Congolese rebel holds victory party amid ruins

Sanders is a Times staff writer.

The road to Gen. Laurent Nkunda’s latest territorial conquest was lined with signs of the rebel leader’s growing power, but also of the devastation his insurgency has wrought.

Rebel fighters in stolen government jeeps patrolled past deserted army camps. A column of traumatized civilians, many of whom have been displaced three times in the last week, filed past decomposing bodies of government soldiers in the road.

In one village they captured from the government, Nkunda supporters threw a victory party. Beleaguered residents of Rutshuru dutifully showed up and had the good sense to cheer for the new sheriff in town. But many acted as though they were living under occupation rather than liberation.

From his headquarters here in the steep, remote hills of eastern Congo, the tall, wiry rebel leader can survey the fruits of a two-month military campaign, which last week brought his forces to the doorstep of the regional capital, Goma. Many fear the insurgency is reigniting decades-old ethnic tensions that culminated in the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.


Nkunda, dressed in military fatigues and grasping a trademark eagle-headed walking cane as he received a group of foreign journalists, seemed to relish his standing as the latest African rebel to bomb his way into the international spotlight.

“The international community is now coming to us,” Nkunda told the journalists, who traveled through the jungle to interview him Sunday in the village of Kitchanga. “Today we are strong because now the international community understands.”


Territory doubles

A military man who occasionally preaches as a part-time pastor, Nkunda has nearly doubled his territory since August and restocked his arsenal with antiaircraft guns and armored carriers looted from army bases. Some fear that his military strength and strategic position, including about 5,000 fighters, pose a threat to United Nations peacekeepers in the region. Goma is headquarters for a 17,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force, the largest in the world.

Congo’s northeastern region, which in recent days saw thousands of panicked families flee displacement camps in fear for their safety, has been ravaged by unrest, disease and starvation for more than a decade, resulting in an estimated 5 million deaths. Rebels announced a unilateral cease-fire Wednesday.

Some diplomats and U.N. officials are urging Congolese President Joseph Kabila to hold direct talks with Nkunda, whom Kabila previously dismissed as a terrorist. Nkunda complained that the Kabila administration and the international community had ignored his demands for face-to-face peace talks, lumping his rebel movement with dozens of other militias that signed a January cease-fire agreement. At the time, Nkunda reluctantly signed, but in the aftermath of his military victories, Nkunda said the deal must be renegotiated.

In addition to direct talks, Nkunda said he wanted more control over government funds in the North Kivu region and replacements for the governor and regional military commander.


One aide hinted that Nkunda might like to be prime minister. But Nkunda’s ascent has come at a high price in a region that was already one of Africa’s worst humanitarian crises.

While Nkunda fights in the name of protecting ethnic minority Tutsis, nearly 200,000 people in the last two months have been driven from their homes in a region where aid officials say more than 1 million already had been displaced. Most of the latest victims are Hutus. More than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in Rwanda in 1994 during a three-month slaughter in which ordinary Hutus, armed by the government, turned against Tutsi neighbors, friends and even spouses.

Over the last 50 years, many Rwandan Tutsis and Hutus have immigrated to the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire.

Nkunda’s recent campaign, which is aimed at crushing Hutu militias that crossed the border after carrying out the genocide, is fueling a backlash against Tutsis. As Nkunda’s forces moved toward Goma last week, hundreds of Tutsis fled the city and sought temporary refuge in the Rwandan border town of Gisenyi.


“It’s gotten so much worse,” said one Tutsi government official in Goma.

Over the last week, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, received three anonymous phone calls, one of which ended with a flurry of obscenities and a death threat.

The official said some government operatives might even be laying the groundwork for a Rwanda-style genocide. A recent city questionnaire, used to issue special curfew-identification cards, included data about ethnicity. “I fear it’s being planned,” the official said.

North Kivu Gov. Julien Paluku Kahongya dismissed such fears as exaggeration and paranoia.


“Tutsis want to make attention for themselves,” the governor, who is neither Hutu nor Tutsi, said in an interview. “There is no possibility of genocide here.”

But Hutus are also complaining about ethnic targeting -- by Nkunda’s forces. Most of his incursions over the last two years have affected Hutu-dominated areas.

Hutus make up about 40% of the North Kivu population (compared with the less than 4% who are Tutsis), yet they represent 99% of the displaced, according to Gimmy Habanabakiza, a Hutu leader and local administrator.

“Tutsis in Rwanda are in power, and they don’t want Hutus reorganizing in eastern Congo,” he said.


In recent days, Nkunda’s forces have been accused of burning tents, looting camps and restricting the movements of displaced people.

“When they got here, we waited to see whether they would act like good guys, but then they started burning down the tents and bombing us, so we ran,” said Cebiti Mayarni, 28, a Hutu and father of five children, who fled into Goma.

In Rutshuru and surrounding rebel-controlled areas, displaced people accused Nkunda’s troops of pushing them out of camps and ordering them to return home.

“Our first plan is to make them go home,” Oscar Balinda, a rebel advisor in Rutshuru, said, referring to displaced residents. Then he corrected himself: “To help them go home.”



Echoes of Rwanda

In many ways, the last decade of conflict in eastern Congo is an echo of events in Rwanda. After then-Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko gave genocide suspects sanctuary in eastern Congo, Rwanda’s post-genocide government backed rebels who overthrew Mobutu in 1997.

A year later, Rwanda invaded eastern Congo. It again claimed it was striking against Hutu death squads known as Interahamwe, but many believe Rwanda wanted an excuse to illegally mine Congo’s natural resources, including gold and coltan, used in cellphones.


“If there had been no genocide in Rwanda, our problems would be much less,” Habanabakiza said.

Nkunda said short-term human suffering, even of his own people, is unavoidable. “That’s the cost of freedom,” he said.

The 41-year-old Nkunda got his military training while helping Rwandan rebel leader Paul Kagame overthrow the government. Today Kagame is the Rwandan president, but he denies supporting Nkunda.

Those who have watched Nkunda’s rise say he can appear a megalomaniac, at times unsure whether he wants to be seen as a statesman or strongman.


His popular support is also hard to gauge. His candidates performed poorly in the 2006 national election, though in recent days some government officials and lawmakers have defected to his side.

There’s no question he’s attracted support from a variety of ethnic groups, including Hutus, by tapping into deep-seated public frustration over eastern Congo’s worsening poverty and the perceived inaction by the government in Kinshasa.

But international diplomats have warned Nkunda that further military expansions will not be tolerated.

From his newly strengthened vantage point, an emboldened Nkunda is making no promises, saying the direction of his war will depend on what he gets in future negotiations.


“No talks,” he shrugged, “no cease-fire.”