In May 1999, the city of Kisangani, later dubbed the City of Martyrs, fell victim to the worst bout of urban warfare the Congolese war had ever seen. The battle had dramatic consequences: It spelled the end of the Rwandan-Ugandan alliance and brought to the fore the plunder of the country’s riches.

The city’s reputation had not always been so bleak. The town of a million people was located in the middle of the country at a bend in the Congo River. In the 1960s, it had been an attractive city laid out along grand avenues lined with jacaranda and mango trees. It is clear that the Belgians had had big plans for the jungle city: Italianate turrets and futuristic, Art Deco architecture; streets named after Chopin, Beethoven, and Belgian royalty; and a city divided by the great river into “Rive Droite” and “ Rive Gauche,” reminiscent of Paris.

Kisangani formed a trade hub with the eastern provinces by road and with Kinshasa by river. Roads branched out into the jungles to the north, where there were large ranches and coffee plantations, and merchants brought huge bags of rich palm oil down the river in dugout canoes. However, Mobutu’s kleptocracy had reversed the flow of time in the town, as buildings crumbled and the jungle reclaimed land. The novelist V. S. Naipaul portrayed the demoralizing aura of the city in his 1979 book, A Bend in the River:

The big lawns and gardens had returned to bush; the streets had disappeared; vine and creepers had grown over broken, bleached walls of concrete or hollow clay brick.... But the civilization wasn’t dead. It was the civilization I existed in and worked towards. And that could make for an odd feeling: to be among the ruins was to have your time sense unsettled. You felt like a ghost, not from the past, but from the future. You felt that your life and ambition had already been lived out for you and you were looking at the relics of that life.1

The country had only further decayed since Naipaul had visited it. Throughout my travels in the eastern Congo, I would come across overgrown train tracks, phone poles devoured by termites and moss. In remote valleys, entire villas complete with horse stables and swimming pools had been reclaimed by nature.

The war had further sapped the life out of Kisangani. The whitewash had faded from the Art Deco facades, the pavement was cracked and overgrown with grass, and most shops were boarded up and empty. River traffic had all but ceased, as no boats were allowed up the river from Kinshasa into rebel-held territory. With no fuel or spare parts available, the only motorized traffic on the streets were a few dozen vehicles belonging to humanitarian organizations. The only means of leaving the town—unless you wanted to trek on foot for a week through the forest—was by plane, so all luxury goods had the cost of an air ticket slapped on their price tag.

The isolation had its impact on the locals. Almost 10 percent of children were severely malnourished, retarding their physical and mental development and making them prone to disease.2 The inhabitants now had to rely on the tens of thousands of toleka (“let’s go” in Lingala), the bicycle taxis with cushions bolted onto their baggage racks for passengers. Except for the parish and several hotels, which had diesel-run generators that sometimes worked, the city was left in the dark after sunset. Kerosene lamps and candles flickered in bars at the roadside. The beer factory was one of the only businesses to stay open during the war, churning out a watered-down, overpriced product.


Kisangani became the graveyard of Rwandan and Ugandan reputations, where the two countries’ lofty rhetoric gave way to another, more tawdry reality. Since the beginning of the first Congo war in 1996, the two countries had been able to maintain the pretense that they were involved in the Congo out of domestic security concerns. Even when this illusion became difficult to maintain—Why were their troops stationed three hundred miles from their borders? Why did they have to overthrow the government they themselves had put in place in Kinshasa to protect themselves?—they continued to benefit from staunch support from the international community, in particular the United States and the United Kingdom.

Then, in 1999 and 2000, the alliance between Rwanda and Uganda fell apart, as the two countries fought three battles in the streets of Kisangani. Thousands of Congolese died as the two countries sought to settle their differences on foreign soil. With this internecine violence, their pretext of self-defense crumbled.

But what was their real motive in fighting over the City on the River? To many, the battle in one of the region’s main hubs of the diamond trade was the final proof that the two countries were really just seeking self-enrichment. The reality was, as always, more complex. Yes, access to resources was increasingly supplanting ideology and self-defense as a motive in the conflict, but the root of the fighting was just as tightly linked to personality and regional politics.


The root of discord between Rwanda and Uganda can be traced back to the anti-Tutsi pogroms in Rwanda around independence in 1962. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsi fled to Uganda around this time, where they grew up in refugee camps as second-class citizens, not allowed to work and discriminated against by the Ugandan government. Within the squalid confines of the camps, they looked backwards to a more glorious past and forward to their children’s future, sending them to school on UN scholarships.

In the early 1980s, Ugandan youth gangs and paramilitary groups began harassing and abusing the Rwandan immigrants, accusing them of taking their land. Unwilling to return to Rwanda, where the Hutu-dominated government limited opportunities for Tutsi, and facing discrimination in Uganda, hundreds of these young Tutsi had joined Yoweri Museveni’s rebellion in the late 1970s. “These Rwandans were better educated than many of us,” a Ugandan army spokesman told me. “Many of them were put into military intelligence; that was where we could use them best.”3 Paul Kagame was one.

When Museveni came to power in 1986, Kagame became the head of military intelligence. Other Rwandans became defense minister, head of military medical services, and chief of military police. The relationships between Ugandans and Rwandans were deeply personal. The best man at Kagame’s wedding would become the chief of staff of the Ugandan army. Later, when Kagame launched his own rebellion in Rwanda, he and his fighters would cross into Uganda and eat and sleep at the house of President Museveni’s military advisor.4 A senior Ugandan intelligence official told me, “they had uncles, cousins, and brothers-in-law in our army.”5

The heavy Rwandan presence in the security services stirred resentment among Ugandans, and land conflicts involving the 200,000 Tutsi refugees living in southern Uganda were becoming a nuisance for President Museveni. Under pressure from his domestic constituencies, he was forced to backpedal on promises of resettlement and citizenship for these refugees, and many Rwandans in the army were demobilized. This rejection was tantamount to betrayal for Tutsi officers who had risked their lives liberating Uganda, only to be dismissed as foreigners. As one officer put it: “You stake your life and at the end of the day you recognize that no amount of contribution can make you what you are not. You can’t buy it, not even with blood.”6

The Rwandans were disappointed but were focused on other matters. Helping Museveni take power in Uganda had only been a stepping stone to overthrowing the government in Rwanda. Just one year after their victory in Kampala, the Rwandan Patriotic Front was formed. Museveni provided them with weapons, medicine, and a rear base from which to operate. For many Ugandans, their debt to their Rwandan allies had been repaid.


The Congo wars saw the Rwandans usurp the role of regional power from Uganda. From the beginning, they seemed eager to show their former mentors that they could do better.

The first, bloody shock came within several months of the initial invasion in 1996. Among the four Congolese leaders of the rebellion, the veteran rebel Kisase Ngandu was closest to Kampala. He had been supported by Museveni against Mobutu for years and slept, ate, and drank at a government safe house when he was in Kampala. Once in the Congo, however, Kisase had railed against “Tutsi colonialism” and had shown himself to be fiercely independent of Laurent Kabila, who as spokesperson was the leader of the group. In January 1997, Kisase Ngandu and his bodyguard were found dead by the road outside of Goma.

“The Rwandans killed Kisase. They didn’t want any competition,” a senior Museveni advisor told me.7 The Ugandans considered pulling out, but they hesitated, knowing that if they did so all the work they had put into the rebellion would have gone to waste. So they gritted their teeth and soldiered on, providing artillery support and mechanized units that the Rwandans, largely still a guerrilla-style infantry army, didn’t have. Nonetheless, the wars were led and executed mostly by Rwanda, which gave them a much stronger influence with the Congolese and gave Rwandan entrepreneurs preferential access to business deals.

The result of this complex history was a feeling of resentment from the Ugandans, who felt sidelined in Kinshasa when Laurent Kabila came to power. Above all, they accused Kigali of political immaturity in dealing with the Congolese rebellions. “I was worried about the direct involvement of the Rwandese troops in the combat role,” Museveni reflected later. Museveni preferred to let the Congolese develop their own rebellion: “Let them understand why they are fighting.”8

For the Rwandans, Museveni’s attitude smacked of hypocrisy. After all, they had helped him come to power and as recompense were told to leave the country. They liked to invoke a Swahili saying: Shukrani ya punda ni teke (The gratitude of a donkey is a kick). Even in the Congo, the Rwandans felt like the Ugandans were overbearing and constantly trying to teach them how to go about their business. “It was jealousy,” one of Kagame’s advisors told me. “Museveni couldn’t deal with the fact that we were now stronger and more successful than him. He forgot that we were no longer refugees in his country. He couldn’t order us around!”9


Wamba dia Wamba arrived in Kisangani on a Ugandan C-130 cargo plane in May 1999. He had fled Goma with a Ugandan military escort after his RCD colleagues had threatened to kill him. He had then met with President Museveni, who apologized to him for his clash with the Rwandans:“Wamba, you will die because of my mistake. I never thought our Rwandan friends could become our enemies!”10 Nonetheless, Wamba and Museveni decided he should return to Kisangani to try to launch a new rebellion, this time without meddlesome interference from Kigali. The elderly professor insisted on a slow, democratizing rebellion that would develop grassroots support and a firm ideological commitment. In the meantime, fighting should be kept to a minimum. “Unconditional negotiations with Kinshasa!” was Wamba’s slogan.

When Wamba arrived in the city, he found it divided into a Rwandan and a Ugandan zone, each with Congolese rebel allies. The two opposing commanders were taunting each other. The city streets in the center of the town were almost deserted. Pickups with anti-aircraft guns and heavy machine guns mounted on the back patrolled the town. It was a game of chicken, with each side ratcheting up the pressure to see if the other would blink. Rwandan soldiers hauled a Congolese man out of a Ugandan pickup by force, claiming he had defected from the RCD. In retaliation, Ugandan soldiers kidnapped the bodyguard of a top RCD commander while he was being lathered up in a barber shop.

General James Kazini, the Ugandan commander, was holed up in a timber factory on the edge of town, where he would spend his afternoons drinking Ugandan gin, chain-smoking, and commanding his units over a walkie-talkie on a table in front of him. He was a colorful character with a pug nose and a reddish shine to his cheeks where skin-lightening cream had burned him. To Ugandan journalists who visited him he complained about his twenty-seven-year-old Rwandan counterpart, Colonel Patrick Nyavumba, based just a mile away, “ Patrick? Patrick is just a boy. I am a brigadier. Who is he to discuss anything with me?” He told them the Rwandans were behaving like a colonial power in the Congo and pointed to Wamba’s defection from the RCD as proof that Kigali was trying to manipulate its Congolese allies by remote control. When the journalists pressed him on why Uganda was there, he explained, “Uganda is here as a midwife to Congolese liberation. The Rwandans want to have the baby themselves!”11

Even though the two armed forces were supposed to maintain a joint command in the city, Kazini soon began to make decisions on his own. He arrested the pilots of Rwandan aircraft arriving in Kisangani with supplies, accusing them of not notifying him of their arrival. One night, he ordered Ugandan tanks to parade through the Rwandan part of town for three hours after midnight, thundering an artillery barrage into the surrounding forests, “Just to show them that they were a professional army with tanks and the Rwandans were a bunch of bush fighters,” as one Ugandan journalist with him at the time put it.12 The Rwandan commander retorted, telling the reporters who visited him, “[Kazini and I] went to the same university, but now he thinks because I live in manyatta [straw huts], I am no good! Tell him that he is an afande [respected commander] but that I don’t respect his methods.”13

Almost as an afterthought, the same journalists visited Wamba, who had become a minor player in the standoff. “The answer for the problems of the Congo does not lie with the military, but in the enlightenment of the people,” he told them, sounding ever more like Candide.14


Then there were the diamonds. In dozens of riverbeds around Kisangani, locals pan for the gems, spending days knee-deep in water. As in much of central and western Africa, Lebanese traders had cornered the diamond trade, taking advantage of transnational family networks that reach from Africa to the Middle East and Belgium. While many other shops in Kisangani closed, the main streets were still lined with dozens of small diamond stores with huge, painted diamonds decorating their walls. Their names voiced the traders’ eclectic backgrounds and dreams of a better future: Oasis, Top Correction, Force Tranquille, and Jihad.

Only traders with close connections to the military commanders felt safe enough to keep their safes flush with hundred dollar bills to buy the rough stones from diggers. Between 1997 and 1999, official Ugandan exports of diamonds grew tenfold, from $198,000 to $1.8 million. Rwanda’s official exports leaped from $16,000 to $1.7 million between 1998 and 2000, even though neither country has diamonds of its own.15 The real value of exports is likely to have been much higher, as the gems were easy to smuggle in pockets and suitcases. One of the thirty-four diamond shop owners in Kisangani reported that over six months in 1998 alone, he paid $124,000 to various Ugandan commanders, and industry insiders suggested that both countries together bought up to $20 million in uncut stones a month.16

The trade proved to be divisive, as each side brought in their own traders, lugging suitcases full of money counters, microscopes, satellite phones, and precision scales. For the Ugandans, it was the experienced Belgian trader Philippe Surowicke, who had spent years dealing diamonds with rebels in Angola.17 The Rwandans flew in a bevy of Lebanese traders. Each were protected by a phalanx of Ugandan or Rwandan soldiers, respectively. Not surprisingly, a standoff developed.


Wamba’s arrival put a match to this powder keg. Much to the chagrin of the Rwandans, who had just ousted him from the RCD leadership, he began holding rallies in downtown Kisangani to large crowds riveted by his demand for an immediate end to hostilities and talks with Kinshasa. He created a rebellion, dubbed RCD–Movement of Liberation, which would be free of Rwanda’s meddlesome interference. He was ferried around town in a Toyota 4x4 with tinted windows, followed by a pickup bristling with Ugandan soldiers. Thousands of people flocked to his rallies, and the toleka bicycle taxis accompanied him, ringing their bells, as he paraded through town. “ He was a poor speaker,” one Kisangani resident told me of Wamba. “ He sounded like a university lecturer. But he had denounced the Rwandans! For us, that was very brave.”18

Both the original RCD and Wamba’s new dissidents had set up radio stations that they used for trading insults and threatening each other. “Why do the Rwandans want to colonize the Congo? The population doesn’t want you—recognize it!”19 taunted Radio Liberté, Wamba’s station. Its rival station responded by accusing the professor of recruiting ex-FAR génocidaires into his army, the ultimate insult for the Rwandans. “ The Ugandans can’t even deal with a bunch of rebels in Uganda. How are you going to deal with the Rwandan army?”20 Day and night the population of Kisangani had to endure these insults being flung back and forth over the airwaves, raising tensions to a fever pitch.21

The fighting broke out following Wamba’s return from a two-week stay in Uganda on August 7, 1999. His radio announced a rally in front of his hotel, while the rival station warned people to stay off the streets. Ugandan and Rwandan troops deployed in force to the city center and soon heavy machine gun and mortar fire broke out as both sides fought from house to house in an effort to seize key strategic locations: the Central Bank, Wamba’s hotel, the two airports, and the Ugandan and Rwandan headquarters. The two sides traded insults over a shared walkie-talkie frequency. General Kazini taunted his Rwandan counterpart : “Just wait. I’ ll send just one company of men for you—they will bring me back your balls on a plate.”22

The fighting began in seriousness on Sunday afternoon around 2:30. Thousands of soldiers filled the broad avenues, taking cover in people’s living rooms, in sewage ditches, and in schools. Over six hundred people, mostly women and children, were stuck in the International Community of Women Apostles of God evangelical church for three days without food or water. A soccer team, dressed in cleats and jerseys and on its way to play its rivals across town, was forced to seek refuge in sewage ditches as bullets whistled overhead. Seven barbers and their clients were stuck in the Salon Maitre Celestin barbershop next to Hotel Wagenia in a room just twelve feet by twelve large. They spent three days without eating or drinking, forced to use a corner of the room as a toilet.


Pastor Philippe is a minister in a local Kisangani church and a carpenter. He is a small man with large, rough hands, a wispy grey beard, and a wooden crucifix around his neck. I visited him in his workshop, not far from the river, surrounded by hardwood shavings that gave off a rich aroma. He peered at me through huge, horn-rimmed glasses. He lost three children in the fighting, he told me, his voice barely changing in tone, his fingers interlocked.

When the war started, he had been at home, having just come back from church. He was listening to some church tapes on his stereo when he heard the first mortar hit the ground; the cups on the coffee table shook, and a picture of his wife on the wall fell down and shattered. Immediately the rat-a-tat cracks of the AK-47s started, whistling through the leaves of the mango trees outside. He and his nine children raced to lie face down on the floor of the corridor. They had experience in war, like many Congolese. They knew that AK-47s had enough power to go through a brick wall and still kill: “You really need two brick walls to protect yourself.”23

They lay in the corridor for the rest of the day, listening to the church tape wind down the batteries as the mortars fell around them. Their Tshopo commune was one of the worst hit: It was on the front lines between the two forces. Through the windows they saw soldiers moving house to house, crouching behind trees and in doorways for cover. They were in a Rwandan-occupied area, and the Tutsi officers frightened them. In 1997, the minister had worked in a small village south of Kisangani when the Rwandan army had passed through, chasing the fleeing Hutu refugees and militias. He saw them slit the throats of four Hutu soldiers and throw them into the river. “ You have to understand, the Tutsi are like a wounded leopard; it’s like they’re brain-damaged after what happened to them,” he said. “ They lash out at anything.”

Finally, after a full day of lying on the floor in the heat, the fighting stopped for several minutes. The only sound was of babies crying in a neighbor’s house. Through the window, they could see the bodies of several soldiers sprawled in the dust; blast craters had changed the look of their street and sprayed dirt onto the surrounding houses.

Two of his children—Sophie, sixteen, and Claude, twenty-two—decided to see if they could go out and try to find some water; the tap in their house was running dry, and they were all feeling faint for lack of water. There was a communal tap across the street, and they could see a woman filling a plastic jerry can. The minister watched his two children step out of the house just as a mortar hit the street in front of them. When Philippe picked himself up off the floor, he found Sophie’s body twisted in front of his house, her face a bloody pulp and her neck almost severed. Claude was moaning and grabbing his leg, which had been hit by shrapnel. Blood had completely soaked his pants and was oozing onto the street. The minister tied a tourniquet around his thigh, grabbed a wheelbarrow from the backyard, put him in it, and raced down the street to the health center run by the Red Cross. The fighting had started up again, and bullets were whizzing through the air, but he knew that Claude would die if he didn’t get him help.

At the health center, the nurses were lying on the cement floor, surrounded by patients with bandages soaked in Mercurochrome and blood, also lying on the floor. They helped Claude onto the ground and worked on stemming the blood loss from his ruptured artery. But they didn’t have surgical equipment or blood to help him; all they had left was some Novocain a dentist had brought. The hospital was a mile away.

The minister unclasped his hands and looked at me. “I saw him bleed to death in front of me. I buried him in my compound, right next to Sophie.” He paused for a long time, but his voice was steady. “ There was no time for a proper funeral. Actually, you can find hundreds of bodies buried in people’s gardens around the city for the same reason. We are living on top of our dead.”


Wamba himself was pinned down on the floor of Hotel Wagenia for three days. The Rwandan troops were more experienced in guerrilla tactics. Bolstered by the arrival of hundreds of additional troops in the early days of the fighting, they eventually gained the upper hand by cutting the Ugandan troops in town off from their headquarters outside of town. In a panic, the Ugandan officers stationed with Wamba evacuated him, carrying him piggy-back into an armored vehicle that, surrounded by special forces firing continuously in all directions, broke through Rwandan lines and reached the embankments of the Congo River. Wamba, hugging his leather briefcase with his documents and books in it, was rushed into a dugout canoe and paddled across the river to a textile factory, where the Ugandan army had dug in.

The scene at the factory complex was one of terror. The Indian-born director was holed up in his office, where he hid under his desk, while women and children lay on the floor in the bathrooms. Several mortar shells hit the building, blowing holes in the corrugated roofing and sending shrapnel flying. The Ugandans barricaded Wamba into a room lined with sandbags and told him to stay down; he almost collapsed from stress and dehydration.

Hrvoje Hranjski, a Croatian reporter for the Associated Press in Kigali, was embedded with the Rwandan army during the battle. He flew in on one of their flights and stayed in a small house behind their commander’s residence. He was friends with some of the Rwandan officers and spent the evenings drinking waragi gin, smoking, and talking with them. Most were well-educated and curious about international affairs; they discussed the similarities and differences between wars in the Balkans and those in Central Africa.

It was clear to Hrvoje that the Rwandans were better organized than their enemies. “ They were motivated and followed orders. The Ugandans didn’t seem to know why they were fighting.” The Rwandans were cut off from their base at the airport but quickly organized an air bridge with helicopters and infiltrated their soldiers through the jungle. The Rwandans, used to years of guerrilla warfare, fought their way from house to house with their AK-47s, dodging bullets. After battles, the Rwandans would always make sure to gather their dead and bury them, whereas the Ugandans often left their soldiers on the streets, leaving the impression that hundreds of Ugandans had died and almost no Rwandans. The Ugandans, for the most part, stayed in their trenches and in their armored personnel carriers. “ The Rwandans won the battle with guts,” Hrvoje said.

Hrvoje had good reason to admire them. Early on in the battle, he was hit by a Ugandan sniper while coming out of the Rwandan commander’s house. The bullet pierced his shoulder, went through his lung, and lodged next to his spinal cord. As the Rwandans did not have medics, they staunched the bleeding and waited until the fighting had died down before rushing him to a plane for Kigali. “ They saved my life, those guys.”

The siege lasted three days, after which the Rwandans controlled much of the city, although they had not been able to get to Wamba or conquer the textile factory. By the time the fighting was over, the air in the city had begun to fill with the stench of rotting flesh in the tropical heat.

Kisangani, round one, went to the Rwandans. Red Cross volunteers patrolled the town in their white uniforms, daubing the corpses with lime until they could get a truck to pick them up. They shook their heads: On the bodies of mostly young Ugandans, some had pictures of their mothers, others of their young wives.


Other than finger-wagging by diplomats, there were few consequences for the occupying forces. A joint investigation by the Rwandan and Ugandan army commanders arrived in town and agreed on taking steps to prevent further fighting, but little was done. The Ugandans moved their positions to the north of town but continued to beef up their arsenals. The RCD and Rwandans could not refrain from gloating, showing the bodies of Ugandans on Congolese television and warning spectators that this was the consequence of challenging them. They banned toleka riders—around 2,000 in the whole town—from working, accusing them of complicity with Wamba and the Ugandans. They even dismantled the famous scaffolding set up by the Wagenia fishermen in the Congo River; they said the fishermen had helped guide the Ugandans to safety during the fighting. The scaffolding, imposing thirty-foot-tall pieces of timber lashed together and anchored in the rapids, had been a tourist attraction in Kisangani since the first Belgian colonial postcards were made. The Rwandans certainly did not know how to make themselves loved.

The feuding had all the characteristics of typical sibling rivalry; camaraderie was never far from one-upmanship. At night, in the Gentry Dancing Club—a dingy, dark bar decorated with Christmas lights and cigarette advertisements—Ugandans and Rwandans mingled, sometimes even dancing together and paying for each others’ drinks. The bar was a study in stereotypes: the Rwandans were dressed in spotless camouflage fatigues and were reserved, clustering in small groups. The Ugandans were boisterous in their plain green uniforms and Wellington boots, mingling with the sex workers and singing along with the music. Their respective Congolese rebel allies were on the high end of the frivolity scale, sometimes even wearing makeup and nail polish.

The festivities could quickly turn sour, however. An altercation over a woman led to recriminations over who had won the last round of fighting. “ We can’t figure whether you Ugandans are real soldiers or just Boy Scouts,” one Rwandan teased. “ Have you seen our T-55s?” the Ugandans retorted, referring to their Soviet tanks. “ Maybe we should show you.” To make matters worse, the Rwandans sometimes paraded about town in captured Ugandan uniforms, boasting about the vehicles they had captured during the fighting.

Other factors added to the tension. After five years in power, the RPF’s authoritarianism was beginning to grate, resulting in high-level defections from the Rwandan government. Of course, given their historical ties to Uganda and the current frosty relations, it was only natural for these defectors to flee to Kampala. The speaker of Rwanda’s parliament and the former prime minister both fled across the border toward the north. A group of Tutsi university students followed after they were harassed by security officials.24 They were all welcomed with open arms in Kampala. Irked, General Paul Kagame accused his Ugandan counterpart of arming ex-FAR and Interahamwe to fight against him.

The accusations made little military sense. At the same time as their feuding in Kisangani was tying down thousands of troops, both countries were engaged in a push on Kinshasa through Equateur and Katanga, respectively, yet the vitriol reached a level never expressed toward Kabila. The strong friendship between Rwanda and Uganda had soured into a toxic brew. Museveni belittled his former allies as “those boys,” while Rwanda’s government spokesman fired back: “For a man surrounded by marijuana addicts and drunkards, Museveni has chosen the wrong analogy.”25

Finally, on June 5, 2000, the inevitable happened. Ugandan General James Kazini, who had been itching for months to get back at the Rwandans, launched a new offensive. This time, the Ugandans unleashed a far heavier artillery barrage on Kisangani, in complete disregard for the hundreds of thousands of civilians cowering in their homes. UN observers estimated that 6,000 artillery shells fell on the city over the following six days, accompanied by heavy machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades. At the same time, residents in the Tshopo neighborhood, located along the river on the front line of the conflict, saw Ugandans and Rwandans storming their streets, digging trenches in their gardens, and breaking into their houses to fire through the windows. As the fighting began during the morning, thousands of schoolchildren were once again pinned down by the fighting, sometimes between the feet of soldiers, whose spent cartridges rained down on their heads.

The result was devastating. At least 760 civilians were killed during the six days of fighting, and 1,700 were wounded. According to UN investigators, 4,083 houses were damaged, of which 418 were completely destroyed, and forty-nine schools were badly damaged or destroyed. Water and electricity were cut off in the whole town, and doctors at the main hospital had to operate with flimsy flashlights in the dark, using muddy river water to wash their hands.

Pastor Philippe was not spared by the second round of violent exchange, which once again engulfed his Tshopo neighborhood. After losing two children the previous year, he had tried to school his children in how to act if the war broke out, but there was only so much he could do. People had to go on working, studying, and playing.

The fighting found him at home with most of his family. However, his son Jean-Marie had gone out to the market to buy rice and vegetables; for two days, they didn’t know where he was. Finally, a neighbor came to tell the minister that he had seen his son on Seventeenth Avenue and that he thought the youth had made it to the forest, where many had fled.

When the conflict finally ended, however, there was no sign of Jean-Marie. The minister went to Seventeenth Avenue to ask around for him. Finally, a Red Cross worker showed him a bunch of clothes and bags they had found alongside some bodies in a house. His son’s school satchel, caked in blood, was there. According to the Red Cross worker, the residents of the house where the bag had been found had gotten into an argument with a Rwandan soldier outside. What it had been about was anyone’s guess. The soldier had leaned into the house and sprayed the room with bullets. By the time the fighting had stopped, the bodies had decomposed so much that the Red Cross had to bury them immediately.

“I was sad I couldn’t bury my son next to his siblings,” Philippe said in a calm voice. “But we still remember his birthday every year. We eat fried catfish, his favorite.” He paused again for a long time. “ I was also angered by the arrogance of these two countries. Coming to settle their differences 300 miles from home, killing innocent civilians. What did we ever do to them?”

I asked him whom he blamed for their deaths. He shrugged. “ There are too many people to blame. Mobutu for ruining our country. Rwanda and Uganda for invading it. Ourselves for letting them do so. None of that will help bring my children back.”

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