Features

Snapshots of chaos

International | Missionaries paint a desperate picture of war-torn Zaire

Issue: "Down Syndrome = Death Sentence?," Jan. 18, 1997

Missionaries and humanitarian aid workers who've been at work in eastern Zaire use two words to interpret the situation there for outsiders: &quotvery 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.

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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 &quotshades 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 &quotcaptives" 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, &quotWe heard thousands of refugees were fleeing the camps and heading north," writes Ms. Rigalo. &quotAs 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. &quotWhile 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.

&quotI 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.

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