Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Rwandan Ethnic Strife Fuels Congo Conflict

Ethnic hatred that sparked mass killings in Rwanda may be behind fighting in eastern Congo that has uprooted thousands of civilians.
By Peter Eichstaedt
Thousands of men, women and children have fled their farms in eastern Congo for the squalor of refugee camps in neighboring Uganda, creating Africa’s latest humanitarian crisis.

“They’re still fighting,” wailed a desperate women as she stood on the edge of a crowd of refugees waiting to receive some meagre supplies from the United Nations.

After a week in a grass field in the border town of Kisoro, women, children and the elderly were finally getting blankets, drinking cups and packets of biscuits.

The woman was among an estimated 20,000 Congolese of Rwandan origin who have poured into Uganda here and at Ishasha, about 90 kilometres to the north.

The refugees are largely ethnic Hutu who have fled rebels in the remote eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The rebel force reportedly routed government forces and now controls the region.

Refugees claim the rebels are the notorious Banyamulenge, Congolese fighters of Rwandan Tutsi origin led by General Laurent Knunda.

The refugees say they were warned of the approaching rebels, but were assured by the Congolese army that it could control the situation.

When violent fighting erupted a week ago, it was not clear at first who was shooting, says Theodore Sebdul, 46. “But when the (Congolese) soldiers ran away, the villagers followed,” he said.

More than 30 of those Congolese soldiers who fled the insurgents were turned over to UN forces in the Congo.

Sebdul and others say they recognised the soldiers as those who pursued the notorious Interhamwe Hutu gangs into the lawless eastern regions of the Congo in the late 1990s.

The Interhamwe (those who strike together) were Hutus reputed to have committed most of the Tutsi killings during the 1994 ethnic fighting in Rwanda that left almost one million dead.

The refugees fear the Banyamulenge, says Sebdul.

“They saw the same (soldiers) who were killing them before,” Sebdul said of the camp’s refugees. “That is why they cannot stay there.”

Sebdul and others in the camp contend that the rebels are a breakaway faction of the Congolese army who want to form their own republic.

On the Congo side of the border, soldiers roamed the streets of the adjacent village of Bunagana, armed with high-calibre machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikovs.

No police or other civilian authorities were present during a brief visit this week, and most shops were closed and boarded up.

The situation in the eastern Congo region “is still volatile”, said David Masereka, the resident district commissioner in Kisoro.

Thousands of refugees tried to return earlier this week, but many came back at night because they encountered unfamiliar fighters occupying the village.

“They found a different force all together” than the government army they had expected, said Masereka.

Meanwhile, at the refugee camp, conditions remained grim. Refugees huddled under tarpaulin tents spread over thin poles. Despite cold nights, few had warm clothes.

Food has been scarce, forcing many to scavenge in Kisoro. “They go begging for food,” said one refugee. “If you get some, you eat. If you don’t….”

Eliberata Nyirazabominga, 38, a mother of three who carried one infant on her back, said she had gone three days without a meal. She fled fighting in the middle of the night and has not seen her husband since then.

Some refugees cross back into the Congo, trekking long distances to their villages to retrieve food, then return.

Many were suffering from diarrhoea and dehydration, the refugees claim, in addition to cold and hunger.

Refugees must agree to move away from the border area in exchange for assistance, said Masereka.

The UN and the Uganda government are moving refugees from the frontier to semi-permanent camps near Mbarara, some 130 km away, but progress has been slow.

Masereka hopes the situation in the Congo will stabilise so the refugees can return, but is doubtful it will happen soon.

“They fear a government counter attack,” Masereka says of the refugees.

“They’d rather die here than return,” agreed Sebdul.

Peter Eichstaedt is a senior editor with the Uganda Radio Network. URN correspondent Goodluck Musinguzi contributed to this report.