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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Congo (Kinshasa): USCR Report, 1

Congo (Kinshasa): USCR Report, 1
Date distributed (ymd): 970623
Document reposted by APIC

Note: This posting and the next contain excerpts from the USCR report. The full report is available from
U.S. Committee for Refugees, 1717 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Suite 701, Washington, DC 20036;
Tel: (202) 347-3507; Fax: (202) 347-3418;

USCR Site Visit Notes (excerpts, part 1)

Site Visit to Eastern Congo/Zaire:
Analysis of Humanitarian and Political Issues
April 10 to May 10, 1997

by Eleanor Bedford
Central Africa Policy Consultant
U.S. Committee for Refugees

Published June 10, 1997


The purpose of these USCR Site Visit Notes is to provide timely information, analysis, and recommendations regarding issues affecting Congo/Zaire, particularly the eastern half of the country. ... These USCR Site Visit Notes assume that readers possess a working knowledge of the situation in Congo/Zaire and recent events there.

Site Visit Overview

USCR conducted a site visit in eastern Zaire during April 10 to May 10, 1997. The purpose was to examine issues pertaining to the plight of war-affected and internally displaced Zairians and Rwandan refugees.

The mission focused on the regions of North Kivu, South Kivu, as well as a brief assessment of the Kisangani area in mid-April. USCR interviewed more than 100 persons on the ground, including local Zairians, leading members of civil society, international aid workers, and UN officials. ...

Because of the range of issues in Congo/Zaire and the pending victory (at that time) of the rebel Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL), USCR's site visit attempted to pay special attention to the internal workings of the ADFL, which now dominates the country's new government and the course of future events.

1 > ADFL Administration

1.1. Three Power Structures

As the rebel Alliance captured territory in late 1996 and early 1997, it established three parallel power structures in areas under its control: civilian government officials, ADFL political authorities, and the military. These three structures are key to understanding the current dynamics on the ground in eastern Zaire.

As ADFL troops swept westward, the Alliance's ability to govern did not keep pace with the speed of territorial conquests. During USCR's site visit in April-May, little communication or coordination appeared to exist among the three power structures. With the fall of Kinshasa on May 17 and the formation of the new ADFL-dominated government, led by Laurent Kabila, administrative patterns established deep in ADFL territory in eastern Zaire since last November may provide useful indicators of the shape of things to come in the new Democratic Republic of Congo.

1.2. First Branch--Civilian Government Officials

The ADFL has, thus far, retained local government structures. Most mid-level bureaucrats under Mobutu have been reinstated. The Alliance appointed governors in Goma and Bukavu. In Kisangani, the Alliance permitted popular elections of local officials by a show of hands. The governor in Kisangani is the regional President of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), the political party of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi. Kisangani's vice governor is a popular university professor.

In Goma and Bukavu, the unelected civilian government officials possess little power. In Kisangani, the elected governor enjoys wide support and appears to cater primarily to his constituency rather than to the Alliance. In mid-April, for example, Kisangani's governor blocked for several days a high-level ADFL decision to begin the repatriation airlift of Rwandan refugees. According to sources on the ground, the governor's action to delay the repatriation was partly due to his belief that the Alliance had failed to consult him about the repatriation operation.

1.3. Second Branch--ADFL Political Authorities

The ADFL's political officials constitute the second branch of power on the ground in Cong/Zaire. These officials act as local representatives of the political branch of the ADFL. Although they are presumed to have direct links to senior Alliance officials, it appears that this is not always the case. Some Alliance political officials readily admit they possess limited authority. This poses a problem for international aid agencies that must rely on these officials to obtain clearances for humanitarian operations, resolve bureaucratic problems, etc.

1.4. Third Branch--ADFL Military

At the local level, the Alliance military often appears to be the only entity with real authority and the ability to make final decisions. Early in the civil war, identifiable military commanders were assigned to Goma, Bukavu, and Kisangani. As the Alliance offensive rapidly advanced, however, top military commanders moved westward and lines of authority in the eastern provinces became unclear. NGOs in eastern Zaire no longer know which specific military officials to address regarding operational and humanitarian problems, such as abuses against civilians, disappearance of a local staff member, military restrictions on humanitarian operations, etc. ...

2 > ADFL Military

2.1. Local Perceptions of Military

Zairians in North and South Kivu told USCR that they remain pleased that they can now walk freely about town without fear of harassment by Mobutu's Armed Forces of Zaire (FAZ). Several Zairians noted, for example, that they regularly wear wrist watches for the first time because the constant threat of extortion is gone.

Since mid-April, however, a marked decline in troop discipline has occurred, according to locals and expatriates. In Goma, troop misconduct coincided with Kabila's relocation to Lumbumbashi in April. Soldiers have reportedly remained unpaid and have increasingly resorted to bribes, petty corruption, and settling personal scores. Many eastern Zairians expressed fear that top Alliance officials are preoccupied with power in Kinshasa, and that with senior military commanders and their best troops deployed westward, soldiers in the east are left to operate outside strict lines of command, without proper controls. Kabila's control over his troops is questionable.

A widespread perception exists among Zairians that power within the Alliance military remains concentrated in the hands of the Tutsi minority, specifically the Banyamulenge who formed the core of Kabila's fighting force in 1996. This perception has aggravated ethnic tensions.

2.2. Tensions Within ADFL Military--Lack of Cohesion

Soldiers from different regions or ethnic groups (Katangese, Banyamulenge, Kasindians, etc.) are not well integrated within the ADFL military and tend to operate independently of each other. This creates a serious potential for infighting among Alliance forces. Some Zairians told USCR that their young men continued to enlist in the ADFL military by the thousands in order to support Kabila in the short-run and to "overthrow the Banyamulenge" in the long-run. ...

2.3. Security Concerns of ADFL Troops, Rwandan Refugees, and Local Zairians

Less than a year ago, a campaign of "ethnic cleansing" by the FAZ, Zairian Hutu militia, the Interahamwe, and the former Rwandan military (ex-FAR) expelled virtually all Tutsi from North Kivu and threatened to push Banyamulenge Tutsi from South Kivu. In the aftermath of the civil war, the prevailing psychology on the ground is that "the tables have turned."

In North Kivu, many Alliance soldiers seem intent on settling old scores against local Zairian Hutu and Rwandan Hutu refugees. Alliance troops reportedly have killed Hutu militia who were previously involved in "cleansing" Tutsi from eastern Zaire, have burned numerous Hutu villages, and have killed refugees. In South Kivu, Banyamulenge troops appear to be particularly hardline. There is reason to believe they are systematically attempting to eliminate many refugees before they can return to Rwanda (see sections 3 and 4).

According to local Zairians and aid agencies, pockets of Interahamwe and ex-FAR persist among the refugees dispersed throughout eastern Zaire. ADFL soldiers continue to view them as a military threat and tend to regard Zairians who help refugees as "collaborating" with the enemy. Alliance soldiers have threatened Zairians or attacked Zairian Hutu villages accused of aiding Interahamwe.

While average Zairians in the east continued to voice support for Kabila, many deeply resented Banyamulenge soldiers. Some Zairians insisted that the soldiers constituted a foreign occupation force, although Banyamulenge have lived in Zaire for generations. Several Zairians told USCR that thousands of young men continued to enlist in the ADFL in order to rectify the perceived ethnic imbalance in the Alliance. The majority of current Alliance troops are non-Banyamulenge. Eastern Zairians, however, continue to believe that Banyamulenge wield military power disproportionate to their numbers. ...

3 > Security / Human Rights Issues in Eastern Zaire

3.1. ADFL Security Concerns

Pockets of fighting continue in areas of both North and South Kivu. In North Kivu, Interahamwe and ex-FAR are believed to be concentrated in parts of Masisi zone and Virunga Park. In South Kivu, they are primarily believed to be in the area of Kahuzi Biega Forest, located north of the Bukavu-Shabunda axis. These areas also appear to contain the largest concentrations of remaining Rwandan refugees in North and South Kivu.

3.2. Vastly Disproportionate Response by ADFL Troops

The response of the ADFL military is often vastly disproportionate to the limited security threat posed by armed elements among the refugees. Persistent reports indicate that significant numbers of refugees have been killed by Alliance troops. Areas containing refugees are routinely declared off limits to aid agencies by the Alliance military.

During USCR's mission to South Kivu, Alliance officials blocked relief access along four of five major roads normally used to repatriate refugees. Access changed on a daily basis. Major roads in other areas were also routinely off limits at that time due to prevailing insecurity in the region. ...

It is unclear to aid agencies if access is being denied due to legitimate security concerns or whether it is a pretext for soldiers to commit abuses with impunity. Most aid workers in the area said both factors exist. ...

3.3. Allegations of Atrocities in South Kivu

Serious accusations of abuses by ADFL troops against Rwandan refugees in South Kivu have received less international attention than abuses committed against refugees near Kisangani. Relief workers in Bukavu, South Kivu fear that elements of the Alliance are using humanitarian aid operations as bait to locate and kill refugees in hiding before they reach Rwanda. ...

3.4. Specific Accounts of Abuses in South Kivu

In an account widely publicized by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and further documented by USCR, two expatriate aid workers witnessed skulls, bones, and evidence of mass graves as they conducted an exploratory mission in South Kivu from Bukavu to Shabunda in late March. The trip took two weeks due to road conditions. Local Zairians reported gross violations against refugees in the region. The two-person team was unable to investigate claims of mass graves in the vicinity due to the ADFL "facilitator" who traveled with them. When the two relief workers reached Shabunda on March 29, they were questioned at military headquarters and held overnight under military guard "for their own security." ...

Not all refugees disappear, however, and not all convoys are blocked. More than 60,000 refugees have been repatriated via Bukavu since November 1996. UNHCR workers in South Kivu report several cases in which soldiers have detained refugees and separated women and children from the men, interrogating and beating the latter and later releasing them for repatriation.

3.5. Security Problems in North Kivu

Many of the political and ethnic tensions that have caused security problems in North Kivu since 1992--long before the eruption of the civil war--were still present during USCR's site visit during April-May. Tutsi units within the ADFL military appear to be exacting revenge against local Zairian Hutu militia and against Rwandan Hutu refugees, both of whom participated in the ethnic cleansing of Tutsi from North Kivu during 1995-96. Zairians who assist remaining Rwandan refugees in North Kivu are often viewed as enemy collaborators by many ADFL soldiers.

Conversely, the persistent presence of Interahamwe or other armed elements among Rwandan refugees in North Kivu poses security concerns for Alliance authorities and local Zairian civilians. The aggressive and often indiscriminate response of ADFL soldiers has led to serious human rights abuses against Rwandan Hutu refugees and local Zairian Hutu. Alliance soldiers often fail to distinguish between armed Rwandans, unarmed Rwandans, and local Hutu villagers. Indiscriminate attacks against Hutu villages have displaced thousands of Zairians.

North Kivu is plagued by additional layers of insecurity as well. New tensions exist in Rutshuru between Zairian Tutsi and Hutu who are both returning to the area now that the war is over. Land tenure disputes have arisen. Animosities also linger among ethnic groups in Masisi in the aftermath of four years of violence and population displacement that predate both the Rwandan refugee crisis and the civil war.

3.6. Attack on Mudja, North Kivu

Alliance troops suspect that Zairian Hutu villagers assist Interahamwe and ex-FAR who remain active in the region. Potentially legitimate security concerns, however, frequently degenerate into a pretext for indiscriminate attacks by Alliance troops against Zairian Hutu.

In one incident during USCR's site visit, on April 12 at midday, a group of Alliance soldiers opened fire on the mainly Zairian Hutu village of Mudja, near the Nyiragongo Volcano between Goma and Sake. Some 31 to 38 Zairians were killed in the attack, including an infant in its father's lap. Some 600 to 1,000 families fled to Goma during the following three days, where they received assistance from Catholic missionaries. The uprooted families quickly dispersed throughout Goma, taking refuge with friends and relatives. ...

4 > Rwandan Refugees in Eastern Zaire

4.1. Reality Amid Contradictions

Rarely has a refugee situation captured such intense international attention yet remained so difficult for outsiders to understand. Diplomats, relief workers, and other observers have struggled to sort through the contradictions, and significant information remains unknown.

  • The actual size of the Rwandan refugee population in Zaire has long been a matter of uncertainty, and remains in dispute.

*The refugee population in Zaire has included a majority of innocent persons as well as armed elements complicit in genocide.

*The massive repatriation of 650,000 refugees from Goma last November after military attack on their camps is simultaneously regarded as an act of liberation as well as a grievous violation of the Geneva Conventions and international laws against forcible return.

*Refugees trekking across the breadth of Zaire during the past seven months are simultaneously regarded as innocent victims and as hardcore genocidaires running from prosecution.

*The health of Rwandan refugees in Zaire ranges from emaciated and dying to well-fed and fit--both conditions often exist side-by-side within the same group of refuges.

*International relief agencies have undertaken impressive relief operations since November, while consciously trying to avoid recreating camps where refugee leaders could re-exert control.

*ADFL soldiers have hunted and killed Rwandan refugees, yet some 750,000 refugees have safely repatriated from ADFL territory since November.

*Aid workers know that significant numbers of refugees are dead of disease, malnutrition, and massacres, yet no reliable estimates exist.

*Many outside observers assume that Interahamwe and ex-FAR are no longer among the refugees, yet many aid workers on the ground point to evidence that these armed elements remain present.

*Most refugees in eastern Zaire say they are ready to go home after fleeing hundreds of miles in the opposite direction. ...

(continued in part 2)

This material is being reposted for wider distribution by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC), the educational affiliate of the Washington Office on Africa. APIC's primary objective is to widen the policy debate in the United States around African issues and the U.S. role in Africa, by concentrating on providing accessible policy-relevant information and analysis usable by a wide range of groups and individuals.

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