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The 1997 U.S.-sanctioned counter-genocide of Hutu refugees in DRC

By       Message Alex Engwete       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   1 comment

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Three significant developments happened this past week that would hopefully shed light on the U.S.-sanctioned counter-genocide perpetrated by the Rwandan government against Hutu refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1997. The first development was the 5-point memorandum released by Amnesty International (AI) on November 2, 2007 entitled “Rwanda: Suspects must not be transferred to Rwanda courts for trial until it is demonstrated that trials will comply with international standards of justice.” The very first point, though restricted to the framework of the 1994 genocide and the civil war in Rwanda at that period, seems to also sound as a wake-up to the international community for what happened later on in the DRC in 1997 on Rwanda’s watch and which still needs to be investigated and prosecuted: “It must be demonstrated that the Rwandan justice system can operate impartially by investigating and prosecuting crimes by all sides.” In other words, in the cutthroat environment of the African Great Lakes, there are hardly good guys on the one hand and bad guys on the other; and thus Rwanda can also be the bad guy. The second development is a delegation of European Union human rights specialists to inquire about the most recent human rights abuse in the Kivu provinces involving mainly the troops of Rwanda-backed rogue General Nkunda, which seem to have borrowed from the 1997 playbook of their backers. The limited period the EU investigative team will spend in the field---6 days---makes this mission a preposterous exercise though. The last development, reported on OPEDNEWS piece by Georgianne Nienaber is by far the most significant as it entails the UN High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR) sending a forensic team in the DRC that would stay in the field for three months and would “map the most serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed within the territory of the DRC between March 1993 and June 2003.”
Though it could be argued that by also covering parts Mobutu’s malfeasances, the net result might amount to a watering down of the most egregious violations that only happened after the Zairian dictator’s fall. But the UNHCR is only picking up where it had left when it had no other option but to withdraw from the DRC ten years ago, in 1997, due to the lack of cooperation by Laurent Kabila and his then Rwandan allies. What’s more, this time around, the forensic team is free to go through the 40 sites of massacres identified in 1997 and has a whopping $ 2.3m budget which, one hopes, would only be the first installment in this fledging endeavor as there were upward to 200,000 Hutu refugees that were killed by Rwandan troops in a counter-genocide rampage in the Congo jungles for the best part of the first half of 1997. This will prove to be a gargantuan task that can’t be possibly be fully finished in three months either.

What happened in the DRC in 1997?

One has to keep in mind that by 1996 Laurent Kabila, who toppled Mobutu, a one-time rebel leader who was once visited in the mountainous forest of western Congo by the Argentinean-Cuban revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara in the mid-1960s, was a refugee hawker in Tanzania when he was recruited to be a spokesman of the outfit of opportunist exile Congolese politicians Paul Kagame had set up as figureheads in his design of doing away with the Mobutu regime in neighboring Congo. In several interviews, the Rwandan President had publicly acknowledged the fact the operational planning of the “Congolese revolution” was carried out in Kigali. Mobutu was dying from prostrate cancer and had allowed armed gangs of defeated Hutu militiamen to run refugee camps at the border of Congo with Rwanda and thus gave ample justification for the retaliatory three-pronged response from Kagame: 1) dismantling of refugee camps; 2) destruction of the structure of the remnants of the Rwandan army and militias in those camps; and 3) toppling of Mobutu.

Faced with a country destroyed by 32 years of graft that had squandered the military might built up for over two decades by American and European military cooperation during the Cold War, Kagame could have achieved these objectives without the participation of his Congolese “lackeys,” but he was aware that the rest of the international community wouldn’t take kindly to any such brazen takeover of another country. The new Rwandan regime was riding a huge international surf of sympathy and guilt after the rest of the world had just stood idly by as one of the most horrific genocides of modern times was taking place. And the new Rwandan authorities weren’t foolish enough to waste this sizable amount of capital of goodwill. So Kabila was deemed important in the scheme being hatched in Kigali and recruited accordingly.

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Also, the United States, as other nations-states for that matter, operates in its foreign policy with the only compass of its “interests.” At one point, it was in the interest of the U.S. to prop up the dictatorship of Mobutu in the Congo as a proxy in the African theater of the Cold War. With the fall of the former Soviet Union, and the emergence of new alliances America was actively creating in the African Great Lakes Region under the aegis of “African Renaissance,” the United States determined that it was in its national “interest” to dump Mobutu and the Congolese.

There was, however, a fourth and far more nefarious objective in Kagame’s mind that one is at a loss to determine whether Kagame’s allies---Kabila and the U.S. that is---were privy to the revenge, indiscriminate, and incremental killings of unarmed Hutu refugees that amounted to a de facto counter-genocide with the minimal estimation of 300,000 dead in the first half of 1997. As James C. McKinley and Howard W. French of The New York Times had it on their November 14, 1997 report entitled “Hidden Horrors: Uncovering the Guilty Footprints Along Zaire’s Long Trail of Death”: “more and more evidence has emerged suggesting that Mr. Kabila and the Rwandans who backed him were also fighting a war of revenge, one deeply intertwined with the ethnic conflicts between Hutu and Tutsi groups that have tormented this region. The Tutsi troops from Rwanda and Congo who made up the core of Mr. Kabila's army had a powerful motive for vengeance, since thousands of Hutu refugees in the camps had taken part in the slaughter of more than half a million Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994.”

And no amount of forensics in the field would ever ascertain whether the U.S. had prior knowledge of this criminal scheme; though one can certainly assert that the U.S. served as accessory after the commission after these most horrendous crimes. As for Laurent Kabila, after his falling out with his one-time ally, he had this to say in a November 19, 1998 interview with the Belgian daily Le Soir: “Victims were in the thousands. Never did we expect these people to be so cruel, so bloody, it was revolting. Our fellow citizens were shocked as the [Rwandan] soldiers were asking for their help, to put bodies into bags, to throw them into mass graves. They had to promise not to reveal where they had buried them. We didn’t authorize these massacres, we weren’t even informed.” Well, one would object, that’s what you get when you undertake your “revolution” with foreign troops that had but contempt for you and your indigenous troops. Furthermore, as Laurent Kabila represented Congo in this grim alliance and the atrocities occurred on Congolese soil, with the damning eyewitness documentation of the participation of his own troops (albeit to a lesser extent), even after Koffi Annan was decrying the “slow extermination” of Hutu refugees, and even after the European Union Commissioner on Humanitarian Affairs had accused him on May 6, 1997 of transforming eastern Congo into a “slaughterhouse,” Kabila denied that any massacre was being carried out on his watch and ordered the refugees be removed from the Congo within 60 days---thus violating, as the Congolese rights group ASADHO denounced in June 1998, the 1949 Geneva Convention and the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

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Modus Operandi of the Counter-genocide: “the best game were the women and children”

At first, the destruction of the Hutu refugees, which started in early 1997, was carried out in small incremental killings, and then it gathered its own momentum, culminating in one single mass disappearance of more than 80,000 children, women, and men. But throughout, the modus operandi was a simple one: drive off aid workers; seal off refugee camps; fire in the air, thus driving off refugees into the jungle; then hunt them down there like game. Their fellow Rwandan pursuers had so much instilled the fear of God in these Hutu that they walked non-stop; and the fittest among crossed the whole expense of the Congo within two weeks, with some crossing the River Congo to Congo-Brazzaville and others reaching as far north as Gabon! (These two countries were also in violation of international conventions as they forcibly repatriated these refugees to Rwanda, from which some of these later escaped to find refuge in the mountainous forests of eastern Congo.) You had to power-walk or die, as stragglers were systematically “mopped up.”

William Shawcross, in his book Deliver us from Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords, and a World of Endless Conflict (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001, pages 247-248) captures the methodology of the counter-genocide of Hutu in the Congo---from the in-the-spur-of-the-moment killing envy to well-planned mass murders, as well as the dubious role played by the U.S. and other governments with the notable exception of France. He writes:

“In April [1997], Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, declared that ‘Mobutuism is about to become a creature of history,’ thus nailing U.S. colors more publicly than ever before to [Laurent] Kabila’s alliance’s. Emboldened, Kabila and the Rwandan government both made personal attacks on [Kofi] Annan for his expressions of concern over the plight of the refugees.

In April the UN Commission on Human Rights requested an investigation into the allegations of mass killings and other gross violations of human rights. This followed a report from the UN special rapporteur on Zaire, Roberto Garreton, that the alliance had ‘undoubtedly’ committed massacres. He named forty sites.

The commission was set up, but Kabila made it clear he did not intend to cooperate with it. Mrs. [Sadako] Ogata, the high commissioner, wrote to Annan to say that representations ‘do not appear to have had any effect. The Alliance leadership continues to deny that such gross abuses are occurring… I realize that with the innocent victims there are those not deserving of international protection. But such considerations must not be allowed to excuse inaction, still less to indirectly sanctions summary killings.’

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The atrocities continued. Early one morning in late April about twenty Rwandans and or alliance troops entered Lwiro hospital north of Bukavu in Zaire. They seized about fifty children who were there for therapeutic feeding and flung them brutally into the back of a truck. They also took away about sixty adults, including members of the children’s families and caregivers.

At Kasere at the end of April, 80,000 people were waiting for planes. None came. Every night 200 or so people died. The rebels deliberately drove the aid workers away for a week. When they were able to return the place was empty. ‘Nobody. All gone,’ said [Kilian] Kleinschmidt [of UNCHR]. ‘The once full cholera station abandoned. Stretchers, but nobody on them. Even the smell of death had gone, the smell we had worked with all those weeks. A feeling of being manipulated as part of a buildup to something evil.’

The refugees had been killed or were now being hunted through the forests, ‘and the best game were the women and children who had no chance to defend their lives.’

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Alex Engwete is a Congolese-American who lives in Kinshasa (DRC) and Washington, DC. Outrage at injustices is what usually stirs him into blogging in French or in English. He likes Congolese beers and drinks "Samuel Adams" while in the United (more...)

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