No matter how hard you throw a dead fish in the water, it still won’t swim.
RUHENGERI, RWANDA, AND KINSHASA, CONGO, AUGUST 1998
The war to topple Mobutu had created serious security problems back in Rwanda. The Rwandan army’s attack on the refugee camps caused hundreds of thousands of refugees to stream back into their country. The authorities there knew that this influx would create trouble, as their enemies would seize the opportunity to infiltrate. “We had a discussion about what to do with them,” Vice President Kagame explained. “We think that it is better for them to come and we fight them here, [where] we can contain them. And you don’t get problems with the international community for fighting them outside your country.”1 Between 10,000 and 15,000 enemy soldiers entered into northwestern Rwanda in the months following the invasion.2
These insurgents sparked the worst fighting the country had seen since the genocide. By the end of 1997, the northwest region was in upheaval, suffering dozens of insurgent attacks each month against government installations. The insurgents also targeted government officials and sympathizers in an effort to intimidate the population into supporting them.
The infiltrators, however, were militarily weak and didn’t try to engage in conventional battles with the government. Instead, they adopted terror tactics, killing hundreds of Tutsi, especially Congolese refugees who were easy targets in makeshift refugee camps close to the Congolese border. Between January 1997 and August 1998, thousands of civilians were killed by both the Rwandan army and the insurgents as the tactics of insurgency and counterinsurgency became increasingly bloody.
General Paul Rwarakabije himself had infiltrated across the Rwandan border in July 1997 and become the operational commander of the insurgency, based around the town of Nyamutera. “Our headquarters was mobile,” he explained. “We never spent too long in one place, but moved around, sleeping in the huts of local sympathizers .”3 The insurgents held meetings in local schools at night and brought their office along, transporting official letterhead, stamps, and maps with them. They avoided using walkie-talkies for fear of being detected or overheard. Instead, Rwarakabije and his comrades relied heavily on locals, sending letters with operational orders via local farmers or market women, who then passed them on to other sympathizers.
The insurgents were initially popular among some locals in northwestern Rwanda. This was the heartland of President Habyarimana’s regime, from where he and many in his government came. The insurgents sometimes referred to themselves as les fils du vieux—the sons of the old man (Habyarimana). Many of the villagers there were returnees from the camps in Zaire and still harbored deep resentment against the RPF for overthrowing “their” government and for the massacres carried out in the refugee camps. They articulated their grievances in messianic terms—evangelism had found fertile ground in the camps, and preachers had been touting their people’s return to the promised land. The commanders gave two of their operational sectors the code names “Nazareth” and “Bethlehem.”4
Thus the Rwandan civil war started up again, after a hiatus of three years. The same commanders faced off again on the battlefield, only this time Kagame’s troops were in power in Kigali, and Habyarimana’s former army was hiding in banana groves and eucalyptus woods. The Tutsi-led Rwandan government, intimately familiar with the dangers of such an insurgency, having come to power on the back of one themselves, responded with overwhelming force. They deployed thousands of troops to the region and began ruthless counterinsurgency operations. Their first priority was to convince the population that they would suffer more if they collaborated with their enemy than if they didn’t. According to human rights reports, they cordoned off areas, rounded up peasants suspected to be in connivance with the rebels, and then beat and shot many of them. Some of their victims were probably working with the rebels; many others were not.5
In early 1998, Rwarakabije noticed a strange development. Soldiers in his ranks were quietly defecting and going to a Congolese army training camp in Rumangabo, just across the border from where he was operating. At the same time, Congolese officers based in the eastern Congo were baffled by instructions that were coming from Kabila’s army headquarters in Kinshasa. “The Rwandan commanders who were based with us were busy day and night fighting the ex-FAR and Interahamwe,” a senior Congolese intelligence officer recalled, “but at the same time, Kabila sent a delegation in June 1998 to instruct us to send all the ex-FAR prisoners we had to a military base in the south of the country. We heard from our friends there that these ex-FAR were being freed and trained in the Congolese army. We were floored!”6
President Kabila had made his move. In his mind, if he waited too long, the Rwandans and Congolese Tutsi would remove him from power. In the early months of 1998, Kabila’s army was a loose pastiche of kadogo, Katangan Tigers, and new recruits. The Angolans, Ugandans, and Rwandans, who had been the backbone of his rebellion, had mostly returned to their countries. He needed his own force, and in desperation he drew on the largest, most determined mercenary troops available in the region: the ex-FAR, Habyarimana’s former army, which his AFDL rebellion had sought to defeat. It was a deal with the devil, one that precipitated Rwanda’s new invasion.
Malik Kijege, the highest-ranking Congolese Tutsi in the Kinshasa garrison, was in a foul mood. In July 1998, Laurent Kabila sacked Colonel James Kabarebe, the Rwandan officer who had been commander of the Congolese army, and asked all Rwandan troops to leave the country. The departure of the Rwandans left the army without a real leader at a moment when hostility against Tutsi in Kinshasa was mounting and tensions between Kinshasa and Kigali were escalating. General Celestin Kifwa, the new commander, was over sixty years old and incompetent. They called him a fetisheur, a witch doctor, as it was rumored that he believed in magic potions and in consulting the ancestors to make decisions. When he arrived to take over his office from his Rwandan predecessor, he allegedly brought a goat with him that he proceeded to slaughter so as to chase away the evil spirits. He had hardly been seen in public since his nomination. For Malik Kijege, this was probably a good thing. One of Kifwa’s bodyguards had shot a Tutsi soldier dead the day before during an argument. The less he got to see of Kifwa, the better.
Anti-Tutsi sentiment was quickly spreading through Kinshasa, whipped up by Kabila’s politicians but also fed by the beatings and humiliations that residents of the capital had endured at the hands of the Rwandans. Congolese police and soldiers evicted dozens of Rwandan soldiers from apartments in downtown Kinshasa, took them to the airport, and put them on planes for Kigali. The enthusiasm of these Congolese security forces quickly boiled over; they began harassing and attacking Tutsi civilians and Congolese soldiers, prompting the justice minister to appear on national television, instructing soldiers not to bother Tutsi civilians.
Malik Kijege was well acquainted with the kind of mob violence that anti-Tutsi sentiment could provoke. During a similar frenzy in 1996, soldiers had shot and killed his aunt in the street in Bukavu. “ Every time there is trouble, you can expect the crazies to take it out on us,” he recalled.7At home, he still kept a copy of a tape distributed by ex-FAR demagogues in the refugee camps, exhorting Bantu people to rise up and chase the Tutsi down the Nile River back to Ethiopia, where they claimed the Tutsi came from.
Malik began to reach out to other Tutsi soldiers, who were dispersed throughout Kinshasa’s various military camps. In case of trouble, he thought, it would be smart for them to assemble in one place to find safety in numbers. “When the Rwandans left, we stayed behind,” he said. “We thought we were Congolese, not Rwandan. We had fought the war so as to defend our citizenship. We weren’t about to be forced onto a plane to go to Kigali.”
One evening shortly after the departure of Rwandan troops, General Yav Nawej, the newly appointed commander of Kinshasa, telephoned after he heard that Kijege was assembling Tutsi soldiers. “Malik! Where are you?” He barked at him.
“I’m at home.”
“Get your weapons. I am coming to disarm you to take to you to Makala [the central prison]. Don’t ask me why—that’s an order!”
“General, I came here with my weapon, and I am going to leave with it.”
“That’s a mutiny!”
“I have a right to self-defense, General.”
“Get ready then. I am coming.”8
Shortly afterwards, Malik received another phone call from General Jean-Claude Mabila, another commander leading military operations in the capital. He threatened that he would come and disarm Malik with a tank. That made Malik laugh: “How do you disarm a couple of soldiers with a tank?”
Malik was worried that the lack of a clear chain of command would allow soldiers to take the law into their own hands and begin attacking Tutsi soldiers in the capital. Congolese troops had chafed under the command of Rwandans, who together with Congolese Tutsi had formed an elite clique within the AFDL. They were itching for a chance to get back at the Tutsi.
According to Malik, he called Joseph Kabila, the president’s son, who was in China undergoing military training. The young army officer, just twenty-seven at the time, reassured Malik that he knew there were problems in the government. He sounded worried. “ I’ ll be back in three days,” he promised him.
“Three days is too long,” Malik answered.
By August 2, Malik had been able to assemble 586 Tutsi soldiers in an improvised battalion at Camp Tshatshi, a large military camp in Kinshasa. “I knew exactly how many they were; I counted them.” His foul mood began to lift. In front of him, on the parade grounds, he inspected the troops. They stood at attention in lines of twenty, their hands flat by their sides. Some didn’t have boots; others didn’t have whole uniforms. They were mostly young Tutsi recruits who had joined in 1996: students, peasants, and cowherds who had joined to fight for their community and to find adventure. Most of them had ended up walking across the country, fighting Mobutu’s troops, ex-FAR, and Serbian mercenaries from town to town.
“They were inexperienced, but the morale was high,” Malik remembered. “ We had a key advantage: We were united; we were fighting for our survival. The others were just bandits.”
That night the fighting started, heralding the beginning of the second congo war.
Didier Mumengi was awakened at 4 o’clock in the morning on August 3 by heavy shooting.9 He lay awake for a while with a sinking feeling in his stomach as he listened to the call-and-response of a booming mortar and staccato machine gun fire. It was only a year since he had returned to the country after several decades living in Brussels, where he had spent most of his life studying, writing, and moving in the circles of the Congolese political opposition. A month before, the thirty-six-year-old had been appointed information minister by Laurent Kabila.
At 4:30 his clunky Telecel phone rang. The Congo was one of the first countries in Africa to have a mobile phone network, as a result of the absence of working landlines. Anybody of importance in the capital had a Telecel phone, a device the size of a milk carton with a rubber antenna attached to it. There were so few numbers that their owners could write all the important ones on the back of an envelope or memorize them. “Didier!” Kabila’s baritone rang out.
“We are under attack. You have to go to the Voice of the People [the national radio station] and talk to the country. It’s important to calm people down. Tell them we have the situation under control.”
“Yes, Excellency. Who is attacking us?”
The president paused. “Just tell them inciviques—bandits.”
Mumengi quickly got dressed and jumped in his official car. On his way to the radio station, he had to double back several times and take side roads to avoid cannon fire. His mind was racing as he tried to think of what he would tell the country; he had no idea what was going on. Who exactly was attacking? Was this linked to the president’s eviction of the Rwandan contingent several days before?
At 5:30 he finally reached the radio station, a nineteen-story, decrepit building surrounded by an asphalt network of major thoroughfares. He raced in the back door and up the stairs to the radio studio. All the soldiers who had been posted there had fled, knowing that the building was a prime target for any mutineers. (The first move in a military putsch is usually to seize the radio and television stations in order to control popular sentiment and encourage desertions.) The place was deserted. The usual smell of sewage wafted up through the cement stairwell, lit by flickering neon lights. He heard a noise from the broadcasting room: The journalists on night shift had barricaded themselves in there when the fighting had started. A man with shaky hands opened the door when Mumengi told them who he was. One of the journalists had died of heart failure; the others were visibly distressed.
Mumengi told them to hold on as he rushed down the stairs again and across the street to the Kokolo military camp, the largest barracks in Kinshasa. The sun was just coming up, and other than a few dogs and some laundry flapping in the breeze, there was no movement among the rows of cement houses. Mumengi finally found one desolate old man, who didn’t recognize him and wasn’t able to tell him who was in charge. “The place had completely fallen apart!” Mumengi remembered. “Most soldiers had moved out and rented their houses to civilians, who were cowering under their beds! Part of the parade grounds had been turned into cassava fields!”
Finally, Mumengi reached by phone a cousin who was a general in the army. He promised to come as soon as possible with reinforcements. Mumengi rushed back to the radio studio to address the nation. For Mumengi, who was known for his flowery speeches, it was one of his less inspired performances: “Citizens, patriots. Do not leave your houses, and stay calm. Inciviques are troubling public order. I assure you that the army has full control of the situation and will reestablish order soon.” Then he had the technicians play some mellow music.
He had lied. The army didn’t control anything. As Mumengi left the radio building with his cousin and hurried to the presidential palace, they saw the streets were deserted. Mortar and machine gun fire was passing overhead without any obvious target. His cousin, the army general, shook his head:“It’s a mess. A complete mess.”
Kabila received Mumengi at the heliport behind his presidential palace. He was wearing a dark safari suit and flip-flops and holding a walkie-talkie. Grinning, he sat Mumengi down in the middle of the concrete landing pad.
“Didier,” he said, “first, don’t worry. We’ll survive. We will live through this.” Instead of comforting him, the president’s words had the opposite effect. He thought his boss had lost it. The presidential palace was only several hundred yards from the Tshatshi military camp where Malik had dug himself in. The heavy artillery fire was deafening. As they spoke, Mumengi could hear bullets whistle overhead.
Given the circumstances, Kabila was curiously jovial. “Look, my son,” he started. Mumengi’s father had been involved in the rebellion of the 1960s and had known Laurent Kabila. Over the past few months, Mumengi had grown close to the president, who would often call him to discuss policy. To people around Kabila, he was known as l’enfant cheri of Mzee. “Our Rwandan friends have always dominated us. It was like this under Mobutu—they pushed him to undergo Zairianization, which they benefited from! They asked him to sign a decree that made all immigrants into citizens. Is that normal? The Tutsi in the east had everything, while the Congolese were stuck with nothing.”
The firefight crescendoed around them. Mumengi suggested they go inside the thick cement walls of his residence, but Kabila refused, saying that his presence outside would reassure his soldiers, the dozens of young men manning the parapets of his palace in green fatigues. He took his walkie-talkie and called one of his commanders, “General Mabila! Why are you firing the cannon? It’s not with artillery that you will get them! Attack on foot!”
He looked back at Mumengi, who was shaken by the fighting surrounding them. “You know, Japan dominated China. That is normal. But I will not let our great country be dominated by its tiny neighbor. Can a toad swallow an elephant? No!”
Kabila instructed Mumengi to go back to the radio and speak to the people, to motivate them. “We will survive with the force of the people—you have to rally them behind us. We don’t have an army, so we will need them. In the meantime, I will go look for allies.” He called one of his bodyguards and asked for his pistol. “Do you have a gun?” Mumengi had never used a gun before. “Here. You must use this. From today on, you will be the minister of war!”
Meanwhile, the Rwandans had taken control of much of the eastern Congo in a matter of hours. While Colonel Kabarebe had been commander of the Congolese army, he had prepositioned units loyal to him with stockpiles of weapons in the eastern Congo. When he was sacked, he gave orders to these units to rebel against Kabila. With support of Rwandan troops who crossed the border, they took control of Goma and Bukavu and began advancing on Kisangani.
Hubris can breed fantastic courage. After taking the border towns, Colonel Kabarebe decided to go straight for the jugular by leapfrogging Kabila’s ramshackle army and attacking the capital, 1,000 miles away. It was one of the most daring operations in the region’s military history.
The “Kitona airlift” is still talked about by foreign military attachés and Congolese army commanders alike. A U.S. officer based in the region later wrote in a military journal:“This was an operation that exemplified audacity and courage, and its aftermath became an odyssey fit for a Hollywood script.”10
Kabarebe commandeered a Boeing 707 at the Goma airport and loaded one hundred and eighty Rwandan, Ugandan, and Congolese soldiers on board with weapons and ammunition. “Everybody wanted to get a piece of the action,” remembered a senior Congolese military officer who participated. “Mobutu’s former soldiers were outraged at their humiliation by Kabila, and the Tutsi wanted to get back at the government for the treatment of their relatives in Kinshasa.”11 Soldiers deserted from their units around Goma and showed up at the airport once they got word of the operation. Kabarebe put a brash Rwandan commander called Butera in charge of the first plane to leave.
It could have indeed been a scene from a movie: With Butera brandishing his pistol behind him, the distraught pilot flew 1,000 miles across the country, over the capital to the Kitona military base, 250 miles west of Kinshasa on the mouth of the Congo River.12 Most of the soldiers on the flight had no idea that the commander of the Kitona base had secretly defected to the Rwandan side—they expected to land in a hail of bullets. A hundred and eighty soldiers nervously gripped their AK-47s and looked warily at the flight safety cards in their seat pockets. In the back of the aisle, stacked to the roof, were dozens of wooden crates of ammunition. The soldiers spoke Luganda, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, English, and French with each other. Outside the window, they broke through the thick cloud cover to see the rolling hills of Bas-Congo province and the Congo River snaking placidly toward the Atlantic ocean. After a three-hour flight, the long landing strip of Kitona airbase came into view.
Despite the pistol-waving Rwandan behind him, the pilot began to complain that they would be killed if they landed at the heavily fortified airbase. “Don’t worry,” Butera said. “We have our people at the airport.” Using the pilot’s high-frequency radio, he programmed a frequency he said belonged to their commander on the ground. A surprisingly clear voice responded to his call in calm English: “All clear, afande. You can land.” What the pilot did not know was that the radio Butera was calling actually belonged to his deputy commander, who was lounging in a seat at the back of the plane.13
When Kabarebe had been chief of staff of the Congolese army, he had studied old Belgian military maps of the region closely. Kitona was an obvious choice for several reasons. Kinshasa was connected to the Atlantic Ocean by a narrow land corridor. Almost all cargo going to Kinshasa had to pass through this umbilical cord, at the head of which sat Kitona. The military base also had a long airstrip that could accommodate aircraft weighing up to fifty-four tons. Its barracks now housed thousands of former Mobutu soldiers who had been sent there for reeducation. Their living conditions were terrible—hundreds had died from cholera and malnutrition—and, despite their notorious disciplinary problems, they would need little convincing to join in the fight against Kabila. Lastly, Kitona was close to the Inga Dam, the largest hydroelectric dam in central Africa, which supplied the capital with most of its electricity.
As the plane touched down, a few Kabila loyalists managed to shoot its nose tire out, but the commander of the airport battalion quickly defected to the Rwandan side as planned and brought his men under control, allowing the troops to disembark.
The airport was taken with barely any casualties. Back in Kinshasa, Kabila fumed as he heard about the airlift. “What kind of country is this?” he asked his advisors, imagining the airplane flying overhead. “We don’t even have an air force?” The advisors called their commander in Kitona to order him to stop the landing in Kitona, but the seditious officer only responded with insults.14
It was a huge victory for the Rwandans, who could now send reinforcements to take Kinshasa. Overjoyed, Butera set up his satellite phone on the tarmac and called back to Kigali.
Sometimes even the Rwandans foul things up: Butera had forgotten to take down the pin code for the satellite phone, without which it was useless. In Kigali, his commanding officers waited in vain for word from the young soldier, while he tried frantically to punch in different six-digit combinations. No luck. (The correct code was apparently 123456.) The pilot also failed to reach Kigali on his ham radio.15
Butera had to find the closest means of communication: an oil rig in the nearby town of Banana. Finally, after hours of searching, he found an oil engineer with a satellite phone who, with a bit of coaxing, allowed him to call home. Sheepishly, he told his bosses he had made it.
Who had made the first move in sparking the war? From interviews with Rwandans and Congolese involved in planning the war, it is not clear whether Kabila began recruiting ex-FAR before Kabarebe began deploying his boys to the east. What is clear is that, after only a few months of Kabila being in power, both sides realized that their relationship was going sour, driven by Kabila’s paranoia and Rwanda’s obsession with control. Didier Mumengi remembered, “The Rwandans in Kinshasa were a time bomb. It was clear that they were a problem, but at the same time they helped us keep the country together. It was going to be hard to get rid of them and still maintain a grip on the army and intelligence services.”
For Kigali, at a time when the northwest of Rwanda was consumed by the resumption of a bitter civil war, Kabila’s recruitment of its enemy constituted a strategic threat as well as a personal betrayal. Its reaction, however, was a prime example of the hubris that had come to characterize the regime. Instead of creating a buffer zone in the east of the country and using multilateral pressure to deal with Kabila, Kigali decided to single-handedly remove him from power, presumably to install a new, friendlier proxy in his place.
It is surprising that Rwanda apparently did not confer with Angola, which had played a major role in toppling Mobutu, before launching an operation just miles from its border. According to President Dos Santos, President Museveni informed him of his government’s plans several days afterthe Kitona operation. Although the Rwandan government insists that it did have the green light, other Angolan officials and foreign diplomats agree that, at the very most, Kigali had informed Angola but had not tried to obtain their approval or collaboration.16 When Kabarebe landed several thousand Rwandan soldiers within earshot of Angolan territory, the reaction in Luanda was, according to the U.S. ambassador there at the time, “What the hell are these Rwandans doing? That’s our backyard.” 17 Some Angolan commanders had been rubbed the wrong way by the Rwandans after helping bring Kabila to power a year earlier. “It had been everybody’s victory, not just Rwanda’s,” commented an Angolan officer who wanted to remain anonymous. “But they acted like they were in charge in Kinshasa.”18
With a mutiny festering in the slums of Kinshasa, and rebels advancing rapidly from the west, Kabila knew that he would not be able to hold out without the support of the region. A regional summit of the South African Development Community was quickly called, and Rwanda, Uganda, Congo, Angola, and Zimbabwe glowered at each other across a table without coming to a conclusion.
It was a decisive moment in the war. In 1996, almost the whole region had jumped on the bandwagon against Mobutu, while world powers looked the other way. It had been a continental war, inspired by security interests but also by ideology. In 1998, the odds were stacked differently. The region split down the middle, with Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi on one side and Angola, Namibia, Chad, and Zimbabwe on the other.
This time, the motives for deployed troops were less noble. Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, for example, was of the same generation as Laurent Kabila and had provided arms and money for the first war effort; Kabila still owed him somewhere between $40 and $200 million dollars for this first engagement. 19 More importantly, his own besieged government was fraying at the edges after eighteen years in power. A mixture of corruption, poor economic management, and the expropriation of 1,500 white farms had prompted food riots, a fiscal crisis, and international opprobrium. As expensive as the military adventure in the Congo was, it also offered many much-needed business opportunities for Mugabe’s inner cabal. Shortly after toppling Mobutu, his state ammunition factory obtained a $500,000 contract from Kabila’s government, a Zimbabwean businessman extended a loan for $45 million, and businessmen close to Mugabe began negotiating potentially lucrative transport, food, and mining deals with the Congolese.20 When Rwanda attempted anew to overthrow the regime in Kinshasa, this time without rallying a regional alliance around them, Mugabe saw his investments in jeopardy.
Angola’s interests were much more related to its twenty-three-year-old civil war with UNITA. For decades, the rebels had maintained rear bases in Kinshasa, where Savimbi had frequently met with Mobutu and CIA operatives and had sold tens of millions of dollars of diamonds. In May 1998, Jonas Savimbi’s rebels had scuppered a peace process that they saw as increasingly biased toward the government. They launched attacks throughout northern Angola, close to the border with the Congo. In addition, another Angolan rebel movement, the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), appeared to be making inroads in Cabinda, a tiny Angolan enclave just north of the Kitona airbase, where around 60 percent of Angola’s oil is drilled, providing it with about half of all national revenues. According to French government officials, FLEC had been in touch with the Rwandan government before the Kitona airlift.21
The diplomatic tug-of-war continued for several days, with South African president Nelson Mandela attempting to mediate between the two sides to prevent a continent-wide war breaking out. His attempt earned him the scorn of Mugabe, who told him to shut up if he didn’t want to help defend the Congo. Kabila’s office was equally blunt, suggesting that “age had taken its toll” on the venerable African leader.22
At Malik Kijege’s makeshift headquarters at the Tshatshi military camp, he began receiving distress calls from Tutsis hiding in Kinshasa. According to the reports he received, Kinshasa was quickly succumbing to the throes of anti-Tutsi frenzy. Once again, leaders had resorted to ethnic diatribe to rally the population behind them.
Kabila addressed a march in downtown Kinshasa, where he whipped up the crowd against the Tutsi invaders. The demonstration was full of histrionics. “They want to create a Tutsi empire,” the president announced, dressed in military fatigues. His information minister, Didier Mumengi, also dressed in a green uniform, told the crowd that the Tutsi rebels had “embarked on the extermination of the Congolese people of Bukavu.” Tshala Mwana, a famous singer and allegedly the president’s mistress, led the parade dressed in white, tugging two goats on a leash with signs identifying them as Deo Bugera and Bizima Karaha, the two most famous Tutsi in Kabila’s government who had defected to join the rebellion. Some of the marchers brandished signs:“We will make Rwanda the twelfth province of the Congo,” and “No to Tutsi expansion in the DRC and Africa.” As the cheering crowd looked on, the famous, brawny wrestler Edingwe—he could often be seen jogging and singing with his followers along the Kinshasa streets at dawn—stepped up and slit the animals’ throats.23
Kabila promised that he would distribute guns to the population so that it could defend itself against the aggressors. Soon, thousands of youths, including many street children and delinquents, were streaming into recruitment centers in Kinshasa. Every day, several hundred young men filed into the Martyrs’ Stadium, learned how to use a gun, and sang songs. One of the standards was:“You Rwandans, God has not chosen you. If you want dialogue, we’ll have dialogue. If you want war, we’ll have war.”
The line between the Rwandan government and the Tutsi people as a whole was quickly blurring. Demagogues in Kinshasa bore a heavy responsibility in whipping up ethnic animosities in the capital. But they didn’t have to work too hard. Rwandan troops had humiliated and angered residents in the capital during their year-long stay. Kinois—as the inhabitants of the capital were known—had been working for years against Mobutu’s dictatorship. They had marched in the tens of thousands and had seen their brothers and sisters tortured and killed, only to see their victory snatched away by a bunch of foreigners. As Kinois often quip: “We put Mobutu in the ambulance. All Kabila did was drive the corpse to the cemetery.” Then the new rulers, who didn’t speak their language and didn’t look like them, began beating them and telling the women they dressed like prostitutes. They felt emasculated and abandoned to hunger and poverty.
Kabila gave orders for soldiers to shoot any Tutsi found with a weapon. Among the people, there was little distinction between a Tutsi civilian and a Tutsi soldier. “When the fighting starts, they all pull guns out from under their beds,” Congolese would often tell me. “The Tutsi in school with me yesterday are in the streets today in uniform.” Congolese soldiers stormed a U.S. embassy compound in Kinshasa, where American families were waiting for evacuation. They harassed several African Americans they suspected of being Tutsi in disguise, stole some money, and left. Another gang raided the upscale Memling Hotel in downtown Kinshasa, where many wealthy families had sought refuge, and went from room to room looking for high cheekbones and hooked noses.
After several days, the government organized a systematic round up of all remaining Tutsi, ostensibly for their own protection, and created a camp for them next to a military barracks in town. Hundreds of Tutsi were crammed into squalid quarters with little food, water, or medical supplies.
Back at the Tshatshi military camp, Malik Kijege fielded calls from Tutsi soldiers around the country. Congolese Tutsi had been left in military bases around the country after the Rwandans left. As soon as the rebels announced their insurgency against Kabila, these Tutsi were seen as Rwanda’s fifth column and were attacked. In Kisangani and Kalemie, dozens were killed. Over a hundred Tutsi officers in a training camp in Kamina, in the southern Katanga Province, were rounded up and executed. It was as if the mobs believed treason was genetically encoded in Tutsi identity.
Other messages were coming in to Malik’s command post from Tutsi stranded in various Kinshasa neighborhoods: five trapped in a garage in Kintambo, an elderly woman who couldn’t walk hidden with a non-Tutsi family in Bandal. He formed small squads to venture out into Kinshasa on foot and try to rescue them. They still had their government-issued walkie-talkies and were on the same frequencies as Kabila’s soldiers. The rival sides insulted each other over the static crackle.
“War is weird,” Malik later told me with a laugh. “In order to prevent them from understanding us, we resorted to a pig Latin we used when we were kids. “We said words backwards:‘Teem su ta eht sag noitats’—meet us at the gas station. Or added syllables: ‘Meetzee atzee gaszee stationzee.’” Congolese Tutsi babbled their way through the treacherous downtown streets at night, sometimes walking twenty miles in a single expedition, raiding banks and pharmacies for money and medical supplies. Finally, they succeeded in shepherding dozens of Tutsi civilians to the embassies of France, Belgium, and the Republic of Congo. From there, convoys were organized to bring the Tutsi in speedboats across the river to neighboring Brazzaville.
After his incendiary speech, Kabila had retreated to Lubumbashi, 1,000 miles from Kinshasa and near the border with Zambia. It looked to be a good place from which to flee the Congo—if he had to, which seemed ever more likely. From there he continued his diplomatic offensive to bring in Angolan, Namibian, and Zimbabwean troops. He left a confused war council behind in Kinshasa: a bunch of his ministers, mostly civilians dressed in military garb, who appeared on national television and tried to calm the population. “Our army had disintegrated,” Didier Mumengi remembered. “Our best units had gone westwards to stop the advance of the rebels. We were left with a bunch of policemen.” Mumengi himself was seen almost daily at press conferences, looking out of place in his green fatigues.
It seemed impossible to stop the Rwandan advance. They were moving twenty miles a day, capturing army stockpiles and sending government soldiers scattering. Commander David, who had been in charge of President Kabila’s bodyguard, was part of the rebel advance. He had kept an address book with telephone numbers of Kabila’s ministers and advisors. As the rebels advanced, David would make taunting phone calls to Kinshasa.
“Mumengi, you better pack your bags—we will be in Kinshasa tomorrow night,” he told the information minister when they were still two hundred miles away. He rang other ministers to give them updates on how far they had reached and to ridicule the Congolese army’s feeble efforts.
Kabila ordered his entire cabinet to Lubumbashi. Senior members of government, especially those from Katanga, heeded his call, packing their families into SUVs. At the airport, luxury vehicles crammed the tarmac, unloading mattresses, suitcases, and entire wardrobes to send to Lubumbashi. Didier Mumengi, who didn’t know anyone in Lubumbashi, decided to stay, against the pleas of his wife, who implored him to flee. He resorted to giving his distressed family sleeping pills so they could sleep through the night.
Then, without warning, the lights went out throughout the city. The Rwandan offensive had captured the Inga Dam, the huge hydroelectric power plant on the Congo River a hundred and fifty miles west of Kinshasa. The city of five million people went dark, with only a few hotels and office buildings lit by backup generators. Even those generators were soon winding down, as the rebels also cut the pipeline bringing fuel to the city. People were stuck in elevators, food rotted in freezers, doctors in some hospital emergency rooms had to operate with flashlights, and water pumps stopped working. When the energy minister, Babi Mbayi, gave a phone interview to a foreign journalist, saying that they had some technical problems with the electricity supply, Commander David called him from his satellite phone and said, “Babi, you think this is a technical problem? Wait till we reach Kinshasa.”
Rwanda’s decision to cut electricity to the capital sticks in the memory of Kinois to this day. That the rebels would jeopardize the lives of sick hospital patients and hamstring water and fuel supply was the last straw for many and only further justified their violent hatred of the Tutsi.
The city’s fate was looking increasingly sealed. The ministers who had stayed behind in Kinshasa held an emergency meeting at the ministry of planning. As a sign of how dire the situation had become, the army commander sent soldiers to provide security for the ministers, but they showed up without guns, loafing about sheepishly. One of the army generals took the floor and solemnly told his colleagues that they wouldn’t be able to defend the city. The finance minister then cleared his throat and, somewhat embarrassed, announced that he had made the decision to empty the state’s coffers. “I have tallied the money left in the Central Bank,” he told the stunned room. “There is $22,000 for each of us. I have put it in sacks in a truck outside. Use it well.”
Finally, just as the city had lost hope, the tide turned. On August 18, seeking international legitimacy for intervening, President Mugabe of Zimbabwe convened a meeting of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) security committee, an organ over which he presided. They hastily approved a military intervention to support Kabila against “foreign aggression,” although they did not have the quorum or the mandate to do so. The decision also deepened a row between Mugabe and President Nelson Mandela, who advocated a diplomatic approach.24 Mugabe, with typical gusto, told Mandela, “Those who want to keep out, fine, let them keep out. But let them keep [their] silence about those who want to help.”25
By the morning of the following day, four hundred Zimbabwean troops were digging trenches around Kinshasa’s Njili airport, and several attack helicopters patrolled the skies. Two days later, Angolan president Dos Santos, who had been sitting on the fence, made up his mind that it was better to have the devil you know ruling Kinshasa than a political unknown.26 Thousands of Angolan troops began streaming across the border with tanks and armored personnel carriers to recapture the Kitona military base from the Rwandans. The Angolan military, which brought with it attack helicopters and MiG 23 fighter bombers, began raining bombs and artillery fire down on the Rwandan-led troops. Malik Kijege remembered the Angolan air force hitting an oil pipeline, sending a plume of fire into the night, illuminating the scattering rebel forces.
As the Angolans moved in from the west, cutting off the Rwandans’ rear base and supply chain, Zimbabwean and Congolese forces squeezed them from Kinshasa. “It looks like there will be a Banyamulenge sandwich,” a western diplomat commented, lumping all of the invading troops—Rwandans, Ugandans, Congolese—into one generic term.27
Within days, the tide had turned. With no escape route, the rebels made a desperate run for Kinshasa, hoping they would be able to fulfill their mission with the ammunition and food they had left. At night, rebel troops in civilian dress began infiltrating the densely populated Masina and Njili neighborhoods on the northwestern outskirts of town, close to the airport. Bolstered by Zimbabwean and Angolan troops, Laurent Kabila returned to Kinshasa and announced that victory was theirs. Exhorting people to take up sticks and spears to defend the city, he declared that, “ The people must be completely mobilized and armed to crush the aggressors.”28 His cigar-smoking chief of staff was less subtle. “The rebels are vermin, microbes which must be methodically eradicated,” he said on state radio.29
The population heeded the call. They pounced on a dozen people they suspected were rebels, looped tires around their necks, doused them in gasoline, and made them into human torches. Charred bodies lined one of the main streets in the popular Masina neighborhood. A foreign television crew captured on film two Congolese soldiers throwing a man off a bridge and shooting him dead as he tried, with his legs broken, to crawl out of the water to safety. The images went around the world and were later memorialized on the Internet. It isn’t clear, however, whether these final casualties were Tutsi. The Rwandans had recruited many of Mobutu’s former soldiers. Eyewitnesses suggest that it was these recruits, mostly youths from the western Congo, who were sent as spies into Kinshasa, as they knew their way around and could blend into the local population.30 The last part of the battle for Kinshasa featured a group of several hundred of these soldiers stripping off their uniforms before being cornered in a field of eucalyptus trees outside Kinshasa. Kabila’s chief of staff laughed as he told the story at a press conference, cigar in mouth: “The rebels are like monkeys, swinging in the trees with no clothes.”31
As with many episodes of the war, the battle for Kinshasa was not without its share of surreal moments. A group of around seventy Tutsi was stuck in the Burundian embassy for several weeks, unable to move because of the fighting. They had congregated there from throughout Kinshasa in the hope that the Tutsi-led government of Burundi would provide them protection. The nearby Swiss embassy sent packages of food and water to keep them afloat, but the living conditions were deteriorating by the day. The embassy was housed in a small building, and a dozen people slept in each room. Ambassador Martin Sindabizera, himself a Tutsi, paced back and forth through the corridors, speaking with Burundian president Buyoya about possible evacuation plans. His phone rang nonstop with requests from Tutsi throughout Kinshasa—and even several Hutu who also felt targeted—to come and get them. “I wasn’t able to do anything for most of them. It was soul-wrenching to hear their pleas hour after hour and feel so helpless.”32
When he received word that there was an influential Rwandan family trapped not far from the embassy, Sindabizera decided to go himself. On the street in front of their hideout, several policemen stopped his car and told him to get out. As he stepped out, one of them yelled: “Betaye masasi!” After a year in Kinshasa, the ambassador knew enough Lingala to understand what that meant: Shoot him! The policeman loaded his gun, but an older soldier stopped him. “He has diplomatic license plates,” he pointed out calmly. “You can’t shoot him just like that. We have rules in this country.” Giving way to this reasoning, the soldiers took him in for interrogation. In a small cell at the nearby police station, the ambassador found a bizarre group of people, all of whom were alleged to be guilty of plotting against the state: two of his own advisors, whom he had sent ahead to evacuate the Rwandan family; a group of five mixed-race women in tight jeans and makeup, accused of having been mistresses of Tutsi politicians in Kinshasa; and a dozen cowed street children and soldiers who may have been involved in the rebellion or were just victims of a shakedown. “It was generalized paranoia,” the ambassador remembered. “They pulled in people to make money, for the shape of their noses, for anything at all.” After four hours of interrogation, the ambassador was set free. “Don’t talk to the BBC!” they ordered.
Back at the embassy, the situation was getting worse by the day. Several of the people seeking refuge had medical conditions, and he didn’t think they would be able to hold out much longer. The sewage system was breaking down, and the water pumps only worked intermittently. Finally, Burundian president Pierre Buyoya decided on a risky evacuation. He sent a jet from Bujumbura with several trusted soldiers, while the ambassador sent a trusted Indian businessman with several thousand dollars down the fifteen-mile road to the airport to dole out bribes to all of the roadblock commanders. He kept the biggest sum for the commander of the airport. They would make a run for it.
The ambassador laughed when he remembered the operation. “The pilot thought he was flying to Brazzaville. Only a fool would have accepted to fly a Burundian aircraft into Kinshasa airport during that mess.” Since the Brazzaville airport was just several miles across the river from the Kinshasa landing strip, it was easy to pull off. Several minutes before landing, the Burundian army officer on board pulled out a pistol in the cockpit. “Change of plans,” he told the terrified pilot. “We are landing in Kinshasa.”
The Burundian convoy, crammed to capacity with children, women, and diplomats, hurtled through the deserted streets as the bribed policemen and soldiers pulled away the roadblocks they had set up. At the airport, the passengers rushed onto the plane. At the last moment, just as the plane was beginning to taxi onto the runway, several pickups full of soldiers sped in front of it, blocking its path. The ambassador called the airport commander, alarmed, asking him what had happened with their arrangement.
“I can’t do anything, sir,” he responded. “It’s the presidential guard.” The ambassador sighed, looking down the rows of the airplane, full of anxious faces and crying children. “I thought the game was over,” he remembered. “I was sure that Kabila must have pulled the plug on our operation.” Having seen what had happened to other Tutsi in Kinshasa, they expected the worst. The ambassador told the pilot to lower the boarding ramp so he could talk to the Congolese commander. The few Burundian officers on the plane loaded their pistols and waited anxiously.
The passengers gawked through the windows as they saw Kabila’s soldiers, the same ones who had been rounding up their friends and relatives, help a Tutsi woman in expensive clothes out of a black SUV with tinted windows. Soldiers grabbed her suitcases and designer bags and made for the Burundian airplane. Not a word was exchanged between the Congolese and Burundian soldiers. The woman brushed past the dumbfounded ambassador in a cloud of perfume, only to be greeted by irate shrieks from the rest of the passengers. Several Banyamulenge women got up and began attacking the newcomer, cursing, spitting, and pulling at her clothes. “Traitor!” “Bitch!” The Burundian soldiers, pistols in the air, had to intervene to break up the melee.
“I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry,” the ambassador remembered. “This was Kabila’s mistress! My other passengers had recognized her. The president obviously didn’t think it was a good thing for her to stay on.”
The pilot, perplexed and nervous, came on the intercom, ordering everybody to sit down as he taxied the plane to the runway.