Death does not sound a trumpet.
EASTERN CONGO, JUNE 2000
In June 2000, a nonprofit charity published a mortality study that estimated that 1.7 million people had died as a result of the conflict between August 1998 and May 2000. This study, conducted by the epidemiologist Les Roberts for the International Rescue Committee, shocked the world. Further studies, published in respected medical journals and confirmed by other epidemiologists, were conducted in subsequent years; in 2004, the charity estimated that 3.8 million had died because of the war since 1998.1
Roberts was rigorous in his methods: He sent out teams to six separate sites throughout the eastern Congo where, using a random GPS selection of households within a grid on a map, the researchers approached huts and asked whether anyone had died during the past year. After interviewing 2,000 people, the researchers obtained an average mortality rate for the area. They subtracted from this the rate of deaths from before the war and obtained an “excess death rate”—in other words how many more people died than was normal.2
The number of deaths is so immense that it becomes incomprehensible and anonymous, and yet the dying was not spectacular. Violence only directly caused 2 percent of the reported deaths. Most often, it was easily treatable diseases, such as malaria, typhoid fever, and diarrhea, that killed. There was, however, a strong correlation between conflict areas and high mortality rates. As fighting broke out, people were displaced to areas where they had no shelter, clean water, or access to health care and succumbed easily to disease. Health staff shuttered up their hospitals and clinics to flee the violence, leaving the sick to fend for themselves.
Almost half of the victims were children—the most vulnerable to disease and malnutrition. A full 60 percent of all children died before their fifth birthday. Step out of a car in many areas of the eastern Congo during the war, and you were often confronted with children suffering from kwashikor, or clinical malnutrition. It was a bizarre sight to see such listless children surrounded by lush hills. Congo is not Niger or Somalia, where famine and malnutrition are closely linked to drought. Here, the rainy season lasts nine months a year in most parts, and the soil is fertile. But the harvests were often stolen by hungry militias, and farmers were unable to access their fields because of the violence.
So how did Congolese experience the violence? Many Congolese never did; they only heard about it and suffered the economic and political consequences. But for millions of people in the east of the country, an area roughly the size of Texas, daily life was punctuated by confrontations with armed men.
By 2001, fighting along the front line in the middle of the country had come to a standstill as a result of several peace deals. The east of the country, however, had seen an escalation of violence, as local Mai-Mai militias formed in protest of Rwandan occupation. This insurgency was fueled by rampant social grievances and by Laurent Kabila, who supported them with weapons and money. The Mai-Mai were too weak to threaten Rwanda’s control of main towns and roads, but they were able to prompt a violent counterinsurgency campaign that cost Rwanda whatever remaining legitimacy it once had.
It was this proxy war fought between Kigali and Kinshasa’s allies that caused the most suffering for civilians. Without providing any training, Kinshasa dropped tons of weapons and ammunition at various airports in the jungles of the eastern Congo for the Hutu militia as well as for Mai-Mai groups. The countryside became militarized, as discontented and unemployed youth joined militias and set up roadblocks to “tax” the local population. Family and land disputes, which had previously been settled in traditional courts, were now sometimes solved through violence, and communal feuds between rival clans or tribes resulted in skirmishes and targeted killings.
The RCD rebels, Rwanda’s main allies in the east, responded in kind. In both South Kivu and North Kivu, governors created local militias, so-called Local Defense Forces, to impose rebel control at the local level. By 2000, at least half a dozen such forces had been created by various RCD leaders. But instead of improving security, these ramshackle, untrained local militias for the most part just exacerbated the suffering by taxing, abusing, and raping the local population. Local traditional chiefs, who were the de facto administrators in much of the hinterlands, either were forced to collaborate or had to flee. In South Kivu, half of the dozen most important customary chiefs were killed or fled. In some areas, new customary chiefs were created or named by the RCD, usurping positions that had been held for centuries by other families.
The Rwandan, Ugandan, and Congolese proxies eventually ran amok, wreaking havoc. These fractious movements had not been formed organically, did not have to answer to a popular base—after all, they had been given their weapons by an outside power—and often had little interest other than surviving and accumulating resources. The dynamic bore a resemblance to Goethe’s sorcerer’s apprentice: As with the young magician’s broom, the rebel groups split into ever more factions as rebel leaders broke off and created their own fiefdoms, always seeking allegiances with regional powers to undergird their authority. According to one count, by the time belligerents came together to form a transitional government in 2002, Rwanda, Uganda, and the Congo had over a dozen rebel proxies or allies battling each other.3
The massacre in Kasika, a small jungle village a hundred miles west of the Rwandan border, was a prime example of these tactics.4 Kasika has attained mythical status in the Congo. Politicians have invoked its name in countless speeches when they want to drum up populist support against Rwanda. Children in Kinshasa, who had never been close to the province of South Kivu, are taught about Kasika in classes intended to instill patriotism; Kabila’s government cited it prominently in a case it brought against Rwanda in the International Court of Justice. It was here that the RCD took its first plunge into mass violence just days after its creation in August 1998, massacring over a thousand villagers in reprisal for an attack by a local militia.
Kasika is nothing more than clusters of mud huts built around a Catholic parish on a hill overlooking a valley. It was the headquarters of the customary chief of the Nyindu ethnic community, whose house and office sat on a hill opposite the parish, a series of large, red-brick structures with cracked ceramic shingles as roofing, laced with vines.
When I visited, the only place to spend the night was at the parish guesthouse, which the church had recently equipped with several beds so that visiting priests could spend the night before saying Mass. Just above the house, on a small hill, was the church itself, a larger structure covered with green corrugated iron roofing and with rows of small holes in its sides for ventilation. The hall inside echoed when we opened the wide doors; it was bare except for some rickety wooden benches, and a large cross hung above a dais.
“ This is where it all happened,” explained the groundskeeper, who was showing me around.
“They were killed in here?”
He nodded. “Twenty-three. Including three nuns, the priest, and a catechist.”
The hall didn’t show any sign of violence. “Where are they buried?” I asked.
“You just walked over their graves,” he said, smiling.
Outside, in front of the church was the tomb of an Italian missionary, Father Mario Ricca, set neatly in cement and slate with the date “23.6.1973” chiseled into a stone plaque. He had founded the parish many decades ago and had stayed there until his death. Next to his tomb, overgrown with grass, were five other, barely visible graves. My guide pointed to what looked like a vegetable garden next to the tomb, where several wooden crosses had been stuck amid squash vines and weeds.
“We never had the time to give them a proper burial,” he said regretfully. “ We have nothing to remember them by. It is a shame.”
It was a disturbing image for a culture that reveres its ancestors. I later walked through town with my guide to visit other graves. He pointed vaguely at piles of dirt, long overgrown with shrubs and vines, by the side of the road. He had no idea who was buried where. “There are hundreds buried like this,” he said. There were no crosses, and no one had taken the time to rebury the bodies in a cemetery or even just weed the mounds they were currently buried under. Nowhere in town was there a monument to the dead. It was as if the town was still in a daze from the massacre and, a full decade later, hadn’t had the time to collect its wits enough to commemorate its victims.
The massacre followed what would become the standard mold for RCD abuses. Days after the rebellion began, a battalion of RCD and Rwandan soldiers marched through Kasika. The road was strategic, as it led to several lucrative gold mines. They had been sent to join up with rebel troops that had been stuck in Kindu, a major trade town on the Congo River two hundred miles to the west. Those marooned troops were led by Commander Moise, a legendary fighter and the second-highest ranking Munyamulenge commander among the rebels.
When the RCD rebels passed through Kasika on their way to Kindu, they stopped to meet with the traditional chief, François Naluindi, a young thirty-five-year-old who was extremely popular among his Nyindu tribe. He had launched several local farming cooperatives, through which he was trying to develop and educate the largely peasant community. He had recently married, and his wife was seven months pregnant.
Naluindi met with the Rwandan officers and slaughtered several goats for them to eat. The atmosphere was cordial, but the chief was nervous. In the backlands of his territory, a young upstart chief called Nyakiliba had been causing trouble. He had begun arming some youths with spears and old machine guns, saying that he would defend his country against the Tutsi aggressors. Like many other local militias, he called his group Mai-Mai (“water-water”), claiming that he had magic that would turn his enemy’s bullets into water. Nyakiliba’s real goal, Naluindi was told by his advisors, was much more mundane: He wanted to claim rights to a traditional territory much larger than his own and was trying to inflate his importance. He was a small-time thug but could stir up trouble nonetheless.
Just before the Rwandans arrived, Naluindi had held an emergency security meeting with Nyakiliba, warning him not to do anything brash. “You think you will be a hero, but you will have me and the population killed,” a village elder who attended the meeting remembered him saying. “ I hear you have seven guns. They have hundreds. How will you win?”5
Before the RCD rebels pulled out of town on the way to Kindu, their commander asked Chief Naluindi how the security situation was. Damned if I tell him, damned if I don’t, he thought, and he reassured the officer that everything was peaceful. The Mai-Mai, however, hadn’t listened to the chief, and a few miles outside of town they took a couple of potshots at the troops before running into the bush. The village held its breath, but there were no casualties, and the rebels continued on their way.
The troops picked up Commander Moise, exhausted from his week-long trek through the jungle, and made their way back toward the Rwandan border. On the morning of Sunday, August 23, 1998, a column of several hundred RCD soldiers passed back through Kasika. The population recalled their typical appearance: wearing gum boots and carrying their belongings and ammunition boxes on their head. A truck full of soldiers brought up the rear of the column, along with a white pickup carrying the officers.
It was the dry season, so the road was in decent condition, but the pickup had some mechanical problems and was lagging behind. As it came around a bend close to Chief Naluindi’s house, the Mai-Mai launched another attack on the RCD convoy, opening fire from a hut overlooking the road and riddling the pickup with bullets. Commander Moise died on the spot, along with two other officers. The remaining RCD soldiers fired back, but by then Nyakiliba and his boys had already fled into the bushes.
The commotion prevented the villagers from going to church. They watched in dismay through their windows as Rwandan troops came back to the site of the killing, bundled the bodies up, and transported them back to Bukavu. Troops milled about Kasika that day, searching for Mai-Mai, but the situation was otherwise calm. Nyakiliba and his Mai-Mai had fled to his home village in the mountains, thirty miles away. In the evening, an RCD officer visited the parish and asked to use the high-frequency radio there to contact their headquarters in Bukavu. According to the catechists who overheard his conversation over the crackly radio, the officer received instructions, but they couldn’t make out exactly what was said.
It was not difficult for me to find a witness to the massacre. The groundskeeper at the church showed me to a small mud hut built on the slope beneath the road. This was where Patrice,6 a local handyman and a catechist at the church, lived. It was a typical hut for the region: a low structure built on a frame of bamboo sticks, with mud packed onto the sides to keep out the cold at night. Patrice, a deferential man wearing an untucked, stained shirt, told me to sit on a bench in the corner. The shack was barely big enough for both of us, but people attracted by the presence of a foreigner quickly gathered by the window to listen to our conversation. On the wall there was a faded picture of Jesus in a wooden frame with a saying in Swahili: “A drunken wife arouses anger. Her shame cannot be hidden.” Arranged on a crossbeam overhead were Patrice’s few belongings: a machete, a row of Chinese-made AA batteries held together by a rubber band that served as a power source for his transistor radio, and a broken storm lantern.
“There was a thick mist in town that morning,” he began. “There had not been a Mass on Sunday due to the commotion, so the priest rang the bell to call the village to Mass that Monday morning. It must have been around 6:30. We saw some soldiers on the way to Mass, but didn’t think anything of it.”7
I had been awakened just that morning by a similar Mass. A catechist had struck the old rim of a car tire before slow choral singing in Swahili began to the beating of drums. When I peered through the air ducts in the side of the church, I had seen several rows of women and men swaying gently and clapping their hands. It was the same air ducts, according to Patrice, through which they saw the Rwandan soldiers gathering outside. They had machine guns and small hatchets slung across their shoulders.
“The priest had just begun blessing the host,” Patrice remembered, “when they entered the church. The priest was alarmed, but didn’t interrupt the consecration, motioning discreetly with one hand to the sacristy behind him, at the back of the church. I was sitting at the front of the church and made a run for it with six others. We hid in the thick bushes by the back door before the soldiers blocked off the exit.”
At this point, the crowd outside Patrice’s window began groaning and sucking their teeth. They knew what came next.
Patrice spoke calmly, making sure he didn’t forget any details. “ The Tutsi tied up the people in the church, hands behind their backs, and then took the priest and the three nuns outside. I could hear the nuns screaming, screaming: ‘ Don’t kill our father—please don’t kill him. Take us instead!’ Father Stanislas, the priest, told them to calm down, that the Lord would provide. The soldiers separated them, taking the nuns to the convent next door and the priest to the parish, where they forced him to give them money and his radio. My friend the plumber was hiding in the ceiling and heard all of this. Then they told the priest to kneel down and pray. And shot him in the back of his head.”
The crowd outside the hut where we were sitting erupted into lamentations: “They killed them all!” “They killed our Father!” “He was such a good man!” “His poor father went crazy afterwards—he was all he had!” “Animals!” Patrice looked down at his hands and shook his head. The name of the priest, he told me, was Stanislas Wabulakombe. In their language, it meant “What God wants, he does.”
The gunshots at the parish house triggered the massacre in the church. The soldiers began by using their hatchets to bludgeon the worshippers to death—so as not to alert the village, some of the villagers I interviewed said. Others said it was to save bullets. When Patrice emerged from the bushes the next day, he found most of the victims with crushed skulls. The three nuns were lying in the convent with their underwear around their ankles; he suspected they had been raped. One of them was still breathing when he found her, but she died before they could get her to the local health center. In the parish, he found the priest dead, face down on the floor in his white robes. As he walked around, he heard the voice of the plumber from his hiding place in the ceiling: “ I’m up here! They shot me in my buttocks, but I’m still alive!”
Another group of soldiers had gone to the chief ’s residence. They were furious, the villagers said, that he had lied to them about the security situation and that they had been ambushed twice. They also thought that the Mai-Mai, who recruited along ethnic lines, were inherently linked to the customary chief. Chief Naluindi’s whole extended family had sought refuge in his house, thinking that they would be safe there. “ In our tradition, the mwami [chief ] is sacred,” the chorus outside Patrice’s house lamented. “You don’t kill the mwami during the war. Killing him is like killing all of us.”
At least fourteen people were in the chief ’s house when the soldiers arrived. The rebels killed all of them. Villagers who had run into the bushes came back the next morning and found the chief ’s pregnant wife eviscerated, her dead fetus on the ground next to her. The infants of the chief’s younger brother had been beaten to death against the brick walls of the house.
The way the victims were killed said as much as the number of dead; they displayed a macabre fascination with human anatomy. The survivors said the chief’s heart had been cut out and his wife’s genitals were gone. The soldiers had taken them. It wasn’t enough to kill their victims; they disfigured and played with the bodies. They disemboweled one woman by cutting her open between her anus and vagina, then propped up the dead body on all fours and left her with her buttocks facing upwards. Another corpse was given two slits on either side of his belly, where his hands were inserted. “Anavaa koti—they made him look like he was wearing a suit,” the villagers told me. Another man had his mouth slit open to his ears, was put in a chair and had a cigarette dangling from his lips when he was found. The killers wanted to show the villagers that this would be the consequence of any resistance. There were no limits to their revenge—they would kill the priests, rape the nuns, rip babies from their mothers’ wombs, and twist the corpses into origami figures.
“We had seen people killed before,” Patrice told me. “But this was worse than killing. It was like they killed them, and then killed them again. And again.”
Around twenty miles further north on the road to Bukavu lay the town of Kilungutwe. It was situated on the banks of one of the many tributaries that flow into the Congo River far to the west and was known as the gateway to the jungle from the highlands to the northeast. On the day of Nyakiliba’s ambush in Kasika, several dozen traders from Bukavu arrived at Kilungutwe for the large market that was held there every Monday. Michel,8 a thirty-nine-year-old trader from Bukavu, was on a truck that had dropped them off a few miles before the market. There had been an accident, he was told by the Congolese soldiers there. No trucks were allowed down the road. Anxious to get to the market to sell the salt, sugar, soap, and clothes he had brought, Michel took off on foot down the road, along with around sixty other traders.
When they arrived in Kilungutwe, they noticed something strange. The streets were almost deserted, and a large number of Rwandan soldiers were milling about. A bunch of Congolese soldiers passing in a truck waved at them furtively to go back in the direction they had come from, but they didn’t understand. “We thought it had just been an accident,” Michel remembered.9 As they passed over a large bridge made out of tree trunks, a group of four Tutsi soldiers hissed at them.
“Hey! You! Put down those bags!” The soldiers were tall and lanky and had long knives in their belts. They separated the locals from the Bukavu traders. To the group of around ten locals they said, “Ah! So it is your children who have been killing us!” The locals protested that they didn’t know what they were talking about, but the soldiers began beating them anyway.
It was only later that Michel found out that the rebels who had been ambushed in Kasika had radioed ahead and told their advance party to stop wherever they were and to “clean up.” The soldiers herded the traders and the locals into a small house below the road, a sturdy cement structure about twenty feet by forty feet, with blue wooden doors and windows and a corrugated iron roof. The sixty people stood packed like sardines in the small house. The sun went down, leaving the room in darkness except for some cracks in the window, through which they could see a fire that the soldiers had lit outside. It was hot and humid, and the air was filled with the sound of muttering and breathing. Several people prayed out loud. A baby’s cry turned into a persistent wail, until finally her mother began sobbing and said that her baby was about to suffocate.
“We called the soldiers outside and asked them to have pity on the newborn,” Michel told me.
Without asking any questions and as if on cue, the soldiers let the woman out. Suddenly, the prisoners heard screams coming from outside, first from both mother and child, then just from the child, then silence. Michel was not near a window, but someone who was whispered, his voice wavering. “ Knives. They are using knives,” he said. “ They grabbed her hands and feet and slit her throat,” another said. All of a sudden, the room was full of people crying and praying to God in French, Swahili, and whatever other language came to their lips.
Michel was in the back of the room, where he was crushed against a wall as the others tried to get as far as possible from the door, through which the soldiers came and grabbed people one by one. “ This is for our brothers that you killed,” they heard the soldiers tell their victims outside. The screams were silenced as the throats were slit and the next person was dragged out of the house. It took what seemed to Michel to be an eternity to empty the room. As the people thinned out, he was able to get a better look at his surroundings in the half-light. He saw that one of the thin ceiling boards was loose. He hastily climbed up and bumped into several other people lying in the small space between the ceiling and the roof. It was even hotter and danker here, and he could feel the bodies of his neighbors trembling with fear. He was close to fainting and felt like vomiting.
After a while, the screams faded below them and they could hear soldiers shuffling around and the sound of bodies being moved outside. Someone was counting, then a voice in Kinyarwanda said:
“How many did we put in the house? Did you count?”
“Yes, there were at least sixty.”
“Are you sure? Where did the rest of them go?”
“I’ll check again.”
Feet began to scrape the floor below them and then someone poked the ceiling boards.
“We! You up there! How many are there?” Michel’s neighbors’ trembling increased until he was afraid they would begin to rattle the ceiling boards. “I can hear you up there! How many are you?”
After poking for a while, the soldier went outside. They hear the men muttering with each other, and then several came back into the room. Suddenly, an iron spear tip burst through a ceiling board not far from where Michel was lying. The boards were made out of flimsy plywood and the spear pierced it easily. The next jab hit Michel’s neighbor in the leg, who cried out.
“Come down now, or we will get our guns! Just tell us how many you are, and then come down!”
Several more spear jabs came through the roof. Three of Michel’s fellow prisoners climbed down from the hideout. Michel turned to a woman who was lying next to him.
“We must pray now,” he told her. “ We are going to die.” She started crying.
I met Michel many years later in Bukavu through a minister in his church. Michel—he wanted me to use a fake name to protect his identity—fidgeted while he sat in my living room in Bukavu and spoke in bursts. When I asked him how he had survived, he said I would not believe him and was then silent for several minutes, twisting his boney hands and looking at the ceiling.
“When I looked to my side, I saw a woman in white lying next to me,” he finally said. “ I hadn’t seen her before, and I thought it was strange that she was wearing all white. I turned to the woman lying on my other side, who was sobbing, and asked her, ‘Do you see her? The woman in white?’ It was very strange to see a woman dressed all in white. It was very dusty then; it was the dry season. White clothes were maybe things you wear to church or to a baptism. And she seemed—she seemed to be glowing. My neighbor shook her head and continued sobbing. Then the woman in white said—her voice didn’t seem to be coming from her mouth, but from inside my head—she said, ‘Stand up! Stand up now!’ And I gathered my strength and just stood up. The roof was very low—you couldn’t even kneel there—but as I stood up, a sheet of roofing came undone from its bolts, and I could see the night sky. There was no moon that night, I remember. I stood up and slid down the roof. ‘Someone’s getting away!’ one of the soldiers cried out, and they opened fire. I could hear the bullets whistling by me and going into the ceiling where I had been lying with the others. But I wasn’t hurt. I jumped down from the roof and began running into the bush that surrounded the house. My legs were moving on their own.” Michel looked at me. “That angel saved me. God saved me.”
He told me that he ran through the palm trees and the cassava fields that surrounded the village as shots rang out behind him. He kept on running until he found the hut of a relative of his on a hill several miles away. Together, they watched the village burn in the valley below them.
The next morning, they watched the columns of soldiers departing toward Bukavu. When they were gone, Michel and his relatives went down into town, where ashes and smoke still filled the air. They found a mound of bodies smoldering next to the house where he had been held prisoner. The corpses had been doused in gasoline and set on fire. They had been reduced to a tarry mess of charred skin, bones, glasses, and belt buckles. They found dozens of other bodies strewn across town, in houses, on the street, and in ditches beside the road. In some cases, the corpses had been stuffed down pit latrines. The found the charred remains of one body in an oil drum used to brew palm oil.
Over the next several days, the survivors buried hundreds of bodies. The better known among them—the chief, the priest, the nuns, an evangelical minister, a local administrator—were given their own grave. Others were dumped in anonymous mass graves by the roadside, where the soil was soft and deep. Still others were left to decompose in the latrines, water tanks, and septic pits where their killers had thrown them. Neighbors buried their neighbors, mothers and fathers buried their children, and ministers buried their church members. They were in a rush; they didn’t know when the rebels would be back through town. They had to bury their dead and then leave. People I spoke with said they had counted 704 people they had buried themselves; a United Nations investigation conducted years later concluded that there had been over 1,000 victims.10
Mass violence does not just affect the families of the dead. It tears at the fabric of society and lodges in the minds of the witnesses and perpetrators alike. A decade after the violence, it seemed that the villagers were still living in its aftershocks. They had all fled after the massacre; no one wanted to stay in town. They fled deep into the jungles, where they crossed the strong currents of the Luindi River. It was only on the other side that they felt safe. They lived in clearings, where they built grass huts. There was no place to start farming, and no one had the energy to cut down the brush and trees to start planting cassava and beans, so they ate what they could find: wild yams, caterpillars, forest mushrooms, and even monkeys when they could catch them. Exposed to the cold at night and deprived of adequate nutrition, many newborns and old people died. A scabies infestation ravaged their makeshift camps, and they couldn’t even find the most rudimentary medicine for their various afflictions. They would sometimes visit their homes along the main road, but they would do so like burglars, at night and quickly, for fear of detection.
Some of them had radios, and they gave the nickname “Kosovo” to their hometown of Kasika after they heard of the war and massacres in the Balkans. The main difference, of course, was that the press was giving the small Balkan region, barely a sixth the size of South Kivu Province, nonstop coverage, while no foreign journalist visited Kasika for a decade.
Social life was deeply affected as well. The death of their traditional chief, along with the only priest, left the community without any leaders. “They killed our father and our mother,” one villager told me. The church closed down, and the chief’s family was embroiled in a succession battle that the RCD finally put an end to by imposing someone of their choice, much to the chagrin of many community members. Again and again, the villagers told me how the chief’s death had affected them much more than anything else. The well-being of the community was vested in the chief; he presided over harvest ceremonies, gave out land, and blessed weddings. Who would call for salongo, the weekly communal labor, to be performed? Who would reconcile feuding families and solve land conflicts?
The community felt orphaned in other ways too. After the massacre, not a single national politician came to visit them and hear their grievances. While Kasika featured in thousands of speeches that lambasted Rwanda and the RCD, no investigation was ever launched, and no compensation was ever offered for any of the victims. The lack of justice had allowed the villagers to stew in their resentment and had made their anger fester into more hatred.
“I hate the Tutsi,” Patrice told me. “If I see a Tutsi face, I feel fear.”
I ask them if they could ever forgive the soldiers for what they did.
“Forgive whom? We don’t even know who did it,” someone outside Patrice’s house said.
In Kilungutwe, I met with some local elders at an open-air bar on the main street, not far from where Michel had hidden on the night of the massacre. The meeting turned into a popular assembly, as people heard what we were talking about and gathered around.
“We are still living through the massacre,” one elder who had lost his wife and two children told me. “There has been no justice, not even a sign on a tree, or a monument in the honor of those who died that day.”11
“We all lived in the forests like animals for five years,” said a man in a plaid shirt and a baseball cap. “Our children are all illiterate because of this. Go to primary school here, and you will find fifteen-year-olds sitting on the benches.”
The conversation turned toward Nyakiliba, the Mai-Mai militia commander who had commanded the fateful attack on the rebel convoy that had sparked the massacre. After the violence, many youths joined the Mai-Mai.
“What else were they supposed to do?” an elder said. “They wanted to avenge their families.”
“Avenge?” another man retorted. “They were unemployed and hungry—a weapon made them a man. Don’t think they were any better than the Tutsi!”
A chorus erupted from behind the men. “Yes, they were just as bad!” After the massacre, the RCD rebels had fought running battles with the ramshackle militia. When the population fled into RCD territory, they were accused of being Mai-Mai, while in Mai-Mai territory they were accused of being RCD spies.
“It was all nonsense,” several people said at once. “They just wanted to rob us, all of us.”
“For years, you couldn’t find a single chicken, goat, or guinea pig in our homes. That was the Mai-Mai’s food,” a woman piped up from the back. A group of young men loitered about at the back of the crowd muttering among each other. This was the Mai-Mai demographic: young, unemployed, and disaffected.
I had heard from many men, but the longer we talked the more women also gathered around on their way back from the fields, balancing hoes on their heads, faded cloths wrapped around their waists. Given the preponderance of sexual violence in the region, I wanted to give them a chance to speak but didn’t want to embarrass them in front of the men.
“I just want to give the women a chance to speak, as they are often the ones who suffer the most,” I started cautiously. “Does any woman want to talk about her problems?”
I had barely finished when a woman at the back cried out: “Baba! All of us, all of us here have been raped! Every single one of us!”
A dozen other women raised their voices in angry agreement as the men looked at their feet, shaking their heads.
A woman in a green headscarf and pink sweater pushed her way to the front. “I have a child from rape. My husband doesn’t like me anymore because of it. And the men who did it to me are around still in this village! They are our own children who joined the Mai-Mai!”
According to United Nations reports, over 200,000 women have been raped in the eastern Congo since 1998. Demographic surveys suggest that up to 39 percent of women have experienced sexual violence, at the hands of civilians or military personnel, at some point in their lives.12 Given the nature of sexual violence, it is difficult to know how pervasive the phenomenon really is and what exactly is at the root of this epidemic, but there is no doubt that the situation is extremely dire.
Back in Kinshasa several months later, I brought up the Kasika massacre with Benjamin Serukiza, the former Munyamulenge vice governor of South Kivu. He had been friends with the slain Commander Moise and was personally accused of having ordered the revenge killings. He was driving me home in his battered Mercedes. On his dashboard, there was a sticker proclaiming “I ♥ Jesus Christ”—he was a devout, evangelical Christian, he told me, like many Banyamulenge.
Of course, he denied any personal involvement in the massacre, so I changed tactics and asked him whether in retrospect the war had been good for the Banyamulenge. He seemed tired—shortly afterward he would be diagnosed with a brain tumor and was hospitalized in South Africa—and was obviously unhappy with the question.
“You act like we had a choice. We didn’t. We had to save ourselves,” he said as he navigated the potholes in the road. After a long pause, he added, “The war was good and bad for us.” Measuring his words carefully, he said, “But so many of us died. If you go to the high plateau, you won’t see a cemetery. But every family there has lost at least one child, if not more, to the war. Our dead are buried across the Congo. We have nowhere to go and mourn for them.”13 He estimated that up to a quarter of all youths joined the war. Very few of them had returned to the high plateau.
The first to join and those who rose the highest in the rebellion were from the small number of educated youths who had left their homes in the high plateau to study in high schools and seminaries in the region. They were almost all under thirty-five: The RPF wanted young, dynamic blood that would be loyal to them. They experienced a double sense of estrangement: from their families and their traditional way of life and from their fellow students, who made fun of them precisely because they were backward and Tutsi. This alienation attracted them to the ideals and promises of the RPF. This elite, with the help and at the prompting of the Rwandan government, then returned at the beginning of the war to rally to the cause their cousins, brothers, and friends in the high plateau.
As always, these youths had many motivations. There were the ones they talked about incessantly: the longing to be accepted as Congolese citizens, to obtain land rights, and to be represented in local and provincial administration. Of course, many of the youths also wanted to succeed, to obtain power and fame. As with Serukiza, the careers of many ambitious Banyamulenge had been blocked by the discrimination and favoritism fostered by Mobutu.
But had this war been successful for them? The young class of Banyamulenge was extraordinarily successful in the short run. The difference between 1994, when there had barely been a single Munyamulenge in public office, and 1998 was dramatic. During the RCD, hundreds of Banyamulenge obtained high-ranking positions in the intelligence services, army, provincial administration, and police. Azarias Ruberwa, who had studied in Kalemie and become a lawyer in Lubumbashi, was the president of the RCD; Bizima Karaha, who had studied medicine in South Africa, became the powerful minister of interior and security chief; Moise Nyarugabo, who had also studied law in Lubumbashi, became the minister of justice. For a short period, they had succeeded in controlling the odious state apparatus that had been their bane for decades.
Their ascendance, however, only further soured relations with other communities. It was as if the RCD wanted to coerce the population into reconciliation. When confronted with resistance from local militias and civil society, which opposed what they perceived as Rwandan aggression, the RCD responded with repression. This merely fueled local resistance, and the region descended into vicious, cyclical violence.
In South Kivu, where this violence was perhaps the worst, it was often Banyamulenge who were in charge of intelligence offices, army brigades, and the police. The worst stereotype of the Congolese was confirmed: that of the treacherous and brutal Banyamulenge, nestled next to the cockroach, snake, and vermin in their bestiary. Commenting on the similar conundrum of military rule by the Tutsi minority in neighboring Burundi, former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere observed, “The biggest obstacle is that those who are in power, the minority ..., they are like one riding on the back of a tiger. And they really want almost a water-tight assurance before they get off the back of the tiger because they feel if they get off the back of the tiger, it will eat them.”14
There will be long-term repercussions of the Banyamulenge’s participation in the two rebellions. In 2002, a opinion poll asked people whether they thought Banyamulenge were Congolese. Only 26 percent thought so.15 In 2004, when a Munyamulenge commander led a mutiny against the Congolese army in the eastern border town of Bukavu, the population there reacted by launching a vicious witch hunt against Tutsi in town. The United Nations had to evacuate the entire Tutsi population, around 3,000 women, men, and children with mattresses and bags piled high on UN cars, from town. In 2007, when rumors spread in the southern town of Moba that a convoy of Banyamulenge refugees might be returning home from Zambia, local politicians provoked riots, protesting the “return of foreigners to our country.” These resentments are in part bred by opportunist demagogues but are also grounded in the brutal rule by the AFDL and RCD in the eastern Congo between 1996 and 2003.
As I was about to get out of the car, I pressed Serukiza again whether he thought the war had been worthwhile.
He sighed. “I’m sure we didn’t have a choice. For some, it was self-defense. We couldn’t sit around and not do anything. But people hate us almost more today than before; it is just that they are tired of fighting. So no, it was a failure.”