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.
Among Kabila's anti-Mobutu forces at the time was a young, Rwandan-trained intelligence officer named Laurent Nkunda, a Tutsi who had lost members of his family in ethnic clashes.
After the Rwandan invasion, anti-Tutsi sentiment ran high. One politician gave a speech urging Congolese people to "exterminate the vermin," referring to Tutsis. And Kabila, after overthrowing Mobutu, turned on his Rwandan backers, arming the genocidal Hutu militiamen to fight them.
One of the century's bloodiest wars followed, with nine African nations eventually engaged in a mad scramble for eastern Congo's abundant mineral riches. Some researchers have estimated that at least 4 million people died during the war years, mostly from disease, hunger and the collapse of human services associated with the fighting.
Although a peace agreement was signed in 2004, militia groups have continued to plague eastern Congo, including at least 6,000 Rwandan Hutu militiamen who were never disarmed.
By now, some of them have blended into village life, starting farms and marrying Congolese women. Others, however, have remained organized under genocidal leaders in the thick eastern forests, living off whatever they can pillage from the local residents they routinely terrorize.
"The root causes of the wars in eastern Congo have never been solved," said Jason Stearns, an analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "The problem of the Tutsis and of the Rwandan Hutus has not been addressed."
The continued presence of the Hutu militias provided Nkunda with a cause.
In 2005, the general refused an order by the Congolese army to deploy to another area of the country and officially became a renegade.
His argument: The Tutsis of eastern Congo needed his protection.
For a while, Nkunda had the support of Rwanda, which considered his forces a necessary bulwark against Hutu militiamen. Though Rwanda says it no longer supports him, its sympathy for Nkunda's activities borders on justification.
"Rwanda cannot establish a relationship with such a person, but we can understand why Nkunda is Nkunda," Rwandan Foreign Minister Charles Murigande said in an interview. "We can understand his argument."
Armed with a sense of righteousness fortified by visiting American evangelical Christian groups, Nkunda has in recent months been carrying out attacks against village after village.
Eastern Congo is a sordid tangle of violence, but even within that context, villagers say, Nkunda's men have distinguished themselves.
In one forsaken camp of banana-leaf huts sprawled across volcanic rocks near the provincial capital of Goma, people who had run for their lives told different versions of the same story: that before attacking with machetes and guns, Nkunda's soldiers had accused them of harboring Hutu militiamen.
"They consider us like the Interahamwe," said Nayino Faraziya, 70, referring to the Hutu militia that she said had taken up residence around her village, Bufamando.
Faraziya said Nkunda's soldiers burned down houses and called about two dozen people, including her, to a "meeting" at the local Catholic church. Then, she said, they set the building on fire.
"People were crying and screaming," said Faraziya, who escaped through a window and has fresh burns across her back, neck and arms.
More than 2,000 people have arrived at the camp since January, said the camp's chief, Mahoro Faustin, and more are arriving daily, some missing legs and arms and most with little more than the torn clothes on their backs.
The notion that Nkunda is offering people some kind of protection from Hutu militias, he said, is "a masquerade."
"He wants everyone to join him against the government," said Faustin. "His people were preaching that we need to liberate ourselves and make our own country. He even put his flag in our village."
In recent months, Nkunda has forcefully recruited soldiers, including children, inside Rwanda, according to U.N. officials who repatriated at least 500 of them.
The general has also boosted his military position since the Congolese army agreed in January to mix several of its brigades with his. The deal was intended by the national government to diminish Nkunda's power but instead has increased it: The soldiers are now deployed across a wider area while remaining loyal to him.
At the same time, Nkunda's movement appears to be taking on an almost cultlike character.
In his territory -- a wide swath of lush, black-soil mountains including farms owned by wealthy Tutsi businessmen -- villagers report having to submit to ideological training in which they profess loyalty to the movement, which now has a political party, a Web site, flags, songs and the radio station that broadcasts messages about "tribal unity."
Nkunda has usurped local government authority, establishing police and courts, paying some villagers' school fees and even purchasing generators for local hospitals. There is a video in circulation that shows Nkunda's men -- some of whom belong to an elite group called Che, for the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara -- goose-stepping and saluting their leader, who waves and smiles back.
"I'm sensitizing others to protect the minority," Nkunda said in a recent interview. "I want to be one of the great hearts in Congo."
He was relaxing in a Nike tracksuit at a farmhouse high on a hill, his soldiers standing guard outside. His current reading was a French book titled "The Paradox of Strategy." He talked at length about Congo's potential greatness, Christian leadership, Bush, military strategy and an idea he has of importing 100,000 macadamia nut trees to help develop his area. He spoke of biofuels.
Yet Nkunda insisted that his goals are limited: He wants the Congolese government to disarm the Hutu militias and to allow thousands of Congolese Tutsi refugees who fled into Rwanda during Congo's war to return home.
Instead of addressing those issues, he said, the Congolese government is "turning Nkunda into the problem," and planning to attack him.
At the moment, there are signs that the Congolese army could be preparing for such an offensive, which U.N. officials have warned could trigger a wider regional conflict.
Analysts fear that as his father did, Congo's President Joseph Kabila could decide to use the Hutu militias because the Congolese army is weak and because the Hutu commanders would like nothing more than to occupy Nkunda's position along the Rwandan border.
Murigande, the Rwandan foreign minister, said that such a move would "start worrying us seriously."
"That might be a disaster," he said. "Because we are also able to fight."