognizable by their baggy uniforms and particularly by their black rubber boots, the true earmark of Rwandan involvement. Kalashnikovs seemed too big to fit in their hands, but the way they clutched the characteristic curved clip showed more venom than reluctance.
Ruffin remembered the first phase:
James Kabarebe said: I need ten kadogos from Bukavu, ten from Uvira and ten from Goma. I reported to him and we had disguise ourselves as street children and go in and spy. James told me: “I’m entrusting this mission to you. Go and watch the FAZ [Forces Armées Zaïroises, Mobutu’s government forces]. See what kind of guns they have. See whether they have reinforcements.” He gave me a Motorola to keep in touch with him. I crossed the border wearing rags and went to look at their camp in Bukavu. When I got there, the soldiers were busy plundering. One of them shouted to me to come and help him carry the booty! I hid the Motorola. It was complete chaos. Shots were being fired. Then I went back to Rwanda to tell James what I had seen. I didn’t look up my family while I was in Bukavu. When you’re in the army, you forget your family. The army was my family.
The FAZ, plundering? Kabarebe was delighted to hear that. Zaïre, he decided, was now a complete shambles. And indeed: in early October, when the deputy governor of South Kivu announced that he would start the next day with the ethnic cleansing of the Banyamulenge, the threatened group went on a rampage. That was the starting shot for the hostilities. Rwanda commenced the invasion. A few days later, the AFDL came to the fore as rebel movement. Uvira was taken on October 28, 1996, Bukavu two days later. One of the first casualties was Christophe Munzihirwa, the archbishop who had sharply criticized the Rwandan machinations. Ruffin and his buddies fought in the front lines. “There were Rwandans, Ugandans, and even Eritreans with us. We smoked big six-inch joints, that gave us the courage to be patriots.” Mobutu’s soldiers turned and ran right away, but the heaviest resistance came from the Mai-mai, the popular militias that hated all things Rwandan.
My first fight was with the Mai-mai who were guarding the offices of the RTNC, the public broadcaster. I had a short Kalashnikov. That took some getting used to. I’m left-handed, so I kept burning myself; the cartridges ejected on the right side of the gun, right against my stomach. A Mai-mai came running up to me with his red kerchief and his fetishes. He didn’t have any ammunition. I put a bullet through his head. I was terribly upset. I had never killed anyone before and I felt terrible. Let me go back to the third section, I begged the officers. I didn’t want to fight up in the first section anymore. You have no choice, they told me, and they gave me a hundred lashes.
After the fall of Uvira and Bukavu, Goma followed on October 31, 1996. Within only a few days the AFDL had taken the three most important cities in eastern Zaïre, and by no accident the three cities with the biggest refugee camps. The AFDL wanted to press on to Kinshasa as quickly as possible, but neutralizing the camps was crucial for the Rwandans. Ruffin clearly felt the tensions within the mixed invasionary forces: “Whenever we got to a refugee camp, the Rwandan Tutsis would do all the work. Hundreds, thousands of dead people . . . Fathers, mothers, women . . . The Hutus are serpents, they said. At the Kashusha camp, close to Bukavu, I went into a tent where they had just killed a grandmother and a pregnant woman. The only one alive was a child. A toddler. I was supposed to kill him, but I couldn’t. He petted my gun. I let him go, sent him along with a few Hutus who were running away.”
Around Goma, where the five largest refugee camps were located, the killing was particularly remorseless. Rwanda riddled the hovels with mortar and machine-gun fire, causing many of the Hutus there to flee in a panic back to their homeland. Within a few days, almost four hundred thousand refugees, a huge sea of humanity, fled east across the border.41 In Rwanda a new traffic sign was posted: “Ralentir: refugiés” (Slow: refugees crossing).42 But a great many Hutus, especially the more militarized among them, moved farther west into the jungles. By the time the United Nations had put together an intervention team to protect the refugees, the camps were empty. The ensuing struggle between the Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis, the sequel to the genocide, was to take place on Zaïrian soil.
At the age of fourteen, Ruffin learned about the horrors of war from close by. His battalion moved south, by way of Uvira, along Lake Tanganyika to Katanga. At Bendera, a town in north Katanga, he experienced the grimmest fighting. He and his comrades were pinned down by heavy shelling. “A firefight is like a drum set. Bombs and bazookas sound like the tom-toms and the floor tom. The bursts from our Kalashnikovs are like ruffles on a snare drum. The bass drum is represented by an 80-mm mortar. And the cymbals, those are our shrieks, because we were always screaming. We made ghostly sounds to drive the enemy mad, some in a low voice, others shrilling. We shouted their names and said that we would find them.” War, madness, hysteria. Soccer, but then without the ball. Only the screaming. And with guns.
The screaming didn’t help. Ruffin and three other soldiers were taken prisoner by Rwandan Hutus. He was terrified. “The Hutus were notorious for killing people with the machete, the way they had during the genocide. They cut off your arms or pounded in your skull, so they could see your brains. That was typical of them.” He was the youngest of the four prisoners, and that proved to be his salvation. One by one, the others had to lay their arms on the chopping block.
The Hutus had new machetes, they glistened: they were like mirrors. My friend looked the other way when they raised the machete. He screamed. I saw his hand, his hand that was still moving, even though it was already lying on the ground. Then they made him suffer terribly. They kept on chopping, they ran their blades through his body, until he was dead. And then they did the same to the second one, and the third. My friends were slaughtered one by one and I watched. When it was my turn, the commander told me that his name was Mungara and that he had been President Habyarimana’s bodyguard before the president was murdered. He was going to spare me and started writing a letter in Kinyarwanda. “Here, take this to Kabarebe.” They tore off my clothes and sent me away in my underwear. I came down out of the hills and returned to our position. That was the hardest moment of my life, I’ll never forget it. When I finally got there, I handed the letter to James Kabarebe. He read it and said: “Dieu le veut. It is God’s will. Mungara has murdered the whole family, but I’m going to keep you as my bodyguard.”
Ruffin, a Zaïrian boy who until recently had known nothing about politics and found the offside rule already difficult enough to comprehend, had almost been killed in a conflict between Rwanda Hutus and Tutsis. “I didn’t have to go into battle anymore. James loved me, he let me carry his duffle bag. ‘Ruffin, bring me my bag!’ he would shout to me. In the days that followed, I saw him studying the map of Congo. He had never been here before either. Kabarebe had no real education, but he was very logical and calm, he could analyze and listen well. He had lost his family and he said to me: ‘You have to love your country, kadogo.’” And that was how Ruffin, the boy who liked soccer and wanted to become a priest, became bodyguard to the de facto commander of the invading force that would dethrone Mobutu.
THE AFDL USED A PINCER MOVEMENT to conquer Zaïre. Ruffin was with the southerly arm that moved toward Lubumbashi; the northern pincer headed for Kinshasa, the city on the river. After three decades of dictatorship, many tens of thousands of civilians were now overrun by war as well. A virtual exodus began. Many of the inhabitants of Kivu tried to get out, but the last planes were chock full and anyone with a jeep had to hand it over to the plundering soldiers of the FAZ. Thousands of them then decided to travel to Kisangani on foot. It was a seven-hundred-kilometer (435-mile) journey through the jungle, the first part of which went by way of Kahuzi-Biega, a mountainous natural park where in better times tourists had come to see the gorillas. Dr. Soki, a Bukavu physician, walked away after his house was destroyed by a mortar shell.43 Sekombi Katondolo, an artist from Goma, left town with a few friends in search of safety.44 Émilie Efinda, a relatively prosperous female pharmacist from Bukavu, started the journey in high heels.45 It was an arduous trip through the jungle, at the height of the rainy season. People took shelter beneath the leaves, slept on the ground, fought off the ants, and ate rotten fruit. Hygiene was at a minimum. Stockings, handkerchiefs, and rags were used as sanitary napkins.46 The paths through the interior were muddy; at many places there was no road left. Where the bridges had been washed away, people waded through rivers. Trucks could pass only here and there, but the drivers demanded exorbitant sums to carry the sick, exhausted, and starving a little farther. The column of refugees was huge and heterogeneous: plundering FAZ soldiers, panicky civilians, terrified Rwandan Hutus running for their lives, drugged child soldiers, hardened military men from Rwanda and Uganda. The only ones moving in the opposite direction were the Mai-mai, off to combat the foreign elements. In ragtag groups they moved eastward, with no central chain of command.
Deeper in the interior, the pursuit of the Hutus led to grave human rights violations. As soon as the AFDL came in, villagers noted, the Rwandans would ask where the refugees were, then take off to massacre them.47 This led to massive carnage. The situation was particularly gruesome at Tingi-Tingi, only a stone’s throw from Kisangani, where a group of some 135,000 Hutu refugees had gathered. Many of them were in a pathetic state. Cholera had thinned their ranks and their children were dying in great numbers. When the AFDL approached from the east in late February 1997, the survivors ran into the jungle to hide. The Rwandan Tutsis then misused the international aid organizations to help regroup the refugees in a number of makeshift camps. As soon as a new crowd of Hutus was gathered, aid workers and journalists were barred from the area “for safety reasons” and the ethnic cleansing could begin with impunity. It was not only Hutu soldiers or Interahamwe who were murdered, but also malnourished children, women, old people, the wounded, and the dying. The killing sometimes took place at gunpoint, but much more often with the machete and the hammer. Ammunition was expensive and heavy to carry through the jungle.
The international community was denied access to the area and the true extent of the atrocities became clear only later. Eyewitness accounts from perpetrators are rare. “Yes, I was at Tingi-Tingi,” said Lieutenant Papy Bulaya, a former soldier in the AFDL. Only after many bottles of beer was he able to talk about it.
Listen, our objective was Kisangani, and Tingi-Tingi was in the way. So we had to neutralize it. I was a kadogo, only fifteen, our commander was Rwandan, General Ruvusha. He’s a colonel in the Rwandan army now, but he was terrible. Laurent Nkunda was there too. Drive out the enemy, those were our orders. Our Tutsi commander told us: They’re génocidaires, they have to die. They would call out: Kadogo, kill this person. And we had to obey, otherwise we were executed on the spot. We had to keep going all the time. A lot of Rwandans were killed there back then. Afterward their bodies were doused with gasoline and burned, or buried. The supply trucks moved along behind us: food for us and gasoline for the “mopping-up,” to “clean the slate.” When I think back on it, it hurts so much. I regret it, but we were loyal to the AFDL.48
The emergency camps at Tingi-Tingi had provided shelter for eighty-five thousand people; after the cleansing they were empty, deserted, desolate. Tens of thousands of Hutus were massacred. A group of forty-five thousand fled west, to Équateur, where they were intercepted at Boende and Mbandaka and murdered en masse. Eyewitnesses even saw soldiers kill babies by crushing their skulls with a boot heel or dashing their heads against a wall.49 A few Hutus were able to escape and made it to Congo-Brazzaville, some even as far as Gabon. By then they had covered more than two thousand kilometers (about 1,250 miles) on foot, straight across Zaïre, under conditions more miserable than anything Stanley had endured. All in all there were only a few thousand survivors, a tiny fraction of their original numbers. During the invading army’s advance, an estimated two to three hundred thousand Hutu refugees were murdered.50
THE WAR LASTED SEVEN MONTHS and was, in essence, a steady offensive westward to Kinshasa. Real battles were waged at some places, like Bunia and Watsa, but almost everywhere else the AFDL simply rolled on through. Kindu fell on February 28, 1997, Kisangani on March 15, and Mbuji-Mayi on April 4. The conquest of Kisangani was of particular strategic and symbolic importance, because the city lay on the river, the Central African thoroughfare to Kinshasa. Prime Minister Kengo wa Dondo had vowed that that city would never be taken, but there you had it: the rebels overran it without a hitch. The characteristic images of the AFDL’s advance showed two long rows of child soldiers in black rubber boots, moving down both sides of the road in silence on their way to a town or city. They were foot soldiers in the most literal sense: children moving on foot. By the time they arrived, Mobutu’s army had already fled, often after a bit of plundering. In Kikwit the inhabitants paid the government soldiers to leave without sacking the town.51 Once they were gone, the local citizens welcomed their liberators from the east with banners and singing. The democratic opposition was pleased with the military liberation. “The UDPS welcomes the AFDL,” some banners read.52 The young soldiers who came from so far away and who marched through the streets in such great earnestness were admired for their courage and patriotism.53 Everywhere they came, new recruits signed up. The Katangan Tigers, whose invasion of Shaba had failed in 1978, joined as well. The AFDL was engaged in a truly triumphal procession.
During grand rallies, Kabila spoke to the newly liberated crowds. For the first time the masses saw the man about whom they had heard so much on the radio. He usually went dressed in black and wore a cowboy hat on his huge, bald dome. Kabila was a robust figure, a man with meat on his bones who laughed broadly and, with one hand in his pocket, exuded an air of ease, even nonchalance. In a firm voice he told overblown stories about his liberation army, spoke of the need for popular militias and urged parents to donate a child to the cause. His charisma was undeniable. Compared to the grumpy old man in Gbadolite, he was a breath of fresh air. He exuded power, but also conviviality. Everything was going to be different now. Rwanda vehemently denied all involvement, but many inhabitants of the interior still suspected that Kabila’s cakewalk had been no purely domestic affair. But all was allowed, as long as it meant being rid of the vieux léopard (old leopard). “A drowning man will clutch at any piece of driftwood he can find, even at a snake if need be,” the people in Kikwit told each other.54
KABILA’S AFDL WON THE SUPPORT not only of the people, who were tired of Mobutu, and that of Rwanda and Uganda, but also of the United States. Since the end of the genocide, Kagame’s Tutsi regime—thanks to its carefully cultivated role of victim—had gained credit with the American authorities. Embarrassed by a genocide they had not succeeded in preventing, new partner countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands began providing Kigali with lavish support. With Bill Clinton, furthermore, a president had been elected who wanted to force a definitive break with his predecessors’ old, cynical Zaïre policies.55 He believed in new African leaders, men like Mandela and Museveni—heads of state who in no way resembled the Mobutus, Bokassas, and Idi Amins of yore, he thought—a new generation: might Kabila perhaps be one of those? Although there was no internationally orchestrated approach, the Rwandan army in any event met with no obstruction in carrying out its plans. Just as the French had continued to support the Hutu regime, despite the rumors of genocide, so too did various American services provide logistical and material support for the invading army’s offensive, despite the rumors of massacres.56 The old-fangled cynicism that the Clinton administration wanted to do away with made way for a new-fangled cynicism: humanitarian in its intentions, highly naive in its analyses and therefore disastrous in its consequences. There was no long-term vision. The confusion was great, the policy off the cuff. The backing for Rwanda and the rebels would unleash years of misery. Kabila must have found it rather amusing: thirty years after being assisted by Che Guevara, he was now suddenly receiving support from the Satan of Imperialism itself.
Mobutu, though, had lost his allies. France briefly tried to help him with a detachment of soldiers, but without any particularly great enthusiasm. He then hoped to turn the tide with a few European mercenaries, but that was no more successful than it had been in 1964. The only ones who showed up were Bosnian Serbs who had fought in the Yugoslav wars, but they were no match for Kabila’s troops.
MAP 8: THE FIRST CONGO WAR: KABILA’S ADVANCE (OCTOBER 1996 – MAY 1997)
Throughout the AFDL offensive, Mobutu spent most of his time in Europe, where he was operated on for prostate cancer (giving rise to a new name for the new batch of worthless Zairian banknotes: les prostates). He resided in Lausanne and at his villa in Cap-Martin. When he finally did return to Kinshasa it was as a deathly ill man who could barely walk. Nevertheless, he was welcomed by a enormous crowd of cheering compatriots. The chief had come back! He was going to save the country! Everything was going to be all right! But it didn’t turn out that way. In the capital the bickering between Mobutu and Tshisekedi went on unabated, as though no massive invasionary force was approaching. They continued to squabble as before over who was allowed to be the prime minister and who was allowed to appoint him, even though half of the country they were squabbling over had already fallen into the hands of others.
YOUNG RUFFIN, MEANWHILE, was on his way to Lubumbashi. He and his crew carried their guns and bazookas on their backs. “Everything went by foot. We followed the railroad tracks for long stretches. My feet hurt a lot. We used to pour water into our boots, that eased the pain a little, it let you walk easily again. But it also made your feet sweat terribly. When you took off your boots, your feet stank like a three-day-old corpse!” Soldiers’ tricks and the humor of the trenches.
On April 9, 1997, Lubumbashi—the country’s economic capital—fell to the rebels. Mzee Kabila settled in and immediately received visits from international mining companies like De Beers and Tenke Mining, who knew that from then on he would be the one to do business with. The first concessionary mining contracts were signed even before Mobutu was ousted.57 It was already clear that the scales had tipped. After thirty-two years of dictatorship, a new age was dawning.
For Ruffin, a new phase in the war began. Commander James Kabarebe no longer needed him as his bodyguard. “James said: ‘This is the end for us. I’m going to Kisangani, but you people are staying here with Mzee.’ It was the first time I was around Mzee. His son, Joseph, was there too.” Father and son stayed in Lubumbashi while the Rwandan Kabarebe led the fighting elsewhere. The victory was within arm’s reach, and that allowed a certain amount of relaxation. Ruffin had fond memories of those days with the president-to-be. “With Mzee, the good life started. I’m your father, he said, but never forget your natural parents. He asked where I came from. Bukavu, I said, I was kidnapped by Bugera. Ha, he said, then there’s no more playing priest for you! He liked to tease us. One day we plundered the some storehouses that belonged to the FAZ. I dressed up in a government soldier’s uniform, with leather boots and everything. Is that you, kadogo? Mzee asked. Yes, I said, it’s me. We stole the enemy’s supplies. You did? He laughed. He shook my hand and said: very good, stay with me.”
With that pat on the head, Ruffin’s incredible youth took another unexpected turn: now he was one of of Kabila’s bodyguards. Within a year he had been transformed from a naive, soccer-playing boy into a worldly-wise young man who stayed on his toes and experienced history live, as it happened. The price he paid for that was fear and the loss of innocence, but each phase brought with it new forms of appreciation. “Kabila liked me. He entrusted his money to me. Ten thousand dollars! He often used to eat with us, right out of his mess tin. Afterward we would arm wrestle and he would be the referee. It was a sport we’d taken part in a lot out in the maquis. We never went to nightclubs or brothels: the only lives I knew were those of the seminarian and the soldier. We lived in Hotel Karavia, the best hotel in Lubumbashi. Mzee had room 114. The diamond hunters would make appointments to come and see him. He gave me a Motorola.”
In that same hotel room, Kabila regularly received phone calls from his chief of staff, Kabarebe, who was approaching the capital on seven-league boots. Coming down the Congo River, he had seen the two capital cities on their opposite shores and had to ask some local fishermen which one was Kinshasa; otherwise he might have accidentally liberated Brazzaville.58 Kinshasa was about to fall, Kabila heard in his hotel room. He had never dreamed that things would go so quickly. Two weeks earlier he had flown to Congo-Brazzaville for direct negotiations with Mobutu. Nelson Mandela had called them both to meet on neutral ground, aboard a South African ship in the harbor of Pointe-Noire, but those nocturnal talks had led nowhere. Mobutu was unwilling to budge and Kabila saw no reason why he should add any water to the wine; after all, he had the upper hand. No, Kinshasa would be freed by force of arms and Ruffin would be there to see it happen.
“Mzee told us: ‘Get going, all of you! And lots of luck! We’ll see each other again in Kinshasa!’ And we said: ‘At your service!’” Kabila, that much is clear, was only the rebellion’s front man: it was Kabarebe who did all the work. And the kadogos of course. Ruffin: “I was on the first plane that landed at Kin, a private plane from Scibe-Air. I’d never flown before. Our people had already taken the airport. Jeeps took us to the borough of Limete, we went on foot from there.”
The lack of a peace agreement, of course, entailed major risks. Everyone was afraid that a violent confrontation was coming in Kinshasa. Mobutu had just appointed General Marc Mahele as his new chief of staff, a dyed-in-the-wool soldier who had earned his stripes during the Shaba wars and relentlessly crushed the plundering in 1991 and 1993. Mahele was, without a doubt, the most capable officer in the Zaïrian army at that moment. His integrity made him popular with the people, but he was feared for his toughness. Now it was up to him to defend Kinshasa against the rebel advance. On Friday, May 16, 1997, however, Mobutu fled at the crack of dawn to his palace in Gbadolite. The capital ran the risk of all-out anarchy; the next twenty-four hours would prove decisive. In Kinshasa, a city of millions, what everyone feared was a total free-for-all. The Kinois were more afraid of their own soldiers than of the rebels and shuddered at the thought of a new and devastating wave of plundering. General Mahele saw the hopelessness of the situation and decided not to offer up a megalopolis to the madness of one old man on the lam. To spare the civilian population, therefore, he contacted the AFDL and went late that evening to the camp at Tshatshi where Mobutu’s last supporters had entrenched themselves. Among them was the president’s eldest son, nicknamed “Saddam Hussein” for his legendary cruelty. Mahele tried to convince them to forgo all plundering; they, in turn, saw him as a turncoat officer. He was murdered in the early hours of Saturday morning.
A few hours later Ruffin walked in his black rubber boots down Avenue Lumumba in Limete. The arrival of the AFDL resulted in a festive frenzy. In the distance you could still hear the roar of heavy artillery, but he and his companions no longer had to fight. “We received an incredible welcome. The men shouted “Libérateurs! Libérateurs!”; the women spread their pagnes on the ground for us to walk over. The people gave us water. They spoke Lingala, we couldn’t understand them. We were looking for the home of Prime Minister Kengo wa Dondo, and the people showed us the way. We didn’t know our way around the city. We had orders to take the offices of the RTNC and Mobutu’s Palais de Marbre.”
In one of the houses they searched, Ruffin pocketed a solid gold ashtray. It was May 17, 1997, and within hours the AFDL held all key positions in the city. The Beach, the Hotel Intercontinental, the Memling . . . Some government soldiers began plundering, but the majority slipped into people’s homes and begged for civilian clothing: to walk around in uniform now was to sign one’s own death sentence. Highly placed women who owed their management positions to Mobutu hastily burned their pagnes printed with the MPR logo or the Great Steersman’s portrait.59 As accounts were settled, some two hundred people were killed in isolated incidents; very few compared to the way things might have been. In Lubumbashi, Kabila received a call from Kabarebe. “Kinshasa has fallen!” Kabila shrieked with pleasure and rolled laughing over the carpet of his hotel room.60 He was coming, right away.
And once again, Ruffin was there: “That day I went back to the airport to meet Mzee. ‘See, I was telling the truth!’ he shouted to me. He held a press conference. I’m in all the pictures and film footage with him, along with Joseph and Masasu, another of the AFDL founders.”
At that press conference, Kabila pronounced himself the new head of state of a new country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That “democratic” was a bit strange, for no one had voted for him and the nonviolent opposition of Tshesekedi and his followers had been completely ignored. The only thing Kabila adopted from the Sovereign National Conference was the idea to change Zaïre’s name back to Congo. The struggle for a civil society carried out by people like Régine Mutjima had been passed in the fast lane by the military conquest in which Ruffin had taken part. She was now forty-two, he was fourteen. When Kabila was sworn in as president a few days later, on May 29, 1997, that did not take place in the houses of parliament where the conference had met, but just down the road, in the big new soccer stadium. His lieges, the heads of state of Rwanda and Uganda, were there, as were those of Angola and Zambia. But the impressive stadium was not jammed with cheering Kinois. In a city of millions, at least a third of the seats remained empty. The words of Kabila’s inauguration rolled from the loudspeakers and echoed against the half-empty, concrete grandstands.
But Kabila kept a tight hold on the reins. By way of Togo, Mobutu fled to Morocco and went into permanent exile. Aware that the end was near, he had had the bones of his mother and a few other loved ones exhumed so he could take them with him. Barely four months later, surrounded by a few friends and family and the bones of his ancestors, beaten and bitter, he breathed his last.
IT WAS A DAY LIKE ANY OTHER and the waters of Lake Kivu rippled imperturbably. For Ruffin Luliba, however, it was an emotional day. When Kabila went back to Bukavu for the first time, Ruffin went with him. He hadn’t seen his parents in years. “It was five o’clock in the evening and I walked back to my parents’ home. I saw my mother outside, pounding pundu, and I fired three times in the air. She was startled and ran inside, and my father ran after her. Then I shouted: Papa, it’s me! My mother came outside and wept. I had left as a seminarian and came back as a soldier. They had already held a wake for me a long time ago. Everyone cried, even my brother.” For the family, it was as though Ruffin had returned from the dead. It was a fond reunion. But Ruffin also visited the mother of his roommate, Roderick, the boy who had been kidnapped along with him and who had died of dysentery after a few days in Rwanda. “I told Roderick’s mother the sad news. I was staying then with Mzee, at the Hotel Résidence. He told me to bring my parents along. When I introduced them, the first thing he did was hand my father two thousand dollars. He said: ‘Please accept my apologies, but I’m going to take him with me again. Your son is a patriot.’”