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The Horror, The Horror

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa
By Jason K. Stearns
(PublicAffairs, 380 pp., $28.99)

The history of Congo is the history of mass murder. What is going on today—with rebels, government soldiers, and armed groups from neighboring countries raping and slaughtering Congolese civilians—is a continuation of the ruthlessness that has been embedded in this country for more than a hundred years. It began in the 1880s, when King Leopold II of Belgium turned this abundantly fertile expanse in the center of Africa into his own personal fiefdom, murdering and enslaving the population in order to collect as much ivory and rubber as humanly possible. The whip-wielding Belgian administrators who followed were hardly any better, and an ill-prepared Congo stumbled toward independence in 1960. Then, thanks to American meddling, it produced the most corrupt continent’s most corrupt leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, who guzzled pink champagne and feasted on fresh cakes flown in from Paris while his people wasted away. When he was overthrown in 1997, Congo plunged into a bloodbath that sucked in many of its neighbors. It became—and remains—one of the worst wars in modern history, a truly continental disaster that has killed millions of people.

In Congo’s war, battles between soldiers are incredibly rare. Instead, gratuitous massacres of civilians and flamboyant cruelty are the norm. It is difficult not to be hyperbolic when describing this country—the vastness, the mineral riches, the depravity are all off the charts. I have traveled there more than a dozen times and the stories that I have collected stay with me. I have spoken to men who have been pinned down on their stomachs in cassava fields and gang-raped. I have met a little girl whose lips were sawed off by lunatic rebels; you could see her teeth when her mouth was closed. I have stepped over freshly dug graves, one crumbly mound after another, stretching deep into the jungle, marking where hundreds of people were clubbed to death in a massacre that took weeks to come to light because that particular patch of Congo, like so much of the country, is totally cut off, without phones, roads, or any vestiges of modernity. Last fall I met a very gaunt, whispery woman who said she was in a lot of pain. She had been gang-raped as well. Her name was Anna. She was eighty years old.

Anna lives in a village just up the road from a heavily fortified U.N. peacekeeping base. But that meant little, and points to another alarming problem in Congo: nobody seems to be able to help this place. Hundreds of women were raped right under the U.N.’s nose in a three-day rebel rampage last summer that, again, had no discernible strategic purpose other than the terrorizing of innocent people. Congo is now considered “the rape capital of the world,” with hundreds of thousands of women, children, and grown men having been victimized. The United Nations has invested billions in trying to protect Congolese civilians, but it continues to fail. Hillary Clinton paid a special visit to eastern Congo, the most war-wracked part of the country, in 2009. Obama himself has railed against the mass rapes. Countless European ministers have jetted in and out, vowing to end the impunity. But the killings and the rapes go on.

And so does business. Some of the world’s biggest mining companies are making millions, possibly even billions, out of Congo. This country is one of the most naturally blessed in the world, with teeming forests, stunningly clear lakes, surging rivers, snowcapped mountains, and an embarrassment of mineral riches—gold, diamonds, zinc, nickel, cassiterite, copper, cobalt, and coltan (a mineral used in mobile phones), old-school and modern gems. Apparently these are resources worth killing for. It is no coincidence that Congo’s hotspots are also the most opulent locations on the geological map.

There is a rising stack of volumes that tackle the subject of contemporary Congo and its conflict. Jason K. Stearns’s new book may be the most indispensable. Stearns is a bona fide Congo hand, an Amherst-educated, Swahili-speaking researcher, journalist, and former U.N. official who has lived in Congo, worked there, and written a great deal about the country for the International Crisis Group and for his blog, Congo Siasa, which means “Congo politics.” He recently led a U.N. panel that investigated the illicit arms trade in Congo. Stearns’s work exposed how Rwanda—a “peanut of a country,” in the words of one Congolese, and a darling in the aid world, praised for its stability and its allegedly uncorrupt leadership­—was still pumping soldiers and weapons into Congo, driving much of the bloodshed.

Stearns’s objective in his book is to pick apart the political causes behind this war, to make sense of the madness—and to select individuals, such as a father in Kisangani who helplessly watches his son bleed to death after a senseless battle, whose stories will make us care. It is a common device employed in many of these political narrative books, to toggle back and forth between macro and micro, political analysis and personal anecdote, and it does not always work. Sometimes the narrative material simply feels like padding. But Stearns succeeds. His book is engrossing, persuasive, copiously researched, well-organized, well-sourced, and viscerally disturbing. He chooses not to spare us the women being sliced open with machetes, the babies having their heads bashed in, the countless innocent refugees snuffed out with a length of rope. “We could do over a hundred a day,” one former Rwandan-trained soldier tells Stearns, explaining how his unit would methodically massacre civilians. “Two of us would place a guy on the ground, wrap a rope around his neck once, then pull hard.” Stearns adds: “It would break the victim’s windpipe and then strangle him to death. There was little noise or fuss.” This book is full of graphic violence. At points, you want to close the covers and put it down. But such detail, however upsetting, helps us to grasp the unbelievable horror, and to remember it. For this reason, the ghastly detail is absolutely necessary.

Congo’s introduction to the wider world started out badly, which is true for most of Africa, but especially true here. The slave trade decimated the great riverine Kongo kingdoms of the 1500s, and by the time Henry Morton Stanley arrived in the 1870s, the Congolese were no match for his repeating rifle. Stanley was celebrated as a swashbuckling explorer, whose survival skills (and lurid prose) were immortalized in bestselling books and the leading newspapers of his time. But in reality he was venal, racist, and murderous, blasting his way across Africa and earning the nickname Bula Matadi, or Breaker of Rocks. As Richard Burton put it (and he was no wimp, having had a javelin thrown through his cheek in Somalia), Stanley “shoots negroes as if they were monkeys.”

But all this seemed to impress King Leopold, who hired Stanley as his agent to conquer Congo. It did not take long. Stanley used glass beads, bolts of cloth, and the business end of his rifle to persuade chiefs along the Congo River to sign over their land. By the mid-1880s, Leopold, through Stanley, had laid claim to most of modern-day Congo. He then managed to swindle and deceive the great and emerging powers—France, Germany, England, and the United States—into recognizing the Congo Free State, a territory seventy-six times as big as Belgium. Leopold was uncannily shrewd and presented his project as humanitarian, in tune with the anti-slavery currents of the day. It was all a lie. Soon enough, Leopold’s men were yanking Congolese around on chains, chopping off hands to punish misbehavers, and razing villages. The automobile and the pneumatic tire were coming on line at just this time, catalyzing a frenzy for rubber. Millions of Congolese are believed to have died in Leopold’s brutal campaign for this gummy sap.

Eventually, the greed and the cruelty caught up with him. Missionaries and others helped expose the horror that the Congo Free State had become. (Stearns touches upon this, but for the full story read Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, or Heart of Darkness.) The Belgian government took over the colony. Yet the Congolese were hardly saved. The new colonial administrators became notorious for their use of the chicotte, a hippopotamus-hide whip they cracked over Congolese backs. A bad whipping could leave a man unconscious. A really bad one left him dead.

Belgium ran Congo just as Leopold had: as a brutally efficient commercial enterprise. The Belgians built roads, railways, bridges, barges, palm oil warehouses, and solid brick administrative buildings, which you can still see today, standing incongruously in the middle of the jungle. (In Niangara, a speck of a town in northeastern Congo, close to where a marauding rebel group massacred hundreds of people in 2009, I discovered a strange lichen-covered obelisk sinking into the weeds. Locals told me it marked the geographic center of Africa.) But the Belgians did not leave behind much human infrastructure, and when independence came on June 30, 1960, there were not more than a handful of Congolese who had been to college. The Belgians had been grossly negligent in preparing it for self-rule. While other young African countries were brimming with nationalism, Congo faced various mutinies and separatist movements from its very inception. Its national foundation was cracked, and hardly something to build on.

The American government did not help. The CIA teamed up with the Belgians to assassinate Patrice Lumumba, one of the few inspiring leaders Congo has ever produced. Lumumba was elected prime minister in 1960 in what would be Congo’s last free election for nearly half a century. The West considered him a commie, and once he was eliminated it was not long before an athletic young army man named Joseph Desire Mobutu seized power.

In A Thousand Days, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. made it clear that Congo was once deemed vital to the United States’ interests. “Of all the African problems,” he wrote, “the one that most commanded the president’s attention was the Congo.” Kennedy was deeply concerned that the mess the Belgians had left behind—the mutinies, the various mineral-rich provinces declaring their independence, the yawning vacuum in the heart of Africa—would lead to a direct confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. He was not totally crazy: none other than Che Guevara would show up in Congo in 1965 and try, unsuccessfully, to stir up a Cuban-style revolution. In 1963, Kennedy invited Mobutu, then the head of the army, to the White House, which marked the beginning of America’s long and dubious friendship with him. In 1965, Mobutu declared himself head of state. He would remain in power for the next thirty-two years, and, like Leopold nearly a century before him, he would rob Congo blind and turn it into his personal piggy bank.

Mobutu used Congo’s mineral riches to build insanely extravagant palaces—his favorite, in Gbadolite, was known as “Versailles in the Jungle.” He bought (more like rented, really) friends at home and abroad, and maintained stunning villas across Europe. He lavished Cartier jewelry on his wife and her twin sister, whom he was sleeping with. He favored leopard skin hats, pricey wine, and the Concorde. He not only tolerated corruption, he publicly encouraged it, telling his people: “If you want to steal, steal a little in a nice way.” He gave Congo the new name Zaire, which comes from “Nzere,” a local word that means “the river that swallows all rivers.” He re-named himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, which means “the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.”

The all-powerful warrior kept his army intentionally weak, lest some of the younger officers follow in his footsteps and stage a military coup. This would have serious repercussions later, when the Rwandan-backed uprisings began. Zairian currency became worthless; bureaucrats became bribe-seeking, glassy-eyed drunks; and underfed soldiers regularly pillaged. Expats fled. Mobutu’s country became a joke of a state, so hollowed out, so corrupt and dysfunctional, that by the 1990s thieving military commanders sold the last of the Congolese air force’s remaining fighter jets to arms dealers. This is where Stearns’s story begins in earnest. He says:

The scenes played out in Kinshasa were both tragic and comic, dramatic and banal. Plump generals in alligator skin shoes held tea parties in their gardens as soldiers set fire to their barracks. Street children in rags and white gloves pretended to guide traffic while army bosses sold tanks for scrap metal on the black market. Kinshasa seemed to have fallen down a rabbit hole.

(For more on Mobutu’s decline and demise, see Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo, a brilliant book that touches on the political causes of Congo’s war but focuses more on the real-life caricature of Mobutu himself.)

And as Congo was sinking, Rwanda exploded. If there was one event that triggered the ultimate collapse of the Congolese state and the ensuing years of war and savagery, it came on April 6, 1994, when someone shot down a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. Hours later, the Rwandan genocide started. Rwanda’s majority Hutus organized into death squads with the intent of killing every single Tutsi in the country. They ended up murdering around 800,000 people in a span of a hundred days, before Tutsi rebels defeated the Hutu-led army. Since bullets were scarce, most of the victims were hacked or clubbed to death.

It did not take long for the genocide’s aftershocks to reverberate in neighboring Congo. The vanquished Hutu army fled there, with hundreds of thousands of civilians in tow, regrouping along the mountainous Congo-Rwanda border. The new Rwandan government complained bitterly that Mobutu was sheltering genocidaires and letting the Hutus stage attacks from the sprawling refugee camps inside Congo. In fact, the camps housed both genuine refugees and former Rwandan soldiers, heavily armed, who were plotting to storm back into Rwanda. Mobutu did not do much about this. The attacks went on. Rwanda fumed.

It is telling, I think, that Africa descended into one of the most violent periods in the continent’s history just as the Cold War ended. For decades, the Soviet Union and the United States carelessly poured weapons into poor, chaotic states, propping up despotic and probably clinically insane African leaders in an attempt to block each other’s influence. Then the Berlin Wall fell and suddenly the outside world did not care so much about these tropical backwaters anymore. The spigot of unconditional aid was shut off or dramatically turned down, and tottering regimes from Liberia to Somalia began to fall. They fell hard. It was no accident that some of the ugliest wars since World War II—in Rwanda, Somalia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Congo-occurred in the 1990s.


“The Congo war contains wars within wars,” Stearns writes. “There was not one Congo war, or even two, but at least forty or fifty different, interlocking wars. Local conflicts fed into regional and international conflicts and vice versa. Teasing out origins can be a tail-chasing exercise.” That said, Stearns nonetheless tries to do just that. He lucidly traces parallel events, chronicling what was happening inside the decrepit Mobutu regime and inside Rwanda, where a Tutsi-led cabal was consolidating power and scheming to oust Mobutu. Stearns’s Congo-sized Rolodex pays off here. A former Rwandan intelligence officer tells him how Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s leader, conceptualized an ambitious invasion of Zaire and shopped around Africa for allies. Uganda and Angola were persuaded to supply troops; Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Tanzania supplied money and advisers. It was an African coalition of the willing, with each contributing nation having its own selfish reasons to get rid of the leopard-hatted dinosaur. Angola, for instance, was furious at Mobutu for hosting Angolan rebels and helping them sell illicit diamonds.

Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, instructed Kagame to put a Congolese face on the invasion. Kagame did exactly that, resurrecting a 1960s-era rebel leader named Laurent Kabila, a potbellied self-avowed Marxist who was now running a small-time smuggling ring in the eastern Congo mountains. Che Guevara had tried to work with Kabila in 1965, but soon dismissed him as lacking “revolutionary seriousness.” Kabila seemed much more interested in wine, women, and song. Still, Kabila became the de facto head of the Rwanda-backed insurgency, which soon made mincemeat of the ill-equipped, drunken, and rudderless blob that was known as the Congolese Army.

The first skirmishes started along the Rwanda-Congo border in August 1996. By May 1997, Kabila’s troops—many of them boy soldiers wearing oversized rubber Wellington boots—had marched a thousand miles to Kinshasa, Congo’s capital. In this way Mobutu’s three decades of power abruptly ended. Suffering from prostate cancer, he fled into exile and died soon afterward. Kabila became president and changed the name of his country from Zaire to Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Rwandan soldiers used the chaos of the invasion to pursue Hutu fighters and the masses of Hutu refugees deep into Congo’s rainforests, slaughtering civilians along the way.

This is one of the most controversial and murky aspects of the Congo war. What happened to all the Hutu refugees who had been living in the sprawling camps along the Rwanda-Congo border? Stearns believes that as many as 600,000 people fled into the jungle. Many never made it out. Rwanda vehemently denies that its troops killed them. Eyewitness accounts seem to prove otherwise. Stearns tracks down refugees, aid workers, and former Rwandan-backed soldiers who describe in chilling detail the methodical ways in which the Rwandan army, now a close American ally, systematically killed men, women and children. One soldier (the same one who talked about how to kill people with rope) tells Stearns that Rwandan and Congolese troops dragged countless civilians into the forest and smashed their heads with small hatchets that they carried specifically for the job. “There was a briefing, an order to do so,” the soldier says. He even demonstrates to Stearns where the fatal blow should be struck. The Rwandan army, as Stearns rightly points out, is known for its strict discipline. These were not wild revenge killings. They were, it seems, policy.

More and more information is emerging about this atrocity. In 2009, the French scholar Gérard Prunier, who has authored several controversial Africa books, came out with Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe, which provides strikingly similar accounts of the Rwandan-led massacres, down to the small hatchets. In 2010, the United Nations released a 566-page report detailing many of these same killings and calling for the Rwandan forces to be investigated for genocide. The Rwandan government was so furious that it threatened to pull its peacekeepers out of all U.N. missions, a threat that it eventually dropped. Yet Rwanda seems still to benefit from the guilt that the world feels for not intervening in the genocide there in 1994. Since that U.N. report was released, few nations have pressed the Rwandan government to investigate these killings.

Stearns chronicles the brutality from multiple angles. He befriends a former Congolese child soldier who was trained by Rwandan officers. The young man says that during their induction into soldiering, a Rwandan commander decapitated a prisoner with a hunting knife and then made all the recruits pass around the freshly severed head. “When I held the head, I could still feel his muscles twitching,” the former boy soldier says. The recruits were then trained—on live prisoners—how properly to slit a throat.

Kabila soon got sick of his Rwandan overseers. I am quite sure that it had nothing to do with the massacres or with any enlightened sense of humanity. He simply disliked getting bossed around. By 1998, the tensions between Kabila’s government—which continued to be corrupt, buffoonish, ignorant of how to run an economy, and so on—and the Rwandans burst, and the Rwandans once again invaded Congo. This time, though, it did not go so well. This conflict, which dragged in even more African armies, is sometimes referred to as the Second Congo War. The Rwandans were as innovative and daring as always, with a Rwandan colonel hijacking a plane from the eastern side of Congo and flying it, with 180 soldiers, nearly all the way to the Atlantic to open up a second front against Kabila’s forces. But this time there was no wider consensus to overthrow Kabila, as there had been in 1996, when just about all the countries in the region lined up against Mobutu. This time the region had a dangerous crack down the middle, with Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi fighting against the Congolese government and Angola, Zimbabwe, Chad, Namibia, and Sudan defending Kabila.

Stearns does a nice job illuminating the internal politics of Zimbabwe and Angola, the lead players, so as to explain why they broke from Rwanda and stuck with Kabila. It all gets very confusing. The gist of it is that Angola thought that Kabila was its best bet to fight off a stubborn Angolan rebel group, and that Zimbabwe needed money and Congo’s mines were a reliable source of cash. (For more on such regional geopolitics, I recommend The African Stakes of the Congo War, a book of academic essays edited by John F. Clark.)

More pillaging, more mayhem, and more massacres inexorably followed. The few big battles of this phase of the war often did not involve any Congolese troops; instead it was one foreign African army against another, on Congolese soil, with Congolese civilians getting mowed down in the middle. Once again the Rwandans tried to put a Congolese face on their operations, but they failed to learn the lesson that you cannot step into the same river twice. This time Rwanda’s proxy forces were much weaker and quickly discredited. The result was a stalemate, with Kabila remaining in power—just barely—and the various armed groups and foreign armies carving Congo into fiefdoms and carting away the minerals. The Rwandans and the Ugandans were especially egregious: they set up full-fledged criminal enterprises to steal hundreds of millions of dollars of gold, diamonds, tin ore, and coltan, which helped to pay their national budgets at the same time that the United States was giving Rwanda and Uganda enormous sums of foreign aid. It sounds unbelievable, but it is true. It is all there in Stearns’s important book, and in numerous U.N. documents that are publicly available.

And then there is Kasika. Stearns skillfully, and bravely, practices boots-on-the-ground scholarship, and he journeys to Kasika, a small village in eastern Congo and the site of one of the worst of Congo’s recurring bouts of mass murder. He painstakingly reconstructs what happened.

On August 23, 1998, a column of Rwandan soldiers and Rwandan-backed Congolese rebels passed through Kasika, and their convoy was ambushed by a home-grown militia. Several commanders were killed. The next day the troops returned. They slaughtered dozens of people inside a church; they raped the nuns and shot the priest in the back of the head. They burned people alive, and slit throats. They left many corpses mutilated and in macabre positions. They killed the village chief, a potent symbol of the community, and ripped his heart out of his chest. They disemboweled his pregnant wife. More than a thousand villagers were murdered. The fabric of the community was shredded.

“Again and again,” Stearns reports, “the villagers told me how the chief’s death had affected them much more than anything else. The well-being of the community was vested in the chief; he presided over harvest ceremonies, gave out land, and blessed weddings. Who would call for salongo, the weekly communal labor, to be performed? Who would reconcile feuding families and solve land conflicts?” Meanwhile, in other parts of Congo, rebels were accused of eating people.

This immense disaster ground on for several years. Kabila himself soon became a victim. A young soldier assassinated him in 2001. It has yet to become clear if Rwanda or Angola or some other meddler was behind the plot. Kabila’s son Joseph then took over. He sued for peace. He struck deals with all the African countries in Congo to leave, and urged the United Nations to send more peacekeepers. (There are now about 19,000 U.N. troops there, costing more than $1 billion per year.) In 2006, he ran for president in the first free election since 1960. He called himself an “artisan of peace.” He won.

Since then, not much has changed. Congo continues to be a dumping ground for sadistic rebel groups from other countries, and for a countless number of homegrown butchers as well. The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda—mainly Hutu rebels who are now too weak to attack Rwanda—routinely slaughter and rape villagers in eastern Congo. The strategic objective of sticking an assault rifle inside a woman and pulling the trigger is—what? But the Hutu rebels commit such atrocities all the time. Many are believed to be true psychopaths, the products of genocide and of hiding out for years in a derangingly thick jungle. And the Lord’s Resistance Army-Ugandan maniacs who are too weak to wage war inside Uganda—has also gravitated to the lawless Congo, where it continues to perform its signature trick: kidnapping children and turning them into killing machines.

Both these groups strike with impunity, barely registering a response from the Congolese government. Kabila seems to be falling into the same hole as his father and Mobutu before him—a shabby army, a criminally mismanaged economy, and a rapidly deteriorating state have not diminished his thirst for consolidating power in his own hands. Meanwhile some scholars have suggested that we send American troops into Congo to clean it up—American marines intervened in Liberia several years ago and it seems to have helped. Others advocate breaking up the country into more manageable pieces. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are pushing efforts to regulate “conflict minerals” so as to pressure large corporations not to buy resources from thugs. My own suggestion is that the United Nations establish a “rape court” in Eastern Congo and staff it with top-notch international prosecutors: punishing the rapists would send a loud and clear signal that terrorizing civilians is unacceptable. But all these measures are piecemeal. The true problem with Congo is the collapse of the state. What is needed here is sustained and extensive international support—and truly inspired Congolese leadership—to rebuild institutions such as the military and the police and the finance ministry, so that Congo’s riches can be harnessed by the Congolese and used to develop this nation into a potential powerhouse, not a triage ward.

It is difficult not to despair about this place, so unforgettably beautiful and so undeniably cursed. As Stearns points out, justice has skipped right over it. There have been expensive and high-powered tribunals for the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, even East Timor. The International Criminal Court is intervening in Kenya, where around 1,000 people were killed in election-related violence in 2008. The ICC is trying cases against several Congolese warlords, but no tribunal has been set up to address the enormity of the five million people believed to have died in Congo’s war.

There are few strategic interests in places such as Congo, except for the minerals—but they can be just as easily acquired, and perhaps more easily, from rebel groups than from a strong central government. Many observers fear that the world’s powers are getting fatigued with Congo’s endless carnage, and could eventually turn their back on such an intractable conflict with state failure at its core. That is essentially what happened in Somalia in the 1990s, when the United Nations abruptly withdrew its peacekeepers, throwing the Somalis deeper into chaos, entrenching a class of war profiteers, and letting that country rot until the United States was attacked on September 11—and then all of a sudden poor, chaotic Muslim states mattered again, and Somalia became somewhat more of a priority.

But Congo is not like that. There is no jihad there. It is not a piece of the counterterrorism puzzle. Neither is Chad, or Burundi, or Guinea-Bissau, or the Central African Republic. Africa is littered with these chaos zones, in which the central government is receding more and more each day. “This book is an exhortation to raise the bar and try harder to understand this layered complexity,” Stearns concludes. “The Congo’s suffering is intensely human; it has experienced trauma on a massive and prolonged scale.” And yet, years now into this war, nobody has figured out how to stop it, or cares enough to roll up their sleeves and really try.

Jeffrey Gettleman is the East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times. This article originally ran in the June 9, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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