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Photo Essay Laurent Nkunda

Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe

by Gérard Prunier

Oxford University Press, 529 pp., $27.95

The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa

by René Lemarchand

University of Pennsylvania Press, 327 pp., $59.95

The Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth and Reality

by Thomas Turner

Zed Books, 243 pp., $32.95 (paper)

Although it has been strangely ignored in the Western press, one of the most destructive wars in modern history has been going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa’s third-largest country. During the past eleven years millions of people have died, while armies from as many as nine different African countries fought with Congolese government forces and various rebel groups for control of land and natural resources. Much of the fighting has taken place in regions of northeastern and eastern Congo that are rich in minerals such as gold, diamonds, tin, and coltan, which is used in manufacturing electronics.

Few realize that a main force driving this conflict has been the largely Tutsi army of neighboring Rwanda, along with several Congolese groups supported by Rwanda. The reason for this involvement, according to Rwandan president Paul Kagame, is the continued threat to Rwanda posed by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu militia that includes remnants of the army that carried out the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Until now, the US and other Western powers have generally supported Kagame diplomatically. And in January, Congo president Joseph Kabila, whose weak government has long had limited influence in the eastern part of the country, entered a surprise agreement with Kagame to allow Rwandan forces back into eastern Congo to fight the FDLR. But the extent of the Hutu threat to Rwanda is much debated, and observers note that Rwandan-backed forces have themselves been responsible for much of the violence in eastern Congo over the years.

Rwanda’s intervention in Congo began in 1996. Two years earlier, Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had invaded Rwanda from neighboring Uganda, defeating the government in Kigali and ending the genocide of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. As Kagame installed a minority Tutsi regime in Rwanda, some two million Hutu refugees fled to UN-run camps, mostly in Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces. These provinces, which occupy an area of about 48,000 square miles—slightly larger than the state of Pennsylvania—are situated along Congo’s eastern border with Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi and together have a population of more than five million people. In addition to containing rich deposits of minerals, North and South Kivu have, since the precolonial era, been subject to large waves of migration by people from Rwanda, including both Hutus and Tutsis. In recent decades these Rwandans have competed with more established residents for control of land.

Following Kagame’s consolidation of power in Rwanda, a large invasion force of Rwandan Tutsis arrived in North and South Kivu to pursue Hutu militants and to launch a war against the three-decade-long dictatorship of Congo (then known as Zaire) by Mobutu Sese Seko, whom they claimed was giving refuge to the leaders of the genocide. With Rwandan and Ugandan support, a new regime led by Laurent Kabila was installed in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital. But after Kabila ordered the Rwandan troops to leave in 1998, Kagame responded with a new and even larger invasion of the country.

Kabila’s hold on power was saved at this point by Angola and Zimbabwe, which rushed troops into Congo to repel the Rwandan invaders. Angola was motivated by fears that Congolese territory would be used as a rear base by the longtime Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, following the renewed outbreak of that country’s civil war. Zimbabwe appears to have been drawn by promises of access to Congolese minerals. The protracted and inconclusive conflict that followed has become what Gérard Prunier, in the title of his sprawling book, calls “Africa’s World War,” a catastrophic decade of violence that has led to a staggering 5.4 million deaths, far more than any war anywhere since World War II.1 It also has resulted in one of the largest—and least followed—UN interventions in the world, involving nearly 20,000 UN soldiers from over forty countries.

Throughout this conflict, Rwanda—a small, densely populated country with few natural resources of its own—has pursued Congo’s enormous mineral wealth. Initially, the Rwandan Patriotic Front was directly operating mining businesses in Congo, according to UN investigators; more recently, Rwanda has attempted to maintain control of regions of eastern Congo through various proxy armies. Among these, none has been more lethal than the militia led by Laurent Nkunda, Congo’s most notorious warlord, whose record of violence in eastern Congo includes destroying entire villages, committing mass rapes, and causing hundreds of thousands of Congolese to flee their homes.

Nkunda is a Congolese Tutsi who is believed to have fought in both the Rwandan civil war and the subsequent war against Mobutu. In 2002, he was dispatched by the Rwandan government to Kisangani—an inland city in eastern Congo whose nearby gold mines have been fought over by Ugandan and Rwandan-backed forces. Nkunda committed numerous atrocities there, including the massacre of some 160 people, according to Human Rights Watch. In 2004, Nkunda declined a military appointment by Congo’s transitional government, choosing instead to back a Tutsi insurgency in North Kivu near the Rwandan border. He claimed that his actions were aimed at preventing an impending genocide of Tutsis in Congo. Most observers say that these claims were groundless.

Nkunda’s insurgency was put down, but clashes between his rebels, government forces, and other groups continued to foster ethnic tensions in eastern Congo, including widespread sexual violence against women; in 2005, the UN estimated that some 45,000 women were raped in South Kivu alone.2 And in the fall of 2008, Nkunda—apparently with Kagame’s encouragement—led a new offensive of Tutsi rebels in North Kivu that uprooted about 200,000 civilians and threatened to capture the city of Goma, near the Rwandan border.

In January 2009, however, the Rwandan government made a surprise decision to arrest Nkunda. Kagame’s willingness to move against Nkunda appears to stem, in part, from increasing international scrutiny of Rwanda’s meddling in eastern Congo. The arrest took place just after the release of a UN report documenting Rwanda’s close ties to the warlord, and concluding that he was being used to advance Rwanda’s economic interests in Congo’s eastern hinterlands. The report stated that Rwandan authorities had “been complicit in the recruitment of soldiers, including children, have facilitated the supply of military equipment, and have sent officers and units from the Rwandan Defense Forces,” while giving Nkunda access to Rwandan bank accounts and allowing him to launch attacks on the Congolese army from Rwandan soil.

Following Nkunda’s arrest, Congo president Joseph Kabila agreed to allow Rwandan forces to conduct a five-week joint military operation in eastern Congo against Hutu rebels.3 But attacks against civilians have increased precipitously since the joint operation, and with Hutu and Tutsi militias still active it remains unclear whether there will be a lasting peace between Rwanda and Congo.

Africa’s World War is the most ambitious of several remarkable new books that reexamine the extraordinary tragedy of Congo and Central Africa since the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Along with René Lemarchand’s The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa and Thomas Turner’s The Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth and Reality, Prunier’s Africa’s World War explores arguments that have circulated among scholars of sub-Saharan Africa for years. Prunier himself, who is an East Africa specialist at the University of Paris, has previously written a highly regarded account of the genocide. But these books will surprise many whose knowledge of the region is based on popular accounts of the genocide and its aftermath. In all three, the Kagame regime, and its allies in Central Africa, are portrayed not as heroes but rather as opportunists who use moral arguments to advance economic interests. And their supporters in the United States and Western Europe emerge as alternately complicit, gullible, or simply confused. For their part in bringing intractable conflict to a region that had known very little armed violence for nearly thirty years, all the parties—so these books argue—deserve blame, including the United States.

The concentrated evil of the methodical Hutu slaughter of Tutsis in 1994 is widely known. For many it has long been understood as a grim, if fairly simple, morality play: the Hutus were extremist killers, while the Tutsis of the RPF are portrayed as avenging angels, who swooped in from their bases in Uganda to stop the genocide. But Lemarchand and Prunier show that the story was far more complicated. They both depict the forces of Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front as steely, power-driven killers themselves.

“When the genocide did start, saving Tutsi civilians was not a priority,” Prunier writes. “Worse, one of the most questionable of the RPF ideologues coolly declared in September 1994 that the ‘interior’ Tutsi”—those who had remained in Rwanda and not gone into exile in Uganda years earlier—“deserved what happened to them ‘because they did not want to flee as they were getting rich doing business'” with the former Hutu regime. He also notes that the RPF “unambiguously opposed” all talk of a foreign intervention, however unlikely, to stop the genocide, apparently because such intervention could have prevented Kagame from taking full power.

Moreover, slaughter during the one hundred days of genocide was not the monopoly of the Hutus, as is widely believed. Both Lemarchand and Prunier recount the work of RPF teams that roamed the countryside methodically exterminating ordinary, unarmed Hutu villagers.4 This sort of killing, rarely mentioned in press accounts of the genocide, continued well after the war was over. For example, on April 22, 1995, units of the new national army surrounded the Kibeho refugee camp in south Rwanda, where about 150,000 Hutu refugees stood huddled shoulder to shoulder, and opened fire on the crowd with rifles and with 60mm mortars.5 According to Prunier, a thirty- two-member team of the Australian Medical Corps had counted 4,200 corpses at the camp before being stopped by the Rwandan army. Prunier calls the Kagame regime’s use of violence in that period “something that resembles neither the genocide nor uncontrolled revenge killings, but rather a policy of political control through terror.”

Some commentators in the United States have viewed Kagame as a sort of African Konrad Adenauer, crediting him with bringing stability and rapid economic growth to war-torn Rwanda, while running an administration considered to be one of the more efficient in Africa. In the nine years he has led the country (after serving as interim president, he won an election to a seven-year term in 2003), he has also gotten attention for the reconciliation process he has imposed on villages throughout Rwanda.

Firmly opposed to such views, the three authors reviewed here characterize Kagame’s regime as more closely resembling a minority ethnic autocracy. In a recent interview, Prunier dismissed the recently much-touted reconciliation efforts, calling post-genocide Rwanda “a very well-managed ethnic, social, and economic dictatorship.” True reconciliation, he said, “hinges on cash, social benefits, jobs, property rights, equality in front of the courts, and educational opportunities,” all of which are heavily stacked against the roughly 85 percent of the population that is Hutu, a problem that in Prunier’s view presages more conflict in the future. In his book, Lemarchand, an emeritus professor at the University of Florida who has done decades of fieldwork in the region, observes that Hutus have been largely excluded from important positions of power in Kagame’s Rwanda, and that the state’s military and security forces are pervasive. “The political decisions with the gravest consequences for the nation…are undertaken by the RPF’s Tutsi leadership, not by the political establishment,” he writes.

Those concerns are shared by human rights groups, which have documented the suppression of dissent in Rwanda.Freedom House ranked Rwanda 183 out of 195 countries in press freedom in 2008, while Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also described the Rwandan government as imposing harsh and arbitrary justice—including long-term incarceration without trial and life sentences in solitary confinement. Other Western observers and human rights activists have noted that the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has never properly investigated atrocities committed by Tutsis. In June, more than seventy scholars from North American and European universities wrote an open letter to the UN secretary-general, President Barack Obama, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown expressing “grave concern at the ongoing failure” of the tribunal to bring “indictments against those soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) who committed crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rwanda in 1994,” and warning that this omission may cause the tribunal “to be dismissed as ‘victor’s justice.'”

On the question of Rwanda’s principal motive for seeking to control or destabilize eastern Congo, the books broadly agree: Kagame and his government want, as Lemarchand writes, “continued access to the Congo’s economic wealth.” Lemarchand says that within Congo itself the FDLR poses a “clear and present danger to Tutsi and other communities.” Like Prunier, though, he concludes that the threat the Hutu group poses to Rwanda’s own security is “vastly exaggerated,” noting that its fighters “are no match” for Rwandan and Rwanda-backed forces amounting to “70,000 men under arms and a sophisticated military arsenal, consisting of armored personnel carriers (APCs), tanks, and helicopters.”

Thomas Turner draws parallels between the exploitation of Congo by Rwanda and Uganda and the brutal late-nineteenth-century regime of King Leopold of Belgium, whose thirst for empire drove his acquisition of what became known as the Congo Free State. Citing a 2001 United Nations investigation of the conflict, Turner concludes:

Resource extraction from eastern Congo, occupied by Uganda and Rwanda until recently, would seem to constitute “pure” pillage…. Much as in Free State days, the Congo was financing the occupation of a portion of its own territory. Unlike Free State days, none of the proceeds of this pillage were being reinvested.

According to a 2005 report on the Rwandan economy by the South African Institute for Security Studies, Rwanda’s officially recorded coltan production soared nearly tenfold between 1999 and 2001, from 147 tons to 1,300 tons, surpassing revenues from the country’s main traditional exports, tea and coffee, for the first time. “Part of the increase in production is due to the opening of new mines in Rwanda,” the report said. “However, the increase is primarily due to the fraudulent re-export of coltan of Congolese origin.”

When Rwanda moved to invade Mobutu’s Zaire in 1996, Prunier says, the country’s administration “was so rotten that the brush of a hand could cause it to collapse.” Since the 1960s, Congo had remained relatively stable by virtue of a confluence of circumstances, which suddenly no longer held. After backing the wrong side during the Rwandan genocide, France had lost its will or interest in playing its longtime part as regional patron to several client regimes. Following the removal of Mobutu, who often did the bidding of Western powers, there was no longer any clear regional strongman to mediate disputes. The allegiance of African states to the idea of permanently fixed borders, which had held firm since independence, was being challenged. And finally, the vacuum created by Mobutu’s overthrow unleashed fierce competition for Congolese coltan and other resources and led to what Turner calls the “militarization of commerce” by both foreign governments and rebel groups.

In allowing the Rwandan invasion of Zaire, the United States had two very different goals. The most immediate was the clearing of over one million Hutu refugees from UN camps near the Rwandan border, which had become bases for vengeful elements of the defeated Hutu army and Interahamwe militia, the agents of the Rwandan genocide. In Prunier’s telling:

When Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice came back from her first trip to the Great Lakes region [of East Africa], a member of her staff said, “Museveni [of Uganda] and Kagame agree that the basic problem in the Great Lakes is the danger of a resurgence of genocide and they know how to deal with that. The only thing we [i.e., the US] have to do is look the other way.”

The gist of Prunier’s anecdote is correct, except that participants have confirmed to me that it was Rice herself who spoke these words.

In fact, getting the Hutu militia out of the UN camps was rapidly achieved in November 1996 by shelling them from Rwandan territory. Thereafter, the war against Mobutu dominated international headlines, overshadowing a secret Rwanda campaign that targeted for slaughter the Hutu populations that had fled into Congo. Here again, Washington provided vital cover.

At the time, the American ambassador to Congo, Daniel Howard Simpson, told me flatly that the fleeing Hutus were “the bad guys.”6 One of the worst massacres by Kagame’s Tutsi forces took place at the Tingi-Tingi refugee camp in northeastern Congo, which by 1997 contained over 100,000 Hutu refugees. But on January 21, 1997, Robert E. Gribbin, Simpson’s counterpart in Rwanda, cabled Washington with the following advice:

We should pull out of Tingi-Tingi and stop feeding the killers who will run away to look for other sustenance, leaving their hostages behind…. If we do not we will be trading the children in Tingi-Tingi for the children who will be killed and orphaned in Rwanda.

There was a grim half-truth to Gribbin’s assessment. The Hutu fighters traveling amid the refugees were often able to avoid engagement with their Tutsi pursuers by fleeing westward into the Congolese rain forest. The genuine refugees, who by UNHCR’s estimate accounted for 93 percent of the Hutus in flight, could not. The best evidence suggests that they died by the scores of thousands in their flight across Congo, in what Lemarchand calls “a genocide of attrition.” Prunier estimates the number killed in this manner at 300,000.7

In August 1997, the UN began to investigate Tutsi killings of Hutu civilians and, as Turner recounts, “a preliminary report identified forty massacre sites.” But the investigators were stonewalled by Kabila’s Congo government—then still backed by Rwanda—and received little support from Washington. Roberto Garreton, a Chilean human rights lawyer who headed the UN investigation, was barred from the Rwandan capital of Kigali and his team was largely kept from the field in Congo. Garreton later wrote:

One cannot of course ignore the presence of persons guilty of genocide, soldiers and militia members, among the refugees…. It is nevertheless unacceptable to claim that more than one million people, including large numbers of children, should be collectively designated as persons guilty of genocide and liable to execution without trial.

Rwanda’s designs on eastern Congo were further helped by the Clinton administration’s interest in promoting a group of men it called the New African Leaders, including the heads of state of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, and Rwanda. As Clinton officials saw it, these New Leaders were sympathetic and businesslike, drawn together by such desirable goals as overthrowing Mobutu, by antagonism toward the Islamist government of Sudan, which shares a border with northeast Congo, and by talk of rethinking Africa’s hitherto sacrosanct borders, as a means of creating more viable states.

Then Assistant Secretary of State Rice touted the New Leaders as pursuing “African solutions to African problems.” In 1999, Marina Ottaway, the influential Africa expert of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Senate Subcommittee on Africa:

Many of the states that emerged from the colonial period have ceased to exist in practice…. The problem is to create functioning states, either by re-dividing territory or by creating new institutional arrangements such as decentralized federations or even confederations.

In fact, the favored group of African leaders were also authoritarian figures with military backgrounds, all of whom had scorned democratic elections. According to Turner, support for the New Leaders “apparently meant that the USA and Britain should continue to aid Rwanda and Uganda as they ‘found solutions’ by carving up Congo.”

As in the case of the Rwandan genocide, Lemarchand suggests, the policies of the United States and other Western powers toward the conflict in Congo have been misguided in part out of ignorance of Central Africa’s complicated twentieth-century history. Episodes of appalling violence in this region have occurred periodically at least since 1959, and cannot be remedied without first understanding their deeper causes. As Lemarchand writes:

From the days of the Hutu revolution in Rwanda [in 1959–1962] to the invasion of the “refugee warriors” from Uganda [under Kagame’s leadership] in 1994, from the huge exodus of Hutu from Burundi in 1972 to the “cleansing” of Hutu refugee camps in 1996–97, the pattern that emerges again and again is one in which refugee populations serve as the vehicles through which ethnic identities are mobilized and manipulated, host communities preyed upon, and external resources extracted.

Some will always quibble with where to begin this story, whether with colonial favoritism for the Tutsis by Belgium in the first half of the twentieth century, or with Brussels’s flip-flop in 1959 in favor of the Hutus on the eve of Rwandan independence, which led to the anti-Tutsi pogroms that sent Kagame’s family and those of so many others of his RPF comrades into exile in Uganda. These events in turn had far-reaching effects on Rwanda’s small neighbor Burundi, a German and later Belgian colony that gained independence in 1962 and, like Rwanda, has a large Hutu majority and Tutsi minority. In 1972, an extremist Tutsi regime there, driven by a fear of being overthrown, carried out the first genocide since the Holocaust, killing 300,000 Hutus.

In the West, the Burundi genocide is scarcely remembered, but its consequences live on in the region. Terrorized Hutus streamed out of Burundi into Rwanda, helping to set Rwanda onto a path of Hutu extremism, and priming it for its own genocide two decades later. The final instigator of the Rwandan tragedy was the mysterious shooting down of a presidential plane on April 6, 1994, which killed presidents Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaramyira of Burundi, who were both Hutu. This precipitated the horrific massacre of Rwandan Tutsis, but also a broader Hutu–Tutsi conflict, which by 1996 had begun to tear apart large swaths of eastern Congo.

The events that have followed Rwanda’s arrest of the warlord Nkunda in January of this year suggest that Congo and Rwanda have finally found reasons to sue for peace. Congo’s weak government and corrupt army are powerless to fight Rwanda or its proxies, and there is desperate need to rebuild the state from scratch. Rwanda, meanwhile, is seeking to placate important European aid donors, who account for as much as half of Rwanda’s annual budget and who, for the first time since its initial invasion of Congo in 1996, are asking difficult questions about its behavior there.

As part of the deal that gave Rwandan forces another chance to fight Hutu militias in eastern Congo last spring, Kagame agreed to withdraw Rwanda’s support for the Tutsi insurgency in eastern Congo while at the same time pressing Congolese Tutsis to integrate into Congo’s national army. Kagame hopes now to find a legal means to sustain Rwanda’s economic hold on eastern Congo, for example by promoting civilian business interests in the area. These are often run by ex-military officers or people with close ties to the Rwandan armed forces. In interviews, both Prunier and Lemarchand say that the direct plunder of resources by the Rwandan military has ceased, but that a large “subterranean” trade in minerals has continued through corrupt Congolese politicians and local militias.

For its part, the United States has begun to acknowledge the scale of the problem in eastern Congo. In August, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a two-day visit to the country, during which she described the conflict as driven by “exploitation of natural resources” and announced a $17 million program to help women who have been raped in the fighting.

Notwithstanding these developments, the conflict in the east has been surging again, as the UN-backed Congolese army pursues a new campaign against Hutu rebels.8 It is hard to dispute Lemarchand’s logic. Without addressing the problems of exclusion and participation, whether in a Rwanda ruled by a small Tutsi minority or in heavily armed eastern Congo, where contending ethnic groups want to get hold of the region’s spoils, it will be impossible to end this catastrophe.

—August 25, 2009


The Debate over Rwanda December 3, 2009

The Rumpus Interview With General Laurent Nkunda

“What I know is that we are conducting a war of liberation”

Picture of General Laurent Nkunda during the interview with Nienaber. His hat says “Survivors Never Surrender.”

In bringing you this interview with General Laurent Nkunda, we walk a very fine line. The world has roundly condemned both him and his Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) in the Congo. Human Rights Watch accuses Mr. Nkunda and the CNDP of conscripting children, of rape, and of summarily executing civilians. The New York Times calls him “Congo’s No. 1 troublemaker.” The United Nations levels charges of war crimes against him, citing “massacres” at the hands of his troops dating back to 2002. The takes these accusations against Mr. Nkunda seriously. But we also take seriously the obligation to probe a story from all angles.

But backup a second.

War has plagued the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1996, and the locus of that fighting has always been to the east. Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi—all war-ravaged nations themselves—line the DRC’s eastern border. Mr. Nkunda, explains the BBC, “built his reputation as a loyal and capable military leader in the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – the rebel force which ended the genocide of 1994, and drove the ethnic Hutu Interahamwe (FDLR) militias out of Rwanda and into eastern Congo.” After that, the General colluded with Laurent Kabila’s rebels in the Congo (then called Zaire) in their effort to overthrow President Mobutu Sese Seko. Mr. Nkunda split with Mr. Kabila and took command of his own rebel troop, the Congolese Rally for Democracy. Mr. Nkunda eventually formed a new militia, the CNDP, insisting that the mission of this force was to secure eastern Congo against the last vestiges of the FDLR.

And it gets even more convoluted than this. On January 23, 2008 the Goma peace agreement (Goma is the capital of one of the easternmost Congolese provinces, North Kivu) was signed between the Congolese Army (FARDC) and General Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP. This agreement fell apart in late August 2008, displacing over one quarter of North Kivu’s four million residents. The United Nations peacekeeping force in the region (MONUC) claims that it is over-committed and cannot maintain protection for local populations threatened by confrontations between FARDC, the CNDP, local militias (Mai Mai), and the remnants of the Interahamwe (FDLR)—the group responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

While these factions have vied for power, the displaced populations have fled mainly to refugee camps, some clustered on the perimeters of the United Nations’s Congo compounds. Conditions in these camps are “no better than those found in barnyards,” reports independent journalist Georgianne Nienaber. “Newborn infants are sleeping on beds made of lava rocks.”

Nienaber has been traveling the DRC sending back dispatches on what she sees. And with the assistance of a network of underground contacts, she, her co-interviewer Helen Thomas, and a couple others secured an interview with General Nkunda. Three weeks after she conducted this interview, which follows, Rwandan and Congolese forces teamed up to arrest Mr. Nkunda in what the BBC called “a spectacular reversal of fortune” for him and what the Times described as “removing an explosive factor from the regional equation.” Nienaber says she sought an interview with Mr. Nkunda “because some independent journalists felt that Nkunda and the CNDP have been heavily edited in media reports, especially in regard to accusations of mass rapes and killings. We feel,” she says, “that Nkunda should be allowed to speak in an unedited, unbiased format.”

We salute Nienaber and those who went with her for their bravery in conducting this interview. It is always difficult to know where the truth lies, or who is spinning what, and these journalists do us a service by presenting Mr. Nkunda’s side of the story.

The words of poet Robert Creeley, writing during the height of the Vietnam War (a war he despised), are worth chewing on. He’s talking about poetry, and poets, but he’s also talking about anyone with a desire to creatively engage even the uglier dimensions of this life. Creeley’s words, by the way, were hard for us to hear. He was writing to Denise Levertov, his dear friend, and he annoyed her, offended her, flat out pissed her off, when he said: “The poet’s role is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it: what if Shakespeare had opposed Iago, or Dostoyevsky opposed Raskolnikov—the vital thing is that they created Iago and Raskolnikov. And we begin to see betrayal and murder and theft in a new light.”

As we write this, bullets are flying in the eastern DRC. Mr. Nkunda is in captivity. Some call this the “beginning of the end of all the misery,” and some say it’s just a reshuffling of the political deck. Whatever it is, the situation is not, of course, a fiction created by an artist (just ask the dead), and anyway who knows who the real Iago or Raskolnikov is in this context. The point is, we publish this interview as an exercise in, for just one minute, not judging. Consider it an act of listening. May journalists be journalists and judges judges.

-Jesse Nathan
San Francisco
January 24, 2009

Georgianne Nienaber: We are here because we believe the reports in the media have not been fair and balanced as to how they represent yourself and the CNDP. We want to make a commitment to you here today that whatever we record is unedited. As journalists, we will not put our own spin on the story.

General Laurent Nkunda
: Maybe you want to know about CNDP?

Nienaber: Would you say that you have been portrayed in a negative way in western media, especially regarding conservation and the gorilla killings?

Nkunda: Yes. Even after the killings, there was evidence that gorillas were killed in areas under control of the government forces. After that, there were some gorillas found in Goma. The one that was in charge of regional conservation was selling gorillas in Goma. An investigation was conducted and the provincial director of ICCN was arrested. It was a campaign against CNDP. At the time I was controlling this area and the mountain you see there, and the gorillas were safe. But near Rumangabo, that is where the gorillas were killed. At the time, that area was not under our control. We attacked Rumangabo in August of last year [2008], but in the two years prior, Rumangabo and Bukiva were under the government control, so I will say again it was a campaign against CNDP.

Biased Journalists

Nienaber: The western press was not interested in your story?

Nkunda: They cut my voice and they were speaking on my behalf. When they told me that you were coming, because you have been involved in writing about nature conservation, that is why I said I would receive you. You are interested in nature conservation. You will tell the truth. Journalists tell what they think will be sensational. You came here to give your life to protect nature. When I tell you that you will protect the gorillas I am telling you that you will also protect the wealth of Congo and Jombo, and North Kivu. And when you protect gorillas, you will also protect the people. It is their wealth. That is why I said you have to come and see and tell only the truth. Is Nkunda eating gorillas? Is Nkunda selling gorillas?

The Future of Congo

Nienaber: What is your vision for the future of Congo?

Nkunda: Oh! See Congo in the present and imagine what it will be in the future with good leadership. We have a problem with leadership, but all of the possibilities are there, waiting only for someone to raise the life of the Congolese. I believe that Congo can be the most economically developed and strong country in Africa. And in the world, I say that Congo can be the fourth or fifth most developed country. Why? Because we have the resources. The mineral resources.

Nienaber: Are you the man to provide the leadership to develop Congo, and if so, why?

Nkunda: I never talk about an individual when I talk about change or about leadership. I always talk about a spirit. Because a man cannot do, but a spirit can do. I always enjoy thinking about leadership instead of thinking about a leader. If you can find leadership, leadership can change Congo, but not a leader. If your people are not educated you will be seen as the enemy of the people. Like in 1961,when Lumumba was killed by Congolese. Because he was saying that Belgium did not develop Congo, Congolese thought he was…not normal, and they killed him. We need a new spirit for the Congolese. That is why I think we must educate our people. If we educate the people then they will choose good leaders and these leaders will bring Congo to my dream. Congo will be so strong in Africa and in the world.

Allegations of Rape and War Crimes

Nienaber: There are some really terrible stories going around in the media. There have been terrible stories about how women are treated in Congo. How there have been mass rapes. Can you tell the world how you feel about what is happening to the women of Congo?

Nkunda: Hmmm. It is difficult to explain, but you are now in Congo. You are in the area under CNDP control. Ask in the hospitals under our control. Ask the women who have been raped. I cannot believe that they are raped here and then going to be treated in Goma or Bukavu to be treated. But if you go to Goma or Bukavu (under FARDC control) you are going to see hospitals full of women raped. But ask here, go to Rumangabo and they will tell you that the area under CNDP control is the most secure area in Congo. Even when they are telling about brutal massacres that we have done, it is not true. They say that we massacre Hutu tribes. The executive secretary of CNDP is a Hutu. So you tell me about killing Hutus. In my area, 60 or 70 percent are Hutu. Then you tell me that I used these soldiers to kill Hutu. It is not understandable. But you are now here. Go and ask. You can go into Kiwanja, ask them. You are going to see the women, ask them.

Killings and Rapes at Kiwanja

Nienaber: Can you tell the world what happened at Kiwanja?

: Kiwanja was liberated by the CNDP on the 28th of October 2008. We were in Kiwanja for one week without any killing, any rape, any looting. One week later the government (FARDC), along with Mai Mai, attacked Kiwanja and they occupied Kiwanja for 24 hours. My forces went back from Kiwanja. And in 24 hours, 74 people were killed. And before we came back to Kiwanja the governor of Goma, in the morning, announced that in Kiwanja there were massacres. And I was asking myself, who is doing this? Because when I heard on the radio that there were massacres in Kiwanja, I called my guys on the ground and said, “Where are you?” They said, “We are in Rutshuru.” I said, “Who is doing this.” They said they did not know, that they were in Rutshuru. So we went back to Kiwanja on the afternoon of the 29th, or the 27th  [Nkunda leans over to check dates with an advisor]. We went back 24 hours later and some people were killed in the crossfire. To that we can testify. Because the Mai Mai, they do not know how to shoot. They shoot where they want and when they were retreating they were shooting. And we saw that even the Hutu community in Rutshuru wrote a letter about that and they gave it and said they were not killed by CNDP.

Nienaber: Do you have a copy of that letter?

Nkunda: Yes, I do.

Nienaber: May we have a copy?

Nkunda: Yes. You will have a copy. [View page 1, 2, and 3 here] The president of the Hutu community in Rutshuru will tell you that they were not killed by CNDP. If it was the CNDP we would not be in Rutshuru today. And this letter is there, and the telephone is there and if you want we can bring you to Kiwanja. You ask the local leaders. You can meet the president of the Hutu community. He will confirm what I am telling you. How can I be managing Rutshuru and Masisi where there are 80 percent Hutu and then I come only to kill in Kiwanja? I have been here for four years. How can anyone imagine that? It is not true.


Nienaber: What happened in Goma?

Nkunda: The same scenario was prepared in Goma. When we were around Goma, my intelligence services told me that there is a plan to kill people in Goma that night so that they could blame the CNDP. That is why I told my guys to not enter Goma. I was informed that there was a plan for government forces to kill in the night. There were uncontrolled forces. Those who were in charge of the killing never knew that we withdrew. But I told MONUC that I was going to withdraw from Goma for 12 kilometers. Now, you have to control Goma, because I know that there is a plan of killing. On that night, 64 people were killed in Goma. The plan was to do it, but FARDC did not know that CNDP had pulled back. In the morning there were no CNDP in Goma. In the meeting where they planned it, one of ours was there. We were informed that there was a plan to kill Hutu that night. That is why I said, “OK, pull back.” They did the same thing in Rutshuru so that CNDP would bear the blame for the massacres. We will tell them that CNDP is coming to kill you and then they would do the killing. That is why the president of the Hutu community wrote the letter. He said if the CNDP had not come, there would have been a disaster. If you want I can call him and he will come to meet you tomorrow. That is the truth.

Alleged Destruction of Refugee Camps

Nienaber: The other charge against you is that you ordered the refugee camps destroyed.

Nkunda: Please understand. This is what I want you to understand. Yes, there were internally displaced people in Kiwanja. When I came I went to the camp and I told the population there, There are no houses here. You are in the rain. Please go back to your homes. I will be in charge. If someone will be killed, I will be in charge. I will take charge of your security. Please go home. On the following morning they said Nkunda forced people to leave. I am asking people to go to their homes! And I am taking charge of their security. I am in charge. MONUC has been unable to take charge. So it is a crime because I am asking them to go to their homes? The journalists are not telling the story. Go to Rutshuru. You will find 90 percent of the people in their houses. You cannot force someone in the rain to go to his house. Maybe you can force someone to leave his house. This is a crime. If we do a study in the camps around Goma, in each week there are about a hundred people dying from different diseases. In four years, CNDP has been accused of killing 100 people. But you are killing one hundred people each week in your camps. And for you, it is not a crime? This is what I said. CNDP asked for an investigation and they did not accept the idea. Go and compare the life of the 95 percent in CNDP territory with the life in the camps. Here, they are cultivating, they are in their homes. Who is the criminal? The one maintaining the people away from their homes, or the one who brought them back to their homeland? Because Nkunda is known as a killer, people just accept that. But I know that I am working for my people. Someone doing business here cannot quote me. I will be quoted by my people, not by someone doing business in the name of humanitarian affairs. They are paid for being in Congo, but I am not paid for it. I have a responsibility for my people.

Military Code of Conduct

Nienaber: Can you explain the military ethic of your soldiers?

Nkunda: We have a military code of conduct. If you want, I will give you a copy. When we began this fight, I said to my guys, either we are fighting for what is right, or we will not do it. Rape will be punished by firing squad. This is known. And two weeks ago two officers were executed for this. They were drunk on the local beer and did not control themselves and raped.

Nienaber: Who executes them?

Nkunda: Other soldiers of the same rank. They were second lieutenants and they were killed by second lieutenants. Looting by use of arms is also punishable by death. We will use your weapon against you. These are strong measures, I know. What I know is that we are conducting a war of liberation.

Congo’s Resources

Nieanaber: Some people call this a war for minerals. Is it?

Nkunda: How can you fight for your own minerals? [Laughter] If this were about minerals, I would not be here.

Nienaber: What are the western interests here in Congo?

Nkunda: They want to control the leadership and then take what they want to take. Do you want Congo ruled by a corrupted man where the western interests can do what they want? If there is good leadership, they cannot do this. You see minerals are being exploited by China, by Belgium, by South Africa. Petrol is under French control, uranium under American control, copper under Belgian control, diamonds under Jewish control, and gold under South African control. The Congolese people have never benefited from their own resources. You can see it on the ground, how can a country as rich as Congo be like you are seeing it? There is no salary, there are no roads, there is no infrastructure for so big and so rich a country, so you ask me if we benefit? No. We are not benefiting because we don’t have leadership, because western countries are exploiting us. Angola was exploited, but Angola is raising its economy. It’s not a matter of these countries coming to exploit Congo, it’s a matter of the contract we are arranging with them. Congo is not serious, there is no leadership.

Nienaber: Throughout the history of the Congo, the leaders that have taken charge have always made themselves rich through corruption and have left the people poor. How do people know for sure that that is not going to happen under your leadership?

Nkunda: Let us say that people are discouraged because since 1960 and before 1960 when Belgium was here, they did not get anything from the Belgium economy and from the Congolese Government. You can see what the British colonies got from British colonialists, what the French colonies got from the French colonialists but what we got from Belgiam colonialists is very different. There has been no resource income for the people. When people think about the power of Kinshasa, the presence of the UN here, they think that we are not in the right. They think the UN is right. That is what the people can think. But the ones who know very well what is going on, like somebody does in Kinshasa, like somebody does in Goma, Bukavu, they know very well that we are bringing changes and we will. It’s a must.

Actions of MONUC

Nienaber: Have you met personally with Alan Doss [head of MONUC]?

Nkunda: No

Nienaber: You’ve never met with him?

Nkunda: No. We talk only on the phone.

Nienaber: What do you say to him when you talk to him?

Nkunda: The first time I talked to him was in January when we were in Goma during the peace talks. We were talking about the situation that was going on. One day I told him, you are coming with your tanks to ask us to shut our mouths. When I go into the former British colonies there is infrastructure for the colonies and there is education, but in Congo there is nothing. No education, no infrastructure. That’s why I told him, if the African countries who were under your control refused you to continue to colonize them even though you were doing something for them, don’t think that you are going to force us to shut our mouths because we are going to fight this. It is a problem of freedom. Our President [Joseph Kabila, son of Laurent Kabila] is bad. So bad compared even to Apartheid in South Africa because he is robbing the country. He is destroying the country. He is destroying the people. He is destroying the economy and the minds, because there is no education when teachers are not paid. He is destroying the nature of Congolese. And so you ask me to not fight. I said to him bring other tanks and other aviation forces because we will fight until we will be free. That is the last time I talked to him when he engaged MONUC to fight. I told him I will fight because I’m fighting for freedom. You want me to shut my mouth and be a slave, an economic slave to China, I will not accept this. I’ll fight till I die, then my brothers will continue to fight, and my elders will fight and my son will fight.

Nienaber: So does China’s influence concern you now?

Nkunda: Yes, of course, because we are going now into economic slavery. If we accept this Chinese contract it is the end for Congolese.

Leadership, Heroes, and Obama

: Do you have a hero, do you have people you look up to, a hero from history?

Nkunda: Yes.

Nienaber: Who are those people?

Nkunda: Let me tell you. I can say about America, about France, maybe South Africa. In South Africa I can talk about Mandela. When he accepted the reconciliation it was a way to say that even if Apartheid was the wrong way to rule, those rulers did something for the country economically. I accept the kind of person who is not a negativist, who sees things not only in a negative sense. We have to see both. In France, I have a hero. De Gaulle, the French General, Charles De Gaulle. Because when Marshall Patton accepted German rule, De Gaulle refused it and he went to England opposing this, and with the American General Eisenhower they liberated France. These are the kind of people who are heroes for me. The president accepted the German authority but De Gaulle refused. We are not obliged to accept things, even if the president can accept, we are not obliged to accept.

Nienaber: You know more about American military commanders than Americans do?

Nkunda: Yes. I can also tell you about General MacArthur. He said that the Army has to protect the nation because if the army loses, the nation will be destroyed. That’s the one who told the American Army that the mission of the army is to win wars.

Nienaber: Have you heard Obama’s statement about the Congo, that this is just an ethnic conflict? What would you say to educate Obama about what’s happening here?

Nkunda: Saying that it’s an ethnic conflict, it’s an image they have from the outside. He has to raise his thinking about Congo. If I could meet him one day, I would tell him that it is not a matter of ethnic conflict, it is a matter of leadership. These ethnic groups are not being ruled or managed so the majority can overcome the minority and kill. The real fire here is the lack of leadership.

Nienaber: If Obama was sitting at the table right now, is there anything you would ask him?

Nkunda: I only ask him to bring leadership from America to Congo. Train our people for two weeks or three weeks because America showed to the world how they understand leadership in the recent election. The world is talking about a black person in power, but Americans didn’t vote for a black man, they voted for an American showing the capacity to rule. But they are talking about a black person. No, no, it is not that. On his identity card it doesn’t say ‘black’. When the American people were voting, they voted for an American. If I can meet him I will ask him, please, tell the Congolese to be leaders, to be Congolese leaders, not to be ethnic leaders. If our leaders can be trained like that I think Congo will change and go forward. That’s what I can ask of him.

Accuracy of Human Rights Watch reports

Nienaber: What are your views about Human Rights Watch?

: I will tell you, they are writing from the UK and from the US and they are not on the ground. They say they get their information from “reliable sources,” and unfortunately they are trusted but really, if you take their report, and then you come to the ground, you are now here on the ground, you compare. They tell some facts, but for them to help they have to come to the ground and do their report not from “reliable sources” but from live sources.

: Have they ever personally talked to you?

Nkunda: Yeah, I even talked to Anneke van Woudenberg. She came to see me in Masisi but after leaving here and then writing their things I had to call her back and say, “Why? You were here, now what are you doing?” She always says that the information is from “reliable sources.” But all these reliable sources are unidentified. I think the world wants such sensational stories. They don’t want reality. That’s why MONUC, and even the UN failed their mission in the world because they rely on sources that are not credible sources. They rely on some unidentified sources. That’s why they failed.

Nienaber: Some people here in Congo don’t call MONUC peacekeepers, they call them warlords, what do you think about that?

Nkunda: No, I cannot say that. They are not warlords. But they are getting money from the war in Congo. There are war benefits for them.

: General, is there anything you want to say to us that we didn’t ask you about as a last question?

: I can say that what Congo expects from the world is help to be free from the leadership it is currently under. Instead of bringing so many troops, we want to have well-trained and equipped soldiers in Congo. Instead of spending money on MONUC we want to have roads. Instead of bringing ex-pats from elsewhere, we want well-trained leaders for Congo. If they really want to help Congo, please help us train leaders, train soldiers, and help Congolese leaders to have a vision for the country that is good for the people.

Georgianne Nienaber is an independent journalist based in northern Minnesota. She has written a biography of murdered primatologist Dian Fossey and has spent considerable time in African conflict zones since 2004.

Download the entire transcript of this interview with a background statement by Georgianne Nienaber (pdf).

Read the CNDP Press Release on General Laurent Nkunda’s arrest here.

Watch the video of the interview with Mr. Nkunda here.

Some parts of this interview were also published in The Huffington Post.

Jesse Nathan is an editor at McSweeney’s and the managing editor of the Best American Nonrequired Reading. His poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in jubilat, the American Poetry Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Nation. He was born in Berkeley, grew up in Kansas, and lives now in San Francisco. More from this author →