Most people are familiar with the genocide in Cambodia or the one in Rwanda in which Hutu fanatics killed more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. In the chaos, a long-running Tutsi insurgency seized control of the country, sending a million refugees into the Congo.
Two years later, in 1996, tiny Rwanda invaded the Congo – a giant the size of Western Europe -- and conquered it.
What most people don’t know is that five million people, mostly civilians, have died in subsequent wars. Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped. Eight neighbouring countries ultimately became involved in the free-for-all and today 29 insurgencies still simmer inthe backlands.
This is all chronicled in Dancing in the Glory Of Monsters (PublicAffairs, New York, 2011, 381pp).
Subtitled The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War Of Africa, this is a magisterial analysis of the intricate, multi-layered conflict, leavened by the voices of politicians, generals, businessmen, child soldiers, refugees and massacre victims.
The author, Jason K Stearns, spent a decade in the benighted country, working for human rights and peace keeping groups. He sets a high standard for shoe-leather reporting, racking up wellover 100 in-depth interviews. His is the definitive history of an insane time and place.
The troubles go back to the colonial days of the Belgian Congo. Beyond suffering the well-publicised atrocities of the rubber and ivory trade, the Congolese were systematically blocked by their white masters from higher education and positions of responsibility.
The military strongman who emerged after independence was a former typist with the rank of sergeant. Joseph Mobuto renamed the country Zaire and ruled for 32 years. Increasingly paranoid, he drew all money and power into his hands.
What happens when you don’t pay soldiers, policemen,teachers and civil servants? Schools close, river boats rot, roads revert to jungle, policemen cadge bribes and soldiers turn feral. No electricity, no sanitation,no postal service. Mobuto sucked the life out of the country.
“By 1996, Zaire was a teetering house of cards,” the Economist quipped, “They call it a country. In fact it is just a Zaire-shaped hole in the middle of Africa.’”
The reason for Rwanda’s conquest of the Congo in 1996 was simple. Rwanda had an army; the Congo did not. The people who had massacred the Tutisi two years earlier were crammed into refugee camps along the Congolese border. The Rwandan army invaded and massacred them right back.
Mobuto had sent his officer corps to be trained in Europe and US but then gave his army over to incompetent and corrupt loyalists from his region and tribe. Lieutenant Colonel Prosper Nabyolwa was an experienced paratroop commander who trained inBelgium and Oklahoma.
At the approach of the Rwandans on the border, most ofhis troops along with his commanding officers fled. He pleaded fruitlessly with Kinshasa for reinforcements.
“Nabyolwa’s mood was liftedbriefly when he got word that a plane was arriving with promised reinforcements,” Stearns writes. “He hurried to the airport to receive the troops, only to see a cargo plane landing with a company of troops disembarking with their wives, children, and belongings.
There were 200 shabbily dressed soldiers with pots and pans on their heads. Goats were running around the airport. They asked me where they could set up camp.’ He moaned in dismay, holding his head in his hands. “Goats!” he exclaimed.
Desperate hordes of refugees fled eastward into the jungle where they died of starvation and disease. Informal tribal militias called Mai-Mai, who believe magic amulets would turnbullets into water, rose up to defend their turf, only adding to the bloody chaos. Child soldiers, stoned and drunk, rampaged at will.
Rwandan soldiers showed all the compassion of the German SS for conquered civilians. In the village of Kasika, 100 miles west of the Rwandan border, a popular Rwandan commander was assassinated. Troops slaughtered men, women and children for miles around. They surrounded the Kasika’s Catholic church, killed everyone inside and horribly disfigured their corpses.
“There were nol imits to their revenge – they would kill the priests, rape the nuns, rip babies from their mothers’ wombs, and twist the corpses into origami figures.”
As Stearns remarks elsewhere: “The Rwandans certainly did not know how to make themselves loved.” Laurent Kabila, a veteran Congolese insurgent, was the puppet the Rwandans installed upon Mobutu’s vacated throne in Kinshasa. Only Kabila was no puppet and began plotting against his Rwandan overlords. A second war broke out in 1998 and lasted till 2006, drawing in a shifting mosaic of neighbouring countries and local rebelgroups. Kabila was assassinated by a bodyguard in 2002, for many alleged reasons, and his son Joseph took over, ultimately holding fraudulent elections in 2011.
Both father and son ruled in the personal style of Mobuto, imprisoning and co-opting opponents, fostering a culture of nepotism, cronyism and kleptocracy.
Stearns rejects the cliché about the Congo being “the heart of darkness”. Rather he compares the Congo to Europe during the brutal chaos of the Thirty Years War.
Writing three years after the end of the Thirty Years War, Thomas Hobbes had good reason to be pessimistic about the state of nature, which he believed to be one of ‘war of man against man’.
Life in this state was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.” So far, nothing has changed.