Tag Archives: Rwanda

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

Kimia before the storm?

On August 7-8, MONUC’s Bukavu office held a two-day meeting with traditional leaders in South Kivu Province “with a view to reflecting on collaboration strategies in the context of ongoing Kimia II military operations.”

Kimia II is a MONUC-supported collaborative military offensive between DRC and Rwanda as a follow-up to Operation Umoja Wetu (“Our Unity”). It was conducted in January of this year by an alliance of DRC and Rwandan troops in North Kivu to disarm the FDLR, a 6000-strong Rwandan military faction that has been a major source of instability in the Kivu provinces since its founders fled Rwanda in the wake of the 1994 genocide. Notably, some 30% of the FDLR’s forces are Congolese [1]. Umoja Wetu, as reported by IRIN (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), did little to reduce the threat posed by the FDLR and led to a spate of brutal reprisals against civilians, especially women, and to a new wave of internal displacement.” Oxfam has called it a “humanitarian disaster, and one the world has ignored” [2].

Kimia means “calm” in Kiswahili [3], but the numbers indicate otherwise. An IRIN  report on June 3, 2009 states that there has been a “marked increase in the number of rape cases being recorded in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) province of South Kivu, where Rwandan Hutu militia attacks against civilians have intensified”. Those who were attacked believe that the raids are a warning by the rebels to leave the DRC.

Nestor Yombo, a public information officer with OCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) reports  that at least 463 cases of rape have been recorded in the past three months – more than half the number reported in the whole of 2008. Most of the rapes were recorded in northern South Kivu, and they coincide with the deployment of Congolese troops in the province in preparation for another anti-FDLR operation.

While the FDLR “rape daily”, Yombo also said that there are also isolated cases of rape perpetrated by the FARDC (national army).

Various international organizations warn that the humanitarian implications as as result of Kimia II are unjustifiable, including Oxfam [2] and the International Crisis Group [4]. An open letter by Human Rights Watch to the UN Security Council this May urges it to ensure that those responsible for human rights abuses are held to account: “UN peacekeepers working alongside the FARDC in Operation Kimia II have been unable to stop Congolese soldiers from committing many serious abuses, nor have they demanded (as a pre-condition for their cooperation) the removal of known human rights abusers from Congolese ranks. Bosco Ntaganda, wanted under an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for war crimes, even has a leadership role in these operations, as confirmed by Congolese army documents leaked last month to Reuters and the BBC. So does Jean-Pierre Biyoyo, who was found guilty by a Congolese military court in March 2006 for recruiting children into a militia. It is unacceptable for the UN and the Security Council to tolerate abusers in such positions: it entrenches a culture of impunity, undermines MONUC’s role in promoting justice, and makes the Council complicit in putting civilians at risk.”

Without even considering the escalating human suffering in the wake of Kimia II–which cannot consciounably be overlooked–the premise on which the collaboration between the DRC and Rwanda is built must be more comprehensively examined. A UN Panel of Experts, who issued their report (S/2008/773) in December 2008, found evidence that Rwanda has provided support to the CNDP, Laurent Nkunda’s rebel forces in the DRC. This includes: complicity in the recruitment of soldiers, including children, facilitating the supply of military equipment, and deploying officers and units of the Rwandan Defense Force (RDF) to the DRC in support of the CNDP.

Despite Rwanda’s repeated denials, the coordinator of the independent group of experts, Jason Stearns, believes that the Rwandan government certainly had knowledge of this, given its fairly organized structure and the evidence described in the report, and have not done anything about it [5].

Evidence in the report showed that the “FDLR collaborated extensively with FARDC” in December 2007 during clashes with the CNDP and that the collaboration has continued during fighting that began at the end of August 2008 [p. 25], and that there is  “extensive cohabitation” between FARDC and FDLR throughout the Kivus, such as mingling at markets, drinking alcohol together in bars, and visiting each other’s command posts.  The Panel believes that this “facilitates the exchange of arms and allows FDLR to travel freely across much of the Kivus” [p. 27-28].

It makes no sense that the current Kimia II operation should proceed in light of this report, which seriously puts the motives and integrity of a DRC-Rwanadan initiative to oust the FDLR in question, notwithstanding Rwanda’s instigatorial role in the DRC conflict itself, and in light of the escalation in human rights abuses in retaliation against the offence from all sides.

It is always worth being aware of economic underpinnings. On June 12, 2009, Reuters reports that the DRC and Rwanda have agreed to a joint project to produce 200 megawatts of power from methane gas reservoirs in the lake on their shared border, a deal that follows on the heels of  Umoja Wetu. The article also reports that Eugene Serufuli, the head of DRC national electricity company, SNEL, said “the deal was also part of the framework of improving relations between countries and would dispel security concerns the investors may have before they get involved in the $300 million plan.” See also this blog post.

Meanwhile, at the two-day retreat at MONUC’s headquarters in Bukavu, the 35 traditional leaders in attendance (I’m guessing that none of them are women) voiced their support for Kimia II. The 30 recommendations made as a result of the retreat include: that MONUC and the Congolese Government should mobilise the necessary resources for the protection of civilian populations; that the Congolese Army and Police should prevent FDLR elements from returning to the liberated zones; that the Congolese Government should pay troop wages regularly and provide them with rations on time to prevent them from preying on the civilian population; that the international community, as requested by the Bami, should provide further assistance to the internally displaced from different territories for the reconstruction of their torched villages by the FDLR, and that International Justice should prosecute the FDLR’s leadership in Europe and America and cut their sources of supply.

-posted by CN

Footnote: The 11 March 2009 Human Rights Report in DRC released by the US Department of State provides some more perspectives on Kimia II:

“During the year independent UN experts and several international and domestic NGOs criticized the FARDC-led Kimia II counterinsurgency operation. In its November report to the UN Security Council, the UNGOE concluded that “military operations against the FDLR have failed to dismantle the organization’s political and military structures on the ground in eastern DRC.” UNSRESAE Alston said the operation, during which MONUC provided logistical support to the FARDC, “has been so poorly carried out that the FDLR has easily been able to reenter villages abandoned by the Congolese and UN forces and commit brutal retaliation massacres of civilians.” Underlining that it was the FARDC themselves who posed the greatest direct risk to civilians in many areas of the Kivus, Alston said the lack of vetting, training, and planning of the integration of former armed group members, especially the ex-CNDP, into the FARDC in the Kivus “has escalated abuses committed by the army against civilians, and failed to break down parallel ex-CNDP command structures within the army.”

In October a coalition of more than 80 human rights and humanitarian NGOs emphasized that Kimia II had resulted in an unacceptable cost for the civilian population, calculating that, for every FDLR combatant who was disarmed during Kimia II, there were seven civilians raped, one killed, and 900 forced to flee. The coalition, which included HRW, Oxfam, and the Enough Project, urged diplomats and UN officials to immediately increase efforts to protect civilians from abuses and strongly recommended that MONUC condition its logistical support for FARDC units involved in Kimia II on respect for human rights. By year’s end, MONUC had invoked a more strenuous interpretation of conditionality, cutting off assistance to a FARDC brigade (see subsection below) that was involved in civilian killings, as documented by the UNJHRO.

While there was inadequate civilian protection and a well-documented and significant humanitarian cost due to the military operations in the Kivus and Orientale, the government and MONUC, as well as some NGOs and foreign diplomats, argued some of the military objectives of the operations, particularly in Orientale against the LRA, were accomplished. Some NGOs expressed concern that the FARDC’s military objectives in the Kivus were not well defined; however, there were some successes. For example, in the Kivus, FDLR elements were pushed away from most major cities and towns and further into the bush. The FDLR was also denied access to some of its most profitable mining areas. Finally, MONUC estimated that more than 1,114 FDLR were killed during Kimia II and that, between January and December, a total of 1,522 FDLR combatants and 2,187 of their dependents were repatriated to Rwanda.”


Filed under 2009, DRC historical context

Sarkozy: why doesn’t Congo just share?

France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, who briefly visited DRC this week, suggested in January that DR Congo share its mineral wealth with Rwanda as a way to end violence around the main eastern city of Goma, as reported by the BBC on Thursday’s news post.

I wonder what he means, exactly, by sharing.

A multitude of reports by human rights organizations, the UN, and scholarly books about Congo such as those by Georges Nzongola and Thomas Turner, all point to Rwanda’s illegal involvement in the control of eastern DRC’s mineral wealth. For example, Nzongola showed that Rwanda’s exports of minerals it does not have in sufficient quantity increased considerably during the conflict in the 1990s. The UN Panel of Experts Report of 2002 stated: “On the basis of of its analysis of considerable documentation and oral testimony, the Panel holds the view that the rationale for Rwanda’s presence is to increase the numbers of Rwandans in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and to encourage those settled there to act in unison to support is exercise of economic control.” [text bolded by me]

The report presents an excerpt of an interview by a UN officer in 2002 with an Interahamwe soldier living in the area of Bukavu.

We haven’t fought much with the RPA [Rwandan Patriotic Army] in the last two years. We think they are tired of this war, like we are. In any case, they aren’t here in the Congo to chase us, like they pretend. I have seen the gold and coltan mining they do here, we see how they rob the population. These are the reasons for their being here. The RPA come and shoot in the air and raid the villagers’ houses but they don’t attack us anymore.

Sarkozy would do well to learn some history and context about the DRC before making preposterous suggestions. A commentary by Carney and Crawford on Friends of the Congo, for example, offer more constructive solutions:

1. Pressure Rwanda to stop supporting its rebel proxies in the Congo
2. Encourage Rwanda to create democratic space for the Hutu to return

France is already wearing a thin veil over its self-interest ever since its backhanded involvement in the Rwandan genocide, which I will explore in later posts. The BBC article reports that the Congolese media–not surprisingly–was in an uproar over Sarkozy’s comments, and accused Paris of trying to use DR Congo’s mineral wealth to help mend its ties with Rwanda.

Perhaps Sarkozy’s notion of sharing is along the lines of the “cooperation” enjoyed by French firms such as nuclear giant Areva, who just signed a deal to exploit uranium in the DRC. Executives of other companies who are “chasing contracts in various sectors”, such as France Telecom, cement maker Lafarge, and construction group Vinci, accompanied Sarkozy in his two-day African tour. No doubt, there will be enough to go around.


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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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