Yo likaku, obebisi mbuma, bilei na ya moko!

You monkey, you are destroying the seeds, that will be your food!



Lieutenant Colonel Prosper Nabyolwa was sent in October 1996 to Bukavu, on the border with Rwanda, to be the commander of operations for Mobutu’s army. “Naby,” as his friends called him, knew the town well: He had been born in the hills just outside of Bukavu and had gone to the Jesuit secondary school perched on a hill in the middle of the lakeside town. The provincial capital of half a million people was enjoying the end of its three-month dry season; for once, its hilly roads were not clogged with mud and puddles, although a slight haze of dust hung over the whitewashed buildings, getting into clothes and food. At a mile above sea level, the nights were cold, while the cloudless days were scorching hot.

The experienced paratroop commander, who had been trained at military academies in Belgium and Oklahoma, surveyed the situation. It didn’t look good. The Rwandan infiltrations across the Rusizi River south of Bukavu were continuing; intelligence reports told of Rwandan troops and their AFDL allies massing on the other side of the border to attack the refugee camps that sprawled out on either side of town. Naby had been taught how to deal with similar guerrilla threats during his training courses. His task would have been feasible for a disciplined army with adequate resources. But that was not what Naby had at his disposal.

Over the past twenty years, Mobutu had cannibalized his own state, particularly his army. Not surprisingly for a leader who had taken power through a coup, Mobutu feared his own officers the most, and he made sure that they would not have the wherewithal to contest his power. He gutted his regular army, depriving it of resources and salaries, while he invested millions in separate, paramilitary units—the presidential guard and the garde civile—which he then pitted against each other. Throughout these various units, he named close associates, often members of his own Ngbandi tribe, as commanders and allowed them to get rich off extortion rackets, gun-smuggling, and illegal taxation. A similar situation prevailed in the intelligence services, which proliferated and spied on each other. “We didn’t have an army; we had individuals,” Nabyolwa remembered.1

When he arrived in Bukavu, Nabyolwa took stock of the situation. There were 800 presidential guards, 1,000 guardes civiles, and 200 paratroopers in town who answered to different chains of command. The paratroopers had gone to seed, abandoning their positions to moonlight for private security companies in order to make a living. The presidential guards told Nabyolwa that they were deployed to protect the refugees under a deal they had negotiated with the United Nations. Despite Nabyolwa’s entreaties that they had sworn an oath to protect Zaire with their lives, they refused to send any of their troops to the front lines.

The lack of intelligence further confused matters. Commanders in Bukavu received exaggerated, contradictory information about the security situation to the south of town in the Rusizi plain and in the High Plateau, where Rwandan vanguard parties began skirmishing with Nabyolwa’s units in August and September. “I didn’t know whether it was it 300 or 3,000 enemy troops active there,” he remembered. He sent reports to the army command in Kinshasa but received little response. Politicians in the capital were too busy feuding with each other to pay much attention to the situation in Bukavu, a thousand miles away. When Nabyolwa radioed Kinshasa to tell them he urgently needed one battalion of special forces, the commander of the presidential guard answered, “We have problems in Kinshasa, too, you know. We need the soldiers here.” Mobutu had been in power for so long, Nabyolwa remembered, that no one could conceive of him failing, least of all to a Lilliputian neighbor like Rwanda.

The Rwandan attacks to the south of town sent thousands of refugees and Zairian civilians spilling into Bukavu, where they sparked alarm and protests. On September 18, the Catholic Church and civil society groups rallied tens of thousands of people in the streets of Bukavu in protest of the “aggression by the Tutsi invaders.” Waving banners and singing songs, they streamed down Avenue Lumumba, the main thoroughfare. They demanded that the government in Kinshasa “mobilize the means ... to kick the invaders out of the national territory and to resolve, once and for all, the issue of citizenship.”2

This firebrand rhetoric was, of course, not well received on the other side of the border. Thousands of Banyamulenge had been seeking refuge in Rwanda from the abuses of Mobutu’s army and armed gangs. A week after the demonstration, Nabyolwa tuned into Radio Rwanda to hear Prime Minister Pasteur Bizimungu give a speech. “There is no difference between the Interahamwe and the Zairian authorities,” he thundered. “Each time they mistreat us, Rwanda will get revenge.... If their gambit is to chase out those who have lived in the country for four hundred years, the only Banyamulenge we will welcome are the children and old women. The others must stay there to correct and give a lesson to those who want to chase them out.”3


It was not long before it became clear to Nabyolwa that he was in serious trouble. Perhaps the first sign was the Lemera hospital massacre. The clinic was perched on the steep hills overlooking the Rusizi plain, forming an ideal military outlook. It had been founded in the 1930s by Swedish Pentecostal missionaries and by the time of the war was the largest hospital in the province, with 230 beds, several foreign doctors, and advanced medical equipment. Given its proximity to the fighting, it had received dozens of wounded soldiers, both Hutu militiamen and Zairian troops. The hospital had asked the Zairian government for protection in exchange for providing treatment, and a company of around a hundred men had been deployed there.

At dawn on October 6, nurses at the hospital were woken by gunfire from the military camp. The generator had been switched off for the night, but the almost full moon provided some light. The Rwandans were known to infiltrate vanguard units while the rear guard shot volleys into the air; it was possible that the rebels had already reached the hospital. Nurses saw fleeting shadows moving through the nearby banana groves. Havoc broke out in the rows of hospital beds, as those wounded soldiers who could move tore intravenous tubes out of their arms and ran, hobbled, or crawled for safety. The nurses barricaded themselves into their rooms and waited.

A few villagers ventured down to the hospital the following afternoon. The scene they saw turned their stomachs. Seventeen patients, mostly soldiers, lay dead in their beds and sprawled on the floor in the wards, bayoneted and shot to death. Broken glass, Mercurochrome, and intravenous fluids lay spilled around them. The attackers had looted the stock of medicines, spilling cartons of syringes and bandages on the floor. In the private quarters, they found the bodies of three nurses—Kadaguza, Simbi, and Maganya—in their white aprons, all shot by AFDL and Rwandan troops. At the nearby Catholic parish, several bodies of Zairian soldiers lay twisted in the courtyard. Inside, they found the bodies of two Catholic priests in their habits, also shot dead.4

Similar attacks took place across the Rusizi plain, following the same pattern: infiltrators from Rwanda attacking army positions and refugee camps, scattering the Zairian army and Hutu militia and killing civilians. Soon, 220,000 cowering refugees were flooding into Bukavu, bringing with them word of more massacres and spreading panic.

Nabyolwa decided to go to the Rusizi plain himself to rally the troops. He drove his Land Rover pickup to Luvungi, the Zairian army’s most advanced position, only to find his soldiers piling into a truck, with their belongings and guns stacked up over the cabin. “Colonel,” one of the men told him, hurriedly saluting him, “You are on your own.”

Retreating back to town, he reported to his commanding officer, telling him they urgently needed reinforcements. “He couldn’t have agreed more,” Nabyolwa remembered, laughing. “When he heard what had happened, he succumbed to a sudden stomach ailment. He packed his suitcase and said he was going to Kinshasa to get more troops. He was on the next plane out.”

The following day, Nabyolwa’s mood was lifted briefly when he got word that a plane was arriving with the promised reinforcements. He hurried to the airport to receive the troops, only to see a cargo plane landing with a company of garde civile troops disembarking with their wives, children, and belongings. “There were two hundred shabbily dressed soldiers with pots and pans on their heads. Goats were running around the airstrip. They asked me where they could set up camp.” He moaned in dismay, holding his head in his hands. “Goats!”

Nabyolwa called headquarters in Kinshasa three times, urging it to deploy more troops and more resources. Nothing came. Finally, as the enemy troops were just a few miles from Bukavu, Naby rang the army chief of staff one final time: “General, if you wait any longer you will have to pick us up as prisoners of war from the Red Cross!”


If the Rwandan genocide and the exodus of the génocidaires and refugees to Zaire were the immediate causes of the Congo war, the decay of Mobutu’s state and army provided the equally important context. By 1996, Zaire was a teetering house of cards—as the Economist quipped, “They call it a country. In fact it is just a Zaire-shaped hole in the middle of Africa.”5

The army that Nabyolwa joined in 1973 was a jumble of contradictions. Like the rest of the state apparatus, it was present everywhere, harassing and taxing the population, but effective nowhere. On the one hand, the Zairian Armed Forces (FAZ) received hundreds of millions of dollars of military assistance from western countries in their effort to make Zaire a bulwark against the socialist states—Angola, the Republic of Congo, and Tanzania—that surrounded it. On the other hand, despite their partners’ profligacy, Mobutu’s army was rarely able to deal effectively with even the most amateurish challenge. On numerous occasions, Mobutu had to call on his foreign allies or mercenaries to prop up his floundering army.

The roots of the army’s weakness lie in the Belgian colonial state. The Force Publique, as the army was then called, was formed to maintain law and order and suppress any challenge to colonial rule. It conflated military and policing functions, and control of military units was strongly decentralized to serve the needs of the territorial administrators, who used the army for civilian tasks as well as to suppress dissent. The Belgian authorities never thought to create a strong army; up until the late 1950s, they thought that independence was still decades away and that they would continue to control the state and its security forces. They did not allow Congolese to advance beyond the rank of noncommissioned officers, leaving a thousand white Belgians to make up the officer corps. Mobutu himself was a sergeant, a trained typist and journalist, at the time of independence. Within two months he was chief of staff of the newly independent Congo’s army.

When the Belgians left, the brash and inexperienced new authorities sacked all Belgian officers, suspicious that they wanted to keep running the country even after independence. It would have been difficult to form a new army under the best of circumstances, but no one had expected the turmoil that followed. Almost immediately, parts of the provinces of Kasai and Katanga seceded, supported by western economic and political interests. When Belgium and the United States connived with Katangan secessionists to assassinate Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in January 1961, the postindependence government and army split, and a new rebellion broke out in the eastern Congo. To get these various uprisings under control, Colonel Mobutu relied on foreign assistance, first from 20,000 United Nations peacekeepers and then from white mercenaries, Belgian paratroopers, and the U.S. Air Force.

Mobutu brought an end to this tumultuous period through a coup in November 1965 and set about reorganizing the army. The military became the centerpiece of his administration, and he consistently allocated over 10 percent of his budget to defense. Despite his meager training, he promoted himself to field marshall and minister of defense. He succeeded in attracting outside support by presenting himself as the bulwark against communism in the region. He hosted several Angolan rebel groups on his territory and allowed the United States to funnel money and weapons to them. Between 1960 and 1991, the United States provided $190 million in military assistance to Zaire and trained 1,356 officers.6 France, Israel, and Belgium also provided military aid to the autocrat, despite the evidence that he himself had done little to improve the performance of his security services. The dictator knew that he was too important to the west to be allowed to fail.

As a result, there was no shortage of technically proficient and competent military officers. Nabyolwa was a good example of this. He was trained as a paratrooper by Belgians and then traveled to Brussels for artillery training at the royal military academy. Several years later, he studied for six months at Fort Seal in Oklahoma. At the same time, Zaire became a burgeoning African military power, with cadets from other countries undergoing paratroop, naval, and artillery training at various Zairian academies. Mobutu sent thousands of troops to help put down the Biafran secession in Nigeria, a Libyan-backed incursion in Chad, and rebel insurgencies in Burundi, Rwanda, and Togo.

While he courted outside support, however, Mobutu was deeply afraid that his army would actually become a professional, cohesive fighting force. Paradoxically, it was Mobutu’s fear of dissent that weakened his security forces. Having risen through a coup, he knew the danger that independent poles of power represented, and he sidelined or eliminated competent officers he deemed to be a threat. The military’s decline began in 1975, when Mobutu court-martialed a slew of U.S.-trained officers, including three generals and his own military advisor, Colonel Omba Pene, accusing them of planning a putsch in connivance with the American embassy. Three years later it was the turn of officers trained at the Belgian Royal Military Academy. Despite scant evidence regarding the alleged Belgium-linked plot, the officers were quickly sentenced and executed by firing squad. At the same time, Mobutu dismissed all Kinshasa-based officers from ethnic communities deemed disloyal, in particular those from Kasai, Maniema, Bandundu, and Katanga provinces. The commander in chief reorganized the army, placing members of his own, small Ngbandi tribe in key command positions. Loyalty, in this case cemented by ethnicity, trumped competence.

Nabyolwa, from the restive Kivu Province, was barred from important positions, despite his training abroad. “They thought people from the Kivus were rebels,” Nabyolwa remembered. He was forced to receive orders from officers who, in some cases, had never even graduated from military academy. “If you weren’t from Equateur, you were nobody.”

Driven by his deeply paranoid fantasies, Mobutu proceeded to balkanize the army, creating a multitude of military units and intelligence services with different chains of command and overlapping mandates. He gave the command of most of these units to relatives. In 1982, he promoted his nephew Nzimbi Ngbale from captain to general and made him the command of his newly formed presidential guard. Several years later, General Philemon Baramoto, who had married Mobutu’s sister-in-law, was placed at the head of the garde civile, which was supposed to protect the country’s borders but ended up as a bloated paramilitary unit deployed throughout the country. Mobutu’s son Kongolo, who had the rank of captain but was not part of the official armed forces, set up his own private security company “Eagle Service” that he used to extort money from diamond traders and customs officials. The national security advisor Honoré Ngbanda, who was nicknamed “Terminator” for his brutality, created two private militias to target enemies of the regime.

By the 1990s, half of the sixty-two generals in the armed forces came from Mobutu’s home province of Equateur and a third from his small Ngbandi ethnic group. In the ministry of defense, reportedly 90 percent of the staff was from Equateur.7 Instead of loyalty, however, these poorly thought-out promotions created discord in the army. The various military and paramilitary services spent much of their time fighting among each other and building mafia-like networks throughout the country. Mobutu’s own security advisor later described the farcical infighting among generals: “All the ministers of defense and army generals had, within the military or in Mobutu’s entourage, a rival that they had to fight or defend against. General Bumba suffered attacks from General Molongya; Singa battled with Lomponda; Likulia backstabbed Eluki; Mahele gave Eluki a hard time; meanwhile Singa, back at the ministry of defense, was subjected to Likulia’s plotting. The list is long.”8

As loyalty was more important than probity, Mobutu allowed his protégés to enrich themselves. Officers competed for influence, juicy procurement deals, and patronage. Almost all high-ranking officers were involved in business, and the lines between public and private became completely blurred as they used state assets to further personal interests. The army’s chief of staff, General Eluki Monga, siphoned fuel from military stocks for his fleet of taxis; General Baramoto rented his soldiers out as private security guards in Kinshasa; General Nzimbi, the commander of the presidential guard, used army trucks to smuggle copper from Katanga to Zambia.9


As Mobutu’s hold on state and economic power declined in the 1980s, his army, too, fell apart. Aside from the presidential guard, who were much better equipped, paid, and fed, most of the country’s 70,000 soldiers rarely or never received salaries. Mobutu famously declared in a speech to the army, “You have guns; you don’t need a salary.”10 It was another manifestation of his famous “Article 15,” a fictitious clause in an obsolete constitution that called for the population to do anything they needed to do to survive. Débrouillez-vous (“improvise” or “get by”) became the modus operandi for Zairians of all classes, in particular the armed forces.

It is difficult to overstate the impact these policies had on the security services. As early as 1979, a scholar traveling in the northeast came across soldiers in “tattered uniforms, the victims of long deferred pay. A number were reduced to begging for food.” In order to survive, they were forced to hire themselves out to local farmers to work in the fields.11 In military camps throughout the country, soldiers had turned training grounds into vegetable plots, and chickens and goats strayed about the dilapidated compounds.

Most soldiers resorted to less gallant means to earn their living. By the 1990s, impromptu roadblocks at which soldiers would extort money had become ubiquitous features of the Zairian countryside. Soldiers became known as katanyama, a Lingala term meaning “meat cutters,” because they would come into the market and seize the choicest morsels of meat from the butchers. Mobutu himself, in one of his periodic bouts of “self-criticism,” admitted that, “The truth is simply that these cadres seem to have lost the rigor of military life and discipline in favor of all sorts of commodities: commerce, beautiful cars, beautiful villas, bourgeois life.”12

In Bukavu, Nabyolwa arrived to find the officers had become businessmen. “They would come to staff headquarters wearing gold rings and chains, sometimes even sunglasses, smelling of cologne,” he told me, shaking his head. Most commanders had several wives; one of Nabyolwa’s deputies had a clothes shop on the main road, while another ran a smuggling racket with local businessmen, sending trucks through the Burundian border at night.


As with a bankrupted business, when the army ceased functioning, its leaders began disassembling it and selling it off—weapons, vehicles, airplanes, generators, and anything else that could get a decent price on the international arms market or on the black market. In June 1994, General Nzimbi and General Baramoto sold the air force’s last remaining fighter jets to arms dealers. Several months later, General Eluki gave orders to the air force commander to sell the last C-130 transport aircraft to South African dealers. So many spare parts were bartered away that, by the end of the 1980s, only 70 percent of the tanks of the country’s main armored brigade were functional. A similar statistic applied to the Zairian air force.13 The Zairian army was unable through its own means to transport troops or goods anywhere in a country 1,000 miles wide and with barely any paved roads. They had to resort to using commercial planes. At the end of the war, the defunct state allegedly owed local businessmen over $40 million in debts for air travel alone.14

The arrival of the displaced Rwandan army of the Habyarimana regime and the refugees also provided a good business opportunity for the generals. When Mobutu’s security advisor inspected the arsenal of confiscated weapons in a Goma military camp, it took him a whole day to see all the equipment: “The whole courtyard was covered with heavy and modern machinery. Many of these had never been used. I was even surprised to see very modern amphibious tanks. Entire hangars were full of hundreds of thousands of rifles of all kinds, while three buildings were full of ammunition.”15 Most of these weapons were bartered away by the various generals involved in arms trafficking. The destination of the weapons revealed the officers’ extreme cynicism: some were sold back to the Rwandan army in exile, while others were supplied to the RPF across the border. The Zairian army supplied its enemy with some of the bullets and guns it would use to kill them with later.

After decades of nepotism and mismanagement, it was clear that the only loyalty most commanders felt was to their own pocketbooks. General Tembele, Mobutu’s commander on the eastern front, met regularly with RPF commanders across the border to brief them on the military situation.16Patrick Karegeya, the Rwandan external intelligence chief, spoke with Mobutu officers in Kinshasa and in the east in the run-up to the war. “We had extensive infiltration, we used money, we used friends. It wasn’t hard.”17


Nabyolwa was in downtown Bukavu when the rebels finally reached town, entering across the Rwandan border and from the south at the same time. He raced in his pickup to Hotel Residence, a large monolith on the main strip where the army high command had rented apartments. His commanding officer had barricaded himself there, swearing that he would not abandon his position. Nabyolwa rushed into his room, urging him to order a tactical retreat. His commander refused, saying that they would still be able to hold the town. Exasperated, Nabyolwa took him out to the balcony, from where they could see Rwandan troops swarming into town. As they stood on the balcony, a rocket-propelled grenade hit the wall just meters away from them, knocking them both to the ground. Convinced, the general informed his staff to prepare a hasty withdrawal to a suburb on a hill adjacent to Bukavu, from where they would be able to prepare a counterattack.

The army high command piled into their military jeeps and screeched out of town, only to find that most of the army had already fled to the military barracks to the north. The situation, however, was not favorable for a counterattack. In the barracks, the terrified soldiers milled about with their wives and children. Their belongings—and also pillaged goods, Nabyolwa suspected—lay strewn about the parade grounds. It was impossible to envision a counterattack in these conditions, he thought. Nonetheless, and against his advice, his commander gave orders for the soldiers to line up in preparation for an attack. They finally got the unit commanders to present themselves at the front of the parade grounds, but their soldiers balked, leaving their officers standing alone, looking sheepish in the middle of the pitch. “My general was convinced that we had an army—we didn’t,” Nabyolwa recalled.

They beat a further retreat to the Kavumu airport eighteen miles to the north of town, where Kinshasa had promised to send them reinforcements. There they found one of the most formidable pieces left in Mobutu’s arsenal, a fifteen-meter-long BM-30 Smerch rocket launcher with twelve barrels. His commander grinned and told Nabyolwa, much to his dismay, “We will use this to bomb Bukavu.” Nabyolwa, who still had relatives and family members in town, retorted: “That doesn’t make any sense. We will just kill civilians and destroy houses!” An order is an order, the general insisted, and they prepared a column to drive toward Bukavu to find an appropriate place from which to bomb the town.

Halfway into town, the general pulled up alongside Nabyolwa, who was driving in the middle of the convoy in a pickup, and ordered him to lead the offensive. “You want your operational commander to be the first to die in battle?” Nabyolwa fulminated. That was it: He stopped his vehicle and handed the keys over to his general. “I wasn’t going to die like that,” he remembered. He did not want to cross the line between bravery and stupidity. “If he wanted to lead the offensive, he was more than welcome.”

Nabyolwa began walking back toward the airport on foot. He found the bulk of his troops at a crossroads together with hundreds of Rwandan refugees, debating whether to head north toward the airport or west into the equatorial rainforests. After some deliberation, they headed over the mountains into the inhospitable jungles. Naby joined them, climbing into a jeep belonging to a presidential guard commander.

In the meantime, the BM-30’s electrical system short-circuited, and the hapless general fled toward the airport. Instead of taking the road westward into the jungles, however, he decided to head northward along Lake Kivu to Goma, where he thought he might still be able to join other units to resist the Rwandan invasion. Over his radio, Nabyolwa heard of his commander’s decision and felt a pang of remorse. He was sure that Goma would soon fall as well and the general would then be stuck between two enemy contingents. In a small village sixty miles into the jungle, Nabyolwa told the presidential guard unit that they needed to return to get the general. It was the last straw for the soldiers, who thought it was suicidal to go back. They turned their guns on him.

“They didn’t make any sense,” Nabyolwa remembered. “First they accused me of deserting—which was strange coming from a bunch of deserters. Then they said I wanted to kill them by going back. Finally, an officer said, ‘We think you are a traitor. Every time you send us into battle, we get attacked!’

“‘But that’s what war is about!’

“‘You are a sadist!’”

Faced with this kind of logic, all Nabyolwa could do was to persuade them that, instead of killing him, it would be wiser to arrest him and take him to their commanding officer.


On the other side of the battlefield, the troops were being led by men a generation younger than the Zairian generals.

On the face of it, the Rwandan-led invasion was an amalgam of different nationalities, chains of command, and military cultures. There were Ugandan artillery units, Eritrean speedboats, Tanzanian military advisors, and Congolese soldiers. When it came down to it, however, the people calling the shots were Rwandans, at least for the first half of the war. The thirty-three-year-old in charge of operations on the ground was Colonel James Kabarebe, the former commander of Kagame’s guard.

Kabarebe’s reputation is legendary in the region, to the extent where people only refer to him by his first name, “James” or “Jamesi.” Just a second lieutenant when the RPF invaded the north of Rwanda in 1990, he had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel by the time they captured Kigali in 1994.18 According to Congolese officers who worked with him, he led by example, often eating with his officers and going to the front line to lead offensives. In tactical meetings, he would typically defer to his colleagues for their opinions, and he was thus able to cultivate a loyal following among young Congolese army officers.

At the beginning of operations, Kabarebe asked Laurent Kabila whether his son Joseph could join him at the front. Joseph was the one family member the old revolutionary had brought with him to Kigali, and the twenty-five-year-old began popping up on the periphery of officials’ vision in 1996. An academic remembers being driven from Kigali by a monosyllabic Joseph to meet his father in Goma; a Kenyan security officer recalls drinking with Joseph in a bar in Kampala along with other military officers.

Kabarebe now wanted Joseph to accompany him to witness military operations in the Congo. “I told Kabila that Joseph had to learn the military profession and that the AFDL was the best school. He finally accepted.”19 According to Kabarebe, his young disciple did not take readily to soldiering. When he heard gunfire, he would panic. “He had the hardest time learning how to fight.”

Life at the front was different from Laurent Kabila’s more languid existence in Dar es Salaam. The Rwandan-led troops had some tents and tarpaulins and would bivouac their troops wherever they could find cover. But the fighting had started in September, at the beginning of the rainy season. There were downpours almost every evening, drenching the soldiers and infusing a fetid dampness into their clothes and belongings. Blow flies and jiggers deposited maggots under their skin, leading to infected, suppurating wounds.

The rain made it almost impossible to pass along the roads. Troops spent days getting trucks unstuck and over faulty bridges, and soldiers were forced to carry most of their belongings on their heads. Most threw their socks away after a few weeks and marched on, barefoot in Wellington boots, accumulating blisters and calluses. At night, they lashed together lean-tos out of banana leaves and sticks or occupied abandoned buildings.

There was little to eat. The troops had to rely largely on what they could find locally, and their path had been ravaged by several hundred thousand Congolese and Rwandan people fleeing the fighting. The fields had been uprooted, the fish ponds emptied, and the houses plundered. When they were lucky, they would stumble on stocks abandoned by humanitarian workers, in particular the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Then, for several weeks the staple diet of the soldiers became U.S., FDA-approved surplus cornmeal, vegetable oil, and kidney beans. For officers, dessert might be nutritional milk for infants mixed with sugar and coffee, along with some energy biscuits.

Most fighting along the eastern border at the beginning was carried out by Rwandan army troops along with Congolese Tutsi who had joined in the run-up to the rebellion. By October 1996, however, the first batch of new Congolese recruits had graduated from the two training camps the AFDL had set up in Nyaleke, North Kivu, and Kidote, South Kivu. Thousands of teenagers joined the rebellion, outfitted in neatly pressed green uniforms with Wellington boots. They advanced almost solely on foot—airplanes were expensive and used mostly by officers and elite units—singing songs and balancing ammunition boxes on their heads. Mobailo, they called it, the forced march that could cover forty or more miles in a day. They borrowed names they heard on the radio for feared fighters: “Biso toza ba Taliban” (we are Taliban), they told villagers. Several of them gave themselves nicknames of international bad guys; Ghadaffi was a popular one. Later in the war, Osamas began popping up. Years later, some Congolese villagers told me that the leader of the AFDL troops in their area had been Rambo or Chuck Norris.

In February, the troops were joined by over a thousand Katangan Tigers, old and young, flown in on cargo planes from Angola. The mention of the Katangan Tigers provokes a great deal of hilarity with Rwandan officers. “Eh! Tigers! Those guys caused us a lot of trouble,” the member of the Rwandan command told me. “They were old men who fought with all kinds of magic amulets, believing they would be made invincible to bullets.” Despite the Rwandans’ jokes, however, not all Tigers were geriatric and useless. Many of the second-generation Tigers had been given thorough training in the Angolan army and were in their twenties and thirties at the beginning of the war.20 It was these Portuguesespeaking exiles that the Angolan government planned on sending to join Kagame’s alliance.


There were few memorable battles for the rebels as they crossed the country. Bukavu was one of the fiercer ones, as the Zairian army tried to put up some resistance; later, they knew better. Goma fell quickly as a result of treason, as Mobutu’s officers sold equipment and intelligence to their enemies in the months prior to the invasion and then did little to defend the town. Simultaneously, Ugandan troops had crossed the border to the north and taken the town of Mahagi with only thirty soldiers. A rebel commander told me that three of his men on a motorcycle defeated two hundred Mobutu soldiers in another town in the northeast.

Where there was resistance, it was often because of foreign troops. Rwandan ex-FAR were fighting alongside the Zairian army, trying to protect the retreating refugees. In Kindu, along the upper reaches of the Congo River, over a thousand ex-FAR joined Mobutu’s troops, although they were poorly coordinated and soon scattered.21 Mobutu’s officers, however, had not given up. They decided to make a stand in Kisangani, the country’s third largest city and the gateway to the east, located at a bend in the Congo River. The city had a long airstrip and was a major river port. The army’s high command flew in reinforcements and also mined the airport and the main roads leading to town from the east. Diplomats speculated that Mobutu would be history if the town fell.

Mobutu’s generals began frantically organizing other foreign support. Using their contacts in Belgrade and Paris, they managed to hire around 280 mercenaries, mostly French and Serbs, under the command of Belgian colonel Christian Tavernier, along with some attack helicopters and artillery.22

It was too little, too late. The area they had to cover was too large, and the Zairian army too disorganized for them to have much impact. The soldiers of fortune were also perhaps not of the best quality. A French analyst described them as a mixture between “Frederick Forsyth’s ‘dogs of war’ and the Keystone Kops.” He went on to disparage the Serbs’ performance in particular: “They spent their days getting drunk and aimlessly harassing civilians. They did not have proper maps, they spoke neither French nor Swahili, and soon most of them were sick with dysentery and malaria.”23

Tavernier chose as his operational base Watsa, a remote town in the northeast that had little strategic importance, but where he had obtained mining rights. The colonel himself was seen more often in the upscale Memling Hotel in Kinshasa than on the battlefield, haranguing foreign correspondents, boasting of his feats, and complaining of government ineptitude.

Internal tensions also hampered operations. The French, mostly former soldiers from the Foreign Legion, were better connected and paid up to five times as much as the Serbs—up to $10,000 per month for the officers. But the Serbs controlled most of the aircraft and heavy weaponry, old machines leased at inflated prices from the Yugoslav army. The French accused their counterparts of amateurism; the Serbs retorted that the last time the French had won a serious battle was at Austerlitz in 1805.

On the battlefield, everything fell apart. The Serbs never provided the air support the French demanded, complaining of missing parts and a lack of fuel. On several occasions, they even bombed Mobutu’s retreating troops, killing dozens. Mobutu’s security advisor remembered the episode: “We had two different delegations from Zaire recruiting mercenaries separately. What was the result? We had mercenaries from different countries who spoke different languages. ... We bought weapons from different countries that didn’t work together. It was a veritable Tower of Babel.”24

The mercenaries behaved abysmally toward the local population. Even today, residents of Kisangani remember the deranged Serbian commander Colonel Jugoslav “Yugo” Petrusic, driving about town in his jeep, harassing civilians. He shot and killed two evangelical preachers who annoyed him with their megaphoneblasted prayers. He was sure that AFDL rebels had infiltrated Kisangani, and he arrested civilians for interrogation, subjecting them to electroshocks from a car battery and prodding them with a bayonet.25


Colonel James Kabarebe remembered the battle for Kisangani as probably the hardest one they had to fight. Surrounded by thick jungle, the Rwandan troops faced off with the enemy across a narrow bridge over a tributary to the Congo River. They tried advancing but were met with a hail of bullets and well-calibrated mortar fire. They searched the banks of the Congo River but could not find any fishermen who could ferry them across to flank the enemy.

Again, it is difficult to tell how well war stories separate fact from fiction. “Laurent Kabila had strange notions of military tactics,” James Kabarebe remembered. “In Kisangani, when we were blocked by the mercenaries, he came to me, urging me to put soldiers up in the trees and, on command, to start shooting in all different directions at once. He said it would confuse the hell out of the enemy!” From then on, every time Kabarebe was confronted with heavy resistance, his colleagues jokingly told him to put soldiers in the trees.

Other tales about the battle remain popular with the Rwandans. Blocked by heavy fire and the Congo River, the Rwandans decided to let the newly arrived Katangan Tigers have a try. According to the Rwandans, the Tigers rubbed their bodies down with magic salves and put amulets around their necks to protect them from bullets. Then they advanced on the enemy. One by one, they were picked off by sniper fire. Some jumped into the water and drowned. Others ran. “It was a massacre,” Kabarebe remembered.26

It is unlikely that the Katangan Tigers, professionally trained by the Angolan army and no kamikazes, behaved in such a fashion. The more likely story is one provided by some of the AFDL soldiers who participated in the offensive: They were finally able to outflank Mobutu’s forces by traveling several days upstream, crossing the river, and hitting them from the rear. At the same time, Ugandan tanks had arrived along the jungle roads and provided cover fire for the rebels.27

Kisangani fell in March 1997, sounding the death knell for Mobutu’s government. It was the last real battle of Mobutu’s war, with the possible exception of Kenge, some one hundred and twenty miles west of Kinshasa, when Angolan UNITA rebels rallied to his defense, along with several thousand unemployed and desperate youths from Kinshasa who had been given a hundred dollars each and sent to the front.

Mbuji-Mayi, the country’s diamond hub, fell on April 5, 1997. The fact that Mobutu’s army hardly mounted a defense of the town, whose state-run diamond company, Société Minière de Bakwanga, had been the last reliable source of cash for Mobutu, indicated that the government had pretty much given up. For Laurent Kabila, the capture of the town was a godsend, as it provided him with much-needed cash to pay the invoices for fuel and airplane rental, the two biggest expenses the rebels had. He asked the Lebanese diamond traders to pay him $960,000 in back taxes and seized a large shipment belonging to De Beers, the South African diamond giant, claiming the company was operating illegally. They reportedly had to pay $5 million to get the gems back.28

The next domino to fall was Lubumbashi, the country’s copper capital, a week later. Soldiers from Mobutu’s Twenty-first Brigade tore up bedsheets, tying white bandanas around their heads and waving white flags to greet the AFDL. Restaurant and hotel owners opened their doors, offering officers free beers and soft drinks. This was the town where Laurent Kabila had been raised, and he quickly set about recruiting new soldiers from local youth groups. The old flag of the Congo Free State, yellow stars set against a peacock-blue background, was resurrected and unfurled at government buildings in town. Painters were hired to quickly replace the ubiquitous “Zaire” with “Congo,” and the flaming torch, symbol of Mobutu’s party, was erased from public monuments.

Perhaps the true sign that Mobutu’s era was coming to an end was the arrival in Lubumbashi of several executive jets full of officials from international mining and banking corporations. Goldman Sachs, First Bank of Boston, and the Anglo American Mining Corporation all met with Laurent Kabila.29 An American congressional delegation led by Georgia congresswoman Cynthia McKinney arrived shortly afterwards.30


It is easy to make a mockery of Mobutu’s army and government, to reduce the events that led to his demise to a comedy of errors carried on by a bunch of incompetent, bumbling generals in Kinshasa. But it was not for lack of training or expertise that the Zairian army lost the war. The security forces included a legion of intelligent officers trained at some of the world’s best military academies. The problem was the decaying, corrupt structures within which they worked. Lacking proper institutions since independence, Mobutu had corroded his own state in order to prevent any challengers to his power from emerging, eroding that very power in the process.

This dry rot that beset the army also had a serious impact on soldiers’ morale. Soldiers who were rarely paid and could barely feed their wives and children were unlikely to risk their lives for their corrupt, thieving commanders. “The real challenge in the Congo,” Nabyolwa told me, “is not how to reform the army, but how to reform the men in the army! There is a serious problem with Homo congoliensis!”

It is this legacy of institutional weakness that for many Congolese is almost as depressing as their physical suffering. Since the 1970s until today, the Congolese state has not had an effective army, administration, or judiciary, nor have its leaders been interested in creating strong institutions. Instead, they have seen the state apparatus as a threat, to be kept weak so as to better manipulate it. This has left a bitter Congolese paradox: a state that is everywhere and oppressive but that is defunct and dysfunctional.

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