Desperate Battle Defines Congo's Warlike Peace

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 2, 2001

PWETO, Congo -- At the southern extreme of a ragged front line that winds 1,400 miles across Congo lies a ferry, dirty pink and half-submerged in the muddy Luvua River. Facing it on a gravel ramp stand the burned-out husks of 33 military vehicles -- armored personnel carriers, trucks, an ambulance -- waiting in a line that never moved forward. Unopened syringes lie underfoot, amid charred tires and a trampled note that a fleeing Congolese junior officer left behind:

"Attaque," reads the neat cursive French.

But by the time Rwandan forces approached Pweto on Dec. 3, the Congolese government army was in no position to attack. It was in panicked retreat, leaving a tableau of ruin on the riverbank and opening a rare window on a war usually fought out of sight.

In two months of back-and-forth fighting here in the southeastern corner of Congo, all the elements that make this country's 21/2-year-old war such a dangerous puzzle came into play: foreign armies, ethnic militia groups, remote terrain and villages utterly emptied of civilians who, from the safety of refugee camps in a neighboring country, repeat matter-of-fact accounts of massacres. This is the "situation on the ground" that has kept the U.N. Security Council from dispatching 5,500 peacekeepers to monitor a cease-fire that appears to exist only on paper.

This lightly populated, mostly forested stretch between Lake Tanganyika and Lake Mweru had been one of the few corners of Congo where both sides had essentially honored a peace agreement signed 18 months ago. The Lusaka Accord, named for the Zambian capital where it was signed, was meant to arrest the cycle of advance and retreat that has marked a sprawling conflict that pits the Congolese army and allied troops from Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia against an assortment of rebel forces bolstered by Rwandan and Ugandan troops.

But Congolese President Laurent Kabila, who signed the Lusaka pact in a moment of military disadvantage, has swept it aside whenever he spied what looked like a military opening. Last spring, his forces pushed back rebels sponsored by Uganda in Congo's far northwest, only to lose the same ground months later. And on Oct. 15, Kabila's armies launched a massive assault on Rwandan-held positions in the southeast, striking 100 miles north of Pweto at the town of Pepa. Six weeks later, just as happened in the northwest, Kabila's forces once again lost far more than they gained.

Now the Rwandans have driven them out of Pweto, clambering onto captured armor as their commander pointed out the escape route by which the Congolese army chief of staff, Joseph Kabila, the president's son, fled the battlefield. "We have a cease-fire," Col. J.B. Mulisa said with a dry chuckle, "a forced cease-fire."

In a war that has been stalemated for so long -- Congo was broken into factional spheres of influence mere weeks after the war began, and so it remains -- such lightning gains might have finally given the Rwandans the upper hand. But senior Rwandan officials, when asked if they plan to push beyond Pweto farther into Congo, say they did not want to come even as far as they have. In fact, the forces occupying Pweto showed no sign of massing earlier this month.

Officials of Rwanda's Tutsi-led government say, rather, that their focus is on eradicating the Interahamwe, the ethnic Hutu militia that orchestrated the 1994 massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda and fled into neighboring Congo. The farther into the vast Congo the Rwandan troops go, the harder that becomes.

"We were really talking about withdrawing" 120 miles to an operational zone closer to Rwanda, said Col. Charles Kayonga, a defense adviser to Rwandan President Paul Kagame. "Kabila must have misread our position. He apparently thought we were weak."

The battle began at Pepa, a town of neat stone houses in the center of a vast cattle ranch near the southern end of Lake Tanganyika. Rwandans had held the town since March 1999, nine months after launching the current war by encouraging a rebellion in the Congolese army's ranks, then pouring its own forces into Congo to topple Kabila -- the same leader Rwanda had installed barely a year earlier by backing a rebellion that drove dictator Mobutu Sese Seko from power.

At issue, according to Rwandan officials, was Kabila's support for the very forces Rwanda had put him in place to eradicate: the Interahamwe -- thousands of ethnic Hutu extremists who had fled into Congo in 1994 after leading an attempted genocide against Rwanda's minority Tutsi tribe that left more than a half-million dead.

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