First War in the Congo:Tribal Hostilities Reappear

28 May

 The most important cultural and political unit in East Africa is one’s “tribal affiliation”. Usually when a Kenyan or Ugandan is asked, “Who are you?” He/she will usually respond by naming the tribe to which he/she belongs such as Kikuyu or Lango. These tribes have coexisted together for centuries and have fashioned many different types of relationships with one another. Some have built harmonious collaborations together while others have engaged in open warfare. Many tribes in the Congo considered the members of other tribes their mortal enemies and fought in vicious battles where they enslaved the vanquished until King Leopold and then the Belgian parliament intervened and introduced strict, punitive measures which helped to end most of the tribal conflicts. But even though the tribes were no longer permitted to fight, they never forgot just who their enemies were and passed down these grudges and resentments to subsequent generations. Once the Belgian administrators returned to Belgium and the Mobutu government demonstrated that it could not  rule the country as efficiently as the colonials had done, tribal leaders came forward to manage the Congolese people as before. Once the tribes were in control again, age-old feuds and quarrels resumed as their leaders resurrected old hostilities and past offenses. And it was both old and new tribal hatreds that helped to sustain the First War in the Congo

 Revolution, liberation, ethnic tension and feuds, as well as a ceaseless influx of refugees from Rwanda and sometimes Burundi were primarily responsible for the First War in the Congo which lasted from November 1996 until May 1997. It was a short war but in order to understand its impact and the reason for the Second War in the Congo, it’s necessary to know something about the different ethnic divisions and the tribes who became mired in this conflict.  Ituri province is located in the northeast section of the DRC and shares Lake Albert on its eastern border with the country of Uganda. The largest city in Ituri is Bunia. Members of the Lendu and the Hema ethnic groups make their homes in this area and have done so since before Leopold of Belgium took over in the late nineteen hundreds. Traditionally the Lendus lived off of the produce they grew in the soil of Ituri. They were farmers who tended to their family-owned fields and maintained their plots within the tribal compounds. 

Over a century ago, another tribe began frequenting this area of the Congo. They called themselves Hema and maintained a living as pastoralists who moved their camels, cattle, and goats from water hole to water hole over vast ranges of grazing land. The Hema eventually settled in this area. In many ways these two tribes mirrored the Hutu and Tutsi who lived in Rwanda and in sections of Burundi at this time. The Hutu had established an agrarian society like the Lendu and the Tutsi depended on herding their livestock like the Hema. Historical accounts confirm that both tribes, Lendu and Hema complimented each others’ lifestyles and managed to live together in relative harmony until the Belgian colonialists took over in the late eighteen hundreds and instituted new administrative policies which favored the Hema over the Lendu in the Congo in the same way they had supported the Tutsi over the Hutu in Rwanda.

 The area eventually called Rwanda was originally settled by the soil- loving Hutu but the semi-nomadic Tutsis who had traveled down from North Africa eventually established migratory patterns for grazing routes throughout Rwanda as well. For almost half a century the two groups survived by trading their animal products and crops with one another. Eventually they shared a language, some common traditions, and the same nationality- they even began to marry one another. Then everything suddenly changed when the Belgians assumed control of the country of Rwanda and implemented a British colonial policy to rule the people of Rwanda. The Belgian colonialists selected one ethnic group over another in an attempt to keep the tribes’ divided and in contention with one another rather than with the colonial government.  The Belgians chose the Tutsis as their “favored” tribe because they preferred the “look” of the Tutsis. They thought that the tall, willowy Tutsis with their sharper Ethiopian features were “esthetically more pleasing to the eyes” and they realized that many members of the Tutsi tribe were already landowners giving them a certain level of status in the area. The Belgian colonial governors enforced policies that required Tutsi males to attend primary school in order to train them to serve in intermediary positions between the white colonials and the Hutu natives.  This blatant discrimination deliberatley employed to denigrate the Hutu caused a great deal of tension between the two groups.

 The colonial governor did the same thing in the Belgian Congo by openly preferring the Hema over the Lendu which caused the Lendu to break off the close connections they had once had with the Hema.  But the Belgians went on to openly interfere with the ownership of the tribal lands that historically had belonged to the Lendu by providing the Hema with a legal technicality to help the them steal away Lendu real estate by enforcing the “Land Law of 1873.”

 This law allowed the Hema to buy land that they did not live on and then wait two years and the land would become legally theirs. The residents living on the land at the time had the legal right to buy the land within two years but most were never informed that they did not own the land. The concepts of deed transfers and land ownership were not something the Lendu understood. So the Hema patiently waited out the two years required by law then evicted the Lendu families from their homes and fields. According to the law there was no way for the Lendu to appeal this eviction after two full years had elapsed because the Hema had followed the letter of the law if not the moral intent. Many times the Lendu had been living on ancient tribal lands which had been farmed by their families for hundreds of years. The Hema, with the help of the Belgians, managed to accumulate vast tracts of land throughout Ituri District this way. Years later both tribes would learn that rich mineral deposits existed beneath the Lendu tribal lands- the same ones that had been taken over by the Hema. Knowledge of this would lead to open warfare between the two groups.

There were also Tutsi groups living in Northeastern Congo who were citizens of the Congo not Rwanda although they had originally entered the Congo by way of Rwanda.  The earliest Tutsis settlements in the Congo were established in Ituri District long before King Leopold of Belgian arrived in the late 1880s. Another large group of Tutsis had been brought into the country by Belgian colonials to serve as laborers at the turn of the century. They never returned to Rwanda  but stayed in the Congo when the Belgians left the country after the Congo declared its independence from Belgium. Again in 1959 large numbers of Tutsis crossed the border into eastern Congo to avoid living under the Hutu government that had just claimed power in Rwanda.

The Kanyarwandan War raged on for three full years from 1963 to 1966.  Congolese tribes, Hunde and Nande who had traditionally lived in North Kivu pushed the Rwandan emigrants (Hutu and Tutsi) entering their lands out of their tribal territories and were responsible for brutally massacring thousands of Hutu and Tutsi refugees. In 1965, President Mobutu gave those Tutsi groups living in Ituri who were actual citizens of the Congo administrative control in the district even though they were in the minority compared to the other tribal populations living there. His motivation for awarding this special power to the Tutsi community was never clearly understood but his actions turned the other tribes in the area against the Tutsis turning an already volatile situation into outright war.

In 1972 thousands of Hutu refugees fled Burundi and entered the Congo after a coup by Hutu armed forces failed against the government of Burundi. Tutsis who previously resided in the Congo before 1960 were referred to as “Banyamulenge”.  In 1972 all Tutsis living in the Congo before 1963 were awarded official Congolese citizenship by the Mobutu government. All Rwandan and Burundian Tutsis residing in the Congo from 1959-1963were also granted citizenship.The Tutsis who settled in the Congo after 1963 were not considered legal citizens of the Congo. Most of the tribes native to the Congo did not consider any of Tutsi ethnic groups, no matter how long they had lived in the Congo legitimate members of the Congolese union of tribes.

By 1981 the political situation gradually worsened for the Tutsi. Citizenship was restricted to those who could prove that their ancestors resided in the Congo as far back as 1885 or earlier. This law was enacted to counter the growing economic power of the Tutsi groups in the Kivu region. Tensions worsened as the Banyamulenge openly supported the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), Tutsi rebel forces hiding in Uganda whose goal it was to topple the Hutu-supported government currently in power in Rwanda.  By March 1993 the governor of Kivu, caving into demands made upon him by the other Congolese tribes in the area, proclaimed that all Tutsis must leave the Kivus and if they remained, he would have them executed. His announcement prompted the other tribes to declare war upon the Tutsis and 14,000 Tutsis were killed in the next two months. By May 1993 President Mobuto had managed to stop the killing but then in an illogical move ordered Tutsi representation in the local Kivu government increased.

In 1994 the “Rwandan Genocide” began in the country of Rwanda where in three short months 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis but some moderate Hutu as well, were systematically killed by the army of the Hutu-backed government. It has been estimated that three fourths of the Tutsi population then residing in Rwanda at that time were killed and that thousands of Hutus who opposed the genocide were also murdered. The slaughter in Rwanda caused the previous tensions between the Hema and the Lendu in Ituri to escalate into physical violence throughout the district. Armed Lendu who indentified with the Hutu army roamed the country side looking for vulnerable Hema to kill and terrified Hema turned to the local government for help but the government turned a blind-eye to the violence.

In 1995 Mobutu’s Parliament ordered any people from Rwanda or Burundi living in the Congo to return to their own countries of origin, including any Tutsi who did not qualify for Congolese citizenship.

By 1996 Laurent Kabila began a unified revolt against the thoroughly corrupt President Mobutu who had been kept in power by the efforts of the United States and its European allies. Immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union relations between Mobutu and the West totally deteriorated as the need to support Mobutu in order to keep Communism from spreading throughout the governments in East Africa petered out.

Mobuto Sese Seko had ruled Zaire, his new name for the Belgian Congo, for thirty years and left the country destitute.  Kabila named his forces, The Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo ( AFDL) and began recruiting tens of thousands of children from among the local villages in Eastern Congo to serve as soldiers within its ranks. Millions of Hutu swarmed across the Rwandan border into the Congo once the Tutsis in Rwanda had won the Rwandan War for Independence. Some of these Hutu were dangerous soldiers who had been involved in carrying out the genocide while others were merely Hutu civilians fleeing for their lives. Most of these refugees sought asylum in the Ituri and Kivu Districts.

In 1996 the First Congo War began as Rwandan forces invaded eastern Congo to protect the Tutsis there and to destroy any extremist Hutu militia camps they found in the Congo. Kabila’s government opposed this action but did not have the military strength to stop the Rwandan army’s movements and needed their help to bring down Mobutu. Kabila had no choice but to allow Tutsi soldiers from the victorious Rwandan Army to accompany his AFDL troops in order to capture and kill the Hutu extremists now hiding out in the area of eastern Congo.  It has been proven that both AFDL and Rwandan Tutsi troops killed defenseless Hutu refugees who had no connections to the genocide and even killed local Congolese villagers in their quest to locate the Hutu extremists.

Still some of the Hutu extremists responsible for the genocide in Rwanda managed to survive the wrath of the Rwandan army and the Congolese troops. Small groups settled in North Kivu and Ituri District and eventually formed the guerilla group, Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). They are still there to this day and are presently living in the tropical forests around The Virunga National Forest. Their primary goal is to return to Rwanda to bring down the Tutsi government currently in power there. 

 Laurent Kabila and his ADFL troops backed by Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, and Burundi finally marched into Kinshasa in May, 1997 and toppled the Mobutu Government ensconced there. Mobutu fled the country and was granted asylum in Morocco. Laurent Kabila named himself president of Zaire on September 17, 1997 and directed his new government to change the name of the country from Zaire to The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Uganda also played a major role in the First Congo War. Ugandan soldiers were present in Zaire throughout the conflict and were responsible for training AFDL troops.

The ethnic feuds in Ituri and Kivu continued. All Tutsis regardless of their Congolese citizenship continued to be hated by the rest of the Congolese tribes except for the Hema in Ituri. Tutsis were considered “outsiders” especially after the Rwandan army had come to their defense. Meanwhile, the Hutu extremists had not been eradicated by the Rwandan army as expected and were still living somewhere up in the eastern mountains of the DRC. Without leaving troops in the DRC, the Rwandans would not be able to successfully remove the threat of an attack on their country by the Hutu guerrillas who had participated in the Rwandan genocide. There was no doubt that they would try and reclaim their country once again and reestablish a Hutu-based government in Rwanda. The Rwandan army dug in their heels and refused to leave North-eastern DRC until it had successfully accomplished its mission and Uganda would not agree to depart either. Uganda and Rwandan had begun to mine “conflict minerals” in secret although each country denied it when asked by UN mediators in the Congo in 1997

By the end of 1997 President Kabila was strong enough in his position as President of the DRC to demand the withdrawal of all Rwandan and Ugandan forces from his country. This request and the hatred between the Lendu and the Hema led to The Second War in the Congo in 1998.

 Kat Nickerson   Kingston, RI  USA

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