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Reporter’s diary: Face to face with Gen. Nkunda
Wednesday, 18 February 2009 15:20 By Georgianne Nienaber
Laurent Nkunda achieved international notoriety last year when violence erupted in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu region. A series of reports from Human Rights Watch and the UN accused Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) army, which says it is fighting to protect the rights of Congo’s Tutsi minority, of war crimes, including killing of non-combatants, abduction of children, and rape. Allegations emerged of killings of gorillas in Virunga National Park, at the heart of CNDP-held territory. Western media portrayed Nkunda as an eccentric warlord and murderer. Eventually, on January 22, Rwandan troops arrested Nkunda and took him into custody, where he remains today despite Congolese requests for extradition.
Earlier this year, before his arrest, I was given the opportunity to meet General Nkunda. Along with two other journalists and an American doctor, I entered rebel-controlled territory. The most difficult part of our journey was a Ugandan border check where a drunken Ugandan official demanded $50 from each of us to guarantee our “safety.” After much argument, a call came from Nkunda, declaring that we were his guests and should be allowed to pass. Once inside Congo, we were met by well-trained and disciplined CNDP officers. One “Captain Sahara” gave us a polite bonjour and took us into Nkunda’s 21,000 square kilometres of territory.
In CNDP territory, villagers had gardens, flowers and pigs in the yard, and they waved and shouted happily as we drove along the road cut by Nkunda’s army. They offered none of the blank, sullen stares one encounters in sectors controlled by the FARDC (Congolese army). At no time during my stay in rebel territory did I feel threatened. But we heard many circumstantial tales describing harassment and shootings by the FARDC. One human rights worker told us how the windows of his vehicle were shot out by a uniformed FARDC solder riding a motorcycle through the spine of Virunga Park.
I shared dinner with Nkunda. We talked politics, war and family life. Nkunda was courteous and engaging. He seemed serious about reaching out to western interests. I am not ashamed to say that I enjoyed our informal conversations after the interview. Why? Because I found a human who seemed genuinely concerned for the people of Congo.
Would you say you have been portrayed negatively in the western media, especially regarding conservation and the killings of gorillas?
Yes. The gorillas were killed near Rumangabo, which at this time was not under our control. At this time the gorillas were safe in the areas I controlled. The accusations against the CNDP were part of an orchestrated campaign against us.
What is your vision for the future of Congo?
Imagine what Congo could be with good leadership. I believe Congo can be the strongest and most economically developed country in Africa. In the world, I say that Congo can be the fourth or fifth most developed country. Why? Because we have the mineral resources.
Are you the man to provide this leadership?
I never talk about an individual when I talk about leadership. I talk about a spirit. We need a new spirit for the Congolese. That is why we must educate our people. Educated people will choose good leaders who will bring Congo to my dream.
There have been terrible stories in the media about the treatment of women in Congo, including mass rapes.
You are in an area under CNDP control. Ask in the hospitals here. I cannot believe that women are raped here and then going to be treated in Goma or Bukavu [under FARDC control]. But if you go to Goma or Bukavu, you will see hospitals full of women who have been raped.
Also, the allegations that we have carried out brutal massacres are not true. They say that we massacre Hutu tribes. But the executive secretary of CNDP is a Hutu. In my area, 60 or 70 percent of people are Hutu. People say I used these soldiers to kill Hutu. This does not make sense.
What happened at Kiwanja?
Kiwanja was liberated by the CNDP on October 28, 2008. We were there for one week without any killing, any rape, any looting. One week later the government, along with Mai Mai [a pro-government militia], attacked Kiwanja and occupied it for 24 hours. My forces withdrew. And in those 24 hours, 74 people were killed.
The governor of Goma announced that there had been massacres in Kiwanja. When I heard this, I called my guys on the ground and said, “Who is doing this?” They said they did not know, that they were in Rutshuru. We went back to Kiwanja 24 hours later, and some people were killed in the crossfire. This happened because the Mai Mai do not know how to shoot; and they were shooting while they were retreating. The Hutu community in Rutshuru wrote a letter about this, saying they were not killed by CNDP. We can bring you to Kiwanja. You can meet the president of the Hutu community. He will confirm what I am telling you. The same scenario unfolded in Goma. When we were around Goma, my intelligence services informed me of a FARDC plan to kill people in Goma and to pin the blame on the CNDP. One of them was present at the meeting where this was planned. That is why I told my guys not to enter Goma.
I told MONUC [the UN mission in Congo] that I was going to withdraw from Goma for 12 Kilometres. That night, 64 people were killed. FARDC did not know that we had pulled back.
The other charge against you is that you ordered the destruction of refugee camps.
There were internally displaced people in Kiwanja. I went to the camp and I told the people: there are no houses here. You are in the rain. Please go back to your homes. I will take charge of your security. The following morning, I was accused of forcing people to leave. But I was asking people to go to their homes! And I was taking charge of their security, because MONUC was unable to do so. This is a crime? The journalists are not telling the story. Go to Rutshuru. You will find 90 percent of people in their houses. Compare the life of the people in CNDP territory with the life of those in the camps around Goma. Here, they are cultivating, they are in their homes. In the camps, every week about 100 people die from diseases. So who is the criminal? The one keeping people away from their homes or the one who brought them back home?
Can you explain the military ethic of your soldiers?
We have a military code of conduct – I can give you a copy. When we began this fight, I said to my guys, either we are fighting for what is right, or we will not do it. Rape will be punished by firing squad. And two weeks ago two officers were executed for this. They were drunk on the local beer, did not control themselves and raped. Looting by use of arms is also punishable by death. These are strong measures, I know.
Some people call this a war for minerals. Is it?
How can you fight for your own minerals? [Laughs] If this were about minerals, I would not be here.
What are the western interests here in Congo?
Minerals are being exploited by China, by Belgium, by South Africa and others. The Congolese people have never benefited from their own resources. You can see it for yourself, how can a country as rich as Congo be this way? There are no salaries, no roads, no infrastructure. It’s not a matter of these countries coming to exploit Congo, it’s a matter of the contracts our leadership arranges with them.
Have you spoken to Alan Doss [head of MONUC]?
The first time I talked to him was in January in Goma during the peace talks. I said the following. When I go into the former British colonies, there is infrastructure and education, but in Congo there is nothing. So if the African countries that were under your control refused continued colonisation even though you were doing something for them, don’t think that you are going to force us to shut our mouths when we have had nothing from colonisation. We are going to fight. It is about freedom. Our president [Joseph Kabila] is robbing the country. He is destroying the economy, destroying minds, because there is no education when teachers are not paid. And yet you ask me not to fight. I said to Doss, bring your tanks and planes because we will fight until we are free. I’ll fight till I die, then my brothers will continue to fight, and my elders, and my son.
Who are your heroes from history?
In South Africa, there is Mandela. When he accepted reconciliation with his former enemies, it was a way of saying that even if apartheid was the wrong way to rule, those rulers did something for the country economically.
In France, my hero is General Charles De Gaulle. De Gaulle refused to accept German rule and went to England; then, with the American General Eisenhower, liberated France. These are the kind of people who are heroes for me. German authority was accepted in France but De Gaulle refused. We are not obliged to accept things we do not believe in.
I can also tell you about the American General McArthur. He said that the army has to protect the nation because if the army loses, the nation will be destroyed. This is the person who told the American army that the mission of the army is to win wars.
Have you heard President-elect Obama’s statement about Congo: that “ethnic strife” is to blame for the conflict? What would you say to Obama about what’s happening here?
Obama has to raise his thinking about Congo. If I could meet him, I would tell him that it is not a matter of ethnic conflict, it is a matter of leadership. These ethnic groups are not being ruled so the majority can overcome the minority and kill. The real fire here is the lack of leadership.
I will ask him: please help Congolese to be Congolese leaders, not ethnic leaders. Train our people for two or three weeks. America showed the world how they understand leadership in the recent election.
The world is talking about a black person in power, but Americans didn’t vote for a black man, they voted for an American showing the capacity to rule. On his identity card, it doesn’t say “black”.
What are your views about Human Rights Watch?
They are writing from the UK and from the US; they are not on the ground. They say they get their information from “reliable sources”, and unfortunately they are trusted. But compare their report to what is happening on the ground. For groups like this to help, they have to come here and report not from “reliable sources” but from live sources. But I think the world wants such sensational stories. They don’t want reality.
Is there anything else you want to say?
What Congo expects from the world is help to be free from the leadership it is under. Instead of foreign troops, we want well-trained and equipped soldiers. Instead of MONUC, we want roads. Instead of experts, we want well-trained Congolese leaders. If the world really wants to help Congo, please help us train leaders and soldiers, and help Congolese leaders to create a vision for the country that is good for the people.
Georgianne Nienaber is an award-winning investigative environmental and political writer living in rural northern Minnesota and New Orleans, Louisiana USA