INERA REFUGEE CAMP, ZAIRE, OCTOBER 1994
Beatrice Umutesi was one of the million Rwandans who had fled to Zaire. She was more fortunate than most. Born in 1959 to a Hutu peasant family in northern Rwanda, she had been a good student, obtaining a scholarship to study sociology in Belgium before returning to work in a rural development cooperative. When fighting broke out in Kigali in April 1994, she fled with her ailing mother and members of her family, and after several weeks of walking, she crossed the border into Zaire and made herself at home in Inera, a camp on the shores of Lake Kivu. There a slum of 55,000 refugees living in squalid huts had sprung up overnight on the muddy silt.
Beatrice drew on her professional experience, quickly becoming a leader in a network of nonprofit groups working in the camps. She organized a small microcredit program to allow refugees to make a living in the camps, and she helped publish two newsletters for refugee women to express themselves and explain their problems.
Although Beatrice had a small salary, she lived in one of the blindés, the tiny, doghouse-size tents where the refugees lived. Each family was given one tarpaulin, four meters by five, with the insignia of the UN refugee agency: a laurel wreath protecting a family inside. They tied it over a lean-to made out of eucalyptus saplings. If they were lucky, they had enough tarp left over to cover the cold, wet ground. They got some scratchy fleece blankets, pots and pans, and a yellow jerry can to haul water from the wells.
Beatrice was thirty-five when she fled Rwanda. She was unmarried, and she crossed the border with her sixty-seven-year-old mother and four sisters. Other people joined her family: Virginie, Assumpta, and Marcelline, three young, abandoned girls she met in the camps and took in as nieces; and Bakunda, a thirteen-year-old boy she had taken in when the RPF rebels had invaded northern Rwanda in 1993, displacing thousands of people. Beatrice slowly gathered under her wings a motley bunch of seven ragged children who had lost their own families during the war and the flight to Zaire.
The refugee camps were set up in July 1994 and stayed in place for over two years. Some would swell to contain more than 400,000 inhabitants, becoming the largest refugee camps in the world and larger than any city in eastern Zaire. Together they housed over a million people. In a perverse way, they provoked a mobilization of international resources that the genocide never had. Within days of the first arrivals, aid workers detected a cholera outbreak; the virulent parasite spread fast in the unhygienic and cramped quarters. Without proper health care, the disease killed the weak refugees within days, emptying their bodies of liquids through violent diarrhea and vomiting until their organs failed. By July 28, 1994, a thousand bodies were being collected a day and dumped unceremoniously into chalk-dusted pits by the dump-truck load.
Foreign television crews who had not been able to reach Rwanda during the genocide now set up camp in Goma; the pictures of hundreds of chalk-dusted bodies tumbling into mass graves suggested a strange moral equivalency to the recent genocide, except that this catastrophe was easier to fix: Instead of a complicated web of violence in which military intervention would have been messy and bloody, here was a crisis that could be addressed by spending money. Over the next two years, donors spent over $2 billion on the refugee crisis in eastern Zaire, more than twice as much as they spent on helping the new Rwandan government. 1 The RPF was furious. Vice President Paul Kagame lamented, “Personally, I think this question of refugees is being overplayed at the expense of all our other problems. We no longer talk about orphans, widows, victims [in Rwanda]. We’re only talking about refugees, refugees, refugees.”2
In the camps the living stretched out next to corpses, which nobody had the strength or the means to remove. Medical workers ran from patient to patient, jabbing intravenous liquids in their arms as fast as possible, often failing to find veins. Diarrhea stained people’s clothes and rags; everywhere, the smell of shit and death clogged the air. After one month, 50,000 people had died.
Beatrice arrived in a smaller refugee camp to the south of Goma and was spared some of the worst of the cholera epidemic. She had to face other challenges, however. Her days were made up of long stretches of waiting for the next food distribution, punctuated by meetings of her women’s group and visits to the health clinics. “Feeling useless is the worst,” she later wrote.3 Men would try to make extra money working in local fields or transporting sugarcane and cassava to the market, while women busied themselves washing the few pans and clothes they had taken with them from Rwanda.
On the outskirts of the camps, bustling markets appeared, where looted goods from Rwanda were available along with the usual assortment of Chinese-made toothbrushes, soaps, cheap acrylic clothes, and bootleg tapes of Zairian, Rwandan, and western music. A UN official catalogued the amenities available in five camps around Goma: 2,324 bars, 450 restaurants, 589 different shops, 62 hairdressers, 51 pharmacies, 30 tailors, 25 butchers, 5 blacksmiths and mechanics, 4 photographic studios, 3 cinemas, 2 hotels, and 1 slaughterhouse .4 Market stands advertised bags of generic, often expired or useless drugs, next to jars with traditional medicinal powders, roots, and concoctions. The camps were so well stocked that they became a hub of attraction for locals. Zairians from Bukavu and Goma trekked out to the camps to buy looted cars, stereos, and televisions. Youths from Bukavu went drinking on the weekends in the outdoor bars entrepreneurial refugees set up overlooking the lake, making sure they were home before night to avoid the hoodlums who roamed about looking for easy prey. Men in Bukavu still reminisce about the mishikaki, shish kebabs of sizzling goat and beef introduced by the refugees, that were downed with the local Primus beer.
Most refugees, however, like Beatrice, had fled Rwanda with little more than the clothes on their back and could not afford such luxuries. They ate once a day from the rations they received: a handful of U.S.-surplus maize meal, a cup of beans, a few drops of vegetable oil, and a pinch of salt.
Around Beatrice, refugee life gnawed away at the social fabric. A camp newsletter reported an alarming increase in child marriages, a rare phenomenon back home in Rwanda. Youths and older men married girls as young as thirteen and fourteen, sometimes taking them in as their third or fourth wives. Some youths had brought with them pillaged goods and money from Rwanda and were able to afford the dowries of several girls. Often families had broken up, and marriage allowed youths to rebuild their fractured world. In some cases, wives had to share their tiny shack with several other women. These marriages were often short-lived and produced many fatherless children, adding to the hungry and sick in the camps.5 Beatrice, who traveled from camp to camp holding women’s rights workshops, heard story after story of women suffering abuses. Many young girls were forced into prostitution, often selling themselves for the price of a plate of beans or a couple of mandazi, fried dough balls. As refugees were not, at least in theory, allowed to farm fields or move about freely outside the camps, boredom and inactivity became huge problems, especially for the thousands of unemployed. Men often resorted to drinking banana beer and homemade liquor. Alcoholism, domestic abuse, and violence were added to the long list of refugees’ woes.
For Beatrice, as for many others, life was dominated by fear and distrust. She and other women had denounced the RPF’s abuses in newsletters and statements. She thought that her name was on a blacklist in Kigali and that she would be arrested or worse if she tried to return. On several occasions, the RPF staged raids into the camps by Lake Kivu, killing scores of suspected militiamen and refugees. On the other hand, because she tried to organize women into selfhelp groups, the Hutu extremists in the camps also saw Beatrice as a challenge. Soon she was accused of being pro-RPF and of having Tutsi features. Thugs attacked several of her friends for their alleged sympathies with the new government across the lake, although the real motive was probably just to steal their meager belongings. In her diary she wrote, “Such is the human being: when he is afraid, he sees enemies everywhere and thinks the only chance to stay alive is to exterminate them.”
The war had created a new class of thugs and delinquents. Gangs roamed the camps, harassing women and stealing to survive. A Rwandan priest who had come to visit his family was bludgeoned to death and left on the edge of the camp; a woman and her five-year-old child were killed by a grenade thrown into their tent.6
The mere suspicion that someone was a spy was enough to rally a mob with sticks, hoes, and machetes. On October 25, 1994, in Kituku camp, refugees caught four men by the water reservoir and accused them of trying to poison the wells; three escaped, but one was stoned to death. Several days later, in a nearby camp, five Tutsi were chased by a mob and killed. One of them made it to a Doctors Without Borders health center, where he was beaten to death in front of the medical staff. According to another aid organization, “fresh bodies [were found] in Mugunga camp every morning in September.”7 A study estimated that a total of 4,000 refugees were killed in the camps, often at the hands of the various militias employed by the former government.8
The camps were pressure cookers. A thousand people lived in the space of a soccer pitch. All intimacy was banished, as several dozen people could easily overhear the lovemaking, quarrels, and gossip of each blindé’s occupants. The tents were too small to stand up in and, during the nine-month-long rainy season, were caked with mud inside and out. At night, temperatures sometimes plummeted to 10 degrees Celsius. Beatrice only had one light blanket and a few kikwembe that she used for clothes, swaddling children, and lying on. In the morning, she would wake up with condensation dripping on her.
Women had other problems, as well. The aid organizations running the camps didn’t provide sanitary napkins, and women had to use rags or tear up sheets to use instead. As there was little soap, these scraps of cloth became hard and caked with blood. To their humiliation, women had no choice but to try to wash these in the same pots they used for cooking. “The bloodied water snaked in rivulets between the tents and little puddles of blood formed here and there.”9
One of Beatrice’s neighbors was the tiny, malnourished Muhawe, a three-year-old orphan whose mother had died in childbirth on the trek to Zaire. When she first saw him, he was little more than a shriveled body with an oversized head, unable to walk more than a couple of feet before collapsing. The health center had given him nutritional milk, but he couldn’t keep the liquid down, and his grandmother, who was taking care of him, didn’t have money to buy more substantial fare. Beatrice began to buy morsels of beef and potatoes that she would mash into porridge and feed him. Somehow, after her two-hundred-mile trek to Zaire and the hardships of the camps, Muhawe’s suffering was the last straw for Beatrice. Disgusted and outraged by her life, she began writing at night in her blindé. “What had Muhawe and the thousands of other Rwandan children dying in the camps done? Was he, too, a génocidaire to have deserved this fate?” She began writing her own story, the horrors of the massacre of Tutsi, often crying herself to sleep.
For the humanitarian organizations, the dilemma was excruciating. The former government officials had set up administrative structures in the camps through which aid workers were forced to operate. With 5,000 people dying a day, they had to act, but unless the innocent civilians were separated from the soldiers and ex-government officials, aid groups were left little option other than to work with people guilty of genocide, bolstering and financing them in the process. Aid groups launched one of the largest humanitarian operations the continent had seen, bringing forty-five organizations and over 1,600 relief workers to Goma alone. In late 1994, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spent $1 million each day on operations in the camps. Its effort was effective: Within weeks of deployment, mortality dropped steeply, saving thousands of lives. At the same time, however, it became obvious that the aid was also sustaining the perpetrators of the genocide. As Alain Destexhe, the secretary-general of Doctors Without Borders, put it: “How can physicians continue to assist Rwandan refugees when by doing so they are also supporting killers?”
And they were supporting killers. Camp leaders refused to allow UNHCR to count the refugees for over half a year, inflating their numbers so as to pocket the surplus food, blankets, and clothes for themselves. In Ngara, Tanzania, food for 120,000 “ghost refugees” was being skimmed off the top, while in Bukavu leaders pocketed aid for 50,000 refugees over six months.10 Even after censuses were carried out, leaders stole the food of those most in need, pushing thousands of children into severe malnutrition. “We never had to worry about food,” Rwarakabije told me. “The United Nations supplied us with plenty.” As families starved, desperate mothers abandoned their infants at night at camp orphanages, where they were sure to get fed.
The abject suffering inverted the moral standing of the refugees and even soldiers—they became victims, not killers. Aid workers and local groups, who spent months living with and talking to the refugees, became influenced by the revisionist concept of a double genocide—that the Habyarimana government and the RPF had both killed in equal proportions. Caritas, a Catholic aid group, provided food to FAR military camps in Bulonge and Panzi, protesting that the soldiers “have to eat, they are not all murderers.” Groupe Jeremie, a Congolese human rights group affiliated with the Catholic church, published a collection of works that includes statements and reports by the government-in-exile.11
Camp leaders resorted to more subtle measures, as well, to make money. They taxed the thousands of refugees who worked with humanitarian organizations in the camps. An aid worker estimated that they made $11,000 per month from staff of one organization in one camp alone.12 They also charged rent for land; controlled markets, bus routes, and hair salons; and ran a lucrative black market in Rwandan currency.
Between 1994 and 1996 the international community, Rwanda, and Zaire missed their best opportunity to nip the crisis in the bud. After failing to act to prevent a genocide in 1994, they now failed to separate the soldiers from the refugees, despite repeated threats from Kigali’s government, starting in February 1996, that they would take military actions against the camps. A UN official recalled: “It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion.”13
In retrospect, the only solution would have been to separate the military and civilians by force. Early on, in August 1994, the UN secretary-general, Boutros Boutros Ghali, began researching various options for securing the camps. The first proposal, drafted by military experts, suggested transporting 30,000 ex-FAR and their families to Zairian military camps hundreds of miles from the Rwandan border, thereby detaching them from the refugees. This relocation would have likely encountered resistance from the ex-FAR leadership and would have required at least 8,000 international troops deployed under a UN mandate, costing $90–$125 million. Once again, however, the initiative foundered on a lack of will: Boutros Ghali’s request was turned down. Find alternative solutions, Security Council members told him, even though the cost of such an operation pales in comparison with the billions the international community has spent on the conflict since the renewed outbreak of hostilities in 1996.14
What could have been done to solve the situation? A glimpse was provided on August 17, when, under pressure from the international community and domestic opposition, Zaire’s prime minister, Kengo wa Dondo, took matters into his own hands. The day before, donors had just lifted the arms embargo against Rwanda, and Kengo anticipated what was to come. He told diplomats that he was left with no choice but to begin the forceful repatriation of refugees. Over four days, Zairian soldiers brought 12,000 Hutu refugees to the border. The exercise went surprisingly well: Many refugees, glad to have an excuse to break free from the ex-FAR’s grip, voluntarily joined the convoys. Zairian local authorities, eager to see the troublesome guests go, helped ensure the operation went smoothly. Instead of a violent backlash by soldiers in the camps, 20,000 refugees, mostly youths thought to be militia members, fled into adjacent forests, fearing arrest by Zairian authorities. Against all expectations, there was no armed resistance. After four days, however, under pressure from Mobutu and diplomats, who denounced what they perceived as forced repatriation and a violation of international law, the operations ground to a halt.15
What constituted forceful repatriation was, however, up for debate. After all, given the ex-FAR’s control of the camps, was voluntary return even an option? Even the United Nations’ legal advisors, usually risk-averse, began asking whether the exceptional circumstances merited “bending the rules.” In April 1996, Denis McNamara, the UNHCR director of international protection, suggested that a forced return had become necessary as a result of pressure from Zaire, as well as a lack of money. He said, “We expect it to be highly criticized. But it’s a fact of life because it is unavoidable.”16
The response, as so often in the region, was to throw money at the humanitarian crisis but not to address the political causes. The spectacle was perverse, especially given the international community’s inaction during the genocide. The United States, which had refused to intervene in the Rwandan massacre and had even blocked the United Nations from doing so, sent 3,000 soldiers whose mandate was strictly limited to assist with the relief effort; France, who had helped train and arm the Rwandan army and had received an official delegation from the Rwandan government at the height of the genocide, also had several thousand soldiers in eastern Zaire left over from their humanitarian intervention in Rwanda, Operation Turquoise. Fiona Terry, the head of Doctors Without Borders in the Tanzanian refugee camps, put it eloquently: “[It was] a dramatic, well-publicized show of human suffering in which the enemy was a virus and the savior was humanitarian aid. Paralyzed during the political crisis, military forces were suddenly mobilized for the ‘humanitarian’ disaster, transforming the genocide into a ‘complex emergency’ in which there was no good and bad side, only victims.”17
After the first year, during which both the new and the old Rwandan governments were busy taking stock and consolidating their power, the situation deteriorated rapidly. While the international community categorized the situation as a humanitarian crisis, in reality the Rwandan civil war continued to smolder underground, on the verge of exploding to the surface once more. By July 1995, Rwanda had launched three targeted strikes against refugee camps in Zaire, an open provocation.
Mobutu had no interest in disbanding and separating the exiled government’s various armed forces from the refugees. When the new Rwandan government demanded that Kinshasa hand over the state assets that Habyarimana’s government had fled with, Mobutu gave them a few containers of rusty ammunition, two unusable helicopters, and heavy artillery in equally irreparable condition.18 The refugee crisis had injected new life into his ailing regime. The French, who, having “lost” Kigali to English-speaking rebels, were eager to maintain their influence over Africa’s largest French-speaking country, needed Mobutu’s permission to launch Operation Turquoise, while the United Nations courted Kinshasa to set up their huge humanitarian operation along the Rwandan border. On September 15, the UN Special Representative to Rwanda called on him to discuss the refugee crisis; on November 8, Mobutu arrived in Biarritz for the Franco-African summit. The dictator had leveraged his way back into the favor of his western allies.
Mobutu’s relations with the Rwandan exile government were even more cordial. He had been a close friend of President Habyarimana, sending a battalion of Zairian troops to help defend Rwanda against the initial RPF invasion in 1990, and had quickly evacuated the dead president’s body to his hometown of Gbadolite. The dead president’s widow, Agathe Habyarimana, who had been a shadowy power behind the president, joined Mobutu in Gbadolite as well, using the jungle palace as her base during the genocide. In October 1994, she and her brother Seraphin Rwabukumba accompanied Mobutu on a state visit to Beijing; press reports suggest they secured $5 million in arms shipments from the Chinese government, circumventing the arms embargo by shipping the weapons to the Zairian government.19 The body of her husband lay refrigerated in Mobutu’s palace. Her host promised her that one day he would be buried in Rwanda.
Between July 1994 and November 1996, the UN Security Council issued ten statements and resolutions regarding the refugee camps in Zaire, “strongly condemning,” “expressing grave concern,” and making other remarks of diplomatic vacillation that stopped short of committing the world body from doing anything. Numerous UN planning teams visited the camps, with Canadian military advisors taking the lead on a possible intervention. The proposed force was jokingly called “the ‘No’ force” among staff in New York headquarters. “They would not go into the camps and would not disarm the militia by force,” Peter Swarbrick, an official at the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, told me. “It was a fig leaf.” By the end of 1995, Boutros Ghali had given up on military intervention and focused on alleviating the humanitarian situation.
The U.S. Congress had, in the wake of their botched deployment in Somalia in 1993, enacted legislation that forbid U.S. troops to be placed under UN command. In the run-up to elections in November 1996, President Bill Clinton did not want to engage troops in a complicated, unpopular quagmire in central Africa. A State Department official involved in the decision-making process, who wanted to remain anonymous, told me: “Securing the camps was just too difficult; there was no stomach here for that kind of operation. In retrospect, could more have been done? Definitely.” After all, more was done in Bosnia, where the United States and its European allies dispatched 60,000 troops in 1995.
Moreover, the U.S. government was at loggerheads with the French government on the issue. Leading members of the French government saw conflict in the Great Lakes20 as pitting their sphere of influence against an Anglo-Saxon one. Hadn’t the RPF, an English-speaking rebel movement, taken power in Kigali from a French ally, Juvénal Habyarimana, and wasn’t it now trying to overthrow another, Mobutu Sese Seko? As a senior French official was quoted anonymously as saying: “We cannot let anglophone countries decide on the future of a francophone one. In any case, we want Mobutu back in, he cannot be dispensed with ... and we are going to do it through this Rwanda business.”21 The French and Americans battled it out in the Security Council: Whenever Madeleine Albright pushed to get tough on Mobutu, France would threaten to veto; whenever Paris wanted to include strong language on human rights abuses committed by the RPF in Rwanda, the United States would soften it up.
The RPF, who were already disgusted by international inaction during the genocide, watched in despair. “By early 1996, it was clear to us that the international community would not take action,” Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s intelligence chief, remembered. In August 1996, Vice President Paul Kagame visited Washington, DC, where he spoke with the secretary of defense and the head of the National Security Council, warning them that he would be forced to act if the international community did not. A State Department advisor who attended the meetings said: “We didn’t fully grasp what he was trying to tell us. We didn’t realize they would invade.” Despite their remonstrations, it is difficult to believe that Washington officials, who had deployed a military training and de-mining team to Kigali to provide nonlethal assistance to the new government, were in the dark. “We knew what was up,” Rick Orth, the U.S. defense attaché in Kigali, said. “But I don’t think we ever gave the Rwandan government the thumbs-up.”
Finally, in October 1996, the Rwandan army invaded in force under the guise of a homegrown Congolese rebellion in order to stave off criticism. Journalists and aid workers deployed in the refugee camps along the eastern Congo border began to report attacks by “Banyamulenge rebels,” Congolese Tutsi who had been in conflict with Mobutu’s government. Their first targets were the refugee camps in the Rusizi plain, a broad, hundred-mile-long expanse of savannah and rice paddies where the borders of Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi meet. Some 220,000 refugees were in camps there, protected by a few hundred soldiers on hire by the United Nations from Mobutu’s army. The invading troops quickly broke up these camps, driving some refugees into Burundi, while probably a majority fled further in the Congo. By October 22, the town of Uvira at the tip of Lake Tanganyika fell without much fighting to the Rwandan-backed coalition. The troops then marched northwards along the Great Rift Valley that connects Lake Tanganyika to Lake Kivu and that separates the Congo to the west from Rwanda and Burundi. By the end of October, they had taken control of Bukavu at the southern end of Lake Kivu, dispersing some 300,000 refugees, who had no choice but to flee into the hills, away from Rwanda.
Humanitarian officials were alarmed as the sickly refugees they had been feeding for the past two years fled into the inhospitable hinterlands. Emma Bonino, European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, warned that, “500,000 to a million people are in danger of dying.”22 Diplomats rekindled the idea again of sending in an international force to create “humanitarian corridors” to allow refugees to return home and to protect aid workers. However, the debate soon got bogged down in a new diplomatic, Franco-Anglo spat. French foreign minister Hervé de Charette pushed for the deployment of the force, focusing on the plight of Hutu refugees: “We are looking after our national interests ... but there are people in danger, there are a million.”23 The French exhorted the United States to “stop dragging its feet.” The British minister for Overseas Development, Linda Chalker, called the French position “daft.”24 Among French government officials, the rumor mill was in full gear, with senior policy advisors suspecting there was an Anglo-Saxon plot to delay intervention to allow the Rwandan-backed invasion to make headway.
In Goma, on the northern end of Lake Kivu, the Rwandan army crossed the border on November 2, pushing over 600,000 refugees into the Mugunga camp, located a dozen miles away from the border on the lakeside, making the makeshift camp into the largest city in the region. The Canadian government said it would take the lead of a multinational task force to help protect the refugees and aid workers; the United Kingdom put a special forces battalion on stand-by.
Finally, on November 16, as the Rwandan army and the rebels prepared to attack Mugunga, the United States agreed to pass a UN Security Council resolution authorizing 3,000 to 4,000 international troops to deploy in the Kivus, the eastern region of the country that borders on Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi.
The following day, Rwanda attacked Mugunga from the west and the lake, corralling most refugees toward the eastern road back to Rwanda. Half a million people returned home in just three days. At the UN headquarters on the western shore of the East River in Manhattan, Peter Swarbrick wryly recalled the reaction of Canadian general Maurice Baril, who had just been named to lead the military intervention: “It was relief, absolute relief. The international community was off the hook.”
Meanwhile, as the Canadian and American military reconnaissance teams began to pack their bags, anywhere between 400,000 and 600,000 refugees were fleeing into the jungles of the eastern Congo.