Violence Grips Eastern Congo
By Lynne Duke
GOMA, Congo—Banamwana Mpimuye and his seven children stood forlorn on a roadside, part of a band of 30 ethnic Tutsi farmers driven out of the hills near Masisi about 35 miles northwest of here. With fresh gashes on their bodies that they said came from attackers, the group told of hiding in the forest for a week, then hitching a ride on a truck that brought them to this border town.
Banamwana is among thousands of people who have been displaced violently in this war-torn region recently, as bitter ethnic violence -- tamped down after new Congo leader Laurent Kabila seized control of the country earlier this year -- begins to flare anew.
Perhaps most affected are Tutsis, a minority who are closely identified with Kabila's successful rebellion and his new government -- and who have suffered the effects of a kind of ethnic backlash. At least 12,000 Tutsis from Congo have sought safety across the border in Rwanda, where Tutsis also are in the minority but have control of the government.
Banamwana said he wants to join those who have fled. "We can't go back there," he said, referring to his home village in Congo. "We want to go to Rwanda."
A year after Kabila started his campaign to oust veteran dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, this eastern region where the war began is gripped by ethnic extremism of the same kind that precipitated Kabila's rebellion.
In this region along Lake Kivu, enmity between ethnic groups has seethed and flared for years, rendering the area ungovernable except by Kabila's military. The government has established a Commission of Pacification to try to change hearts and minds and maintains that reports of new ethnic violence are exaggerated. But local residents, aid workers and regional analysts disagree.
"Extremism is mounting and mounting, and they fear that there might be another war," said Dufina Tabu, head of a volunteer association that preaches ethnic tolerance.
From July to September, conflicts flared from Goma, Masisi and Walikale in the north to Bukavu, Uvira and Fizi in the south. Scores of villages were destroyed, hundreds of people were killed and thousands of Tutsis fled to Rwanda. Though the violence has abated in the past two weeks, many here believe this is only a lull.
"We will be fighting here for many, many years to come," said a local man, Jean Pierre, who opposes the Tutsi presence here.
Tutsis from Congo and Rwanda initiated and led the Kabila rebellion, which in its early stages was essentially a fight to protect Tutsis on both sides of the border from attacks by other ethnic groups. After scoring a series of early victories, the rebellion grew into a broader regional military alliance that swept through the entire country and, in May, toppled Mobutu, who died last month.
Tutsis were a minority in Kabila's alliance, but held command positions and exercised political influence disproportionate to their small numbers. After Kabila's final victory, Tutsis assumed powerful status within the ruling Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire. Other groups began to resent this prominence, residents and observers said.
The Tutsis here in Congo now face the wrath of several militia forces organized along ethnic lines. In North Kivu Province around this provincial capital city, there are at least three such groups: local fighters called the Mai Mai, predominantly of the Hunde tribe; local fighters called the Combatants, made up of members of the Hutu tribe, who form the majority in Rwanda; and remnants of the Rwandan Hutu militia forces known as the Interahamwe.
In South Kivu Province, around Bukavu and to the south along the banks of Lake Tanganyika, a similar conflict is underway, according to reports from aid groups and analysts.
There, the Simba fighters of the Bembe ethnic group are joined by Hutu fighters from the neighboring nation of Burundi, where Hutus are also in the majority. They are battling against Tutsi forces from Congo and Rwanda. Several clashes have taken place in that region, and the Bukavu airport has been closed periodically because of the fighting, the sources say.
The focal point of the fighting appears to be Masisi, where Tutsis have long been resented because of the amount of land they use to graze their cattle. After Kabila won his final victory, many Tutsi families that earlier had fled the region began returning home. But their return was met by violent opposition.
Purges in the Masisi area began in late July and continued into August. "It was a massive move against the Tutsi," an aid official said. When the fight was over and all the Tutsis were driven out of Masisi, Rwandan troops -- who had tried to intervene on the side of the Tutsis -- burned most of the town to the ground in revenge, said several sources.
"The Masisi is totally destroyed," another aid worker said. Aid workers spoke only on condition of anonymity, for fear of riling government officials.
As the Tutsis fled, their opponents pursued. People in the path of the fighting fled for their own safety, even if they had nothing to do with either side. "Nobody caused trouble, we simply got the news that the Interahamwe and the Mai Mai were coming here to oust the Tutsi," said Balume Sheba, a Hunde man in Sake, a town at the northwest tip of Lake Kivu.
Later, in Goma, a different kind of violence erupted.
Rwandan troops who were on their way out of the country, but angry over their lack of pay, looted the town and robbed people at random, several sources said. They fought in small-scale gun battles with Congolese soldiers, and Congolese reinforcements were dispatched to the city to restore order.
Recently, one element has been removed from the violent mix: More than 4,000 Mai Mai fighters have laid down their arms and been shipped off for training so they can be integrated into the Kabila government's army. Congolese Interior Minister Mwenze Kongolo, who visited this eastern region late last month, hailed the surrender of Mai Mai as a turning point and said the government had no fears about ethnic purges in the military.
"They're willing to come and work along with the Tutsi," Mwenze said.
But some residents here in Goma fear that the anti-Tutsi sentiment of the Mai Mai now could spark an explosion of ethnic fighting within the military. In addition, people here note, some Mai Mai fighters have resisted integration and still are attacking Tutsi villagers.
The ethnic tensions here have their most recent roots in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide of as many as a million Tutsis by extremist Hutus. More than a million Rwandan Hutus fled into Zaire, as Congo was then known, when a Rwandan Tutsi rebel force halted the genocide and seized control of the country. Included among the refugees were members of the former Hutu military and militias. These ousted fighters used the camps as launching pads for attacks into Rwanda. Rwandan Hutu extremists in the camps also fomented anti-Tutsi hatred in eastern Congo.
When the Tutsi-led rebellion operating under Kabila's banner attacked the camps and sent most the refugees fleeing east to Rwanda, many of the Hutu fighters trekked west, deeper into Congo, along with their families and other civilians. They fought on the side of Mobutu's military forces and are believed by human rights experts to have massacred some local people as well as those among their Hutu refugee compatriots who wanted to return home. Ultimately, however, many of these Hutu fighters and their families were themselves massacred by Kabila's Tutsi forces, human rights experts believe.
"There've been massacres on all sides," said the widow of a Hutu businessmen presumed dead several months after he disappeared. "You can't say only the Tutsi did the massacres or the Hutu did the massacres. But there'll be more massacres in the future."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company