Allied Democratic Forces (Uganda)


Allied Democratic Movement (Uganda)


Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo- Zaire


Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome


British Broadcasting Corporation


Central Intelligence Agency


Mixed Import-Export Company


Collective of Congolese Patriots


Democratic Republic of the Congo


Rwandan Armed Forces


Zairian Armed Forces


Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Burundi)


Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda


Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (Angola)


National and Integrationist Front (Congo)


National Liberation Forces (Burundi)


Patriotic Resistance Forces of Ituri (Congo)


Catholic Institute of Higher Commercial Studies


International Rescue Committee


Lord’s Resistance Army (Uganda)


Movement for the Liberation of the Congo


Popular Revolutionary Movement


Congolese Revolutionary Movement


National Army for the Liberation of Uganda


North Atlantic Treaty Organization


Non-Governmental Organization


National Resistance Movement (Uganda)


Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development


Operation Sovereign Legitimacy


Congolese Rally for Democracy


Congolese Rally for Democracy-National


Rwandan Patriotic Army (the armed wing of the RPF)


Rwandan Patriotic Front


South African Development Community


Uganda Muslim Liberation Army


United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees


National Union for the Total Independence of Angola


United Nations Operation in Somalia


Union of Congolese Patriots (Congo)


Uganda People’s Defense Force


West Nile Bank Liberation Front (Uganda)







Understanding the Violence

Power is Eaten Whole.


This is how it usually worked: I would call up one of the people whose names I had written down in my notebook, and I’d tell him I was writing a book on the war in the Congo and that I wanted to hear his story. Most people like to talk about their lives, and almost everybody—Congolese ministers, army commanders, former child soldiers, diplomats—accepted. We would typically meet in a public place, as they wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about sensitive matters in their offices or homes, and they would size me up: a thirty-year-old white American. Many asked me, “Why are you writing this book?” When I told them that I wanted to understand the roots of the violence that has engulfed the country since 1996, they often replied with a question, “Who are you to understand what I am telling you?”

The look of bemusement would frequently appear in the eyes of interviewees. An army commander spent most of our meeting asking me what I thought of the Congo, trying to pry my prejudices out of me before he told me his story. “Everybody has an agenda,” he told me. “What’s yours?” A local, illiterate warlord with an amulet of cowries, colonial-era coins, and monkey skulls around his neck shook his head at me when I took his picture, telling me to erase it: “You’re going to take my picture to Europe and show it to other white people. What do they know about my life?” He was afraid, he told me, that they would laugh at him, think he was a macaque, some forest monkey.

He had good reason to be skeptical. There is a long history of taking pictures and stories from Central Africa out of context. In 1904, an American missionary brought Ota Benga, a pygmy from the central Congo, to the United States. He was placed in the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo in New York City, where his filed teeth, disproportionate limbs and tricks helped attract 40,000 visitors a day. He was exhibited alongside an orangutan, with whom he performed tricks, in order to emphasize Africans’ similarities with apes. An editorial in the New York Times, rejecting calls for his release, remarked that “pygmies are very low in the human scale.... The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.”

While not as shockingly racist, news reports from the Congo still usually reduce the conflict to a simplistic drama. An array of caricatures is often presented: the corrupt, brutal African warlord with his savage soldiers, raping and looting the country. Pictures of child soldiers high on amphetamines and marijuana—sometimes from Liberia and Sierra Leone, a thousand miles from the Congo. Poor, black victims: children with shiny snot dried on their faces, flies buzzing around them, often in camps for refugees or internally displaced. Between these images of killers and victims, there is little room to challenge the clichés, let alone try to offer a rational explanation for a truly chaotic conflict.

The Congo wars are not stories that can be explained through such stereotypes. They are the product of a deep history, often unknown to outside observers. The principal actors are far from just savages, mindlessly killing and being killed, but thinking, breathing Homo sapiens, whose actions, however abhorrent, are underpinned by political rationales and motives.


The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a vast country, the size of western Europe and home to sixty million people. For decades it was known for its rich geology, which includes large reserves of cobalt, copper, and diamonds, and for the extravagance of its dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, but not for violence or depravity.

Then, in 1996, a conflict began that has thus far cost the lives of over five million people.

The Congolese war must be put among the other great human cataclysms of our time: the World Wars, the Great Leap Forward in China, the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides. And yet, despite its epic proportions, the war has received little sustained attention from the rest of the world. The mortality figures are so immense that they become absurd, almost meaningless. From the outside, the war seems to possess no overarching narrative or ideology to explain it, no easy tribal conflict or socialist revolution to use as a peg in a news piece. In Cambodia, there was the despotic Khmer Rouge; in Rwanda one could cast the genocidal Hutu militias as the villains. In the Congo these roles are more difficult to fill. There is no Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin. Instead it is a war of the ordinary person, with many combatants unknown and unnamed, who fight for complex reasons that are difficult to distill in a few sentences—much to the frustration of the international media. How do you cover a war that involves at least twenty different rebel groups and the armies of nine countries, yet does not seem to have a clear cause or objective? How do you put a human face on a figure like “four million” when most of the casualties perish unsensationally, as a result of disease, far away from television cameras?

The conflict is a conceptual mess that eludes simple definition, with many interlocking narrative strands. The New York Times, one of the few American newspapers with extensive foreign coverage, gave Darfur nearly four times the coverage it gave the Congo in 2006, when Congolese were dying of war-related causes at nearly ten times the rate of those in Darfur.1 Even Nicholas Kristof, the Times columnist who has campaigned vigorously for humanitarian crises around the world, initially used the confusion of the Congo as a justification for reporting on it less—it is less evil because it is less ideologically defined. He writes:

Darfur is a case of genocide, while Congo is a tragedy of war and poverty.... Militias slaughter each other, but it’s not about an ethnic group in the government using its military force to kill other groups. And that is what Darfur has been about: An Arab government in Khartoum arming Arab militias to kill members of black African tribes. We all have within us a moral compass, and that is moved partly by the level of human suffering. I grant that the suffering is greater in Congo. But our compass is also moved by human evil, and that is greater in Darfur. There’s no greater crime than genocide, and that is Sudan’s specialty.2


What is the evil in the Congo? How can we explain the millions of deaths?

In 1961, the philosopher Hannah Arendt traveled to Jerusalem to witness the trial of a great Nazi war criminal, Adolph Eichmann, who had been in charge of sending hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths. Herself a Jewish escapee from the Holocaust, Arendt was above all interested in the nature of evil. For her, the mass killing of Jews had been possible through a massive bureaucracy that dehumanized the victims and dispersed responsibility through the administrative apparatus. Eichmann was not a psychopath but a conformist. “I was just doing my job,” he told the court in Jerusalem. This, Arendt argued, was the banality of evil.

This book takes Arendt’s insight as its starting point. The Congo obviously does not have the anonymous bureaucracy that the Third Reich did. Most of the killing and rape have been carried out at short range, often with hatchets, knives, and machetes. It is difficult not to attribute personal responsibility to the killers and leaders of the wars.

It is not, however, helpful to personalize the evil and suggest that somehow those involved in the war harbored a superhuman capacity for evil. It is more useful to ask what political system produced this kind of violence. This book tries to see the conflict through the eyes of its protagonists and understand why war made more sense than peace, why the regional political elites seem to be so rich in opportunism and so lacking in virtue.

The answers to these questions lie deeply embedded in the region’s history. But instead of being a story of a brutal bureaucratic machine, the Congo is a story of the opposite: a country in which the state has been eroded over centuries and where once the fighting began, each community seemed to have its own militia, fighting brutal insurgencies and counterinsurgencies with each other. It was more like seventeenth-century Europe and the Thirty Years’ War than Nazi Germany.


For centuries the Congo has held a fascination for outsiders. Lying at the heart of the African continent, and encompassing some of the continent’s most impenetrable jungles, it has long been associated with violence and injustice. In 1885, during the scramble to divide Africa among colonial powers, King Leopold II of Belgium claimed the country as his personal fiefdom. He set up the Congo Free State, a private enterprise, and during the rubber boom of the 1890s the country became a key source of latex for car and bicycle tires. Colonial officers created a draconian system of forced labor during which they killed or mutilated hundreds of thousands and pushed millions of others to starvation or death from disease.

This brutality prompted the first international human rights campaign, led by missionaries and activists, including Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle. Under pressure, King Leopold capitulated and handed the country over to the Belgian government in 1908. Although they established a much more elaborate administration with extensive primary education, the Belgians still focused on extracting resources and did little to encourage Congolese development. The upper echelons of the military and civil service were entirely white, pass laws kept Congolese from living in upper-class neighborhoods, and education was limited to the bare minimum.

By the time they were forced to hand over power, the Belgians had set the new nation up to fail. As the novelist Achille Ngoye vents through one of his characters: “I don’t like these uncles mayonnaise-fries3 for their responsibility in the debacle of our country: seventy-five years of colonization, one [Congolese] priest by 1917, five [Congolese] warrant officers in an army of sergeants and corporals in 1960, plus five pseudo-university graduates at independence; a privileged few chosen based on questionable criteria to receive a hasty training to become managers of the country. And who made a mess of it.”4

One of those sergeants, Joseph Mobutu, a typist and army journalist by training, went on to rule the country for thirty-two years, fostering national unity and culture and renaming the nation Zaire5 in 1971, but also running state institutions into the ground. Mobutu’s rule, although initially popular, paved the ground for Zaire’s collapse. By the 1980s, Mobutu (by then he had changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko) was increasingly paranoid and distrustful of his government and army; fearing dissent from within the ranks of his single-party state, he cannibalized his own institutions and infrastructures. Political interference and corruption eroded the justice system, administration, and security services; Mobutu was only able to ward off military challenges by resorting to dependence on his cold war allies and mercenaries. With the end of the cold war, even those resources had become more difficult to muster.


Then, in 1994, came the trigger: The civil war in neighboring Rwanda escalated, resulting in the genocide of 800,000 Hutu and Tutsi at the hands of Hutu militia and the army. When the incumbent Hutu regime crumbled, the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels, led by Paul Kagame, took power, and over a million Hutu fled across the border into Zaire, along with the soldiers and militiamen who had carried out the massacres. The defeated Rwandan army was not the only displaced group seeking refuge. In his Machiavellian bid to become a regional power broker, Mobutu had come to host over ten different foreign armed groups on his territory, which angered his neighbors to no end. By 1996, a regional coalition led by Angola, Uganda, and Rwanda had formed to overthrow Mobutu.

Finally, in addition to national and regional causes, there were local dimensions to the conflict, which resulted perhaps in the greatest bloodshed. The weakness of the state had allowed ethnic rivalries and conflicts over access to land to fester, especially in the densely populated eastern regions on the border with Rwanda and Uganda. During Mobutu’s final years, he and other leaders cynically stoked these ethnic tensions in order to distract from challenges to their power and to rally support.


This book tells the story of the conflict that resulted from these regional, national, and local dimensions and that has lasted from 1996 until today. The war can be divided into three parts. The first Congo war ended with the toppling of Mobutu Sese Seko in May 1997. After a brief lull in the fighting, the new president, Laurent Kabila, fell out with his Rwandan and Ugandan allies, sparking the second Congo war in August 1998, which lasted until a peace deal reunified the country in June 2003. Fighting, however, has continued in the eastern Kivu region until today and can be considered as the third episode of the war.

The book focuses on the perpetrators more than the victims, the politicians and army commanders more than the refugees and rape survivors, although many of the protagonists oscillate between these categories. Rather than dwelling on the horror of the conflict, which is undeniable, I have chosen to grapple with the nature of the system that brought the principal actors to power, limited the choices they could make, and produced such chaos and suffering.

What is this system? As a Congolese friend and parliamentarian told me as I was finishing this book: “In the Congo, in order to survive, we all have to be a bit corrupt, a bit ruthless. That’s the system here. That’s just the reality of things. If you don’t bribe a bit and play to people’s prejudices, someone else who does will replace you.” He winked and added, “Even you, if you were thrown into this system, you would do the same. Or sink.”

There are many examples that bear out his sentiment. Etienne Tshisekedi, the country’s former prime minister, insisted so doggedly that the government had to respect the constitutional order before he stepped back into politics and stood for election that he briefly moralized himself out of politics. Wamba dia Wamba, a former rebel leader who features in this book, was so idealistic about what a rebellion should be that he marginalized himself to irrelevance. It would have been an interesting experiment to drop a young, relatively unknown Mahatma Gandhi into the Congo and observe whether he, insisting on nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience, would have been able to change anything, either. The Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara spent almost a year in the Congo in 1965 fighting with rebels in the east before he abandoned the struggle. Malnourished and depressed, he concluded they “weren’t ready for the revolution.” The Congo has always defied the idealists.

Even Laurent Kabila, who as president would be stereotyped by many as the quintessential Congolese big-man politician, was acutely aware of how deeply entrenched in society the Congolese crisis had become. An inveterate lecturer, he often turned his speeches into morality lessons. “Vous, Zairois ... ,” he would begin, a finger thrusting upward, berating the crowd for having put up with the country’s moral decline for so long. “Who has not been Mobutist in this country?” he asked during one press conference. “Three-quarters of this country became part of it! We saw you all dancing in the glory of the monster.”6


Papy Kamanzi7 is an example of how easy it is to be drawn into the deepest moral corruption. A thirty-year-old, mid-level army commander from the minority Tutsi community, he had fought for four different armed groups. I interviewed him almost a dozen times over two years to try to understand his experience. We became friends, and he took me home to meet his young wife and two children. Finally, in one of our last interviews, he broke down and started telling me about how he had worked for a Rwandan death squad in the eastern border town of Goma in 1997. Together with sixty other soldiers, they had been tasked with rounding up dissidents; often the definition of “dissident” was stretched to include any Hutu refugee. Papy could kill up to a hundred of these dissidents—sometimes old women and young children—a day, usually using a rope to crush their windpipes and strangle them.

“Why did you do it?”

“I had to. If I hadn’t, it would have been suspicious,” he replied, but then looked at me. “You know, you can’t really explain these things. For us soldiers, killing comes easy. It has become part of our lives. I have lost five members of my family during the war. You have to understand that. You have to understand the history of my family—how we were persecuted, then favored by Mobutu, how we were denied citizenship and laughed at at school. How they spat in my face. Then you can judge me.” But it was clear that he didn’t think I could ever understand.

Nevertheless, this book is an attempt to do just that: to explain the social, political, and institutional forces that made it possible for a family man to become a mass murderer. Kamanzi, and all those like him, were not inherently predisposed to evil. Some other explanation is called for.

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