KIRINGYE, LWEBA, AND ABALA, ZAIRE, AUGUST–OCTOBER 1996
On August 30, 1996, the first battle of the Zaire war took place. Leaving their training camps in Rwanda, a small group of seventy Banyamulenge soldiers crossed the river into Zaire just south of the customs post where Burundi, Zaire, and Rwanda meet. It hadn’t rained in weeks—the short dry season was the perfect time to launch the assault, as the roads were in decent shape—and the group made its way quietly through the waist-high elephant grass. On the other side of the plains, they could see the outline of the Itombwe Mountains rising into the clouds, cradling the highland pastures where they had grown up.
At dawn, they hid in a banana grove close to the small village of Kiringye. As they were resting, a woman on her way to farm her cassava field stumbled into their makeshift camp and began screaming at the sight of Tutsi soldiers armed to the teeth with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers. They were tempted to kill her, but then let her go. She ran to the nearby military base, where she alerted Mobutu’s army. They surrounded the rebels and opened fire, killing ten and capturing five others. It was one of the few battles of the war that Mobutu would win. The war, still at the planning stage in Kigali, had been jump-started.1
The army’s ambush accelerated the spiral into outright conflict. The captured soldiers were paraded in front of television screens across the country. Five haggard-looking young men in military uniforms were placed under spotlights, with camera flashes illuminating their sunken eyes. This was the enemy. For many Zairians, it was the first time they put the Tutsi name to their distinctive features. “Rwanda invades!” read the September 1 headline in Le Potentiel, Kinshasa’s most read daily newspaper.
In Bukavu, the state radio read out an editorial titled “A Historic Chance for Zaire.” The broadcaster exhorted listeners not to believe the Tutsi’s lies about citizenship, using a metaphor that has since become routine when arguing that the Banyamulenge can never become Zairian: “A tree trunk does not turn itself into a crocodile because it has spent some time in the water. In the same way, a Tutsi will forever remain a Tutsi, with his or her perfidy, craftiness and dishonesty.”2
By now, it was obvious that more and more Banyamulenge troops were infiltrating into the high plateau, where the rebels began stockpiling weapons and preparing for another attack. Farmers and traders hid in the bushes by the side of mountain paths, as bands of rebels with metal boxes of ammunition on their heads climbed up the mountainside. A movement in the other direction was also visible: More and more Banyamulenge youths began crossing the Rusizi River into Burundi at night, where they were met by guides who would take them to training camps in Rwanda.
Most Congolese refer to the 1996 invasion as the War of Liberation. The population had had enough of Mobutu; despite the suspicions regarding Rwanda’s involvement, crowds across the country welcomed the rebels as liberators. At the local level, however, this image of heroic patriots does not hold water. In the east, the advancing rebels became embroiled in bitter feuds between communities over power, land, and identity. Anti-Tutsi demagogues whipped up mobs to kill innocent civilians; the Banyamulenge rebels retaliated, blaming entire communities for their victimization. Thousands were killed.
A prime example of this was Anzuluni Bembe, the vice president of Zaire’s national assembly, who had created a youth militia called, modestly, Group to Support Anzuluni Bembe. The short, pudgy firebrand held rallies along the shores of Lake Tanganyika, calling on people to take up arms against the invaders. At a meeting at a local school in Fizi, he called out: “Children of Fizi, are you sleeping? The Banyamulenge are taking our country! I want you to get weapons and attack them, attack the Banyamulenge!”3
In Uvira, Banyamulenge leaders were rounded up and put in jail, while the mayor mustered gangs of youths to kick their families out of their houses. Several days after the first clashes with the infiltrators, local authorities told the Banyamulenge to regroup in camps “for their own safety.” A local Banyamulenge leader later wrote about the experience of being arrested: “They beat us up and took us to jail.... Minute after minute, they brought in more Banyamulenge in that minuscule cell where there was a hellish stench due to the urine and feces and no oxygen. [Several days later] they took out the late Rukenurwa who they beat like a snake. His sobs made us all cry.”4
Hundreds of Tutsi in eastern Zaire, but also in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, were harassed and beaten. The hysteria reached a fever pitch, in which anyone who had a thinnish, hooked nose and high cheekbones was targeted. At a border post with Rwanda, youths attacked and hacked to death a Malian businessman.5
By 1996, social conditions in Zaire were ripe for youth-led violence. Due to Mobutu’s predation and disastrous economic policies, the country’s infrastructure and industry had collapsed. By 1996, the country had been through seven years of economic contraction. Zairians earned just over half of what they had been making in 1990. According to the United Nations, a full 27 million people, or 60 percent of the population, were undernourished. Even when people were paid, the money was worth little: Inflation soared to 5,000 percent in 1996.
This misery provided fertile terrain for ethnic prejudice. In the crowds, youths were able to channel their anger against a visible, known enemy. Leaders like Anzuluni provided added incentives, such as free alcohol and modest wages for some of their organizers. The Banyamulenge, while poor, had attractive and inflation-free assets: cows. Soldiers and youths rustled thousands of head of cattle in the early days of the war.
How can we explain this kind of brutality? It is difficult to describe the impact of abuse and dysfunctional government on the psyche of people in war-torn areas.
In March 2008, I traveled to various massacre sites in the region. Everywhere I stopped, people eyed me suspiciously, and local officials demanded to see my papers. Even though the war had officially come to an end years earlier, the region was still very tense; Rwanda and the Congo continued to fight a proxy war in the Kivus, each supporting different militia groups.
One morning, I was packing to leave for Makobola, perhaps the most notorious massacre site, when a friend from a local human rights group called me on my cell phone.
“Stop packing and turn on the radio,” he said.
I quickly tuned into a debate show on a local Protestant radio station to hear the member of a local political party say, “I wanted to draw your attention to President George Bush’s visit to Rwanda.” Bush was visiting Kigali as part of his whirlwind Africa tour. “Is it a coincidence that his visit comes at the same time as Nkunda withdraws from the peace process? At the same time as there is an American mercenary by the name of Johnson who is here in Bukavu, recruiting youths for the next Rwandan invasion?” He got my name wrong, but it was clear by his following description that he meant me. He said he had proof of my activity and that he would provide it.
Friends in local civil society helped debunk this rumor, and the analyst retracted his allegations. Nevertheless, I needed a good justification to prevent harassment in the remote areas. A nonprofit group agreed to provide me with a “mission order,” a hangover from the colonial era confirming that your employer takes responsibility for the trip. Local officials saw the piece of paper, with its letterhead and stamp, as a possible indication that I was not, as some apparently believed, working for the CIA.
I had taken a second, more important, precaution: I traveled with Remy Ngabo, a local human rights activist who was from the area and who organized interethnic soccer games as a way of reconciling youths from the Bembe and Banyamulenge communities. Once a month, the Banyamulenge players would walk five hours down the mountain to face off with a local Bembe team. The players paired up and spent the night at their rivals’ houses. Some of the Banyamulenge players were survivors of the 1996 massacres, and Remy hoped they would open up and tell their story.
Our plans were cut short before the soccer game could start. Alerted by the presence of a foreigner in her small village, the local intelligence official arrested me and Remy for suspicious behavior.
“Don’t you know it’s International Women’s Day today and I had to abandon my important activities in town to come climbing hills, running after you?” The woman huffed, leading us to her office, a bench under a mango tree. “All activities here have to be approved by me!” She chided us as we slalomed down through cassava fields.
In negotiating bribes, the local official’s main leverage is time. Prudence, as her name turned out to be, had no real reason to detain us, other than the fact that she was in charge of security in town. With nothing on her hands—except, apparently, a Women’s Day celebration—she could easily wait us out. Back in town, she sat us down underneath a mango tree and subjected us to a long lecture on the Rwandan threat and the superpower conspiracy against the Congo.
“You yourself say you are from the United States,” she glared at me. “Is it not the United States who supported Rwanda during the war to get at our mineral wealth? Don’t think just because we are black that we haven’t studied! Well—say something, speak!” She was clearly infuriated by my silence, which she interpreted as condescension. “Didn’t you hear that George Bush was in Rwanda the other day?” she said to her colleague, who nodded his head. “We have to be vigilant!” I feebly pointed out that I didn’t work for the U.S. government and showed her my documentation. “That’s what you say!” she retorted.
We had almost agreed on “a fine” or “a recompense for her hike”—the two different euphemisms for the bribe—of around five dollars, when a local village chief turned up.
As he came to shake my hand, I could feel the fetid smell of the local alcohol on his breath. His eyes were glazed over and specks of spittle hit my face as he spoke. Kotiko, as it is called in this area, is a palm wine that is tapped from the trunk of a decapitated tree in the morning and grows stronger as the day goes on and the sugars are fermented into alcohol. Although it was only eleven o’clock, much of the village was already falling under kotiko’s sway.
“Hapana, hapana,” he slurred in Swahili, shaking his head. No, no, no. “What is this white man doing here? Don’t you know that I’m the chief here? Why are you talking to this woman?!” The situation got worse. “Haven’t you heard that Bush was in Kigali last week? Is this a coincidence?” The chief played with his digital watch, which was much too large for his boney wrist and had apparently stopped working a long time ago. “And just after the earthquake destroyed our towns!” Bukavu lay close to a continental rift and had been hit by a series of bad earthquakes several weeks before. The chief leaned over and whispered: “The United States is using earthquakes as a weapon of war to destabilize the province!”
An hour later and around twenty dollars lighter, we finally found ourselves in front of two soccer teams on benches in front of a school. Our run-in with the authorities had attracted attention, and our meeting was being attended by several people whom Remy identified as intelligence agents. It was obviously not the venue for the Banyamulenge, lined up on one bench across from us, to tell their stories of massacres and abuse at the hands of their neighbors. Remy deftly changed the angle, announcing that I had come to inspect the success of his soccer project in promoting reconciliation. He whispered to me: “Take it easy with the questions.”
After several platitudes about ethnic reconciliation, I asked the Bembe soccer team what they felt when they saw a Munyamulenge (singular of Banyamulenge) on the street. The captain of their team answered, “We are afraid. During the war, we didn’t know who is a civilian and who is a soldier. For us, every Tutsi man was a soldier. Whenever violence broke out, they pulled the guns out from underneath the beds.”
Alex, a Munyamulenge boy in an Arsenal T-shirt and jeans, demurred: “I don’t know why we have to inherit the sins of our fathers and brothers. For them, we are all guilty.” He paused, then added, “We are all targets.”6
I asked Alex whether he had heard of the massacres committed by Rwandan or Banyamulenge soldiers against the Bembe in the region. He nodded carefully, glancing at the eavesdroppers. “Of course, we all hear these allegations.”
“Do you think they are true?” I prodded.
He paused. “I wasn’t there. I don’t know.”
His answer provoked some rumbling on the other bench. “These are not just rumors,” the one with the Tanzanian accent said. “We all have family members who have been killed or raped by Banyamulenge.”
“Have you heard of massacres committed against the Banyamulenge?” I asked the captain.
“Against them?” He looked around at his teammates, who shook their heads. “No, we’ve never heard about that.”
After the meeting, Remy offered to drive the Banyamulenge back to the roadblock, from where the path leads into the mountains. He politely but firmly told the village chief and the intelligence agent that we didn’t have enough room for them in our car. The Banyamulenge piled seven-deep into the backseat and trunk of our jeep.
“Our problem is with leadership,” Remy said in the car. “Imagine that we were CIA agents trying to start a new rebellion here. We would have bought them all off for twenty dollars.”
Remy found an excuse to stop along the way to buy some drinks for the players, leaving me in the car with Alex. From the backseat, squeezed in between his teammates, in a whisper, Alex told me that he was twenty-five, which made him around thirteen at the time the war began. Several teenagers pressed their faces against the jeep’s windowpanes, giggling at the sight of a white man talking to the Munyamulenge, but Alex continued in a steady tone, his eyes focused on the dashboard in front of me. I didn’t want the villagers outside the car to overhear our conversation, so I rolled up the windows, which soon had both of us sweating in the midday heat, as the car didn’t have air conditioning. Alex started off by telling me not about himself or his family, but about Mariam Kinyamarura.
Mariam was a famous Christian prophet, a legend in the Banyamulenge community and an unlikely casualty of the war. Mariam, Alex explained, had grown up as a young Munyamulenge peasant in a small village one day’s walk into the hills from where we had parked the car. In 1956, when she was still a young woman, she fell sick and lost the function of her lower body. She nonetheless stayed married to her husband and later gave birth to several children. Shortly afterwards, she started having visions. She was a member of the Methodist Church but had not felt a particular religious vocation before her paralysis. Soon, her visitors began telling stories. She could read your mind, tell you what you were thinking, and even recount your sins. Before you even arrived at the house, she would know who you were and what you were thinking. The Methodist Church, worried about superstition in their midst, put her under observation. After a month, they proclaimed that she was indeed an oracle and asked several ministers to live with and assist her.
“She would lie in her bed all day, her head propped up against her hand,” Alex said. His parents had visited her, taking him along once when he was a child. He remembered her magical aura and the people milling around in a small, dark room to hear her speak. By the mid-1970s, the church had built a center around Mariam, complete with guesthouses, gardens, and a small chicken farm. At times, hundreds of visitors from all across the region and from all ethnic groups would visit to hear her prophecies and advice.
As with everything in the eastern Congo, it is difficult to separate Mariam’s myth from reality. Sometime in the late 1970s, she is said to have stopped eating, drinking, and passing waste. She also stopped sleeping, a fact that Alex testified to, as his parents stayed up all night talking to her while Alex slept on a bananaleaf mat on the floor.
In 1996, when the provincial authorities began calling for the Banyamulenge to return to Rwanda, the Methodist Church asked Mariam’s followers, most of whom lived in the highlands, to come down to the lakeside for protection, thinking that together they would be safe. As they were deliberating what to do, Zairian soldiers rounded up Alex’s family in their clay house in the mountains at dawn, before they had left to take the cows to the pasture.
“They told us they were taking us to Rwanda,” Alex remembered. They weren’t given time to pack their belongings and had to leave with bare essentials: a gourd of cow milk that Alex carried on his head, a bag of clothes, their family Bible.
He left with his parents and seven siblings, joining a caravan of around five hundred Banyamulenge, escorted by soldiers down to Lake Tanganyika. On September 17, they arrived at a small, makeshift camp in a town called Lweba. They were told a boat would pick them up the next day and take them “home,” to Rwanda. Alex had never been to Rwanda and didn’t have any family there. He remembered feeling very hungry. They had run out of food on the road and slept without eating dinner, drinking muddy water from the lake.
At 3 o’clock at night, shots began ringing out in the camp. “I think they wanted to get rid of us before the boat came,” Alex said matter-of-factly. “They never wanted us to reach Rwanda.” There was almost no moon, and they hadn’t brought a flashlight. Alex remembered people screaming and running. A body fell against their shelter, and his father made them all hold hands and pray. The body just lay there, like a fallen branch, against their tight tarp. Even if they had run, they wouldn’t have known where to go—better to stay and confront whatever was going to happen together. So they prayed, raising their voices above the screams. “Outside, in the light of lanterns we could see the other villagers watching. Some took part in the killing. Others just watched. But nobody did anything to help us.”
According to Alex, a total of 153 people were killed that night.7 Alex’s immediate family was fortunate. They all survived. Similar massacres took place along the lakeshore that day. In Baraka, fourteen miles to the south, several hundred Banyamulenge were forced into the compound of a cotton factory and attacked. Remy’s daughter, who was ten at the time, remembered people running after Banyamulenge in the streets, armed with knives and machetes, hacking them as they ran: “She still has nightmares about this.”
The Prophetess Mariam was not spared. That same night, in her own village not far away, she and her followers were rounded up and separated into two groups: men and women. Setting upon the men with sticks, stones, and machetes, the mob killed most of them, including Mariam’s disciples and relatives. The crowd then began to attack the women and children, but some of Mariam’s Bembe followers implored them not to kill her. She escaped, badly wounded. “She said that she was not meant to die in the Congo; she had had this prophecy,” Alex shook his head. “They killed most of her children and her husband. She was right: She didn’t die of her wounds until she reached Rwanda.”
I asked Alex where the bodies of the Banyamulenge were buried, and he shook his head again. “Who knows? They didn’t give us time to bury our dead.” He had heard that Mariam had a tomb in Rwanda, but he didn’t know where it was. His voice cracked slightly, and he looked at his feet. “We don’t even have tombs to go and mourn our dead, we carry the grief around with us.”
Reluctantly, Alex circled back to his own story. The following day a long ship with an outboard motor pulled into the harbor and took the remaining Banyamulenge along the lake toward Rwanda. There was no awning on deck, and the sun beat down heavily for the four-hour journey. That night, they arrived at Mboko, a small fishing village with a long, white sand beach. At dawn, Mobutu’s soldiers separated the men from the women and children. “We didn’t understand,” Alex said. “If they wanted to kill us, why did they give it to us bit by bit? Kill one person at a time? Why not just do it all at once?” The soldiers loaded their guns and shouted that all men over the age of fourteen had to come to one side.
As a tall thirteen-year-old, Alex was a borderline case. Picking him out of a lineup, where he was standing next to his brother, a soldier took pity on him and pushed him brusquely toward where his mother and sisters were waiting, knotting their skirts up between their fingers. They watched together as his father and older brother were bound with sisal ropes, their arms tied behind their back and their legs together. The soldiers dumped them “like sacks of cassava” into the boat, which they then paddled out into the lake. It was a big vessel; Alex estimated there to be around thirty or forty captives onboard. At around two hundred meters from shore, still within sight of their frantic families, the men were thrown into the water. Alex could see splashes of water where the men flopped and struggled in vain to keep their heads above water before they drowned. Some managed to keep afloat by wiggling their bodies for several minutes. On the beach, their families screamed out and cried but couldn’t do anything. His mother fainted. The soldiers watched, their rifles on their shoulders.
The remaining group of children and women was taken to Kamanyola, on the border with Rwanda, where they joined up with hundreds of other Banyamulenge. The military escort brought five to six hundred “refugees” in trucks to the border. They were joined by thirty haggard Banyamulenge leaders, who had spent the past month in prison in Uvira. At dusk, once again the women and children were separated from the men and taken to a thirty-meter-long cement bridge that separated the two countries. The Rwandan Patriotic Army (the armed wing of the RPF) had deployed its troops to the iron gate that blocked the road, and the women and children ran toward the silhouettes of soldiers and tanks.
Alex was less fortunate this time; after a brief debate over his age, a soldier tousled his unkempt hair and kept him on the Zairian side of the border with the other men. They were pushed into a makeshift prison close to the border, where they were strip searched and beaten again. Around forty men pressed together in a small room, some beaten so badly that they couldn’t walk. A youth who looked feverish and faint asked a soldier for some water to drink. The soldier shook his head in disgust, telling him he was being disrespectful. He yanked him outside, leveled his AK-47, and, as Alex watched in horror, blew his brains out.
The heat in the small room became unbearable. The air was getting heavy; in the distance they could hear a thunderstorm moving down the floodplain from Rwanda. The storms from the east were the worst; Congolese used to quip that “all bad things come from Rwanda.”
The soldiers had left a light guard, including a young intelligence officer from Mobutu’s home region in Equateur Province who had become friends with many Banyamulenge in Uvira. As the storm approached, he whispered to the prisoners that they would be shot at dawn; this was their only chance. Alex remembered the thunder cracking over them, unleashing a torrential downpour. “It was a miracle,” he said. “We had never seen anything like it.” The guards outside the houses sought shelter, and the Equateurian youth popped the bolt on the door, ushering them out and telling them to hurry and get to the border. “The rain was so heavy you couldn’t even see the road in front of you,” Alex remembered. Seeing their prisoners flee, the Zairian soldiers ran out in pursuit.
At the border, the Rwandan guards saw the commotion and advanced toward the bridge, over the border, guns at ready. Through the rain, the Zairian soldiers saw a phalanx of hostile troops blocking the road and retreated. Back at the prison, they found the prisoners who had been too weak to flee, including the president of the Banyamulenge community, and killed them.8
After the sweaty car meeting with Alex, Remy and I continued on to Baraka, a humid port town on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. I wanted to hear the other side of the story. Remy had told me that the massacre that Alex had lived through had been triggered when Banyamulenge infiltrators had killed a large group of people in a nearby village. Could we find some witnesses of that massacre?
Remy hit himself on his forehead. “Ah! Of course,” he sucked his teeth loudly. “How could I forget? We have to go and see Malkia wa Ubembe.” When I told him I had never heard of that name, a smile twitched across his lips, “No? Well, you should have. He’s the physical reincarnation of Jesus Christ.”
Religion is alive and well in the Congo. Colonialism and Mobutism eroded traditional authority and created uncertainty in everyday life. Various churches vigorously proselytized in the Congo throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; white missionaries still abound in remote corners of the country, puttering about in battered Land Rovers, fluently bantering in the local language or dialect.
Malkia wa Ubembe is a different kind of church, a small utopian movement that shies away from politics. Its head and spiritual center is Prophet Wahi Seleelwa, a bouncy fifty-year-old man who founded the church in 1983. The name of the church means “the queen of the Bembe,” the ethnic group that the prophet belongs to. Years before, a prophecy had gone out from members of the Catholic Church that a virgin saint would arise among the Bembe. Instead of a virgin girl, they got Wahi Seleelwa.
We drove into his compound late on a Friday afternoon, as the sun was going down through the palm trees that sprout everywhere in Baraka’s sandy soil. The community’s villages are identical to each other, each built after a common blueprint. Matching houses, made out of mud bricks and then whitewashed, line a long avenue that leads up to the prophet’s house, which forms the center of the community. Behind the houses, communal vegetable plots stretch out into the surrounding palms.
The Prophet, as Wahi Seleelwa likes to be called, greeted us on the steps of his house wearing a white T-shirt with an imprint of his own picture and a black felt Stetson hat. Three large glass doors took up the front of the house, set into whitewashed walls and underneath a corrugated iron roof. The house seemed very open; in contrast with most buildings in the region, there were no bars on the windows or doors.
The prophet formed the physical and spiritual center of the community. Their founding belief is that Wahi Seleelwa is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, a distinction he inherited from his predecessor. As Seleelwa explained, after the death of their previous leader, whose picture hung on the wall behind him as he spoke to us, he was possessed by the spirit of Christ. Over the following years, he received the revelations of Christ, which his followers wrote down in their drably named “Communication Notebook,” which contains the main teachings of the church. Some of the passages would raise eyebrows among mainstream Christians: They allow polygamy (the prophet has three wives), have their own calendar with twelve-day months, and are governed by a conclave of elders dubbed the Four Living Beings.
Seleelwa was eager to speak with us about the beginning of the war. “Nobody has ever come to hear our story,” he lamented. “Not the United Nations, not our own government, nobody.” He pulled out sheaths of handwritten letters he had sent to various presidents and UN secretaries-general. “Nobody ever answers,” he said, shaking the papers.
On the wall behind him hung a black-and-white picture of a group of people posing together in front of a white church with thatched roofing. In the middle of the group of around sixty people is a smiling Seleelwa, his Stetson hat tipped backwards, looking like a halo; many other men are also wearing the hats, a sign of “the coming kingdom,” Seleelwa said. Children make up around half the congregation, kneeling and peering sullenly into the camera from the bottom of the picture.
“Of all the members of that church there,” he said, pointing at the picture, “only a dozen survived. I’ll show you the survivors.” Seleelwa called for an assistant and gave him the names of several people.
There was no doubt that Seleelwa commanded respect from his congregation. Minutes later, we heard the voices of a dozen people milling around on the steps outside. Three males and eight females, some of them still children, had gathered to talk to us. The prophet grinned: “Here they are!”
The leader of the group was a forty-eight-year-old man called Neno Lundila. He was wearing an oversized green blazer and felt hat that was considerably shabbier than Seleelwa’s.
Neno’s church had been located in Abala, a town in the foothills of the Itombwe Mountains, a two-day walk away. It was a corn- and cassava-farming village inhabited mostly by Bembe who had moved down to the main road that linked the lakeshore with the high plateau. Before the war, Banyamulenge had sent their children to primary school in Abala, and the lively trade had brought the two communities together in markets, churches, weddings, and funerals.
By the end of October 1996, the war that had begun two months before had reached Abala. Ragtag local militias skirmished with Banyamulenge troops, who advanced steadily down the road toward Baraka, prompting a mass exodus of the local population. In Abala, the entire village fled, except for the Malkia wa Ubembe congregation. “We weren’t involved in politics,” Neno said. “We were preaching the good word, nothing else. Why leave?”
On October 28, the congregation gathered in their church for morning prayers. As usual, they brought their whole families with them. The aisles were more crammed than usual that morning. “The troubled situation had given us good reason to pray,” Neno recalled. After an hour, just before dawn, as they were singing the last song—“We will not run, we will not be afraid, we are with Prophet”—they saw soldiers surround the church. Their preacher told them to stop singing and went outside to talk to the soldiers. Through the windows, in the half-light, Neno could see the features of a Munyamulenge who had grown up just two hours away from Abala and was well-known to the community as a courteous, polite man. That day, however, he was aggressive.
“Why didn’t you leave, like everybody else?” he barked at the preacher.
“We are people of God,” Neno remembered the preacher saying. “We didn’t have anywhere to go.”
“Then you have to come away with us!”
The preacher refused, saying they didn’t know anybody where the Banyamulenge lived and didn’t have a church there.
The commander lost patience. Words were exchanged, and a scuffle ensued. Through the narrow window, Neno saw another soldier pull out his rifle, shove it into the preacher’s nostril, and pull the trigger. In the church, people started screaming as the soldiers advanced on the doors and windows and opened fire. A grenade hit the ground not far from where Neno was, ripping into several people’s bodies. Women took babies off their backs and huddled over them, praying. They tried to hide between the benches and under the altar, and Neno felt bodies falling on top of him. “They saved my life: I felt bullets going into their bodies; they shielded me.” After several minutes, the soldiers stopped shooting. Neno could hear them debating outside. Then, the sound of tinder crackling broke the silence. “It was still dark outside, but all of a sudden there was a bright light I could see between the bodies.”
The soldiers had set fire to the thatched roof, in order to kill survivors and get rid of evidence. When Neno heard the soldiers say, “Let’s go,” he climbed out from underneath the bodies. The whole roof was on fire, and clumps of burning thatch and crossbeams were falling down. Neno managed to drag himself and seventeen other survivors out of the burning church. A hundred and three others died, including Neno’s two wives and six children.
We went back outside to the front steps, where the other survivors were still sitting. The women were sullen but hitched up their worn kikwembe to show me their wounds. One of the girls, now around seventeen, had grabbed her baby brother and put him on her back to try to flee when a bullet went through both of them. Twelve years later, she has a shiny welt on her lower back, matching his scar across his stomach. “They are tied together by their injury,” Seleelwa told me. Blushing, the girl pulled up her T-shirt to show me. Another girl had had her leg amputated.
“The other bodies are still there, buried under the collapsed church,” Neno told me as we got ready to leave. “Nobody has even so much as put a memorial plaque there. You can still see the charred remains.” He shook his head. “We have nowhere to mourn our dead.”
I asked him if he had ever heard of Banyamulenge who had been massacred. He looked surprised. “Banyamulenge? No. Never.”9
It was not just in South Kivu that the war brought calamity. Throughout the country, the invading forces pillaged. The killing, however, was largely confined to the east, where the Tutsi communities had long-standing quarrels with other groups. In North Kivu, the invading Rwandan troops systematically rounded up and killed thousands of Hutu villagers, accusing them of supporting the génocidaires . Many prominent Hutu businessmen and traditional chiefs were also killed. Tutsi communities, of course, nurse their own memories of persecution and decimation at the hands of others.
None of the killings has led to prosecutions or even a truth commission that could ease the heavy burden of the past. Skeletons can still be found, stuffed into septic tanks, water cisterns, and toilets, reminders of the various tragedies. In Bukavu, mass graves dating back to this period are now covered with the cement of shopping centers. Every new bout of violence summons these spirits up and manipulates the past into a story of victimization, ignoring the wounds of the other communities. Peace, many diplomats and locals say, is more important than justice, especially when the government is full of yesterday’s military leaders. Prosecute those leaders, and they will start the war again, the prevailing wisdom goes. Plus, some Congolese leaders say, war is nasty, and people die. One erudite politician reminded me:“Didn’t General Ulysses Grant give an amnesty for Confederate soldiers after the American Civil War? Didn’t the Spanish do the same for crimes committed under Franco? Why should it be different for us?” Unfortunately, the impunity has thus far brought little peace, and the criminals of yesterday become the recidivists of tomorrow.