Modern history



The Great War of Africa


A NEW REGIME, A NEW SOUND. THE INHABITANTS OF KINSHASA must have thought their ears were playing tricks on them. The post-Mobutu era began with a low, metallic tone that rose to a high, shrill note and then back down again, before rising again, and again. It was a noise that cut through everything, splitting the traffic in two and echoing in the alleyways. Children stopped their soccer games and covered their ears. They grimaced and looked around for the red truck. Up and down, up and down went the hellish blare of the siren. For the first time in decades, Kinshasa, a city of millions with its endless slums, its tattered electrical networks, exposed cables and hundreds of thousands of little coal fires, had an indispensable “priority” vehicle: a fire truck.1

And that was only the beginning. Laurent-Désiré Kabila indeed seemed to be bringing about changes. The garbage that lay in huge, steaming piles all around the cité was picked up for the first time in years. The sewers were cleaned. The hallways of the ministries smelled of bleach. Even the airport at Ndjili, the world’s most chaotic terminal with its tangle of passengers, customs men, immigration officials, policemen, soldiers and “protocols” who pushed and shoved to gain control of your passport and baggage receipts, even that anthill was gradually become well-ordered. Soldiers and policemen received their pay; they didn’t get much, but at least they got it regularly. For the first time in decades, teachers and civil servants could start saving up again for a bicycle. The towering four-digit inflation receded to two digits, partly as a result of the strong dollar. Additional banknotes were no longer being printed, which made cash scarcer again and therefore more valuable. During the first half of 1998, inflation amounted to only 5 percent.2 In June 1998 the nouveau zaïre was replaced by a new currency: the franc congolais. One Congolese franc equaled one hundred thousand new zaïres, which in turn equaled fourteen million old zaïres. The currency was stable, at least at first, and quickly became accepted all over the country. The bills did not bear the likeness of Kabila, but of neutral objects like a Chokwe mask or the Inga Dam. When the new currency was introduced, all the greats of Congolese music—from ancient Wendo Kolosoyi to Papa Wemba to the young star J. B. Mpiana—sang its praises, like a sort of Band-Aid for a banknote.3

But appearances were deceiving; the enthusiasm for Kabila quickly dwindled. As euphorically as he had been received, just as quickly did the people grow tired of him again. Making friends is an art, but Kabila mastered the even rarer art of rapidly turning friends into archenemies. Not just some of them, which could have been a sign of cunning—no, all of them, which was more a sign of ineptitude. It started with the democratic opposition from the Mobutu era. The many thousands of citizens who had courageously struggled against the dictatorship gave Kabila, at the very least, the benefit of the doubt. Many hoped that the resolutions of the Soveriegn National Conference would now truly be given the force of law and that Kabila would keep the promises Mobutu had broken. But that was the last thing Kabila intended to do. For him, his conquest was the start of a new story. After all, what did he—the perennial maquisard—have to do with the five-year-old blather of a hall full of starry-eyed idealists? The constitution, the parliament, the government, and the electoral committee of the transitional years all landed in the trashcan.4 Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès Social (UDPS) supporters ended up in prison and were beaten.5 Only two months after the “liberation” of Kinshasa, Étienne Tshisekediwas arrested. He was interrogated, placed under house arrest, and then disappeared into exile in his native region. One of Kabila’s ministers said: “We gave him seeds and a little tractor, so that he can start a farm.”6

No, rather than instate full-blown democracy, the new government reverted to an extremely authoritarian regime in which everything revolved around the person of Kabila himself. The multiparty system was abolished; only his Alliance des Forces Démocratique pour la Libération (AFDL) was allowed to continue, even though it was merely an alliance of convenience set up at Rwanda’s instigation a few days after the invasion of Zaïre. At first Kabila had merely been its spokesman, but he neutralized his three cofounders one by one. André Kisase Ngandu, the only one with military power, he had had murdered during the war itself. After being sworn in as president, he made sure Anselme Masasu was sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment, while Déogratias Bugera, Ruffin’s kidnapper, was promoted out of the picture. The military alliance was transformed into a national party, but without much flesh on its bones. Congo became the AFDL, but the AFDL was, in actual practice, Kabila himself. The people were allowed to organize themselves politically only in the form of Comités du Pouvoir Populaire (people’s power committees). No one knew exactly what that was supposed to mean, but it smacked of badly digested maquis Marxism. A new constitution came into effect on May 28, 1997, and essentially placed all power in the hands of the president. From then on, Kabila stood at the head of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and of the army, the administration, and the diplomatic corps. When it came to cabinet ministers, he preferred to surround himself with fellow Katangans or with former political exiles. Opponents who had for years been counting on receiving a political mandate saw strangers walk away with them. Just for the fun of it, Kabila granted ministerial posts to the by-then grown-up daughters of Joseph Kasavubu and Patrice Lumumba—a historical reference that lent him an air of legitimacy, but was in fact a farce.

“I graduated in 1994 from Lubumbashi University with a degree in international affairs,” Bertin Punga, a leader of the later anti-Kabila protest movement, told me. “I was politically engaged and I had been against Mobutu. At the time of the campus killings in 1990, I saw three dead bodies. I was from Kasai and I remembered how the governor had chased us out of Katanga. So when the AFDL came along, I joined up. Before that, politics had been a matter of caste, but after that revolution it seemed open to everyone. I have a university education, I told myself, I should really go into politics. But when I got to Kinshasa I saw that the jobs were being handed out to poorly educated people from Katanga, while I, with my university diploma, was demoted to a much lower diplomé d’État [state-certified graduate]. When I saw how many Katangan ministers there were, I knew that Kabila was just another Mobutu. No, he was even worse, when you think that Mobutu spread his abuses out over a period of thirty-two years. There were summary executions, the multiparty system was abolished, the single-party state made a comeback. That business with the Comités du Pouvoir Populaire, that was really just a repeat of the MPR as far as I was concerned.”7

During his first year in office, Kabila seemed to be aiming for a strong, authoritarian, and extremely personalized state, but in practice that state remained quite feeble. There was no real policy, no vision, no government apparatus. Even the army was a joke. Mobutu’s Forces Armées Zaïroises (FAZ) was disbanded and replaced by the Forces Armées Congolaises (FAC). It sounded official, but was in fact a hodgepodge of former FAZ soldiers, former Katangan Tigers, kadogos, Banyamulenge, and Rwandan Tutsis. The chief of staff was the Rwandan James Kabarebe. Kabila oversaw his country the way he had once overseen his rebel territory: laxly, very laxly. The only thing about which he was conscientious was maintaining control over the channels of information. It was no mistake, therefore, that his adviser for all things communications-related was once again Dominique Sakombi Inongo, the propagandist-turned-prophet. Kabila must have learned that from Mobutu: a strong regime needs to keep the media in an iron grip. The radio journalist Zizi Kabongo found out about that himself one night at 2 A.M., when the army came pounding on his door.

“Kabila had a very cool relationship with the public broadcasting organization,” Kabongo told me.

He saw the entire staff as a clutch of Mobutists. One evening we rebroadcast one of his meetings. Kabila didn’t sleep much and he heard the broadcast. Ever since Mobutu we’d had no money for equipment, so we always had to erase our tapes and use them over again. But this one tape was badly erased. After the recording of Kabila’s meeting, there was a section of tape that still contained the tail end of a report on Mobutu. The technician on duty fell asleep, but at the end the listeners heard papa Maréchal’s voice again. “Oyé! Oyé! Papa ndeko. Our friend!” you heard the people shouting. Mobutu has returned, the listeners thought. That same night the army rounded up all the journalists to throw them into prison. They knocked on my door at two o’clock. In the prison, I ended up among men who had been sentenced to death and revolutionaries. The situation was quite grim. Kabila was out to eliminate all his enemies.

Zizi, whose shins bore the scars of resistance to Mobutu, stood accused of Mobutism. More than 160 journalists were imprisoned between May 1997 and January 2001.8 “The next day we were all brought to the presidential palace. Kabila himself gave us a terrible scolding for our act of rebellion. For punishment, we were all obliged to study Marxism. But when it was over we finally got the new tapes we’d been waiting for for years.”9

The democratic opposition and the UDPS had been stiff-armed, the AFDL resigned to the scrapheap, the press snarled at and then silenced. What other bridges were left for the new leader to blow up? Those connecting the country to its foreign allies, of course. Within no time Kabila blew his credit with the United Nations by first refusing, then obstructing, an investigation of the mass extermination of Hutu refugees. Foreign teams of experts were systematically boycotted. Kabila was faced with a choice: he could either place the blame on Rwanda (which was where it belonged) and thereby admit that his victory was not due to his own rebellion, an admission that would destroy his popularity at home, or he could take the blame himself, which would earn him an international reputation as a brutal mass murderer. Domestic interest and international interests were at a standoff. It would have been a high-wire act even for a seasoned politician, and Kabila was no seasoned politician. Diplomacy was mumbo jumbo to him; boorishness was his strong suit. He entered the international arena like a suspicious rebel rather than a senior statesman. Within no time he had accused France of neocolonialism and America of a lack of diplomatic courtesy, and had called Belgium a terrorist state.10 All three of those countries had put up with a great deal from Mobutu in his day, but ludicrous statements like this were something new. This was no longer the voice of a sly fox, but of a clodhopper. Other African heads of state, too, soon became familiar with their new colleague. In 1997 Nelson Mandela waited for him for hours at the peace talks in Congo-Brazzaville; the affront threw the always-genteel statesman into a rare paroxysm of rage. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was already waiting for him at the airport in Cairo, with an honor guard and the red carpet, when Kabila called to cancel the appointment because he felt “a bit tired.” Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa actually welcomed him to his residence, but in complete defiance of diplomatic protocol Kabila cut the visit short and flew back to Kinshasa.11 President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Vice President Paul Kagame of Rwanda would also become acquainted with their protégé’s unmannered ways. They had hoped to control their chaotic neighbor by installing a pawn of their own, but Kabila turned out to be an unguided missile.

And then something very important happened: Kabila turned his back on Rwanda and Uganda. He had little choice in the matter. All over the country there was growing protest against the foreign interference. Rwanda in particular became the whipping boy. Every Tutsi was seen as Rwandan and every Rwandan as an occupier. Things even reached a point where anyone with a pointed nose or high forehead was seen almost immediately as an infiltrator. People in Kinshasa were extremely annoyed by the highly visible presence of Tutsis in the armed forces, often in high-ranking positions. These were officers who spoke neither French nor Lingala, but English, Swahili, and Kinyarwanda. These new military leaders frequently behaved like arrogant victors and saw no problem in reinstating the chicotte, the strop of hippopotamus hide that summoned up so many bad memories of colonial days. Women who wore jeans or a miniskirt in public, which had been allowed since 1990, received a public lashing. Taxi drivers committing a traffic violation did too. The number of lashes was not limited to twenty-five, as officially established in colonial times, but was determined by age: a fifty-year-old received fifty lashes. It became a widely accepted idea that overpopulated Rwanda was longing for raw materials and lebensraum, and therefore had its eye on Kivu, where so many Tutsis already lived. People believed that Rwanda was out to establish a Grande République des Volcans (great volcanic republic), a new state consisting of Rwanda and Kivu. It did not help any when a group of prominent Rwandans publicly called for a “second Berlin Conference” to reconsider the borders established in 1885.12 Some Congolese felt that their huge country had already been annexed by the dwarf state of Rwanda.13 A deep, deep hatred arose between the two countries, reminiscent of the relations in more distant times between China and Japan or Ireland and England. Many Rwandans considered Congo to be a country of lazy, chaotic bunglers who cared more about music, dancing, and food than about work, infrastructure, and public order. Many Congolese saw Rwanda as a cold, authoritarian country where plastic bags were banned for reasons of public cleanliness and motorcycle helmets were mandatory, a country of arrogant, pretentious parvenus who looked down on them in contempt. Many interpreted the differences between the countries in terms of an ancient cultural conflict between “Bantus” and “Nilotes,” even though those were highly problematic concepts from colonial anthropology. As long as Kabila’s court was filled with those hateful foreigners, he could forget about his authority being recognized: the president knew that was how the people felt. So there he was at the head of a vast country, in a city that was new to him, with a population he neither knew nor understood. Little by little, the cheers died out. “We need to give our liberators back their liberty,” people on the street said scornfully.14

And that was precisely what Kabila did. In a nighttime broadcast on July 26, 1998, more than a year after his glorious entry into Kinshasa, he announced that Rwandan and other foreign soldiers were to leave the national territory. This time it was not a matter of a badly erased tape. The Congolese people were thanked “for tolerating and giving shelter to the Rwandan troops.”15 That communiqué sealed for good the break with Kigali and Kampala. In the days that followed, hundreds of soldiers left Kinshasa. Chief of staff James Kabarebe, the man who had taken Congo in Kabila’s name, was thanked for services rendered. He returned to Rwanda in a fury. A new escalation was now inevitable. And indeed, less than one week later he invaded Congo again.

THE WAR THAT LASTED FROM OCTOBER 1996 TO MAY 1997 and brought about Mobutu’s fall is known by many names: the Banyamulenge uprising, the war of liberation, the AFDL offensive. These days it is more commonly referred to as the First Congo War. On August 2, 1998, the Second Congo War broke out. Rwandan troops crossed the border again, Kabarebe again led the invasion, the objective was once again regime change in Kinshasa. This time, however, conflict would not last seven months but five years, until June 2003. Officially, that is, for unofficially the war simmered on, at least until the moment that I write this, in spring 2010.

The Second Congo War was an extremely complex conflict in which, at a certain point, no fewer than nine African countries and some thirty local militias took part. It was a showdown on an African scale, with Congo as the central theater of war. The promptness with which a number of states, from Namibia in the south to Libya in the north, chose sides (for or against Kabila) was reminiscent of the formation of the ententes in Europe on the eve of World War I. Because of its continental scope, it is sometimes referred to as the First African World War, but that is an unfortunate term that skims too lightly over the ponderous impact that the World Wars I and II had on Africa. The term Great African War is therefore more useful, even though the hotbed of the conflict was limited mostly to Congo, and the local militias were active for a longer period than any foreign national troops. In terms of casualties, this Great African War or Second Congo War developed into the deadliest conflict since World War II. Since 1998 at least three million and perhaps as many as five million people have been killed in hostilities in Congo alone, more than in the media-saturated conflicts in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan put together. And their numbers continue to rise. In 2007, an estimated forty-five thousand casualties were still being reported as a result of the indirect consequences of that forgotten war. Most of those were civilians. They did not die in the course of fighting, but as a result of malnutrition, dysentery, malaria, and pneumonia: afflictions that could not be treated because of the war. One must note, however, that many of those maladies were not being treated before the war either. Congo already had an above-average mortality rate and the conflict did nothing to ameliorate that. In 2007 that rate was still 60 percent higher than in all the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.16 Average Congolese life expectancy at birth was fifty-three.

The Second Congo War disappeared from the international media reports because it was considered incomprehensible and obscure. And indeed, there were no two clearly delineated camps; even more, there was no clear division of roles into villain and underdog. After the Cold War, Western journalists increasingly came to apply a moral frame of reference in reporting on armed conflicts: in Yugoslavia, the Serbs were the major culprits; in Rwanda, the Tutsis were the innocent victims. In both cases that led to disastrous misrepresentations and policy measures. In Congo it was not particularly easy to find a “good” side. Anyone viewing the conflict from close up knew that all those involved had their own skeletons in the closet. The grievances often seemed justified and the methods chosen often problematic. None of the parties seemed able to step back from the fray, either literally or figuratively, in order to consider the legitimacy of the other’s perspective and search for common ground. For a grindingly poor country with a young, uneducated population that had known only Mobutu’s dark despotism, that was definitely too much to ask. The children of a dictatorship are rarely model democrats. The Second Congo War became a conflict in which everyone found everyone else just a shade more culpable, so that hitting back was allowable and an endless spiral of violence could ensue. The Western media turned and left.



Rwanda, backed by Uganda and Burundi, invades Congo. The cities in the east are taken immediately, an air link to the far west of the country is intended to hasten the taking of Kinshasa. The invasion is made out to be the work of a domestic rebel movement: the RCD.


Kabila’s foreign allies (most notably Angola and Zimbabwe) put an end to the rebels’ advance. The front stabilizes. In the east of the country, the rebels are still engaged by the Mai-mai, and the Rwandan Hutu militias supported by Kinshasa. Uganda sets up a second rebel movement: the MLC. The Lusaka Peace Agreement proves ineffective.


With Kinshasa beyond reach, attention is turned to the available booty. But the dividing of it leads to dissension. The rebel movement falls apart into a pro-Rwandan and a pro-Ugandan schism: the RCD-G (for Goma) and the RCD-K (for Kisangani), respectively. Rwanda tries to take Kisangani, a major diamond center, away from Uganda. After an initial confrontation in August 1999, the RCD-K flees to Bunia and becomes the RCD-ML. In May and June of 2000, Rwanda takes Kisangani.


In the north, the rebellion crumbles completely. Pro-Ugandan rebels no longer fight against Kinshasa or pro-Rwandan rebels, but simply among themselves. New, smaller armies come along. In Ituri, the snarl of interests can no longer be disentangled. In the end, the motif is that of plundering, even in Rwandan-controlled territory. The 2002 peace agreement pacifies a large part of the area. The MLC and RCD-G are allowed to put forward a vice-president, but in Ituri and Kivu the conflict simmers on for years.

Yet a simple cartographic comic strip is all one needs to understand the course of events. The conflict took place in three phases. From August 1998 to July 1999 Rwanda, along with Uganda and a makeshift native rebel army, tried to overthrow Kabila. They did not succeed. That phase ended with the signing of the Lusaka Peace Agreement, which did a great deal, but brought no peace. The second phase ran from July 1999 to the end of December 2002. Rwanda and Uganda no longer tried to advance on Kinshasa, but now, with the help of local militias, controlled one-half of Congo’s territory, allowing them to help themselves on a massive scale to the raw materials present there. Now that booty had taken precedence over power, schisms arose within the rebellion and there were violent confrontations in Kisangani. This turbulent phase ended with the Pretoria peace agreement in December 2002, which was to enter into effect in June 2003. The Rwandans and Ugandans withdrew to their own countries and the United Nations increased its presence. That put an official end to the war; unofficially, however, things went differently. The third phase began in 2003 and, in Kivu, is still going on today. During this long period the war has been limited to the extreme eastern part of Congo, in those areas that border directly on Uganda (Ituri) and Rwanda (Kivu). Those zones have been subjected to bouts of extreme violence, massive human rights violations, and incredible human suffering.

In each of its phases the conflict was characterized by the aftershocks of the Rwandan genocide, the weakness of the Congolese state, the military vitality of the new Rwanda, the overpopulation of the area around the Great Lakes, the permeability of the former colonial borders, the growth of ethnic tension due to poverty, the presence of natural riches, the militarization of the informal economy, the world demand for mineral raw materials, the local availability of arms, the impotence of the United Nations, and so on and so forth.

On June 25, 2007, in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, I had breakfast at the celebrated Hotel des Milles Collines, the place of refuge during the genocide that served as inspiration for the film Hotel Rwanda. It was still an exorbitantly expensive multistar hotel. I did not spend the night there, but arrived that morning for an interview with Simba Regis, an introverted Rwandan war veteran only a few years older than I. At the buffet we used tongs to pick out croissants glistening with butter. The waitress brought us wonderfully fresh fruit juice. Simba Regis was born in 1967 and his life story reflects the history of the Rwandan Tutsis in a nutshell. In 1959, when the Hutu uprisings began, his parents fled to Burundi. He was born there, but throughout his childhood and youth he was constantly reminded that not Burundi, but Rwanda was his homeland. He sympathized with the struggle of the Tutsis in exile and went to southern Uganda in 1990 to join up with Kagame’s army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. He took part in the invasions of Rwanda, he was among the first to reach Kigali, and he escaped the genocide of 1994 by the skin of his teeth. “Six-year-old children lay there wasting away, young mothers were slaughtered by the Interahamwe. It was maddening. When you’ve seen that, you have to put up a fight.” And so he was there in 1996 when Rwanda first invaded Congo to neutralize the Hutu threat. And in 1998, during the second Rwandan invasion, he was once again in the front lines; this time too—in addition to dethroning Kabila—the elimination of the remaining Hutu militias was a major objective. Thousands of Rwandan Hutus were still hiding in the forests of eastern Congo and, more than ever after the AFDL massacres, were out for vengeance.

The fighting began on August 2. Rwanda received backing from Uganda and Burundi, who were also worried about the rumbling on their western borders and knew of the mineral riches of the eastern Congo. Goma and Bukavu fell immediately. Two weeks later, rumor had it that the conquests had been the work of a Congolese rebel movement, the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD). Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, a former history professor, was pushed forward as its leader. But the RCD was as much a phantom construction as the AFDL had been in 1996. As he slowly picked apart his croissant, Simba Regis spoke of that in no uncertain terms. “We trained those rebels. Rwanda was simply better organized. The Congolese wore Rwandan uniforms and boots. They were under our command. We were their godfathers.”

Simba Regis fought on Congolese territory for four years, from 1998 to 2002, the full length of the official war. He was in Katanga and in Kasai. On occasion the Rwandans fought against the Interahamwe and the Mai-mai, who were supported by Kabila, but usually nothing happened at all. “On faisait la vie,” he said, “we made a living,” by which he seemed to suggest that exploitation of the mineral resources was more important than waging war. Katanga was still brimming over with raw materials, Kasai was still extremely rich in diamonds. The fight against the organized Hutus he referred to as “just and noble,” but he was sick and tired of war as a way of life. “I’m finished. I’ve been at war ever since 1990. The ones who make the decisions about the war are never the ones fighting, but I lost my brothers and my friends. There were eleven of us, all friends from Bujumbura; we came from the same neighborhood and went to the same elementary and secondary schools. Of those eleven, two are still alive. Me and someone who lives in Canada.” The patio outside the breakfast room looks out over Kigali. The city glistens in the morning light. “When I’ve been drinking beer, I have nightmares. I see houses being blown up. I see my friends crying because they’ve lost an arm or a leg. And I’m always powerless, I can’t do anything to help. Then I wake up with a start. I can still taste the war. I’ve had a bad life, really. I want to go to Europe, because in five or ten years’ time things are going to explode here again.”17

James Kabarebe thought the job would be over quickly. In 1996 it had taken his forces seven months to get to Kinshasa: this time he could do better. His plan was as risky as it was audacious. At Goma airport he hijacked a few planes, filled them with RCD soldiers and forced the pilots to fly to the west, to the military base at Kitona on the Atlantic Ocean. From there it was only four hundred kilometers (250 miles) to Kinshasa. His air link seemed to work: on August 5 he took Kitona and succeeded in convincing the soldiers present—most of them demotivated former FAZ soldiers being “reintegrated” into the new army—to help him fight against Kabila. On August 9 they took the crucial port town of Matadi, on August 11 the Inga hydroelectric plant. Kabarebe now had his finger on Kinshasa’s switch and could cut off the capital’s power supply. Night after night, he plunged the hungry megalopolis into darkness. Anti-Tutsi sentiment flared up in the working-class neighborhoods. A few hundred Tutsis or people with Tutsi features were lynched by the crowds in a horrible fashion. As in the South African townships, a car tire was hung around their neck, filled with gasoline, and then ignited.

All indications were that Kinshasa would soon fall. Kabila’s army was no match for Kabarebe’s troops. Still, things took a different turn. Kabila was saved in the nick of time by foreign troops: on August 19, 1998, four hundred Zimbabwean soldiers entered Congo; on August 22, the Angolan army began the liberation of Bas-Congo. Angola’s role was particularly decisive. During the First Congo War it had remained neutral: no one in Luanda mourned the imminent departure of Mobutu, whose support for the right-wing UNITA rebels had caused so much suffering. During the Second Congo War, however, the cards were reshuffled. There was a distinct possibility that, in order to bring down Kabila, Rwanda would this time support UNITA. That could not be allowed to happen. Zimbabwe, on the other hand, had interests in Katangan mining operations and therefore more economic motives. In addition, a sort of ideological brotherhood existed between presidents Robert Mugabe, José Eduardo Dos Santos, and Kabila; all three had flirted with what is referred to in Africa so exquisitely as le marxisme tropicalisé (tropicalized Marxism). Fidel Castro had supported Angola for years, just as he had Kabila with the visit from Che Guevara. During his time as President Kabila’s bodyguard, Ruffin Luliba had noticed those close ties. “Mzee liked revolutionaries. Men like Mugabe and Castro, he thought they were wonderful. His personal physician was a Cuban. I went with him to Cuba a few times. There were four of us kadogos, and we went to see Castro; I even shook his hand. We had dinner with him in Havana.”18 It was probably Castro who urged President Dos Santos of Angola to send his army into Congo.19

Kabila’s coalition grew. After Zimbabwe and Angola, Namibia joined in as well. Northern allies were found in Sudan, Chad, and Libya, each of which had its own reasons for preventing Kabila’s fall. Sudan offered its services because of a perennial conflict with Uganda over its support for rebels in southern Sudan. Libya provided a few planes in order to break out of its international isolation. Chad sent two thousand soldiers as a gesture of solidarity with Sudan and Libya. In the end, Kabila had a seven-nation army at his disposal: in addition to his own forces, there were troops from three countries to the north and three to the south. This was the coalition that stood up to the three countries from the east and operated behind the blind of the RCD: Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi, with Rwanda as leading player and America’s undisputed favorite. Once again, Congo’s central location played a crucial role in the course of history. The armies now facing off were large: Kabila’s coalition had approximately eighty-five thousand troops, the rebels some fifty-five thousand.20 This impressive military presence led to a complete stalemate. Western Congo was soon back in Kabila’s hands, but the east was still held by the RCD. There was no real front, only clearly defined zones, often divided by a very broad stretch of no-man’s-land. Kabila’s authority extended only as far as Bas-Congo, Bandundu, western Kasai, and a large part of Katanga; Kigali and Kampala controlled northern Katanga, North and South Kivu, Maniema, and Orientale province. When Chad withdrew from Équateur in 1998, that part of the country fell into rebel hands as well. The occupying force this time, however, was not the RCD but a new rebel army supported exclusively by Uganda: the Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo (MLC). Its commander was Jean-Pierre Bemba, son of the wealthiest businessman of the Mobutu era. His troops consisted largely of veterans of the Division Spéciale Présidentielle (DSP), Mobutu’s remorseless private army.21

Rwanda’s second invasion was intended to be a repeat of that in 1996, but this was not the case. Due in part to the sentiments of the local population, the situation in Congo had become intractable. If the AFDL had once been welcomed as a liberation army, the RCD was seen right away as an invasionary force. In a city like Goma, Kabila was still extremely popular. When Wamba dia Wamba tried to recruit local boys for his RCD, Jeanine Mukanirwa mobilized her influential association of rural women. She had helped found the women’s movement in Kivu at the end of the Mobutu era. “There were five thousand of us women. Wamba dia Wamba came by to try and win us over for his rebellion. He called it a war of rectification, but we knew that Rwanda was behind it. We said: ‘In 1996 you people took away our children to fight. Now you come to take the rest of them to fight against their own brothers. Your war has no justification!’ Yes, we women were courageous back then.”22

Wamba’s RCD was hated outright. Even the Banyamulenge hesitated about whether to go along with Rwanda this time; compared to two years earlier, their enthusiasm had dwindled considerably.23 People from Goma told me about how their entire municipal administration had passed in Rwandan hands. The tax office, the immigration service, the intelligence service . . . There was no fighting when the city was captured, but once the new authorities were installed there began an endless series of kidnappings and disappearances.24 Intellectuals, journalists, civil-society activists, and church leaders met with intimidation and arrest. Hundreds of dissidents and counterinsurgents from the interior lost their lives.25

In the garden of the Caritas guesthouse in Goma, on the shore of lovely Lake Kivu, I interviewed someone who referred to himself as “Muhindu.” He walked with a limp and had a huge scar on his right arm. He had served for five years as truck driver for an RCD commander. He chose his words carefully. “A lot of young people were kidnapped back then. I always had three soldiers with me when I drove to a house. All the able-bodied boys and men were picked up and tossed into the back of the truck. The door was closed. Then I would drive to Kinyogote, close to Mugunga, at the edge of the lake. There was a garage there, where they used to keep speedboats. That was the prison. We threw them in there. After a few days they were killed. With ropes. I would take a motorboat out onto Lake Kivu. You have to tie big rocks to the bodies.” The waves on the lake splashed against the shore, but he wasn’t hearing them. It was quite cold there in the eastern highlands, but he was wearing only a T-shirt. He took a sip of beer and went on. “If you had a problem with someone, you went to see a friend in the RCD. You gave him some money and he made sure your enemy was killed. I took about sixteen people in my truck every day, and I drove for the RCD for five years. Sometimes there were a hundred of them in that garage. They died from the cold and the wind. The waves crashed in too.”26

The RCD operated quite brazenly in the towns. Those were under their control, but the countryside was not. That was the territory of the Interahamwe and other Hutu forces, who received support from Kinshasa. It was an improbable reversal of history: in 1996 Kabila had led a rebellion that carried out massacres among the Hutu refugees; two years later he was giving those same refugees weapons to fight against Rwanda . . . . In Congo, nothing was what it seemed. Alliances came and went, depending on the situation. Ideological conformity? Political affinity? Those were of no importance. The only thing that mattered was military (and later, pecuniary) opportunism. Your enemy’s enemies were your friends; they were the ones you hooked up with. In eastern Congo that logic kept the struggle between Rwandan Hutus and Rwandan Tutsis going for a long time. The echoes of the genocide did not die out.

The Mai-mai, too, received supplies from Kinshasa. Kabila no longer had troops in the east, but by way of the Mai-mai he could still keep the RCD from gaining total control over the interior. And so he farmed out the war there to two subcontractors who were extremely strange bedfellows: the Interahamwe and the Mai-mai. The one group consisted of Rwandan Hutus who had committed the original genocide, the other of Congolese hypernationalists who swore by their superstitions. In Bukavu, in June of 2007, I had dinner in deepest secrecy with four Mai-mai. Leery as they were of the city, they appeared only long after darkness had fallen, at the anonymous private home of a mutual friend. The atmosphere was edgy at first. Their “colonel,” a man in his thirties with bloodshot eyes, loudly related endless stories about the history of the Mai-mai, heroic tales that spoke of both rage and combativeness but went on for so long that his cohorts fell asleep. Later in the evening, though, once they had woken up, they talked at length about the war and their rituals. After a while, with the consumption of food and beer, they even showed me their magic leather armbands, their grigris. They rolled up their pants legs to point to where they had been struck by bullets that didn’t kill them (“And this is where it came back out!”). They invited me to feel their upper arms where, now that you mentioned it, there really was a bullet still under the skin (“No doctor, nothing like that: I just put a plant on it”). At our next meeting, they promised me, they would apply all their immunization rituals to one of their comrades, then shoot him. I would see that the bullets slid off his chest like water. Or wait, they had an even better idea. Because I was clearly so fond of Congo, that made me a potential Mai-mai too, they felt. They would apply all their rituals to me, that’s right, that was more like it, and one of them would shoot me. Wouldn’t that be an unforgettable experience!?27

The Mai-mai were never too particular about your ethnic origins, as long as you loved Congo with a passion. Yves van Winden knew all about that. He was a Belgian who had run a small airline in Congo for years, a sport pilot who had made his hobby his profession and who had made Congo his fatherland. During the war he acted as contact person between Kabila and the Mai-mai. We met at a nightclub in Goma. The other patrons included Russian pilots who had a sideline in gold smuggling and some seedy types in military uniforms I couldn’t quite identify. A few young prostitutes sat around the pool table, sipping their cola through straws. “They called me the ‘white Mai-mai,’” Yves van Winden said, “I brought them weapons from Kabila. I carried out more than four hundred solo flights, five or six hours each. That’s a very long flight. Most of the time I flew my Cessna, but sometimes a DC-3 or a little Antonov 26. I took six hundred kilos [1,320 pounds] of cargo on each flight. Probably about twenty-thousand Kalashnikovs, three to five hundred bazookas, two hundred 60-caliber mortars, twenty 90-caliber mortars, and ten 120s. And also two SAM-7 missiles, anti-aircraft.” Why would anyone take 240 metric tons (about 265 U.S. tons) of weapons to rebel territory? “Patriotism. Arming the Mai-mai was what stopped the RCD. The government still owes me a lot for all those flight hours. One time my Cessna was shot at during takeoff, the bullet flew right past my seat. I wasn’t touched. The Mai-mai weren’t surprised at all. After all, they had baptized my plane!”28

The map of Congo was frozen in place: to the west and south there was Kabila with his Angolan and Zimbabwean allies; to the north Bemba with his Ugandan-supported MLC; and to the east Wamba dia Wamba with his Rwandan-supported RCD, which fought against the Kinshasa-backed Interahamwe and Mai-mai. Peace talks had already started in early 1999, but it was not until July of that year, under pressure from France and the United States, that an agreement was reached in the Zambian capital of Lusaka. The foreign armies promised to withdraw their troops, the United Nations would send five hundred observers by way of a peacekeeping force, and Congo was to initiate a national dialogue about the arrangements for a postwar transitional period. Yet another transition. Ever since Mobutu had allowed the start of a democratization process in 1990, the country had lived in a permanent state of provisionality.

BUT THE WAR WAS NOT OVER. After Lusaka it merely entered a new phase, a messy, dirty phase. All wars are dirty, but when the political motive makes way for a pecuniary one, things go completely sour. And that is precisely what happened. The RCD no longer aimed for Kinshasa, but ensconced itself in a state of rebellion and noted that there was good money to be made in eastern Congo. Westerners have become used to seeing wars as exorbitantly expensive, money-guzzling enterprises that are disastrous to the economy. But in Central Africa, exactly the opposite was true: fighting a war was relatively cheap, especially in light of the magnificent profits to be made from raw materials. And this was no high-tech war. The oversupply of light, secondhand firearms, often from the post-Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, pushed prices down, and (child) soldiers who were allowed to plunder their own salaries cost nothing at all. They kept the population cowering, while the ore was there for the taking. War, in other words, became a worthwhile economic alternative. Why would one want to call a halt to such a lucrative business? Under pressure from the people themselves? But that’s what the guns were for, right? And what if a part of that impoverished population profited from the mineral wealth as well?

When I first met Dr. Soki, he was sitting alone in a Greek cafeteria in Kisangani, eating an omelet. It was a blisteringly hot day, but the air-conditioning kept things bearable inside. I had heard about him and we soon entered into conversation. He was originally from Bukavu and had been one of the many Congolese who fled to Kisangani in 1996, at the time of the first Rwandan invasion. A mortar had destroyed his house. He and his family trudged through the jungle for three weeks. But a few years later the war would reach his new place of residence too.

The most important event during the second phase of the war, Dr. Soki would find out soon enough, was the breaking of ties between Rwanda and Uganda. Now that profit had taken precedence over victory, the friendship between Kagame and Museveni hit the rocks. They no longer fought together to gain Kinshasa, but against each other to seize Kisangani. The rebels had already taken Dr. Soki’s town in 1998. Kisangani was the main regional trading center for diamonds. All over the city there were comptoirs du diamant(exchange offices), often Lebanese-operated, where prospectors and couriers from the interior came to cash in their stones. Uganda ruled the roost at first, but Rwanda was also interested in the proceeds and decided to dislodge its northern neighbor. On at least three occasions, gun battles broke out in the streets of Congo’s third largest city. Even today the inhabitants of Kisangani speak of “the one-day war”(August 1999), the “three-day war”(May 2000), and the “six-day war” (June 2000). The latter conflict was particularly violent, Dr. Soki recalled. Officially, the city was supposed to be demilitarized. Jeeps were already leaving, but both parties were afraid that the other would rush in to fill the vacuum.29 The troop strength of the UN peacekeeping force, the Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies au Congo (MONUC) had increased significantly, but not enough to keep things on an even keel. The Ugandans were camped to the north of the city, close to the Tshopo River and on the grounds of the Sotexki textile plant. The Rwandans were in the south, along the Congo River. It is unclear who provoked whom, but the planned withdrawal escalated instead into a full-blown firefight with heavy artillery. Within the next six days more than a thousand shells flew over the residential neighborhoods of the city with the most modernistic architecture in all of Congo.30 The people moved into their basements and had nothing to eat for days. At night the sky was filled with roaring, falling stars. There was neither water nor electricity. The people drank stagnant water from puddles and cisterns and endured a war that was not their own.31 Uganda and Rwanda were fighting over crippled-but-wealthy Congo, the way a jackal and a hyena might tug at the same carcass.

A makeshift cemetery was set up behind the public hospital. During the final, six-day war alone more than four hundred civilians were killed. There were countless wounded and innumerable houses were destroyed. “The war broke out on a Monday morning at ten o’clock, I was talking to a client about some building plans,” said Utshudi, an engineer, was not at home when one of the first shells landed on his house. “We lived at Deuxième Avenue 11, in the borough of Tshopo. When I returned, not a house was standing. It was a wasteland. Just bodies everywhere. They lay there for six days. We had to run away. The soldiers even shot at the people digging graves. When the war was over we went back to collect the corpses. We put them in bags and buried them in the cemetery behind the hospital. At one go I lost my wife, my younger sister, my sister-in-law, and my four children: seven family members. These days I pray to God to let me forget.”32

The break between Rwanda and Uganda ran parallel to a schism within the RCD: the rebel movement fell apart into a pro-Rwandan faction (the RCD-G, for Goma, led by Émile Ilunga and later largely by Azarias Ruberwa) and a pro-Ugandan faction (the RCD-K, for Kisangani, led by Wamba dia Wamba and later by Antipas Mbusa Nyamwisi, also referred to as the RCD-ML, for Mouvement de Libération, or RCD-K/ML).33 Congo was rich not only in raw materials, but also in abbreviations. Dr. Soki viewed it all with a certain distance: “I didn’t think about politics much. We knew nothing about the motives behind the war.” When the six-day conflict began, the international aid organizations withdrew their personnel. Dr. Soki remained behind in a besieged city of half a million inhabitants. Like the physician in Albert Camus’s La Peste, he simply tried to sustain human dignity in an inhumane world.

For six days I worked alone at the Kisangani public hospital. There were three nurses and fifteen interns. An American surgeon from the Red Cross arrived only later. The people slept on the floor, on mats they’d woven themselves. It took a long time for blankets and medicine to get there. We worked from seven in the morning till eight at night. We treated two thousand people, people who had been shot in the stomach, in the chest, in a limb, or even in the head, people whose stomachs had been torn open by shrapnel. We removed blood from their lungs, shrapnel from their bladders. We performed amputations. It was real wartime surgery, but we had almost no trouble with infections. At first, though, there wasn’t enough diesel fuel to run the generators. We had to sterilize our instruments over a coal fire. And then a shell actually hit the hospital. One of the two operating rooms was destroyed and our five-thousand-liter reservoir burst and all the water ran out. That caused a lot of panic among the patients and personnel. We weren’t safe, not even there.

Dr. Soki spoke calmly about that week-long inferno. There were no heroics; his tone was more that of resignation and sorrow. “We treated soldiers too. Four Ugandan soldiers came in, their abdomens torn apart, their intestines hanging out. We were able to save them. We treated everyone, we didn’t discriminate. When Rwandan soldiers came in, we put them in another room. I just kept on, because of the suffering I’d known myself. I had traveled seven hundred kilometers [about 430 miles] on foot, I had seen children and grown-ups die along the way. Apparently I had the courage needed to give myself to others.” These days he eats his omelet alone. He doesn’t like to talk much. “We had a birth that week too. A lot of women went into labor too soon, because of the shock. We performed a Caesarian. I held the child in my arms. May God grant him life, I thought.”34

AFTER TAKING PART IN THE TINGI-TINGI MASSACRE outside the city in 1997, Lieutenant Papy Bulaya finished his career with the AFDL in Kinsangani itself. He married there, put away his guns, and went to live with his wife’s family in the brousse, where he farmed a plot of land. At last he was living the life of the average Congolese in peacetime: the farming life. But then Wamba dia Wamba came to Kisangani in 1999 because of the schism in the RCD. “He said: ‘You people want to fight for your country, but the Rwandans are trying to occupy us. Look at what’s happened in Goma!’” Farmer Papy figured he had turned enough soil already, and once again became Lieutenant Papy. He received three months of training, this time from a Ugandan colonel. Wamba had most definitely switched camps.

In August 1999 he was there when Rwanda shelled Kisangani and took it for the first time. When Wamba moved his headquarters to Bunia, he went east too. Now he wanted to sign up with Roger Lumbala, who had started his own rebel army, the RCD-N (for National, although the L for localwould have been more fitting) in Bafwasende, the heart of the diamond region. Lumbala originally came from the RCD-G, had flirted with the RCD–K/ML, set up the RCD-N, and, finally, was in league with Bemba’s MLC.35 The rebel movement was falling apart, especially on the Ugandan side, and Papy was tossed to and fro. At first he wanted to go to Lumbala, then changed his mind; then he wanted to go back to Wamba, but Wamba had been replaced by Mbusa; what he really wanted was to go back to his family, which was in Beni, but that was too far away, so he stayed with Mbusa anyway. Loyalty was, above all, a matter of opportunism. In the end he wandered about for years with a handful of troops through the jungle of what was known in better days as the Parc National de l’Okapi, with its eighteen-thousand square kilometers (seven thousand square miles) one of Congo’s biggest nature reserves, a world heritage site since 1996, and inhabited as a rule only by Mbuti Pygmies.

There were seven men in their group; Papy was the squadron leader. Deep in the jungle they arrived at the little town of Bomili, where they had a glorious view of the confluence of the Ituri and one of its tributaries. The place was ruled by a man named Mamadou, a Malinese poacher who had adopted the airs of a village chieftain. It was reminiscent of the way Msiri, the Afro-Arab slave trader from the east coast, had had himself crowned king of the Lunda in 1856. As official political authority faded, there was room for new structures from the inside out: foreign traders could pursue their affairs with impunity and, with a bit of force, achieve real political power. In the year 2000, the Congolese interior was as wild and woolly as it had been in the mid-nineteenth century. Even the merchandise was the same. “Mamadou had a house full of ivory. I saw fifteen tusks there, all of them almost two meters (6.5 feet) long. He had four hunters: a man named Pascal and three Pygmies. There were also okapi hides and a rhinoceros horn. Mamadou took everything we had, even the little chains around our necks. He beat us for three hours. Then he said: ‘Carry that ivory for me, otherwise I’ll kill you.’” A command that could have come straight from the nineteenth century. Papy and his men walked seven kilometers (about 4.3 miles) with the tusks on their shoulders, in precisely the same region where the Arabisés had once done their raiding. When it grew dark, they built three little lean-tos for the night. They had no intention of continuing to play porter. “One hour later, Mamadou arrived. He had been following us and he opened fire. One of us was killed, so we killed three of his hunters, including Pascal. We ran away and buried the ivory. I still have to go back and get it someday.”

Listening to Papy was like rereading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, an immersion in a gloomy, dark-green world full of lethargic violence. A world of shady characters as cruel as they were bleak and drunken. “Mamadou was in cahoots with the king of imbeciles, Ramses. That was the number-two man in Bemba’s MLC. There was a lot of rivalry with Mbusa’s RCD-ML.” A sultry world full of misty thinking. The pro-Ugandan rebels were no longer fighting against Kinshasa, not even against Rwanda, but simply against each other. “The MLC wanted to expand to the east. They attacked Isiro, and later Beni and Butembo too. Ramses was their commander. At Mambasa his men captured Pygmies and ate them.” A feverish world with bizarre rituals and gruesome incidents. The Pygmies’ family members were even forced to consume parts of their murdered relatives’ bodies. The hearts of newborn babies were cut out and eaten . . . . 36 A clammy world with water dripping from the leaves, and the distant cries of animals. Papy sneered, snorted. His somber words dripped with contempt. “One day I lost track of my friend, my comrade. At first we couldn’t find him. Then we saw him at a bend in the road. Ramses had got hold of him. His head was impaled on a stick. His penis was tied to the stick a little farther down.”

A world of fearful sweat and the smell of bodies. Two million civilians took off running to nowhere. Deep in the jungle, villagers were so absolutely cut off from the outside world that they could no longer find clothes to replace their rags. Les nudistes, they were called. Naked, they walked through the forest in search of food, as though it were 1870 all over again—but this time they were ashamed.37

In colonial times, the area around Bomili was known for its wealth of smaller gold mines. The lodes were not as rich as those in the more easterly Kilo-Moto, but still worth exploiting. Papy became involved in gold mining and proved a good deal more successful at that than in the ivory trade. Soldiers became entrepreneurs, killers became traders. “I ran thirty-five gold mines around Nia-Nia. That was my sector. No one paid me and my men, but each mine had its own CEO.” Although those were mostly teenagers in torn T-shirts, the term CEO (PDG in Papy’s French, president-directeur-général) still showed that the economy of plunder had attained a certain degree of formalization. “I called all the CEOs together and held a speech: ‘You people have to start making contributions, otherwise the soldiers will start helping themselves and then you’ll have people leaning on you. Everyone has to contribute: l’effort de guerre [the war effort]. Every month I want to have five grams of gold from each of you.’ There was some discussion, and finally we agreed to three grams. There were five thousand creuseurs working at some of the mines, but the CEOs only got a little bit of what came out of them.”

Industrial mining was a thing of the long distant past. The machines used during the colonial period had been idle and rusting for decades. The work was done now by creuseurs, young men and children who scraped away the sediment with a hoe or pick. It resembled the earliest days of Katangan mining, a century earlier, except this time no one was on a payroll; they were all independent businessmen who paid taxes to a superior in the form of a portion of the proceeds. “I went around to all the mines to collect the tax. I had to use that to feed my men, but also to satisfy my superiors. I sold the gold to brigade or battalion commanders. I also demanded a few square meters of the mine for my own use. I had digs everywhere, and about a dozen creuseurs who panned sand for me in the river. That brought in about five hundred grams a month, bon, if I was lucky.”

As medium-sized fish, Papy occupied a place somewhere halfway up the pyramid of the wartime economy. The artisanal mining activities formed a long chain: from creuseur to mine manager (CEO) to the ranking officers, and then on the comptoirs in the urban centers or even directly to Uganda, where it was sold in turn to international gold buyers. Salim Saleh, President Museveni’s brother, was a key figure in such bulk transactions. At the big gold mines of Kilo-Moto, however, all these middlemen were skipped over. There the Ugandan army had direct control over the pits. Mine workers had to do their digging with no safety equipment and without pay, without shoes, and often without tools, at gunpoint. Accidents were common. When a tunnel collapsed in 1999, at least one hundred miners were killed.38 In 1999 and 2000 Ugandan gold exports rose to between $90 and $95 million annually. Rwanda at the time was exporting $29 million worth of gold each year. This is a great deal, especially when one realizes that neither country has any significant domestic gold deposits.39

The same thing went for other mineral raw materials. Before the war started, Uganda exported less than two hundred thousand dollars worth of diamonds; by 1999 that had multiplied fourteen times over, for a total of $1.8 million.40 Rwanda, a country without diamonds, exported perhaps as much as $40 million in such stones each year.41 That immediately explains why control over Kisangani was so important. But there was more involved than just precious metals and gems. From Congo, Rwanda also raked in tin, a much more workaday ore used around the world to manufacture food packaging. Between 1998 and 2004 that country produced some 2,200 metric tons (2,420 U.S. tons) of cassiterite (tin ore) itself, but exported 6,800 metric tons (nearly 7,480 U.S. tons), more than three times that amount. The difference came from the mines in Kivu.42 The area around the Great Lakes resembled a sort of African Schengen Area, a unified market where goods could cross borders freely. Tropical hardwood, coffee, and tea disappeared eastward as well. Congo became a “self-service country.”43 The scramble for Africa was now being organized by the Africans themselves.

And then there was coltan. An unseemly substance that resembles black gravel and is heavy as lead, the ore was mined from muddy deposits. But suddenly the whole world was clamoring for it. It was to become Rwanda’s major economic asset in Congo. What rubber had been in 1900, coltan was in 2000: a raw material, available locally in huge quantities (Congo contained an estimated 80-some percent of the world supply), that was suddenly in acute demand around the world. Cell phones were the pneumatic tires of the new century. Coltan comprises columbium (niobium) and tantalum, two elements that are adjacent in the periodic table. While niobium is used in the production of stainless steel for, among other things, body piercings, tantalum is a metal with an extremely high melting point (almost 3,000oC), which renders it extremely well-suited for superconductors in the aerospace industry and capacitators in electronic equipment. Tear open any cell phone, MP3 player, DVD player, laptop, or gaming console and inside you will find a little green labyrinth with all manner of obscure little elements. The drop-shaped, brightly colored beads are capacitators. Break them open and you will be holding a bit of Congo in your hand.

The year 2000 witnessed a veritable coltan rush. Nokia and Ericsson were hoping to bring to market a new generation of cell phones, while Sony was poised to launch its PlayStation 2 (the company actually had to postpone the introduction due to a dip in the supply of coltan).44 Within less than a year the price rose by 1,000 percent, from thirty to three hundred dollars a metric pound (1.1 U.S. pound). With the exception of one Australian quarry, eastern Congo was the only place on earth where it was mined. Down Under it served as a welcome source of state revenue, but in Congo it was more a curse than a blessing. A feeble state with great wealth beneath its soil, that is asking for trouble. All the coltan mines were controlled by Rwanda; in 1999 and 2000 Kigali exported a mind-boggling $240 million worth of coltan annually. Most of that was sheer profit. Rwanda had to pay the traders and rebels in Congo, of course, but that was peanuts compared to what coltan brought in. The profits made from the war were three times higher than the losses.45 The occasional crate of Kalashnikovs, therefore, was a minor write-off.

But Rwanda and Uganda were not the ones who profited most from the pillage of eastern Congo’s raw materials. In an increasingly globalized economy, governments were only intermediaries in a mass of complex, international, and rapidly mutating trading networks. Kagame and Museveni were not at the end of any supply line; it was the multinational mining companies, shady fly-by-nights, notorious but highly evasive arms dealers, and crooked businessmen in Switzerland, Russia, Kazakhstan, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany who made a killing by selling Congo’s stolen raw materials. They all operated in an extremely free marketplace. In political terms Congo was a disaster area, but in economic terms it was a paradise—at least for some. Failed nation-states are the success stories of runaway, global neoliberalism.

But Papy had other things on his mind. One day he decided to try his luck again at ivory. With a little help from a few Pygmies, it shouldn’t be too hard. “The village chieftain gave me his permission. It took us four days to locate a track, and we followed it for a week. When we finally saw the elephant, he had only one tusk. Later we found a whole herd. I shot one of them, a female. That evening we ate the trunk. It was good.”

Of the some six thousand elephants in the Okapi Reserve where Papy wandered, more than half were killed for ivory or meat. Poaching became big business in Congo. In Kahuzi-Biega Park, almost 50 percent of the 130 mountain gorillas, already a very rare species, disappeared as well. Virunga Park had more than twenty thousand hippos; only thirteen hundred of them survived the war.46 Given a mobile population that consumed between 1.1 and 1.7 million metric tons (between nearly 1.21 to 1.87 million U.S. tons) of bushmeat each year and burned 72 million cubic meters of wood, nature suffered greatly under the war.47 Industrial forestry came to a halt but, with the supply of electricity cut off, all of Congo went back to cooking on wood fires, consuming one cubic meter (1.3 cubic yards) per person annually. Bushmeat usually came from monkeys and antelopes. For sale on every market one saw smoked, almost charred monkeys with eyes seared shut and mouths wide open. During my first trip to Congo in 2003 I even saw elephant meat being sold on a Kinshasa street market.

Papy’s poaching career, however, was short-lived. “The next day we went back to get the tusks. We found a little one, standing beside its dead mother. I shot it too. Compassion, what is that? When I got closer I saw that it had only two weensy little tusks. Bon, gold was more my sort of thing anyway.”48

THE SECOND PHASE OF THE WAR lasted so long because so many profited from it; not just the big multinationals far away, not just the slick traders in their climate-controlled suites, not just the military leaders in the neighboring countries, but everyone at every level of the pyramid. After the miserable Mobutu years, the common people were finally getting the chance to earn a little money of their own. That became clearest of all during the coltan rush. Farmers in Kivus north and south abandoned their bedraggled fields, children left school by the bunches, even teachers turned their backs on their classrooms. “We know that digging coltan can’t solve our daily problems,” a few creuseurs said, “but here we earn a lot more than we used to.” The risks they took were all part of the game. Men in particular had a chance to regain their financial autonomy. The informal economy of the 1980s had provided women with new opportunities, but artisanal mining during the war was strictly a man’s world. “Digging for coltan is very profitable,” two mamans told me, “but the husbands are the only ones who gain from it. As soon as they have some money they go off and find another woman in Goma; they even buy a house for her, and that while our own children barely get along and can’t even go to school.”49

The war had not begun with profit in mind, but now that so many were turning one it simply went on.50 Commerce and war held each other in a stranglehold: in addition to the militarization of the economy, there was also the commercialization of violence. Soldiers like Papy offered their services anywhere the money was good. The informal economy of the past had now become a military economy: it was still about the large-scale smuggling of Congo’s riches, but with a Kalashnikov added to the equation. Extreme violence became extremely common; ethnic hatred looked suspiciously like commercial rivalry.

“They took Kasore, a Lendu in his thirties, away from his family and attacked him with knives and hammers,” an eyewitness reported in gold-laden Mongbwalu in Orientale province. There the Hemas and Lendus, the Ituri district’s two major population groups, had fought for control over the pits. The mines, which once generated an ethnic melting pot, now were sources of dissension. Uganda’s policies fanned the fires of racial hatred.51 The Hemas, the eyewitness said, “killed Kasore and his son (of around twenty) with knives. They cut the son’s throat and tore open his chest. They cut the tendons at his heels, crushed his head and removed his intestines.” After some attacks, the assailants told those left to listen that now they knew who was the boss. The flipside of globalization was tribalization: the international raw-materials robbery was accompanied by the revival of old rituals or the creation of new ones. A féticheur forced one Heman man to undergo a bizarre test: “He had two eggs. They tied me up, I was scared to death. He rolled the eggs over the ground at my feet. I was told that if the eggs rolled away from me I would be considered innocent. But if they rolled toward me, then I was a Hema and therefore guilty. I was lucky, the eggs rolled away. But Jean, who was with me, was not as fortunate. The eggs rolled the wrong way and they told him to run for it. While he was running away, the Lendu shot arrows at him. He fell. They cut him to pieces with their machetes, right before my eyes. Then they ate him.”52

In addition to profits, the war was also about new forms of morality. The reports from human rights organization rarely include eyewitness accounts from combatants. But in Kasenyi, a fishing village on Lake Albert, I succeeded after some difficulty in getting a number of them to talk. There is little truth to the prevailing idea that all child soldiers were kidnapped. Many went into the army voluntarily. “Our village was attacked twice. My grandfather, sister, and brother were killed. I was twelve and I joined up. Of my own free will. Our massacre was the reply to their massacres. I stayed with the UPC [the major Hema militia] for three years.” This young Hema, who insisted on remaining anonymous, was now a veteran: “We were trained by Rwandan mercenaries. Bosco Ntaganda was our general. He fought with Joseph Kony too. I was at the bloodbath at Mahagi. We took mothers, fathers, children. I was told to kill and I killed. Killing women and children, that was hard for me. Fortunately I had a rifle; I was afraid to kill people with a machete. The soldiers took girls to marry. I had to watch as they raped them. Bosco said: ‘When you’re a soldier, women are free. Everything is free.’”53

In a country where the educational system had been destroyed, where there were no jobs, where dowries were unaffordable and the average life expectancy was only forty-two, the war provided not only profits but also a sense of purpose. Children with no future suddenly had an ideal and an identity.54 “My brothers are fishermen now, they work on the lake in their canoes,” another young man told me. “In the war they were with the PUSIC [another Hema militia]. They were twelve and fourteen in 2002. When they came back from the war, they spoke laughingly of their pillaging and raping. The war was a joke, perhaps a joke that brought death along with it, but still a joke.”55 Veterans among themselves bantered stories back and forth, like students after a drunken night on the town. The fighting had been a bacchanal of blood and beer, a Dionysian ritual of running, grabbing, and biting, a blowout with roasted goat meat, smooth female flesh, screaming voices, gun smoke, female flesh that grew moist anyway, there you go, a rush, a curse, a carnival, a temporary upending of all values, a conscious transgression, a forbidden pleasure smothered in a sauce of fear, goose flesh, and humor, lots of humor. A gruesome feast of life’s brittleness.

At a certain point, as I sat drinking beer on the waterfront with Muhindu, the man who had dumped bodies into Lake Kivu, he said something disconcerting. “A soldier is like a dog. If you open the gate, he causes damage. In the morning, before we were sent out, our leader would say: ‘Go out and do something foolish.’ We ransacked houses. We took cell phones, money, and gold necklaces from people. We raped. If you give someone permission to kill, after all, what difference does a rape make?”

I WAS SITTING IN A HALF-DARKENED OFFICE IN GOMA. You could hear the noise from the street. There were no banners of international NGOs in front of the door, no logos, no air-conditioning. This was the anonymous, discreet workplace of La Synergie des Femmes, the city’s only shelter for Congolese women, run by the women themselves. Across the wooden table from me is Masika Katsua, a forty-one-year-old Nande woman. She used to live in the interior. The Nande were successful traders in places like Beni and Butembo, and that had created a lot of bad blood. “It was in 2000. We were at our own home. My husband imported goods from Dubai. The soldiers came in. They were Tutsis. They spoke Rwandan. They sacked everything and wanted to kill my husband. ‘I’ve already given you everything,’ he told them, ‘so why do you want to kill me?’ But they said: ‘We kill big traders with the knife, not with a gun.’ They had machetes. They started hacking at his arm. ‘We have to chop hard,’ they said, ‘the Nande are strong.’ Then they butchered him, like in a slaughterhouse. They took out his intestines and his heart.”

While she spoke, she never looked up. She scratched incessantly with the plastic cap from a ballpoint pen in the grain of the wooden table.

I had pick up all the pieces. They held a gun to my head. I wept. All the pieces of my husband’s body. I had to gather them together. They cut me with a knife, that’s how I got this scar. I have another one on my thigh. I had to lie down on his body parts, to sleep on them. I did that, there was blood everywhere. I wept and they started raping me. There were twelve of them. And then my two daughters in the next room. I lost consciousness and ended up in the hospital. After six months I still wasn’t healed. I was still bleeding and gave off terrible smells. My daughters were pregnant. A boy and girl were born, but my daughters refused to have them. I took those children under my wing. When I came back, it turned out that my in-laws had sold everything, the house, the land, everything. They said it was my fault that my husband was dead. I had no sons and therefore no right to stay. The family turned me away. When my grandchildren ask me now about that scar, I can’t tell them. It was their fathers who did it.

In 2006 Masika was once again beaten and raped, this time by Nkunda’s men. They had come looking for her because, after fleeing on her own to the interior, she had started organizing classes for other rape victims. New victims came to her each day, girls who didn’t dare to press charges. “I want to kill Nkunda. God forgive me. If I die for doing that, at least I will have done something that gives me release. I’m still alone. The men don’t want me anymore, and I hate all men. I want to help other women. My home is open to them. I pray a lot. I hope for nothing. I try to forget. But when I think back . . . on how my husband and I lived together . . . all that sadness.”56

And the waters of Lake Kivu slap against the docks. The top of the Nyiragongo volcano vanishes amid the clouds. Jeeps with tinted windows drive slowly over the roundabout. Two boys are pushing a big wooden bicycle through the mud. The bike groans beneath a man-sized bag of colorful flip-flops. And inside a half-darkened office a woman rubs the cap of a ballpoint pen slowly back and forth over the wood, as through trying to scratch something out.

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