Tag Archives: Orbinksi

Slaughterhouse 500,000 in eastern DRC

There is an ominous line in Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja’s book, The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila, a people’s history. It says:  “General Kagame himself boasted about the crucial role Rwanda played in the 1996-1997 war. That role, which included acts of genocide against Hutu refugees in the Congo, has yet to be investigated thoroughly for crimes against humanity and gross violations of international humanitarian law by Rwandan military officers and their field commander James Kabarebe [p. 226].”

No further details of this genocide against Hutu refugees is mentioned in this chapter, and it turns out that accurate information about the event is hidden in the smoke and mirrors of a world-class vanishing act that duped almost the entire international community.

Except for the people who were there, on the ground, who knew but could not find.

James Orbinski was one of those people, and this chapter of modern Congolese history became an unforgettable chapter in Orbinski’s life and his  2008 book, An Imperfect Offering. Specifically, chapter 7, entitled “Refugees in Zaire: Fear of what they know, Fear of what we cannot see”, which directly follows Orbinski’s account of his horrifying and nearly soul-destroying experience in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide.

But first, some acronyms. Paul Kagame’s RPF (Rwandese Patriotic Front) became known as the RPA (Rwandese Patriotic Army) by a declaration of the new Rwandan government, led by Kagame, on April 22, 1995. The RPA massacred at least 4,000 Hutu refugees in the Kibeho camp inside Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide, while the UNAMIR mission and MSF helplessly looked on. The official investigation of the RPA government concluded that only 300 had been killed and blamed the killings on undisciplined soldiers seeking revenge for the murders of family members during the genocide, despite the fact that the RPA had surrounded Kibeho the night before with some 2,500 reinforcements and had cut off food supplies.

One of the outcomes of the Rwandan genocide was that the RPA replaced ex-Rwandan president Habyarimana’s FAR (Forces armées rwandaises). In the martial shuffle, the ex-FAR and Interahamwe militia took hold of and fiercely controlled the refugee camps that had formed in Congo and Tanzania. By 1996, over 1.2 million refugees crowded the camps on the Congo side of Rwanda, less than 7 km away; 750,000 were in camps in Tanzania and another 250,000 in Burundi.

The ex-FAR and Interahamwe in Congo used the refugees as human shields to plan “Operation Insecticide”–a retaliatory invasion on Rwanda to continue what they believed was unfinished genocidal business.

Also in 1996, the ADFL (Alliance des forces démocratiques pour la libération du Congo) rebel army was formed, organized by Rwanda and Uganda and led by Laurent Kabila. By late September, RPA and ADFL militia started attacking Mobutu’s FAZ (Forces armées zairoises) forces (while Mobutu was in Europe having cancer treatment, since his 30+ year dictatorship had allowed his country’s health-care system to collapse in ruins).

The rebel groups in place by this time formed a crooked triangle of allegiances.  The RPA and ADFL represented Rwandan Ugandan (pro-Tutsi) interests on one side, the ex-FAR and Interahamwe (pro-Hutu) forces who wanted to created a “Hutuland” (and who had arms that could be traced to French sources) formed another side, and then there were Mobutu’s FAZ forces.

By mid-October, the RPA and ADFL were attacking refugee camps in South Kivu and in Goma. The ex-FAR allied with the FAZ against the ADFL, who were supplemented by Rwandan troops. By November, 500,000 refugees had been pushed into the jungles around South Kivu, and about 600,000 fled to the refugee camp outside of Goma, trapped by the ex-FAR alliance who controlled them, and the ADFL who were advancing as they made their march towards Kinshasa to topple Mobutu.

However, the whereabouts and condition of these refugees was unknowable from the outside.  Access to the Kivus was blocked by the Rwandan government and the ADFL rebels. But there was mounting pressure from MSF and even outside nations like Canada that an international intervention was needed on behalf of the refugees. MSF expected that anywhere from 14,000 people could be dead from disease alone, not to mention violence.

The ADFL and Rwanda had a sticky situation to manage, out of which came a well-staged disappearing act: on the grounds of “insecurity”, the ADFL allowed select journalists into strictly-controlled areas in North and South Kivu; an NGO aid convey was televised driving into the stadium in Goma; and, on November 14, Rwanda opened its borders and the world watched hundreds of thousands of refugees stream through Goma and into Rwanda for three days.

The problem looked solved. However, in all the buzz, as many as half a million people were unaccounted for–refugees who were not part of the mass exodus out of DRC. But journalists and aid workers were only allowed to see abandoned camps and the well-fed refugees returning to Rwanda in good shape.

“We are looking for between four and five hundred thousand people who seem to have been airbrushed from history. They are somewhere in the jungles of Kivu being forced forward by the ex-FAR/FAZ and chased by the ADFL Rwanda Alliance…It’s all smoke and mirrors. Information is coming from highly controlled access to Kivu.”

An Imperfect Offering, p. 271

James Orbinski

Orbinski and his MSF team gathered fragments of information from the smattering of terrified refugees who made it to their clinics and from their own excursions they managed to make into the bush. They once made it to the site of the Mugunga camp outside of Goma that a week before had held 400,000 people. It looked like a ghost town and it smelled of rotting flesh. Orbinski later found out that at least 5,000 bodies were being collected in that camp that day, and thousands more were cleared from other similar camps.

The story was similar in South Kivu. As the ADFL and their allies surged farther north, south and west into the country, they hacked their revenge upon hundreds of thousands of refugees, kept unseen and unheard.

In late March, 1997, MSF logistician James Fraser and the UNHCR were allowed to prepare rest stations for a group of thousands of refugees found in North Kivu that wanted to return to Rwanda, a move that was approved by the ADFL only after intense media and political pressure. Villagers approached Fraser and told him about mass graves of refugees massacred by the ADFL. One white priest desparately told him there was “a Nazi-type genocide happening in the forest–you have to tell the world.”

In May 1997, MSF compiled “Forced Flight”, an analysis of events from October 1996 detailing the systematic massacre, starvation and forced dislocations of refugees by the ADFL. Almost exactly one month later, Laurent Kabila, leader of the ADFL, declared himself president of Zaire, which he renamed DR Congo.

“There’s a Nazi-type genocide happening in the forest–you have to tell the world.”

An Imperfect Offering, p. 293

James Orbinski


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Filed under 1996-1997 First War, DRC historical context

James Orbinski wins Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing

James Orbinski, early mentor of SAFER since the very beginning, recently published a hardcover book entitled  An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-first Century. Through personal accounts as a doctor with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders), factual details, and political insights that build over time, An Imperfect Offering is an eye-opening and heart-rendering experience written from the perspective of ground-zero.

Orbinski chronicles his experiences in Somalia during the civil war; Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Russian invasion and the CIA-backed mujahideen conflicts; Rwanda during the genocide; Zaire in the wake of the Rwandan genocide; North Korea after famine and disease had already killed 3 million;  the Sudan after the ravages of sixteen years of civil war; and Kosovo as NATO bombed Serb military positions.

Despite the complexities of the situations he faced, and the layers of horror that will forever change the answer to the question, what does it mean to be human, Orbinski writes with clarity–almost a simplicity–about events: people’s lives, their suffering, and their deaths, the political inaction that accompanied them, the hypocrisy that underscored every delay, and the futility of unenforceable systems of human rights laws, declarations, and covenants.

“The genocide [in Rwanda] was life as we can choose to live it. For years before the genocide, the French government trained and armed the Rwandan soldiers. And all the way through the genocide, the French supplied them with arms, mercenaries and intelligence. MSF and other NGOs repeated called for UN invervention, but Belgium, France and the United States paralyzed the UN, and each knowingly pursued their foreign policies through genocide. The evenutal UN/French-led military intevention was too little too late, and barely more than a deception that allowed those who committed the genocide to escape into Zaire.

“Many have described genocide and similar human cruelties as unspeakable. But they are as unspeakable as they are undoable. As human beings, we do genocide. Doctors cannot stop this crime. But the little girl in the latrine had no voice, and as doctors we had a responsibility to speak out against what we knew. And we did not speak into the wind. We spoke with a clear intent to rouse the outrage of public consciousness around the world, and to demand a UN intervention to stop this criminal politics.

“An Imperfect Offering is about finding a way to confront unjust human suffering in the world as it is.” [p. 10]

And yet, the book–and Orbinski himself– is not without hope. Through the telling of stories, Orbinksi shows the contradiction of the darkness and lightness of humanity and he doesn’t let go of the potential for good that we can realize if we harnessed the collective political will. For the individual, he has written about What You Can Do in the epilogue. “Choose a political party or a non-governmental organization…and through it, actively challenge relevant public policies, laws and practices both nationally and internationally…If you can’t find an organization, then start one and let others join [p. 397].” SAFER is honoured to be among one of the organizations that he supports in the ensuing list.

Last night, James Orbinski received the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for political writing. While such recognition cannot undo the “undoable”, it does recognize the dignity and humanity of the millions of people who have suffered while the world looked away.


An Imperfect Offering, Humanitarian Action in the twenty-first century, James Orbinski, Double Day Canada, 448 p., 2008.

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