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Zaire: "The national pastime"

Genocidal war in Zaire makes reconciliation a distant dream

"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.

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.

"There is no government there," said Mr. Van Buren of the war-torn areas. "It is so remote from Kinshasa [the capital] and there is no money coming in from the government. Relief organizations make their deals with local government, in effect, with the tribes. It's a nebulous arrangement."

World Relief, the international assistance arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, reduced its own operation to working through the Free Methodist Church, which works mostly among the Banyamulenges, when ethnic tension rose in September. Free Methodist workers fled to Nairobi or Tanzania when fighting began. Many Free Methodist church members also went into exile; in fact, of the 90,000 Free Methodists in Zaire, over 34,000 are in exile. Many were in the refugee camps, according to Lynn Barrett of Free Methodist World Missions, where the church was active with Bible studies, worship services, and baptisms.

The camps, meant to provide temporary relief from three years of fighting that ruined the region's agricultural base, assumed the role of cities. In addition to church activities, there developed markets, schools, and police enforcement.

"A lot of people living in the camps can look across the valley to their home," said missionary Karl Dortzbach. One pastor, with most of his congregation inside the camp, traveled back to his village to assess the damage and report to his flock. He found much of it pillaged and destroyed. Upon returning to the camp, however, he found many of his own clothes, missing from his home, for sale in the camp's market.

Despite both Hutus' and Tutsis' residing in some camps, reconciliation efforts have been overpowered by ethnic hatreds and the prevailing anarchy. Even the U.N.'s refugee agency, the High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR, could not agree on how to bring opposing factions together. Mr. Dortzbach's agency, MAP International, found UNHCR staff at the Goma camp often "at loggerheads" with their counterparts in Rwanda, leaving on the drawing board plans for getting survivors out of the camps and back to living with their neighbors.

Recognizing that the brutality will take "generations of undoing," Mr. Dortzbach said his organization, working with pastors inside Rwanda and Zaire, began several reconciliation "workshops" with Hutus and Tutsis. Prior to the fighting he attended several workshops in Goma and other camps just emptied, but little progress, he reports, was seen.

One pastor, whom he will not name, illustrates the challenge: During fighting in Rwanda two years ago, this pastor harbored a Tutsi family who were members of his congregation. Hutu militias came to his home several times searching for them, even as stories of Tutsis being killed (along with their protectors) were relayed to the pastor. He told the Tutsi family they had to leave.

When Hutus returned and searched his home, the pastor--fearing for his own family's life--told them which way the family had gone. Later he learned that they were hunted down and killed. The pastor lost most of his own family inside the refugee camp to cholera.

Working through the combination of guilt, grief, and fear has become hard even for Christians. "We have to talk about these things in a way that heals instead of wounds more," says Mr. Dortzbach. "And we have to slow down bad decision making." Even good church leaders who have a Tutsi background, he said, are tempted to get rid of Hutus in their congregations. And vice versa. Reconciliation, said Mr. Dortzbach, must take place in an atmosphere where "genocide has become the national pastime."

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.