Missionaries and humanitarian aid workers who've been at work in eastern Zaire use two words to interpret the situation there for outsiders: "very complex." Their bywords are an understated description of the civil unrest that began in September with a band of Tutsi rebels and now threatens regional implosion.
The fighting began with Tutsi rebels attacking refugee camps along the border where Hutus from Rwanda had formed a base of operations against Tutsis. Adding to Tutsi anger was a policy from the Zairian government to deny citizenship to certain Tutsis, called Banyamelenge, who have lived in the mountains of eastern Zaire for more than a century.
Ethnic fighting now has widened into civil war. Tutsi-led rebel groups challenge the decrepit government of Mobutu Sese Seko, who had been ill and convalescing in Europe until two weeks ago. Last week rebels captured President Mobutu's personal gold-mining region. Containing gold reserves of 100 tons, the region could be an endless source of income for fighting an all-out war. Already the rebels rely on outside support, primarily from Rwanda and Uganda, to stay supplied. Mr. Mobutu may look to outsiders, too; some say he will hire mercenaries from Sudan or elsewhere to compensate for low morale and the poor showing of his own army.
With the future of the nation--and indeed much of central Africa--in uncertain hands, eyewitness accounts from the last two months of mayhem form the only reliable snapshots of what is likely to come.
The abbreviated reports that follow originate with missionaries and relief workers who survived the initial fighting but, like nearly all others, were evacuated, in most cases to Nairobi, Kenya. They describe "shades of Somalia," as Zairian soldiers, overpowered by the rebels and unpaid for more than three years, compounded a reign of terror from rebels with one of their own. Looting and extortion have been commonplace from all sides, as has been the perpetual stream of refugees willing to do almost anything, even barter a child, in exchange for another meal.
Mennonite worker Krista Rigalo says she and her husband Fidele are "captives" in Nairobi, forced to watch events unfold in Zaire from ringside. Their exile began Oct. 26 when they were forced to evacuate from Bukavu, where they have worked in development projects with the Mennonite Central Committee. They left for Kenya just hours before the city and nearby Rwandan refugee camps were overrun by rebels.
In the days just before their departure, "We heard thousands of refugees were fleeing the camps and heading north," writes Ms. Rigalo. "As the first rains of the rainy season pounded Bukavu that night, we huddled in bed, thinking of those out in the cold and rain, unprotected. The next day the first of these refugees arrived in Bukavu. Wearily placing one foot before the other, mostly women and children made the 37-mile march, carrying the lump sum of their worldly possessions: a blackened cooking pot, a sleeping mat, and a small bundle of clothes."
The trickle of refugees became a flow, reports Ms. Rigalo, before the United Nations decided to reroute the marchers to camps outside Bukavu. "While the brutal reality of another 53-mile walk for the already exhausted and hungry refugees shocked us, I, for one, was relieved to not have to see them anymore. Their misery leaves scars on the heart."
Free Methodist missionaries took pains to explain that not all the Banyamelenge are militant Tutsis. Those among whom the Free Methodists have worked for decades are peace-loving. At least 9,000 indigenous Free Methodist members and 25 pastors--the largest Protestant group among the Banyamelenge--have taken refuge in Kenya or Tanzania. Meanwhile, rebel Banyamelenge are leading rebel groups in a push west toward the capital, Kinshasha.
"I know both sides of it," said Linda Stryker, a Canadian nurse with Free Methodist Mission at a hospital near South Kivu. When rebel disturbances began in September, many Banyamelenge came to the hospital and mission station for refuge. Later, she said, other Banyamelenge struck there. Thirty-four patients and six doctors were killed. Ms. Stryker's home was destroyed, but she had already been evacuated.
Ms. Stryker will travel from Calgary, Alberta, back to Africa later this month. After a time in Kenya, most workers with the Free Methodist Mission plan to relocate in Tanzania, where they will work with Banyamelenge who have taken refuge there.
With less than a dozen pilots in eastern Zaire, Missionary Aviation Fellowship has become the workhorse in this crisis. MAF pilots and ground crews remained when the Red Cross and most others evacuated after rebel activity first began in October. Two pilots, Bill Kilgore and Brad Weston, were reported to have transported five tons of food and supplies to the northeastern towns of Lubutu and Kichingu in December. In the south, 50 tons more awaited transport to makeshift refugee camps.
The persistent manpower means better reconnaissance than military surveys can provide. International efforts attempted a census of refugees up to 100 miles inside Zaire's eastern border, while MAF pilots were regularly dropping food to refugees 200 miles into the country. They located 50,000 refugees near Katshungu at a time when international sources were reporting 40,000 refugees left in all of eastern Zaire. At Lubutu, 100 miles west of Bukavu and inaccessible to media and other observers, MAF pilots saw 100,000 people--presumably Hutus who fled other refugee camps--encamped.
This yeoman's service has not been without loss. At Nyankunde, MAF's primary base, money and a vehicle were stolen from a hangar at gunpoint--not by rebels but by the local Zairian militia. No one was hurt, but MAF workers learned that a list of their homes had been distributed to the military. Fifteen homes were later looted.
"For some reason, they have the impression that Americans are not against the rebel activity," said spokesman John Lewis. Anyone providing aid, he pointed out, can be seen as taking sides by one group or another. "The people who are starving," he said, "are caught between their agendas."
Workers at Berean Mission's station at Katshungu report that the refugees they've counted don't match the numbers reported in the international press. Missionary Jim Lindquist said 250,000 Hutus took refuge in the forests of Shabunda. He also reported giving up the rest of his milk supply and most of his mission's rice to 230 Hutu orphans being escorted by a dozen adults. The orphans had walked for more than three days from Bukavu and had begun as a group of 300.
Refugees, Mr. Lindquist says, are "surviving by trading their worldly possessions for food." One woman offered her youngest child to a workman at the mission for enough manioc flour to feed the rest of her family for a week. "She said she had six children and couldn't feed the youngest anymore," reported Mr. Lindquist.
Children of missionaries fared much better but were not spared all the traumas of fighting. Tom and Kathy Lindquist with the Berean Mission were separated from three of their four children when fighting broke out just as they left Bukavu for a field conference. Seventeen-year-old Rebecca, who stayed with a MAF family in order to babysit, reported that she and her host family spent a sweltering night behind mattresses moved out into a hallway to avoid nearby shelling.
"The noise was terrible; it sounded like the whole battle was being fought in the front yard," she said. "The gunfire was bad enough, but the mortar was much worse. The [mortar rounds] were shot in the general direction of the city, with no real aim. Miraculously there were very few people hurt, and one person killed as far as we knew. Sitting in the dark, you have a lot of time to think. First of all, I kept wishing my family were there, and I also remember thinking, 'I hope I never feel this helpless again.'"
It was nearly a month before the family was completely reunited in Nairobi. Tom has made one trip back to Bukavu in order to make radio contact with his brother Jim, who remains at Berean's forest mission.