The time an NBA star got mixed up with war criminal Bosco Ntaganda

March 18, 2013

Bosco Ntaganda at his mountain base in Kabati, Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2009. (Lionel Healing/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2002 and 2003, Congolese aGeneral Bosco Ntaganda, a Rwandan national, led a brutal campaign in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, part of a long and complicated war that took hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of lives. In 2006, the International Criminal Court indicted him for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, mass rape, large-scale sexual slavery and, perhaps most notoriously, recruiting children to fight and die for him on an ill-defined battlefield.

After the war, Ntaganda stayed in Congo, where he caused trouble for years, running a corner of the country as his own little fiefdom, running militias and conflict mineral operations. According to United Nations investigations, he was backed by elements in the Rwandan government (they deny this), which may have wanted to project power there. Last year, he helped form the M23 rebel movement in Congo. Today, he walked into the U.S. Embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, and asked to be handed over to the ICC. In effect, he surrendered.

The stories of Ntaganda's horrific wartime abuses are many; a good six-minute video explains them here. But his post-war behavior, though perhaps not as cruel, was also nefarious and, until now, apparently inextricable from many of Congo's problems.

There is one story that, for me, drives home the degree to which Ntaganda had attached himself to the region like a tumor. It goes back to 2010, when a well-meaning, Congo-born NBA star named Dikembe Mutombo got himself and some associates mired in Ntaganda's ugly world.

The story, "The Warlord and the Basketball Star," written by Armin Rosen for TheAtlantic.com one year ago, begins with Mutombo raising money to buy some gold from a dealer in Kenya. It leads to Congo, where a rented Gulfstream jet is impounded by Ntaganda's troops and $3.1 million in cash mysteriously disappears in the general's compound. It's a story about conflict minerals, about the ways that Central African scammers can target well-intentioned investors and about Ntaganda's insidious influence in a part of the world that had enough problems without him.

Here's a brief snip from the long, engrossing story. I've bolded some parts about Ntaganda, to give you a sense of what he's about:

After landing in Goma, [Carlos] St. Mary and the small group of CAMAC employees traveling with him were taken to a hotel owned by Ntaganda. "When we get to the hotel the yard is littered with soldiers and [Ntaganda] comes in looking like Crocodile Dundee with a bolo collar and a leather hat and vest on," recalls St. Mary. Ntganda announced that he was the actual owner of the gold they had come to buy, and that the exchange would take place at the Goma airport the following morning.

St. Mary realized that his chances of leaving the country with four tons of gold were fading. "I told Bosco, you took almost five million from us in Nairobi. We don't have one gold bar. Give me just one reason to trust any of you in this room," says St. Mary. "And he looks me in the eye and says, 'We didn't kill you this morning.' "

Ntaganda demanded that St. Mary's team take at least some of the money they'd left on the plane and give it to him to hold temporarily, supposedly to cover customs, documentation and routine bribes. St. Mary, along with one of Ntaganda's colonels, was sent to the airport to retrieved a suitcase with $3.1 million from the CAMAC Gulfstream —  money that, it would turn out, neither St. Mary nor the Congolese government would ever see again.

Read the whole thing.

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Max Fisher · March 18, 2013