Archive | June, 2012

M23 Movement: Will Ntaganda Elude Punishment Again?

24 Jun

Two very different stories have been pitched to the international press corps lately: The first tale was told to local news stations by representatives from the Communication Ministry of the DR Congo located in the capital city of Kinshasa. While the second was emailed by M23 to members of the foreign news agencies as press releases (thirteen in all as of 27/05/2012). These documents were composed by former CNDP rebels, now soldiers in the Congolese army, who had deserted their posts around the same time as Ex-General Bosco Ntaganda left with his own men sometime in early April 2012. This first group of soldiers call themselves the March 23rd Movement or M23 and all they want is a reconciliation with the government in Kinshasa – the same reconciliation promised to them in the March 23, 2009 Amani Leo Peace Agreement  

Both groups have provided vastly different versions of the role Bosco Ntaganda has played in the present conflict in the north-eastern part of the DR Congo. Although the Kabila government informed the international press that M23 fights for Bosco Ntaganda people in the district know differently. According to M23 they do not fight for Bosco Ntaganda, never have. They fight to restore rights awarded to them in the Amani Leo Peace Accord which was signed at the end of the Second War in the Congo in 2003. Bosco Ntaganda is not their leader. Colonel Sultani Makenga leads them and Colonel Vianney Kazarama directs them through their battles with government troops. They have relocated to the Virunga National Forest located directly across from Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda which is also where Ntaganda settled with his troops. This section of tropical forest is home to the Mountain Gorilla (for more information see Blog 6) which is considered an endangered species by the World Wildlife Federation – a total population of 800 gorillas remain.

But in order to make sense of the present situation it is best to look at Ntaganda’s past actions. During the Second War in the Congo, members of the Tutsi ethnic group living in the Congo created the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) to defend themselves against attack by marauding Hutu who had taken part in the Rwandan Genocide. These Hutu soldiers had been expelled from Rwanda by the Rwandan Army once the Tutsi government had taken control of the country sometime in 1995. Laurent Nkunda was the acknowledged leader of the CNDP and he brought Bosco Ntaganda on board to serve as his second in command. Both Nkunda and Ntaganda were Tutsis and former citizens of Rwanda who had fought in the Rwandan War for Independence in 1994. Bosco Ntaganda eventually betrayed General Laurent Nkunda and took over command of the CNDP forces. Rumor has it that Ntaganda was paid a large sum of money by the Rwandan government to remove Nkunda from his position because he would no longer follow orders issued by the Rwandan government. General Nkunda was subsequently turned over to Rwandan military personnel who escorted him to Rwanda where he remains under house arrest to this day.

Ntaganda must have become concerned when President Joseph Kabila openly talked about arresting him in a speech Kabila made this spring after having defended Ntaganda for so long. Kabila’s change of heart was unexpected and contrary to the conditions laid out in the Amani Leo Peace Accord. Under the terms of this agreement, Ntaganda’s crimes should have been forgiven when he accepted his commission as a general in the Congolese army. At the end of the second war in the Congo all of Ntaganda’s CNDP troops were also conscripted into the Congolese Army by President Laurent Kabila in order to ensure a peaceful transition throughout the country especially in the eastern districts that had been plagued by outbreaks of militia warfare.

So in April 2012 Ntaganda gathered around 200 of his former CNDP troops together and defected after hearing the news that his former commander, Thomas Lubanga, had been found guilty by the International Criminal Court of war crimes against humanity and would be sentenced sometime in the summer. Ntaganda had also been indicted by the same international court in 2006 for numerous “crimes against humanity” but had never been arrested even though he lived in the city of Goma where the UN Peace- Keeping Mission was stationed. On May 14th 2012, Louis Ocampo, chief prosecutor for the ICC added the charges of murder, persecution, and sexual slavery to the previous warrant he had issued against Ntaganda. Bosco Ntaganda continued to command his group of men for a time and had positioned them within Virunga Forest as well. But by April 2012 he had begun conscripting young boys into his army again. He sent them into skirmishes with FARC troops and several of the boys died as a result of wounds received in combat.

The appointment of Ntaganda as a General in the Congolese army happened around the time that the peace accord was signed by the Congolese government and the leaders of the CNDP. The M23 troops swear that the government also promised to give them status as a political party. The conditions stipulated in the Amani Leo Accord never materialized beyond the signing of the document. Over time members of the CNDP militia, now soldiers in the Congolese army, split into two separate organizations; those who remained loyal to the ideals of their former leader Nkunda and those who followed Ntaganda. According to M23 leaders this lies at the heart of their issues with the DRC government.

Then something transpired between Ntaganda and his own troops. Did he sell them out to the Congolese Government after making a deal for himself? Or did he just up and disappear one evening? Did his own troops cut him loose because they believed in something more than monetary profit? Or did they discover that Ntaganda had made a deal for himself with the government and was nothing more than an opportunist- a classic narcissist with sociopathic tendencies? Whatever happened, Bosco Ntaganda left his own men and abruptly disappeared from the district.

On May 7, 2012 the Congolese Army claimed that it had retaken the Masisi area in eastern Congo from the M23 rebels. The government claimed that it was still looking for Bosco Ntaganda and had no idea where he had gone. Yet according to an M23 statement in the thirteenth press release the government knew exactly where Ntaganda could be found because they had put him there. It was common knowledge among the villagers in the district that Ntaganda had made a deal with President Joseph Kabila then deserted his troops for his Bunyoli farm in Masisi where he remains awaiting additional orders. And they know this because they have seen him there walking about on his farm.

The suspension of Amani Leo was the impetus for the M23 soldiers to renounce both Ntaganda and the corrupt elements of the Congolese Army (FARDC). And although the M23 leaders have announced that their goal is to reconcile with the Kabila government after the conditions identified in the March 23, 2009 Amani Leo Peace Agreement have been awarded to them, the government says that it is not interested in restoring their rights or in making peace. President Kabila has made it clear that he will not negotiate with the rebels and intends to fight it out until M23 surrenders or has been defeated.

The M23 troops swear that their April 2012 defection from their army posts took place to call attention to the crimes being perpetrated on Tutsi civilians by members the Hutu FDLR and the mistreatment of Tutsi residents by soldiers in the Congolese Army. They wanted to ensure that the government took specific measures to remove these renegade Hutu from the region in order prevent them from committing anymore acts of violence against the Congolese civilian population especially Tutsis. They also sought to pressure the DRC government into implementing the conditions of the Amani Leo Peace Agreement. They want to make it clear that they never meant to wage war against President Joseph Kabila’s troops but were only defending themselves against attack. They say they never wanted to fight; their goal was to return to the conditions set forth in the Amani Leo Peace Accord, be paid a fair salary, and eat. And they want to make it very clear that they have never had any affiliation at any time with General Bosco Ntaganda. They find it extremely unfair that the government of the DRC has “decided to fight them instead of listen to them or help make things better for them.” They want this conflict to end so that they can return to their posts and resume their normal responsibilities as soldiers in the Congolese army.

Unfortunately the leaders in Kinshasa have seriously underestimated the collective talent of the M23 troops who are all seasoned fighters with years of combat experience behind them. They have fought well in the skirmishes so far and have managed to hold off a much larger Congolese Army (FARDC). They took and held the territory along the Congo-Rwanda border, as well as the towns of Mbuzi, Runyoni, and Bunagana. M23 reported this week that it had seized a considerable cache of weapons from the Congolese army after one very heated exchange of gunfire and ground missiles.

Once again, as in the past it has been the civilians in the region who have had their lives disrupted by the impromptu battles and constant exchange of bullets. Most have had to relocate in order to survive. MONUSCO confirmed that around 200,000 refugees have already fled their homes as a result of the latest battles in the area between the M23 rebels, Congolese army, and the Mai-Mai militias. And another 10,000 refugees crossed the border in early May headed for displacement camps in Rwanda and Uganda. About 55,000 Congolese refugees, most of them Congolese Tutsis, have registered for shelter in the Rwandan camps.

Then there are the rumors leaked by the Congolese government and supported by the UN that Rwanda began supporting M23 troops in early May. The government further claimed that up to 300 young Tutsi had been recruited and trained in Rwanda then sent on to serve as M23 troops. The Rwandan government has continued to deny both of these allegations. And then there is the blatant lie that M23 is connected in some way to the Hutu “genocidaires” in Kivu District. The truth of the matter is that during the Second War in the Congo all of the M23 soldiers were once members of the Tutsi militia, CDNP and that the Hutu soldiers hiding in Kivu District were responsible for the deaths of millions of Tutsis. There is no way that M23 troops would align themselves to members of the FDLR after the Tutsi Genocide perpetrated by the Hutus in 1994. This was one of the major reasons they defected in the first place- to make sure that the FDLR Hutu rebels were stopped from attacking and murdering Congolese civilians especially Tutsi in Kivu District. 

The United Nations Organization Mission, DR Congo (MONUSCO) has publically condemned the actions of the M23 soldiers but UN mediators did offer to arbitrate an agreement between M23 and the Kabila government if asked. The UN Security Council has officially petitioned Rwanda and Uganda to help prevent the “flow of supplies” to the M23 troops and to assist in “demobilizing” all armed militias operating in the Eastern Kivu region.

But wasn’t that the reason for the second war in the Congo in the first place? Uganda and Rwanda have no right to enter any section of the Congo without being formally invited by President Kabila first. But it is the Congolese government that has taken an inflexible position in this matter, not M23, and it has already admitted that it will show “no mercy.” By all accounts Kabila plans to exterminate these mutinous troops but why? So why doesn’t he disclose his plans for Ntaganda as well?

Rumors abound as the violence and fear generated by excessive battles in Kivu District rekindle old feuds and rivalries among ethnic groups in the area. Former Mai-Mai militias have regrouped and reports that over 120 people have been killed by Mai-Mai in tribal fighting during the past month have reached Kinshasa. Two Mai-Mai militias, the Raia Mutomboki and the Kifuafua have been credited with the murders in Masisi. Mai-Mai militias were originally formed as tribal defense organizations in the Second War in the Congo and both fought against the Hutu FDLR who were hiding out in the forests near their villages.The Mai-Mai militias took over the Masisi region after the M23 soldiers left the area at the beginning of May. It has been reported that both of these militias killed Tutsi civilians which is highly doubtful because both of these militias fought against the Hutu in the past and defended the Congolese Tutsi populations. It was the Mai-Mai militias who took on the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) forces.

On May 14th, eleven Pakistani UN soldiers were seriously injured in an attack on their base camp by over a thousand people in the town of Bunvakiri, South Kivu. Bystanders at the scene reported that the crowd was led by members of the Mai-Mai militia, Raia Mutomboki. The soldiers were part of a peacekeeping detail with the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO).

Is the Congolese government getting ready to blame this entire incident on M23 and excuse the actions of Bosco Ntaganda like it has so often done in the past? If so, remember that this time the world is not only watching, President Kabila, but it will demand that justice be done.  If these soldiers have to pay for their defection then Bosco Ntaganda must be punished too! There is nothing that these soldiers have done that in anyway compares to the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Ntaganda. Arrest him and send him to the Hague where he belongs along with the rest of the madmen who will eventually stand trial there. Let him be tried by the ICC as the war criminal he was and still is. Because if you protect him one more time, President Kabila, the next warrant issued by the ICC should be for you.

Kat Nickerson   Kampala,  Uganda


A Visit to Gulu: Remnants of the Past Mingle with the Present

17 Jun

Dr. Okumu and his mother Auma

Before you begin to read Blog 14 I need to make you, the reader aware of how I arranged this narrative. The people in my story are very real and I have recorded their stories exactly the way they have told them to me. Presently the city of Gulu is one big melting pot filled with people who in one way or another were involved in the Civil War in the north or were associated with Joseph Kony either willingly or unwillingly. The past is still very much present on the streets of Gulu where soldiers who were once members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have been allowed to return- no questions asked. Child soldiers have turned into grown men; many of whom have chosen careers as Boda-Boda men, motorcycle drivers. They stand together shoulder to shoulder on street corners around Gulu waiting to provide rides to passengers needing their services. Many young women who have opened kiosks and sell dresses or household goods to customers around town were at one time or another housed at GUSCO – Gulu Support the Children Organization Reception Center having been either sex slaves, soldiers’ wives, or girl soldiers; all of them attached in some way to the LRA. And even the “good guys” in the conflict, The Ugandan army (UPDF), did not turn out to be that professional in their dealings with the Acholi people especially when moving them into the Internal Displacement Camps. The individuals who have chosen to share their memories with me need to have their bravery and courageous actions documented and acknowledged by the entire world community. These men were regular, everyday people who did the impossible by standing tall and following their consciences when it was far simpler to take things by force and act in their own interests.

I left Kampala with a team of university professors and an educational administrator last Sunday morning to further investigate several educational research topics in northern Uganda. We left very early in the morning and it took us between seven to eight hours to reach Gulu. It was my second visit there and is a long tiring drive. Gulu is a city located in northern Uganda. It played a major role during the Civil War in Uganda which was fought in the north and lasted from 1986 until 2006, a full twenty years. Patrick, our van driver and personal friend, told us stories on the way into the city about what it was like in this region during the Civil War. He had been hired by American and Ugandan journalists to drive them into the bush in order to conduct secret meetings with specific guerilla commanders fighting in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) although he was sure that these reporters had never met with the actual leader of the LRA, one Joseph Kony during any of these trips. (For an explanation about Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army see Blog Two). Sometimes the journalists had made previous arrangements to meet with certain rebels at particular places along the road but other times the reporters had Patrick question the villagers about the LRA’s location and drive down narrow, dirt paths far into the bush in hopes that they might run into some of Kony’s men. This was a very dangerous maneuver that could have gotten all of them killed but one that Patrick had to comply with as the driver of the van. Patrick took the journalists and television newsmen into Gulu a total of five times and was paid very handsomely for his efforts by their news bureaus but he admitted that the money in no way made up for the continuous fear and uncertainty he experienced during his visits there.

On our way in he pointed out the remnants of two very large Internal Displacement Camps. By 2004 two million people had been interned by the Ugandan government in 180 separate Internal Displacement Camps located in northern Uganda in order to keep them safe from the Lord’s Resistance Army and other rebel groups fighting in the area (WHO, 2009). The camps consisted of quickly constructed circular wattle huts, the walls of which were made out of a hard clay mud with tiers of heavy wooden sticks tied together in bundles and layered around the top the mud brick hut. These camp models were poor copies of the traditional Acholi huts constructed by the Acholi people in spacious compounds around the region of Gulu. Although these huts do come in different sizes the ones I have been invited to enter are all high enough to stand up straight in once you bend down in order to enter the doorway. In traditional Acholi compounds relatives share the entire space but do not build their huts close to one another as a rule. In the Displacement camps the huts were built so close together that each roof was almost touching the one beside it. These camps had some of the highest mortality rates in the world. According to data collected in a report written by IRIN Africa: Uganda, one thousand people per week died mostly from AIDS- related diseases and Malaria. All of the Acholi families have since left the camps and the remaining wattle huts have been re-allocated to the elderly residents of Gulu especially those who lost all of their children and/or relatives in the civil war. There is another set of huts further down the road presently occupied by destitute families who have nowhere else to go.

As we entered Gulu Center Patrick slowed down as he drove by a very large hotel. He told us that this was the hotel in which he and the reporters had stayed during the war. He explained that it was the only one open at the height of the war. According to him it was guarded by Ugandan soldiers because it was where the Uganda officers serving in the UPDF were housed and so was a safe zone in the middle of town. He remembered how quiet the streets were compared to the blusterous noise coming from the crowds parading up and down the main roads as we made our way over to our hotel and how guarded the few people were when out on the streets. He remembered that men would hunch down and run as fast as they could in order to cross the street similar to the stance a tight end takes in an American  football game.

Gulu is a much hotter and more humid region of the country of Uganda than the capital city of Kampala that is located farther south. The weather thermometer can reach well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit on any sunny afternoon and it is far more humid than Kampala with humidity percentages running in the mid-90’s. It is not unusual to start sweating behind the neck and around the chest area as soon as one gets out of the car. There is a distinct smell in the air in Gulu Center though whether it is from smoke caused by burning trash or methane gas produced by the livestock in the fields I do not know- but there is definitely something distinctly different in the air. Nowadays there is a great deal of purposeful activity on the streets and a lot of buildings are either being repaired or new ones are being constructed from scratch. People are preoccupied as they walk down the main thoroughfares and look as if they are going somewhere to do something meaningful.

Gulu is currently a place where Non-Governmental Organizations and Church Groups (NGO’s) abound. Four wheel drive vehicles bearing a range of distinctive logos on their car doors and strangely numbered license plates attest to a myriad of organizations whose offices are located on the main streets of Gulu. Relief organizations such as Save the Children, US AID, UNICEF, UNESCO, and The World Health Organization have erected signs that point the way to their individual headquarters. There are so many “mzungu” (Swahili word for white people) especially Americans, scampering up and down the streets of Gulu that you’ll think that somehow you’ve been magically transported back to the good ole US of A. You’ll see groups of adults who’ve come as part of American –sponsored church relief efforts as well as a large population of college students who’ve arrived by bus to volunteer in educational and community programs as part of the Invisible Children Initiative. I think the presence of foreigners with money is just what the economy of Gulu needs and look upon the infiltration of “Mzungus” in the area as something like a Post-Civil War Disney World where tourists volunteer to help out rather than take another go at Space Mountain.

Gulu was settled by members of the Acholi tribe along with the Lendi who remain the dominant ethnic populations in the area. One of the professors who accompanied me on this trip is a dear friend and colleague, Professor Santo Aumu Okumu, professor and chairman of the Psychology Department at Kyambogo University in Kampala. Dr. O is a member of the Acholi tribe who was living and working in Gulu at the start of the Civil War. His mother, brothers, and sisters still live in their village compound just outside of Gulu proper and were also in living Gulu at the beginning of the war. We arrived at out hotel named The FreeZone, a four story building that sat kitty-corner on two of the main streets with outside terraces around the top three floors. We walked up the stairs to the lobby and registration desk which was currently located on the second floor. There was new construction going on throughout the first floor and it looked like the hotel’s dining rooms and restaurants would be housed there permanently. We were shown to our rooms which were identified by the names by countries rather than numbers. Different members of the team were placed in France, Japan, and Israel.

The first thing we did after we had checked into our hotel was to drive to Professor O’s family compound in order to meet his mother, Mama Aumu, Dr. O’s mother. Mama Aumu is eighty-seven years old but does not look her age one bit. She is little and wiry but still spry even at her advanced age. She reminds me of my University Chancellor who has that same type of physique. Auma still tends to a very large garden located directly across from her traditional wattle hut. As mother and son talked together I could tell by his body-language that he cared for her very much and she for him- he even took her first name and included it in his own name when he received his Doctorate in Psychology. “My mother had no chance of receiving a formal education as a woman in this village many years ago,” he said, “but she would have loved to have gone to school. So she instilled the value of an education in each one of her four children. I have included her name in my own in order to honor her and her achievements so that each time my full name is spoken along with my academic titles her name is spoken as well.”

Dr.O’s wife and one of his daughters had arrived in Gulu the day before with an American college student named Cara who lived in Syracuse, New York. She was part of a “World Peace” exchange program in which American college students are hosted by Acholi families in Gulu for several weeks in order to learn the culture. Mama Auma has hosted these young American women for four years now and loves interacting with the girls. After her time in Gulu is up Cara will move on to Kigali, Rwanda and stay with another family.

Mama Auma insisted that we eat and rest out of the glare of the midday sun so we sat for awhile in her guest house chatting with Dr. O and some of his relatives. Mama went off to her traditional Acholi kitchen to brew some Chai, (East African tea) and prepare buttered bread. Eventually their concerns about the weather changed to the men’s experiences during the Uganda Civil War and I listened intently to what they shared with me. And then Dr. O. began to tell us his heart wrenching story as only he could. He told it well but with no emotion, It was as if he were relaying a popular episode of a very violent television show but I knew why he delivered his narrative this way. It was in order to keep his intense feelings from interfering with the telling of the story. Had he allowed the emotions connected to this experience to come forward he would not have been able to physically tell the story without breaking down. I too, had learned to use the same technique upon occasion in order to relay painful memories about my work in East Africa without causing a scene.

Santo Aumu Okumu was a thirty -two year old teacher at a secondary school in Gulu District when members of the Lords Resistance Army came for him. It was late in the afternoon when they arrived at the school and most of the students had already left for home but Santo had remained to finish some paperwork and was sitting at his desk when they entered the room. He did not know these men, they were not from Gulu and they spoke in Swahili, not the native Acholi language used in the district. “Then they tied me up and made me go with them,” he added.

This simple yet poignant statement caused me to look over at the deep, red lines of scar tissue still visible on the skin around his neck, directly under his chin. They looked raw, like they still hurt and this had happened to him 17 years ago. And then based on what I recalled about the LRA’s tactics, it became obvious to me that the rebels had first given him a severe beating so he could not fight back then tied a thick, course, hemp rope around his neck that bit into his skin as they dragged him along- all the way back to their base camp. This must have been a very painful experience but I did not say a word. Dr. O needed to tell the story his way.

“Once we got to the camp, some of the rebels wanted to kill me right away. They said that I was too old and would not make a good soldier in the Lords Resistance Army. I thought that I needed a strategy – a way to get them to see me as a person so I began to ask them questions about their motives.”

“What is your goal? What are you fighting for?” Dr. O asked. My questions made some of the guerillas only want to kill me more but I managed to get the commander’s attention and he actually listened to how I had phrased my questions.”

“You sound like a very smart man,” the commander said. “How many degrees have you earned?”

“I have three advanced degrees as of this date,” Dr. O replied and began listing the name of each degree and the date on which it had been bestowed. “I am a teacher.”

The leader then turned to the rest of his men and asked, “How many of you have three advanced degrees? How many have earned any degrees at all?”

No one responded so the leader continued, “This man, he is an educated man. I am going to make him the Minister of Education for the New Uganda. He will see to it that primary and secondary schools will be created for the people of the north.” And the commander put him in a house on the outskirts of Gulu with five guards to carry out his orders and see that he was not disturbed.

“I sat in that house for several days and nights- not knowing what to do. I was not sure whether the rebels would change their minds and come back to kill me. But I needed to take care of my family. That was all that was on my mind. I kept requesting to see my wife, children, and my mother and finally after a couple of weeks the commander, the one who had captured me, granted me permission to go back to my village but he also assigned two LRA soldiers to go with me. One of these men I knew because he was my brother’s friend. We left in the dead of night and I had no shoes or socks on so I had to walk through the bush barefoot and my feet became pained when I stepped on sharp things.”

He had greatly understated the situation again. He had had to walk for many miles in order to return home and he could have stepped on a range of sharp and possibly deadly objects such as long, spiked, thorns, sharp rocks, even snakes. His feet were probably broken and bloody by the time he reached his family’s compound back in the village.

“Once I had made it to my mother’s house I told both guards that I would not return to assume my duties as the Minister of Education for the New Uganda. Neither one of them seemed to have a problem with my intention and both left peaceably to return to their own family compounds the next morning.”

“And did the LRA soldiers come to get you? I asked before he had a chance to resume.

“No, but I did not wait around for them to arrive , as soon as I was able I went to find a Red Cross official located in Gulu who I had worked with in the past and he helped me move my immediate family south to Kampala but my mother and my brother lived in the camp for a time.”

“My goal was to move all of my relatives away from the conflict and there was one time in my house in Kampala that I had over thirty-five people living with me, my wife, and my children.” He laughed as he told me this but even the twinkle in his eyes could not mask his heroic efforts to save his family or his profound display of empathy.

Kat Nickerson              Kampala,       Uganda

The Second War in the Congo: The Lendu and the Hema

9 Jun

Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

Just a short explanation. I arrived in Kampala, Uganda on Sunday evening of this week and resumed my duties as a visiting professor in the Education/ Psychology Departments at Kyambogo University on Tuesday. I leave for Gulu and Kitgum tommorrow with a team of professors. From now on my posts will be written in Uganda and will  help educate you about the most current civil war -related issues Iwill continue to investigate in northern Uganda.

 The second war in the DR Congo commenced directly after the first war and lasted for fifteen extremely long years.  There was never any lull in the conflict between the first and second war. Known as the “Great War”, it was fought mostly in the northeast region of the Congo- Ituri District. It has been estimated that some 3.3million people died there between August 1998 and July 2003. Some residents of the northeast believe that based on the level of violence still occurring in the area the second war continues on. According to the International Rescue Committee ( IRC, 2003), “ It was the most deadly war ever documented on African soil with the highest death toll anywhere in the world since World War II.” It began because President Laurent Kabila in order to secure the capital city of Kinshasa and topple the Mobutu government ensconced there accepted help from the countries of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi in the form of troops, training, arms, and general aid. After he had established his own government in Kinshasa he tired of their interference in what he considered to be “Congolese” matters and so in July 28, 1998 he released a public announcement calling for all Ugandans and Rwandans serving in his government in any capacity, administrative or military to immediately leave the country.

Ugandan and Rwandan troops had been crossing the border between their own countries and the DRCongo without permission under the guise of chasing down the Hutu rebels responsible for the Rwandan genocide. The Interahamwe, (Hutu militia responsible for the Rwandan Genocide) were living directly across the border from Rwanda and the Ugandan rebels had created bases in the far northeast sector. But Kabila was aware that each country had begun illegal mining operations in eastern Congo and had been transporting the raw materials back to their home countries to sell on the world market.

Five days later on August 2, 1998 the newly allied countries of Rwanda and Uganda invaded the DRCongo with most of the fighting taking place in the north-eastern region of the country and the city of Goma. Soldiers in the Congolese army stationed around Goma who were of Tutsi descent deserted their battalions and joined the Rwandan troops stationed in the area. The Rwandan army combined with Tutsi militia and Ugandan troops formed the RDC which took over the diamond mines of Kisangani on the upper Congo River. The Rwandan president even flew troops near the capital city and they took key positions surrounding Kinshasa. The commanders had orders to initiate a coup in which they would take over Kabila’s government.

But the Uganda/Rwanda aggressors had not counted on the countries of Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad, and Libya entering the fray and coming to the defense of DR Congo with additional support from the Sudan. The allies succeeded in repelling the RDC’s strikes in the Northwest and Southwest region of the Congo but the war in the Northeast degenerated into open insurgence. Local residents armed “to the teeth” with whatever weapons they could lay their hands on engaged the Ugandan and Rwandan troops in combat on the main road to the capital city before they could take Kinshasa. Zimbabwean forces secured Ndjili International Airport just outside of Kinshasa. In the end many Congolese soldiers and civilians died in the fighting but President Laurent Kabila was able to keep his government intact.

The first four allies mentioned above were fellow members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) along with DR Congo. They each had vested interests in the welfare of the DR Congo. Zimbabwe had loaned Kabila millions of dollars to fight his first Congo War and Angola needed a stable Congo which would not harbor Angolan guerrillas.

The feud between the Hema and the Lendu persisted and then began to include other tribal groups in the area concerned about their fair share of arable land and mineral resources. Desperate Hema, seeking to evict Lendu from what they considered to be their rightful land and mineral rights, pleaded with Ugandan forces to help them. The Uganda’s People Defense Force (UPDF) was only too willing to comply because this provided them with the opportunity they needed to intervene and take control the natural resources in the mineral –rich region of Ituri. Once involved, Uganda used its position in the region to illegally export Congo resources, especially gold to the international market. Some of this money was used to assure the continued loyalty of local Hema warlords and to back the rebel group Rally for Congolese Democracy   RCD-K led by Kisangani.

The Ugandan army with the help of the Hema managed to drive the Lendu in Ituri District from their lands. Hema guerrillas formed the Union Of Congolese Patriots (UPC/Hema). They also began to enslave Lendu males and females who had been captured during their raids on Lendu villages forcing them to work in the Ugandan-controlled mines. In 1999 the leader of the UPDF forces in Ituri created a new province and named a man from Hema descent as governor. This move on the part of the Uganda forces convinced the Lendu that the Ugandans and the RCD-K were rallying the Hema against them. In response to the assaults by Hema civilians, who were backed by the Tutsi in the area and the Ugandan soldiers, the Lendu formed their own militant organizations in order to protect their land. They called upon members of the Hutu community to stand with them. The fighting between the two groups culminated in the Bluhwa Massacre when 400 Hema were murdered by Lendu villagers and the UPDF although staunchly allied to the Hema did nothing to stop the slaughter.

In reaction to the Lendu’s vehement response the UPDF named a new governor for Ituri region but wisely sent him to Kampala to serve out his term. In 2001 The Hema and Lendu began fighting again causing the UPDF to replace the current governor with a man of Hema heritage further incensing the Lendu.  Physical conflicts fueled by unjust land distribution claims lodged by the Lendu against the Hema erupted in the years 1972, 1985, and again in 1996.  

Long after the fighting in the west had ended Uganda continued to fuel the war by supporting rebel groups located in Ituri District.  Rwanda did so as well by backing the Reassemblement Congolaise pour la Democratie, (RCD) and the Movement de Liberation du Congo (MLC).

Congolese rebel groups also appeared in the vicinity especially around the Kivus which was under the control of the Congolese Tutsi who were supported by the Rwandan army and the rebel group, the Rally for the Congolese Democracy (RCD-Goma).

They were referred to in the villages as Mai-Mai and came together to resist the invasion of the Rwandan army and strikes made by Congolese Tutsi, These were fluid groups that came together and disbanded according to the defensive needs of the district but some groups were no more than bandits who used their notoriety as rebels to amass great wealth by exploiting all villagers regardless of ethnic affiliation.

The Great War changed how wars have since been waged in Africa. No longer do two armies come together and fight it out until one is victorious. No more are civilians considered exempt under the “rules of war”. Confrontation in this new type of combat is short and deadly and limited to quick fire fights and short skirmishes that determine the right to claim specific pieces of land which provide access to valuable minerals. In their haste to control these resources even the Ugandan and Rwandan armies fought it out to see who would control what territories. Civilians suffer most in this new type of warfare as rebel groups deliberately terrorize local residents using tactical methods such as torture, mutilation, and the systematized rape of women to keep all of the local inhabitants compliant and subdued.

Residents who are unlucky enough to find themselves within the area of conflict have been enslaved, tortured, mutilated, starved, murdered, and even eaten by rebel groups on both sides. Men and women in Ituri district have been forced to work in the mines by Congolese, Rwandan, Ugandan, and Burundian troops for no salary or any form of compensation at all. Rwanda went as far as to sell mining rights to Congolese land to foreign firms. Ugandan troops openly conducted mining operations in Ituri District where they removed valuable minerals and sold them on the world market as Ugandan resources up until 2003.

 Not only have the rebel militias and the Congolese army used the citizens of the Congo to their own advantage but they have intentionally left them with nothing: no land, no resources, no wildlife, no farms, no crops, no livestock and above all, no chance at a reasonably happy life. Approximately 5.4 million Congolese citizens died in the Second War in the Congo as a result of war-related afflictions. The insurgents have forced millions to become refugees, to leave their villages for displacement camps where thousands are crowded together within tiny fenced-in compounds controlled by impatient soldiers and well-meaning NGO’s. It is as if they live in suspended animation just waiting for the day that they will be told to leave so that they can begin their lives once more. In the soldiers’ relentless greed not only did they abscond with the people’s lands and resources; they stole their futures as well.

The Second War in the Congo officially ended in July 2003. Troops from Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi publically withdrew from all regions of the DR Congo although rebel groups financed by Uganda and Rwanda still inhabit sections of Ituri and North/South Kivu. The Hema and Lendu continue to hold on to their grudges against one another only they are more concerned at the moment with staying out of the rebels’ way. The warlords and rebel commanders have not been punished. In fact many were made generals in the Congolese Army at the end of the war and their men inducted as soldiers into the Congolese Army as well. There are citizens of the DR Congo who believe that the Second War in the Congo never stopped – it continues on today especially in the resource –rich territory of Ituri District. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued indictments but has yet to sentence anyof the militia leaders for human rights violations perpetrated during this war.

 If ever there was a country that needed vindication it is the DR Congo. If ever there was a people who needed relief it is the Congolese people. How can a country as large and as rich in natural resources as the DR Congo remain home to one of the poorest populations in the world?

 According to Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja,director of the Oslo Governance Centre of the United Nations Development Programme and professor emeritus of African studies at Howard University, Washington, D.C, “For if billions of dollars can be spent in fighting against ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in the Balkans, why it is difficult to devote even a small fraction of that amount to combating similar crimes in Africa?”

Kat Nickerson      Kampala,      Uganda