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Zaire: "The national pastime"

International | Genocidal war in Zaire makes reconciliation a distant dream

Issue: "The '96 Election," Nov. 16, 1996

"Still, the fact remains that I have smoked a pipe of peace at midnight in the very heart of the African continent, and felt very lonely there." --Joseph Conrad

When the International Red Cross pulled out of Bukavu, it was like the lights going out on Broadway. The most stalwart of humanitarian organizations was giving up on central Africa. High motives have come undone before in this land of the Congo: those of author/steamboat captain Joseph Conrad and his fictitious Marlow, as well as the missionary David Livingstone, are a few.

Modern Samaritans thought they could overcome where others had failed--that is, until fighting began in October in northeastern Zaire along its border with Rwanda and Burundi. As Tutsi rebels overran camp after camp of refugees in a northward blaze of death and destruction, international relief workers did not have to admit to their failure to soothe the ethnic divides. Their acts of desperation spoke plainly enough.

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Workers for the United Nations gave out their remaining food supply for the year by the tens of thousands of tons in a last-minute effort to fortify refugees fleeing to the hills. (But U.N. workers in Bukavu did not get out before they were ambushed and several killed by fighters.)

CARE International and other groups asked the United States to use its intelligence-gathering satellites to track the refugees who took to the hills in case airlifting food and supplies became necessary.

Those who have visited the camps say every major relief group was at work there. But according to World Relief's David Van Buren, "We know of no one still there."

Beyond concern for the 1 million refugees forced into Zaire since fighting broke out in Rwanda two years ago, there was growing international anxiety that the breakdown in eastern Zaire could well lead to what The New York Times called "continental mayhem." What's new to this old ethnic conflict is the fighting across borders and the impending collapse of Zaire's own government.

The conflict began with a Zairean army campaign against ethnic Tutsis, called Banyamulenges, whom it asked to leave the country Oct. 8. That action can be traced to the deadly rivalry between Tutsis and Hutus that resulted in nearly one million dead in Rwanda's 1994 genocide. The bloodbath left Zaire the unhappy host to 1.1 million Hutu Rwandan refugees who feared retaliation for the actions of Rwanda's Hutu-led government.

Burundi's Tutsi army staged a military coup on July 25, leading also to ethnic bloodletting that has left 10,000 people dead. The Zairean government now accuses Rwanda and Burundi, whose armies and governments are dominated by Tutsis, of backing local Tutsis against the Zairean army. Despite a three-week ceasefire announced last week, relief workers saw no end to the misery and to ongoing atrocities committed by both sides.

At a leprosy hospital near Lemera, more than 30 leprosy patients were murdered--shot or stabbed by Tutsi rebels--while they slept. The facility is operated by the Swedish Free Pentecostal Church, and three night-duty nurses, all Swedes, were killed, along with a Catholic priest. Other hospital staff were taken hostage, and the team's Landrover was used by the Tutsi rebels to transport stolen medicines. Twelve other foreigners were killed in an attack on a Roman Catholic missionary station nearby.

Fishermen near Lake Tanganyika reported burying at least 50 bodies they found floating down the Rusizi River between Zaire and Burundi. Some had bound hands, and some were children.

In a village near an abandoned refugee camp, Reuters cameraman Leon Malherbe saw 14 bodies--men, women, and children--burned, tied, or in some cases buried with hands and feet sticking out of the ground. Some were dumped in pit latrines.

Whether or not character in a president counts, it is clearly contagious. President Mobutu Sese Seko has been called the worst of Africa's thug dictators. He has ruled Zaire from a yacht, courting foreign investors to Zaire's rich mineral reserves while the country's public debt stood at $250 per person, an amount equal to its annual per capita income. Richest of any African nation in natural resources, the country has not been able to feed its own. Roads and communication are in shambles. The economy survived through the end of the Cold War on an anti-Communist stance that won Mobutu U.S. aid and international loans. The flow of foreign aid has been slowed if not cut off entirely, and Mobutu is currently being treated for prostate cancer in Switzerland. He refuses to relinquish power, so his government, rank with corruption, flounders.

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