Article originally posted at the Independent (Uganda)
Laurent Nkunda achieved international notoriety last year when violence erupted in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu region. A series of reports from Human Rights Watch and the UN accused Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) army, which says it is fighting to protect the rights of Congo’s Tutsi minority, of war crimes, including killing of non-combatants, abduction of children, and rape. Allegations emerged of killings of gorillas in Virunga National Park, at the heart of CNDP-held territory. Western media portrayed Nkunda as an eccentric warlord and murderer. Eventually, on January 22, Rwandan troops arrested Nkunda and took him into custody, where he remains today despite Congolese requests for extradition.
Earlier this year, before his arrest, I was given the opportunity to meet General Nkunda. Along with two other journalists and an American doctor, I entered rebel-controlled territory. The most difficult part of our journey was a Ugandan border check where a drunken Ugandan official demanded $50 from each of us to guarantee our “safety.” After much argument, a call came from Nkunda, declaring that we were his guests and should be allowed to pass. Once inside Congo, we were met by well-trained and disciplined CNDP officers. One “Captain Sahara” gave us a polite bonjour and took us into Nkunda’s 21,000 square kilometres of territory.
In CNDP territory, villagers had gardens, flowers and pigs in the yard, and they waved and shouted happily as we drove along the road cut by Nkunda’s army. They offered none of the blank, sullen stares one encounters in sectors controlled by the FARDC (Congolese army). At no time during my stay in rebel territory did I feel threatened. But we heard many circumstantial tales describing harassment and shootings by the FARDC. One human rights worker told us how the windows of his vehicle were shot out by a uniformed FARDC solder riding a motorcycle through the spine of Virunga Park.
I shared dinner with Nkunda. We talked politics, war and family life. Nkunda was courteous and engaging. He seemed serious about reaching out to western interests. I am not ashamed to say that I enjoyed our informal conversations after the interview. Why? Because I found a human who seemed genuinely concerned for the people of Congo.
Would you say you have been portrayed negatively in the western media, especially regarding conservation and the killings of gorillas?
Yes. The gorillas were killed near Rumangabo, which at this time was not under our control. At this time the gorillas were safe in the areas I controlled. The accusations against the CNDP were part of an orchestrated campaign against us.
What is your vision for the future of Congo?
Imagine what Congo could be with good leadership. I believe Congo can be the strongest and most economically developed country in Africa. In the world, I say that Congo can be the fourth or fifth most developed country. Why? Because we have the mineral resources.
Are you the man to provide this leadership?
I never talk about an individual when I talk about leadership. I talk about a spirit. We need a new spirit for the Congolese. That is why we must educate our people. Educated people will choose good leaders who will bring Congo to my dream.