Like layers of an onion, the Congo war contains wars within wars. There was not one Congo war, or even two, but at least forty or fifty different, interlocking wars. Local conflicts fed into regional and international conflicts and vice versa. Teasing out origins can be a tail-chasing exercise. In my interviews, I often made the mistake of asking the interviewee to start from the beginning. “The beginning?” A look of bemused condescension would follow—what does this young foreigner know about our beginnings? “Good idea. Well, in 1885, at the Conference of Berlin. ...” Others would start with Mobutu’s coup d’état in 1965 or independence in 1960.

Deogratias Bugera offered a rough date: October 1993.1 That month—he could not remember the exact date—in the muddy market town of Mushaki, in the eastern highlands, he loaded up ten truckloads of young Tutsi and sent them to join the rebellion in Rwanda to topple President Habyarimana’s regime. Three years later, Bugera and the young Congolese Tutsi he mobilized would become the vanguard in a second rebellion, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL). After liberating Rwanda, they now wanted to do the same with their homeland, with the strong backing of their Rwandan allies.

Bugera was one of the four founders of the AFDL, which was formed in Kigali in the dry season of 1996. “The only surviving founder,” he reminded me when I met him in the Sandton luxury shopping mall, one of the well-protected gated communities around which the Johannesburg upper-class social scene is based. He laughed: “The last of my cofounders was killed in January 2001.” Several years after the creation of the AFDL, Bugera had fallen out with both Laurent Kabila and the Rwandans and left for a cozy exile in South Africa, where he reverted to his previous profession as an architect. Now balding and in his early fifties, he was wearing a blue polo shirt with a beige cardigan draped over his shoulders. He spoke slowly and deliberately, and had a dazed look about him.

For Bugera, as for many Congolese Tutsi, politics had not been his chosen vocation; he had been born into it. “It was a fact of life for us; you were involved, whether you liked it or not.” His grandfather, a traditional chief in North Kivu Province, had died during a hunger strike in 1924, protesting the resettlement policies of the Belgian colonizers. When Bugera was five years old, at the time of Congolese independence, his father was killed during a bout of communal violence, as people from neighboring communities rebelled against Rwandan immigrants. Bugera remembered seeing his father bludgeoned to death and thrown into a lake. He and dozens of other children were rushed to the nearby swamps, where their parents hoped the reeds and water would muffle the infants’ cries and hide their smell. “They used dogs to hunt us down,” Bugera said. “I can still remember the sound of the dogs barking and howling.”

He initially tried to escape the turmoil of North Kivu, traveling to Kinshasa, a thousand miles away, to study architecture at the national university. Even there, however, he discovered he could not escape politics. In 1982, a group of Mobutu loyalists from the Kivus launched Operation R-B, targeting people they said were students from Rwanda and Burundi. Many Tutsi were forced to hide or be beaten by a crowd of angry students. Sympathetic friends smuggled Bugera out of his house on the floor of a car’s backseat.

Bugera returned to the Kivus in the mid-1980s and tried once again to leave politics and pursue his career as an architect. He received a grant from a Canadian charity to begin a cattle ranching project with peasants in Masisi, and he became the real estate advisor to one of the large banks in Goma. One of Bugera’s former colleagues told me, “Bugera was never a politician. He was a businessman who was forced into politics. But he didn’t have the acumen for it. Politics in the Congo doesn’t work like a business ledger, where you can add up the pluses and minuses and get a logical result. You have to be able to understand political intrigue and outplay your opponent.” Bugera, his former colleague told me, thought that he could force reconciliation on the Congolese. “How can you stick a gun to someone’s head and tell them to love you? It doesn’t work.”2


“Do you really think you can get this right?” Bugera asked me over the dinner table, pointing at the notes I was scribbling into my notebook. Like many of the people I interviewed, Bugera was skeptical that I could represent the complexity of his history.

“It is true that the Tutsi killed,” Bugera told me at one point. “But we all had brothers, schoolmates, uncles who had been killed. It’s all part of a whole. Can you portray that to your readers in Arizona or Berlin? Can you make them understand why someone would kill?”


The history of the Tutsi community in North Kivu is drastically different from that of the Banyamulenge in South Kivu, although both groups are labeled “Tutsi” by other Congolese. Both communities, despite their tiny size, played prominent roles in the Congo wars.

The problems in North Kivu can be dated to 1908, when the new Belgian colonial government took over the reins from Congo Free State. Under this new administration, thousands of Belgians escaped the industrial drudgery of their homeland to set up cattle ranches and plantations in the province’s highlands. In 1928, the government created the National Committee of the Kivus, a charter company that granted itself “all vacant lands” in the region. In practice, this meant that any piece of land that was not being farmed belonged to the state. In a region where traditional chiefs owned all land, including forest, fallow farmland, and empty fields, this was tantamount to mass theft. The newcomers got much of the best farm and cattle land, expropriating a chunk of land larger than all of Belgium.3

The Belgians were then confronted with a lack of labor. The local Hunde and Nyanga communities wanted to farm their own fields, and the Belgians were wary of peasant revolts if they began exacting too much labor from locals. In 1937, they found the solution: By bringing in tens of thousands of Rwandans, whom they had long admired as industrious, the Belgians would create a large pool of loyal workers. It would also alleviate overpopulation and periodic famine in Rwanda. Over the next twenty years, the Mission d’ Immigration des Banyarwanda imported around 175,000 Rwandans—mostly Hutu, but also many Tutsi—to the Kivu highlands.4


Unrest in Rwanda around its independence prompted a further 100,000 Rwandans to flee to the Congo between 1959 and 1964. They were settled initially by the United Nations but eventually integrated into local communities. This second wave of immigrants around independence included many affluent and well-educated Tutsi who came to form an important part of the Goma elite. The 1970 census found 335,000 Rwandans living in the Congo, mostly in the territory of Masisi, where they made up over 70 percent of the population.5 By 1990, an estimated half million descendants of Rwandan immigrants were living in North Kivu.6

This massive influx caused bitter tensions with the local Hunde community, which had been living in Masisi for centuries. The Belgians leased land from the local traditional chief for a pittance and created the independent but short-lived chiefdom of Gishali, which was ruled by a Tutsi immigrant. The lease of land became permanent, and Hutu farmers and Tutsi ranchers came to dominate the local economy.

The newcomers constituted a strong lobby with considerable influence over Mobutu, who in turn found them to be useful allies. From 1969 to 1977, Barthélémy Bisengimana, a Rwandan immigrant and the president’s influential chief of staff, played an important role in promoting his community’s interests. Mobutu adopted a law in 1971 that granted blanket citizenship to all Rwandans and Burundians who had been in the Congo since 1960. Perhaps most importantly, when Mobutu expropriated all foreign businesses in 1973, it was the Tutsi elite in North Kivu who benefited. In Masisi, 90 percent of all large plantations—almost half of all the land—came to be owned by these immigrants or their descendants. By contrast, in South Kivu, the Banyamulenge were largely rural, uneducated, and relatively poor.

The ascendance of the Tutsi in North Kivu helps explain the virulent backlash against them. A diligent student of Machiavelli—The Prince could often be seen on his bedside table—Mobutu had mastered the art of divide-and-rule politics. In 1981, Mobutu reversed the citizenship law, decreeing that citizenship had to be obtained upon individual application and was only available for those who could trace their Congolese ancestry back to 1885. In theory, this not only stripped most Hutu and Tutsi in Masisi of their citizenship but also expropriated much of their property, since only Congolese could own such large concessions under the new law.7 For the “immigrants,” although most did not lose their land, this legal back and forth only underlined how tenuous their status was.


As with the Banyamulenge, the democratization process put the citizenship question front and center in North Kivu politics. In March 1993, goaded on by local politicians who reminded their communities of the land expropriation by the Rwandan immigrants, Hunde and Nyanga mobs launched attacks against Hutu and Tutsi, who fought back with their own militia and by buying protection from the national army. Somewhere between 3,000 and 7,000 people had been killed by the end of the year.8

Deogratias Bugera had by this time become a member of the local Tutsi elite and helped coordinate its armed resistance. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was involved in a major offensive against Habyarimana’s regime in neighboring Rwanda. As opposed to the Banyamulenge, who had mostly lost contact with relatives in Rwanda, the Tutsi in North Kivu still had family across the border. As Zaire became increasingly hostile toward them, the allure of joining a Tutsi liberation army grew. Bugera became involved in helping to recruit young Tutsi to join the RPF, hoping that they could create a safe haven in Rwanda and—perhaps—return to do the same in North Kivu.

The RPF recruitment was a slick, well-organized operation. Since the early days of their rebellion, the RPF Radio Muhabura (“Radio Beacon”) broadcast on shortwave throughout North Kivu, providing the RPF’s version of the war and encouraging young men to take up arms to overthrow Habyarimana. At the village level in Rwanda and the Congo, they created umuryango (“family”) cells to mobilize new recruits and finances for their rebellion. “Each of our families gave whatever they could give to sponsor the movement. We held folk dances for fundraising and listened to RPF tapes smuggled across the border with songs and speeches on them,” Bugera remembered, smiling.

Bugera had his first contact with the RPF through an affluent friend, whose family had helped fund the rebels since their creation. In 1993, Bugera sent the first batch of 172 recruits across the border along with enough money to pay for uniforms and weapons. He traveled with the convoy to the border, where he bribed the Zairian soldiers with $11,000 to allow the recruits through. He laughed when he told the story: “They arrested me on the way back! One of the soldiers hadn’t gotten his cut. It was all about money, just money for them.”

Every Friday, the highland town of Mushaki held a large market where many Tutsi brought their cows, milk, and cheese to sell. With the RPF recruitment drive, this market also became the assembly point for young Tutsi who wanted to join the rebellion. Every week, Bugera loaded two or three trucks full of young men and sent them on their way across the border.9


In Kinshasa, I was eventually able to track down Papy Kamanzi, one of hundreds of young Tutsi Bugera had helped recruit for the Rwandan rebellion in 1993 and who had later joined the AFDL.

Papy had come to Kinshasa to be integrated into the national army, and I met him on the second-floor terrace of a bar in a busy, popular neighborhood. “Do they know you are Tutsi?” I asked, motioning toward the waiters milling around. He smiled conspiratorially. “No, they don’t know. People here can’t tell. They think all Tutsi look like Paul Kagame, tall with thin noses.” By 2007, when I met him, there had been several bouts of anti-Tutsi violence in the capital, and I was surprised at how relaxed he was moving about the bustling markets and backstreets. Then again, he did not conform to the received Tutsi stereotypes: He was short with a broad nose and spoke relatively fluent Lingala, the language of Congo’s capital. Nonetheless, he grew quiet when the waiter came close to us, pausing until he had finished pouring our soft drinks. When Papy did speak, he turned his face slightly away from me, toward the bubbling street noise to make sure the other tables didn’t hear him.

Papy’s family had come from Rwanda to the highlands of North Kivu in the 1950s, brought by a Belgian Trappist monk, whose Flemish name tripped up his tongue: Jean de Bertersfeld. Papy’s father looked after the monks’ cattle and plantation and married a local Tutsi woman. Being part of a minority community in such a turbulent area means living in a pressure cooker in which family loyalty means everything; Papy could recite his clan genealogy six generations back.

The initial tensions were between the “immigrants”—both Hutu and Tutsi—and the indigenous Hunde people. Every harvest, Papy’s family had to pay a tithe to the Hunde customary chief, and most tax collectors and land surveyors were Hunde. Papy’s father and relatives had been well taken care of by the Trappist monks and were wealthier than many Hunde peasants. Papy remembered being called “snake” and “dirty Tutsi” by kids at the market and in school.

By contrast, until the 1990s, relations with the Hutu community were warm. As a child, Papy had attended a boarding school fifty miles away from his home. When he walked home for long weekends, he would often be taken in and fed by Hutu. “Back then, we were all one community; we all speak Kinyarwanda, the common language of all Rwandans. It was politics that got us into this mess.” He wrinkled his nose. “Bad politics.” Relations between the Hutu and Tutsi only started to sour with the eruption of civil war in Rwanda in 1990. The hysteria there contaminated the Kivus, driving a wedge between the communities in North Kivu. Hutu youngsters, in particular those close to the border, rallied to Habyarimana’s side, while the Tutsi joined up with the RPF.

Papy remembered the RPF mobilization with a smile. “It was a great time,” he said. “We organized dances and big parties to raise money. Even the white priests would come and donate for the cause.” I wondered how he could have such fond memories when there was so much violence, but he shook his head. “There’s nothing like having your own country. Il fallait tupate adresse. We needed to have our own address.” Abruptly, he began to hum a melody; the words came back to him slowly:

Humura Rwanda nziza, humura ngaho ndaje! 

Don’t be afraid good Rwanda, don’t be afraid I am coming! 

Isoko y’ubumwe na mahoro. 

The source of unity and peace.

Papy remembered with a smile: “I tried to leave in 1991, but I was only thirteen, so the recruiters turned me back—I was too young.”

Every family was supposed to provide one male child over fifteen to join up and fight. He had four older brothers who had already joined the RPF, and was eager to go himself. His father berated him constantly that he would never find a girl to marry, that he would be considered impotent, if he didn’t join his brothers in the rebellion. Frustrated, Papy continued his studies but joined the local Boy Scout troop that was being run as a premilitary education course by a local Tutsi leader. He and other Tutsi adolescents learned how to build bivouacs, give first aid, and dismantle and load an AK-47. In his free time, he baked mandazi, fried dough balls, and took them to the local market to raise money for the cause—a Congolese version of a neighborhood bake sale.

Finally, when Papy was sixteen, he joined the RPF. His parents rejoiced, and his father sold several of his cows to give him some cash to take along. His mother hugged and kissed him, telling him how proud she was of him and his brothers. “We knew that we were leaving to eventually come back and free our country.” Sitting in the bed of a truck with several dozen other youths, he traveled by night to Goma, sailing through the roadblocks, where Mobutu’s soldiers had been bribed to let them through. When they were out of earshot of the villages, the youths sang RPF songs sotto voce to bide the time.

The beginnings of his military career were bittersweet. He was elated, surrounded by like-minded youths, all humming with purpose and ideals. He had studied and could read and write, gaining him preferential treatment among the other youngsters. But the hard side of war also became apparent. He learned of the death of two of his older brothers, who had died in the RPF’s final push to take Kigali in 1994. Then there was the genocide, when the countryside was filled with stinking corpses, when you couldn’t even drink the water in the wells because bodies had been thrown into them and contaminated the groundwater. Everybody seemed to be a killer or a victim or both.

It was a world full of fury and pain; there didn’t seem to be anything pure left. When the RPF sent him and a friend back to school in Rwanda—they wanted some of their young soldiers to catch up on the education they had missed—his friend attacked the Hutu teacher one night, strangling him with a rope, saying that he was a génocidaire. Papy sought solace briefly in a Pentecostal church, where he and other soldiers would speak in tongues and sing all night, but he left soon afterwards, finding it hard to relate with members of the congregation.


Bugera stayed in Goma, preparing for an RPF invasion, even when the town was teeming with ex-FAR and Interahamwe. “As long as you didn’t go out at night and didn’t go into the rural areas, it was actually relatively safe,” he remembered.

Bugera had a construction company, and with the influx of aid organizations, he managed to win several lucrative contracts. Beginning in August 1994, when the RPF took control of the last ex-FAR holdout in northwestern Rwanda, Bugera used his company as a front to set up an elaborate network of RPF spies. “As soon as the RPF conquered Rwanda,” he told me, “they set their sights on invading Zaire, much sooner than most people realize.” Overnight, he replaced thirty of his bricklayers with Hutu RPF soldiers. Other RPF officers took up jobs as motorcycle taxi drivers, ferrying ex-FAR officers and exiled politicians around the province and collecting intelligence, or worked in the markets in the refugee camps. Bugera remembered one of his friends exclaiming in disbelief when she saw her brother, an officer in the Rwandan army, on TV posing as a trader in a refugee camp. “The RPF could tell you with topographical precision where all of their enemy’s troops were located,” he said with admiration. “It was like having GPS.” By 1995, young Tutsi soldiers had started infiltrating Goma, armed with maps on which they drew ex-FAR positions and strategic targets. “It was like Mossad,” Bugera said, smiling proudly. “These guys were good.”

The RPF’s daredevil efficiency was in stark contrast with the decay of the Zairian state. Bugera attended nightly meetings in the house of General Yangandawele Tembele, Mobutu’s regional military commander, where he would receive information regarding troop movements and political developments. Tembele, whom a UN official remembered as “famous for being afraid of his own soldiers” and stealing cars from the refugees, had been bribed by the Rwandans and even provided Bugera with one of his lieutenants as a liaison officer, institutionalizing his treason.10 In 1996, with Tembele’s help, Bugera boarded a plane for Kinshasa, where he bought weapons and ammunition from corrupt officers. He packed the goods into a chest freezer, put dinner plates on top to conceal them, and wrote “Gen. Tembele, Goma,” on the lid. The porters at the airport groaned under the weight, complaining: “What is in here, boss? Rocks?” Bugera laughed.


By 1995, Papy and his fellow Zairian soldiers in the RPF were getting restless. The arrival of refugees had led to a drastic escalation of the violence. Until then, there had been a fragile alliance between Hutu and Tutsi in Masisi, as both communities had immigrated there from Rwanda during the colonial period and faced similar discrimination. With the arrival of the ex-FAR, Zairian and Rwandan Hutu allied together against the Tutsi, in order to loot their thousands of head of cattle. Still, some Tutsi families were holding out in Goma and in clusters in the surrounding hills. “The decision to abandon the soil on which your father and mother are buried is not an easy one,” Papy told me.

Based on the intelligence they were gleaning through their network of spies and moles, the RPF realized the ex-FAR were preparing a major attack.11 In early 1996, Vice President Kagame gave orders to set up two camps in Rwanda’s western provinces of Gisenyi and Cyangugu to regroup the Zairian Tutsi soldiers, including Papy, and train them as crack troops to form the vanguard of the impending invasion. “I had never seen so many soldiers in one place,” he remembered. It was during the training that he learned that ex-FAR and local Hutu militias had attacked his hometown of Ngungu, in Southern Masisi.

“I was sitting around the camp in the evening, eating from a pot of plantains and beans with some other soldiers, when a friend of mine from Ngungu came up crying,” he remembered. “‘They attacked Ngungu, they attacked Ngungu,’ was all he said. I knew my family had been butchered.” Two of Papy’s brothers and several cousins were among several dozen Tutsi who were killed.

Between 1995 and 1996, a total of 34,000 Tutsi fled to Rwanda from North Kivu. Barred by the RPF from owning radios, Papy and his friends gleaned bits and pieces of information about their families from refugees who managed to make it across the border.


I never knew what to make of Papy. He was friendly and open, but rarely laughed or showed much emotion. His voice was a steady monotone, his body lacking the gesticulations typical of many Congolese. “The war sucked the life out of me,” he told me.

He told the story of the wars by way of scars on his body—a shiny splotch on the back of his head from a piece of Zimbabwean shrapnel in 1999, a long thick scar that bunched up the flesh on his lower thigh from an ex-FAR bullet in 1996. He lifted up his T-shirt to show me a welt on his ribcage where a bullet had perforated his lung. Still, he smoked. “I’m not going to live long anyway, no need talking to me about cancer.”

Papy had left the army and come to Kinshasa looking for a job in 2007, even though many of his fellow Tutsi had refused to leave North Kivu and had continued to fight against the central government. Money and war fatigue had lured him out, he told me. When I asked him about his former comrades who remained rebels, he said, “We Tutsi have problems. We will do anything to protect our community, and it is true that many people want to destroy us. But there are also manipulators in the Tutsi community, who will use that fear in their own interest. ‘Oh, we must fight or the Hutu will kill us! Oh, take up your guns or Kabila will exterminate us!’ But you discover later that it isn’t true. We can’t spend the rest of our lives fearing other communities. We have to make that first step.” Then he shook his head. “But the stupid thing is that the Congolese government doesn’t seem to want us. There, too, there are opportunists who use the Tutsi threat to mobilize people. So we are stuck in the middle, between extremists.”


It is amazing to what extent the ethnic stereotypes and conflicts that were born in Rwanda have contaminated the rest of the region. No other image plagues the Congolese imagination as much as that of the Tutsi aggressor. No other sentiment has justified as much violence in the Congo as anti-Tutsi ideology. Again and again, in the various waves of conflict in the Congo, the Tutsi community has taken center stage, as victims and killers. This antagonism is fueled by struggles over land tenure, citizenship, and access to resources, but also and most directly by popular prejudice and a vicious circle of revenge.

The wars that began in the eastern Congo in 1993 acted as a vector to these prejudices, as Tutsi soldiers and politicians took lead roles in every Rwandan-backed insurgency since then. Whereas previously anti-Tutsi resentment was a phenomenon limited to small areas of North and South Kivu, it has now spread across the region. Its expressions crop up everywhere, from pillow talk to bar banter to televised debates. When I first lived in Bukavu, in 2001, I spent a lot of time with a local family. The mother of the family, a soft-spoken twenty-seven-year-old who was studying development at a local university, was, like most of the town, bitterly opposed to what she called the “Tutsi occupation of the eastern Congo.” It was in the middle of the war, and Bukavu and the surrounding areas were heavily militarized. It was difficult to avoid some sort of harassment—taxation, verbal abuse, torture, or worse—by Rwandan troops or their local allies. One day, when I was arguing that you had to understand Tutsi paranoia, as it had its roots in the massacre of up to 800,000 Tutsi in Rwanda during the genocide, she replied, “Eight hundred thousand? Obviously it wasn’t enough. There are still some left.”

In the meantime, the towns were bombarded by anonymous tracts, political one-pagers photocopied on cheap machines intended to rally the population against the Tutsi occupiers. They would be handed around in universities, at the markets, at the crowded port. One from October 2000 reads in part:


Population of South Kivu,

Following the barbarous crimes committed in KAVUMU, MAKOBOLA, BURHINYI, MWENGA and BUNYAKIRI, massacres against our peaceful population of Bukavu are already being prepared by KAGAME, MUSEVENI and BUYOYA. ...

History does not contradict us. The terrible atrocities committed shortly before the beginning of the 20th century by the Tutsi kings prove sufficiently to what extent you are descended from CAIN. Just imagine: A Tutsi king, every time he wanted to stand up, had to lean on a spear that was plunged into the leg of a Hutu subject. The point was very sharp and covered with poison. What cruelty!





These tracts tried to outdo each other in their extremism. The Congolese imagination, flailing around for clarity and trying to understand the violent upheaval the country has experienced, has latched onto the most basic building block of society: ethnicity. Instead of disabusing it of these stereotypes, successive leaders on both sides of the ethnic divide have only cynically fanned these flames.

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