For Tutsis of Eastern Congo, Protector, Exploiter or Both?

Renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda says he is protecting eastern Congo's minority Tutsis, but U.N. officials accuse him of creating a humanitarian crisis in the war-devastated region.
Renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda says he is protecting eastern Congo's minority Tutsis, but U.N. officials accuse him of creating a humanitarian crisis in the war-devastated region. (By Stephanie Mccrummen -- The Washington Post)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 6, 2007

KICHANGA, Congo -- On the way to the mountain headquarters of renegade Congolese Gen. Laurent Nkunda, there are villages patrolled by Laurent Nkunda's police and checkpoints where Nkunda's soldiers demand that truck drivers pay a tax to support their leader's cause.

Local residents can settle disputes these days in Nkunda's courts or attend church with a priest appointed by Nkunda, who is wanted on war crimes charges but lately has been wearing a button that reads "Rebels for Christ."

What amounts to Radio Free Nkunda broadcasts from a mountaintop around here. And though the general denies it, villagers said that earlier this year Nkunda hoisted a flag and declared his mountain fiefdom a new country: Land of the Volcanoes.

"Is it really Nkunda who is the problem?" asked Nkunda, who carries a gold-tipped baton and often refers to himself in the third person. "They want to keep me as the problem so that they can explain all the problems in Congo through Nkunda. . . . But I will protect myself, and I will protect these small number of Tutsis who are here."

Congo is a vast country with a history of vast personalities. Mobutu Sese Seko, who renamed the nation Zaire and ruled for almost four decades, ordered news broadcasts to open with an image of him descending godlike from the clouds, and some here consider Laurent Nkunda the country's latest well-armed megalomaniac.

U.N. officials blame the general for forcing an estimated 230,000 people from their homes since January and creating the worst humanitarian disaster Congo has experienced since the peak of its decade of civil war. Displacement camps filled with sick, hungry and injured people are scattered across the east once again, and U.N. officials warn that Congo is on the brink of another all-out conflict.

But Nkunda, an admirer of such diverse leaders as Gandhi and President Bush, says he is fighting for a cause greater than himself: protecting Congolese Tutsis, whose story is wrapped up in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, evidence of which still litters the rolling, green forests here.

"The government can get rid of Nkunda," said Joseph Sebagisha, a leader in the Tutsi community, which backs Nkunda heavily and includes some of the region's wealthiest businessmen. "But the reasons why he is doing what he is doing will continue to exist."

Though it is difficult to speak of a minority in a country with more than 400 different tribes, the Tutsis have for decades considered themselves a vulnerable group.

As is common across Africa, the ethnic group was divided by arbitrary colonial borders, with most of its members living in what became Rwanda and others in eastern Congo. During Rwanda's independence struggle, many wealthy Rwandan Tutsis fled into eastern Congo, and over the years, politicians here have frequently cast Tutsis as outsiders.

Ethnic clashes targeting the Tutsis broke out in eastern Congo in 1993. A year later, following the Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed, more than a million Hutu refugees and genocidal Hutu militiamen poured across the border and continued to massacre Congolese Tutsis.

The Rwandan army, allied with the Tutsi-dominated rebel forces of Congo's future president, Laurent Kabila, soon followed, carrying out massacres in Hutu refugee camps and villages.

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