World

Bloodshed and terror

A Canadian envoy will try to stop a new war in Africa

BARRY CAME November 11 1996
World

Bloodshed and terror

A Canadian envoy will try to stop a new war in Africa

BARRY CAME November 11 1996

Bloodshed and terror

World

A Canadian envoy will try to stop a new war in Africa

On both sides of the tortured border, they call the bridge Rusizi One. It spans the swift river of the same name in Central Africa’s rolling highlands, providing a link—and a lifeline—between the Rwandan town of Cyangugu and Bukavu just across the frontier in Zaïre. All week, the refugees trudged wearily across it into Rwanda, each with a tale of the horror unfolding on the other side of the Rusizi’s fast-flowing waters. “I lost three of my children,” moaned a tearful Abuwe Anyese Nakabono, cradling a pop-eyed infant in her arms, as she struggled to explain how her children “disappeared” in the chaos of her headlong flight to the border. Standing nearby, Mutaware Binyonyo recounted 48 harrowing days spent as a prisoner of the Zaïrese army. “The soldiers beat us every day,” he said, “telling us they were going to kill all the Tutsis.” Not far away, a teenage girl stood beside her distraught mother, nodding agreement. “We had to leave,” she murmured while running a hand over her nose and cheeks. “I have the features of a Tutsi.”

In the highlands last week, that was as good as a death sentence. As has happened so often in the past, the Tutsis and their ancient enemies, the Hutus, were once again at war in the ancestral homelands both peoples share deep in the heart of Africa. Amid the area’s sapphire lakes and smouldering volcanoes, hundreds of thousands of refugees were again on the march, raising the prospect of a humanitarian catastrophe even larger than the one that fell upon the region less than three years ago. For unlike what happened in the summer of 1994, when the Hutu-inspired slaughter of 500,000

Rwandan Tutsis eventually rendered millions homeless, the conflict this time threatens to engulf the entire Great Lakes region. Zaire and Rwanda are already engaged in an undeclared form of war, with Burundi and Uganda teetering on the brink of the same slippery slope. There is even the possibility that mineral-rich Zaire itself may disintegrate, a development of incalculable consequences for the entire continent, indeed the world. “It’s an extraordinarily difficult situation,” acknowledged Canadian Ambassador Raymond Chrétien, soon after accepting an appointment as UN special envoy to the region. Chrétien, nephew of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and current ambassador to Washington, was posted to Zaire, Rwanda and Burundi from 1978 to 1981 and has served in Belgium, the colonial overlord when Zaire was known as the Belgian Congo. “My first priority is very clear,” said Chrétien. We simply must attempt to arrange some kind of an immediate ceasefire in the Great Lakes.”

That will be no easy task. By week’s end, Tutsi forces had all but driven Zaïrese troops out of a swath of territory in the east of the country. After two weeks of fighting, the Tutsis—once known overseas as the Watusis—were in control of more than 400 km of Zaire’s borders with Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, an area stretching from beyond Lake Kivu in the north to Lake Tanganyika in the south. More importantly, they had either seized or closed down the only three airports in a region with no road or rail links to Kinshasa, the capital 1,600 km to the west. With the runways at Uvira, Bukavu and Goma sealed, Zaïrese authorities had no way of reinforcing or resupplying their hard-pressed troops in the east.

And neither the victorious Tutsis nor the reeling government of Zaïre appeared to be in any mood for compromise. In Kinshasa, Zaïrese Prime Minister Léon Kengo Wa Dondo rejected calls for urgent talks to end the fighting, accused Uganda and Burundi of involvement in the conflict and claimed Rwanda was intent on “pursuing an insane plan of annexing part of our territory”. At the same time, a triumphant Tutsi leader in Uvira urged Zaïrese to topple ailing President Mobutu Sese Seko, undergoing treatment for prostate cancer in Switzerland. “Throw him into the dustbin of history,” Laurent Kabila, chief co-ordinator of the newly formed Alliance of Democratic Forces for the liberation of CongoZaïre, told a cheering crowd. “Rise up against the repressive system that has plunged the people of this country into misery.”

While the opponents spar, literally millions of refugees are caught in the middle. For the most part they are Hutus, the same hordes that fled Rwanda in 1994 when the Tutsi-dominated Rwanda Patriotic Front fought its way to power. Fearing reprisals for the mass slaughter of the Tutsis, the Rwandan Hutus and their compatriots from Burundi settled in squalid camps among the banana fields and lava flows of eastern Zaïre. Last week, however, many were again on the run, fleeing the steady advance by well-armed, well-organized Tutsi guerrillas drawn largely from Zairese-born ethnic Tutsis, known locally as Banyamulengi. “At one point, we had refugees on the road walking in both directions,” said Panos Moumtzis, a spokesman for the UN high commissioner for refugees in Goma on the Zaïrese shore of Lake Kivu. “They are really panicking. They are very scared. They do not know where to go.”

By week’s end, there were more than 400.000 refugees crammed into one refugee camp at Mugunga, north of Goma. Conditions at the camp, the largest single concentration of refugees in the world, were “in a word, bad,” said Roberta Walker of the Canadian Red Cross, which had five Canadians on the relief staff in Goma. “Everything is coming apart at the seams.” What is more, conditions were likely to get worse as the five Canadians, along with another 100 expatriate relief agency workers in Goma, were forced to flee across the border into Rwanda when fierce fighting engulfed the town. Aid officials feared an imminent disaster on the 1994 scale, when 50.000 refugees died as a result of the stinking, overcrowded conditions in the camps.

Precisely who is responsible for the latest tragedy remains an open question. The current fighting erupted in September when local Zaïrese officials embarked on a campaign to strip the Banyamulengi of their lands in Zaïre and their citizenship. The Zaïrese Tutsis, whose ancestors settled in the hills west of the Great Lakes more than 200 years ago, fought back. As their success on the battlefield last week demonstrated, they have proved more than capable of handling Zaire’s regular armed forces, long notorious throughout Africa for their indiscipline. Faced with a determined foe, Zaire’s troops disintegrated. “An army in retreat is always at its most dangerous and the Zaïrese army in retreat is little more than a band of looting brigands,” remarked one South African observer on the scene last week.

The Banyamulengi have not been battling completely alone, however. According to the official Zaïrese view, the bulk of the fighting around the lakes has been carried out by the regular armed forces of Rwanda and Burundi with generous support from Uganda. While there is no direct evidence to support that view, the Rwandans have admitted to playing some role. Locally based diplomats, quoting eyewitnesses, claim that regular Rwandan Patriotic Army troops travelled by boat across Lake Kivu to take part in the fighting at Goma. And the regional commander in Cyangugu, who would only identify himself as Lt.-Col. Kayizare, told Maclean’s that he had sent troops across the border in the Bukavu area to silence Zaïrese artillery that had been shelling the town. ‘We retaliated by two means,” he said. “Firstly, we fired on them with machine-guns and mortars and then we sent in a force to destabilize them and push them far from where they could continue to harass our people.”

For the moment, at least, the Tutsis who live around Africa’s Great Lakes have won the day. In human terms, however, the cost has been enormous. And the accounting is far from complete.

BARRY CAME

HAMILTON WENDE