What happened to Hutu Refugees 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.  

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.

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.’

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.’


And so it went on all year long; one reason after another was found to block the team’s access to alleged massacres sites.


“Month after month went by, and it became clearer that most governments just did not want to know what had really happened in the jungles of eastern Zaire in the first half of 1997. UNHCR might say that 230,000 Hutu were still unaccounted for, but the U.S  had always disputed these numbers.” 

But the end of 1997, the situation of the UNHCR had become so untenable in the Congo that Kofi Annan decided to call it quit while, according to a report by Howard W. French of The New York Times, “At the United States Embassy in Kinshasa (…) diplomats were bending over backward to shift the blame for the investigators' troubles to the United Nations. A senior diplomat in Kinshasa, for example, castigated the team for its rejection of the Government's insistence that their inquiry be carried out only in the east.”   

Two sites of interest: Mbandaka (Equateur Province) and Tingi Tingi (near Kisangani, the capital of Oriental Province)

The new forensic teams should pick up where the 1997 team left out: near and at the provincial capital of Mbandaka, which was at the time the freshest sites of mass killings (May 13, 1997) and where there is at least an identified Westerner as eyewitnesses: the Belgian plantation owner Antoine de Klerk, who was arrested at the time by Rwandan soldiers in a lame attempt to have him not talk to the UN forensic team, and who can’t be accused of “Hutu propaganda” by Kigali. In Wendji and Mbandaka, Rwandan troops sealed off the area for four days to carry out indiscriminately killings of at least 2,000 Hutu refugees in front of the local population with one instance of a small child’s skull smashed against a tree because one Congolese villager, who had found him playing dead under his dead parents, wanted to take him home.

There are also Western identifiable eyewitnesses of the Tingi Tingi massacres. According to the same New York Times report by McKinley and French cited earlier : “On March 2, [1997], according to relief officials, Western diplomats and Hutu refugees, Rwandan-backed units of Mr. Kabila's army launched a full-scale assault on the refugee camp at Tingi Tingi, sending the population, which had swollen to well over 150,000, fleeing westward yet again.”

At those sites, eyewitnesses have reported that Rwandan troops had tried to dispose of the evidence, and in once instance, in Tingi Tingi, about 200 kilometers southeast of Kisangani, even attempted to cremate some of the bodies. But with the help of the local communities, investigators will still be able to find and access sites of mass graves, as the ones uncovered this year in eastern Congo---though there were countless victims that drowned or whose bodies were dumped into the Congo River.

One hopes that this new UNHCR investigation will not only reestablish the historical records of one of the most systematic ethnic cleansings on African continent but also result in practical follow-ups at the International Criminal Court with indictments at the rulers of the ethno-fascist dictatorship in Rwanda (incidentally, the exact mirror of the previous regime in that country) and their proxies in the DRC for these crimes against humanity---as well as lay bare to its gruesome skeleton the morally cynical travesty of the punctual indignations the Rwandan government voice whenever rights organizations would voice their rightful concerns over these still unpunished atrocities. As one Western aid worker still active in the African Great Lakes region this past week told a reporter of the London daily The Guardian in an article dealing with this renewed UN probe in the Congo: “To this day I have a hard time stomaching the Rwandan genocide propaganda and those who hold up the current regime as a model for all of central Africa”


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