Newsreal: The graveyards of hope

Why has it taken us so long to believe that the new "great hope" of Africa may have been responsible for terrible massacres?

Published December 11, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

After Laurent Kabila and his forces toppled the corrupt government of Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko in June, the fervent hope in Washington was that the new president of the renamed Democratic Republic of Congo would join Africa's new cadre of pragmatic, no-nonsense leaders with an aversion to corruption and an appreciation for free markets; leaders like Uganda's Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda's Paul Kagame, both of whom helped Kabila in his campaign against Mobutu.

Last summer, human rights workers uncovered evidence of massacres of hundreds of ethnic Hutu refugees from Rwanda by Kabila's soldiers. For months, the United Nations has tried vainly to get a team of investigators to Congo to look into the plight of some 200,000 Rwandan refugees who fled into Zaire and later disappeared. This week -- with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright embarking on a seven-nation tour of Africa -- Kabila let them in.

On Monday, a team, consisting of forensic scientists and human rights experts, arrived in the northwestern town of Mbandaka, one of the sites of the alleged massacres, to begin the grim field work. Their main road map is a detailed report compiled by Scott Anderson, a field officer for Human Rights Watch/Africa, who spent six weeks in western Congo during July and August, focusing on three villages along a 50-mile stretch of road, where atrocities committed by Kabila's forces have been alleged.

Salon talked with Anderson about what he found, why the U.S. has been so slow to come to grips with the Kabila regime and what U.N. investigators should be looking for.

In her speech in Addis Ababa Tuesday, Secretary of State Albright admitted that the United States didn't pay sufficient attention to the killings as they were occurring in Zaire before and after Kabila took power. What did she mean?

The U.S. had given a great deal of political backing to the Rwandan government since it came to power -- after the 1994 genocide by the Hutus against the Tutsis there. So, when it learned of the Rwandan military's plan to attack the Hutu refugee camps and military bases across the border in Zaire, the message was, fine, as long as there isn't too much collateral damage. I don't think Washington ever imagined the attacks would involve so many civilian killings.

Given the recent history of bloodshed in the region, how could they not imagine it?

Everyone -- the U.S. and the international community included -- was very concerned about getting rid of these border camps, which posed a genuine threat to the new Rwanda regime. But no one from the international community was willing to go in and do the hard job of separating the armed Hutu militia from the civilian refugees. After the attacks, some 600,000 Hutu refugees returned safely to Rwanda, to everyone's great relief. However, another probably several hundred thousand fled westward, deeper into Zaire. Canada proposed the creation of a multinational force to go in and secure the areas where those refugees were, allow aid groups to come in and also create a safe corridor for the refugees to go back to Rwanda. But the U.S. was unenthusiastic. It didn't think the number of refugees was significant or that they needed aid. That's what Albright is apologizing for.

Why was the U.S. "unenthusiastic"?

That's a matter of speculation. I think some American officials in Kigali truly swallowed the Rwandan line that there were no significant numbers of refugees in Zaire in need of aid. But this is contradicted by their own intelligence. The Americans had satellite information. They had low-flying surveillance planes as well as people on the ground gathering information. And they had the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees telling them that hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing west. So there's clearly a political component here -- which, again, is a matter of speculation.

What were some of the political factors in play?

The proposed international force would have protected Mobutu's forces as well as the refugees. Maybe the U.S. wanted the Rwandans thrust into Zaire to bring down Mobutu. It's unclear. It could have been America's reluctance to get into another foreign involvement, especially in Africa. As you know, after Somalia, the U.S. Army is not allowed to have any casualties. Humanitarian workers are allowed to go in and get killed, but not the U.S. military. Maybe that's why the United States had not up to now denounced the massacres in Kabila's Congo, and why, when top international officials, including (Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights) John Shattuck, were turned back from alleged massacre sights, the U.S. only complained about problems gaining access.

That has now changed, with the U.S. saying to Kabila, you'd better give investigators access. What changed Kabila's mind?

The United States and the international community threatened to stop sending Kabila aid. But there is some confusion about these threats. The U.S. is supposed to give Kabila $10 million. Some people at the State Department say all aid is linked to Kabila's cooperation with the U.N. investigation, but in fact some U.S. aid is flowing to the Congo right now, and it's going to government officials.

It has been determined that some of the massacres occurred during the heat of battle, when Kabila's forces, along with the mostly Tutsi Rwandan military, were advancing westward and Rwandan Hutu refugees got caught in the fighting. Could that have accounted for the massacres you investigated in western Congo?

Not really. As the refugees moved west, the nature of the attacks changed. They became more indiscriminate. Long after former Rwandan military and militia members had fled the front lines, larger groups of civilians were left behind, overtaken by Rwandan troops and systematically massacred. There was no combat whatsoever in the areas I visited.

In the area of the three villages where you spent six weeks, how many people do you estimate were massacred?

We don't know. Initially, the numbers seemed relatively small. But the more time I spent there, the more mass graves and bodies I was shown. I visited one mass grave in which around 30 bodies were still decomposing. At another site, there were 14 bodies. At another, eight bodies, and so on. The people who accompanied me told me that a lot of the bodies had disappeared. Many had been dragged off by animals or the people had thrown the bodies into rivers. This was typical of what happened along the road where the Rwandan army came across small groups of civilian refugees.

I also visited the remains of what had been a large refugee camp, housing about 4,000 people when the army came through. The camp was littered with clothing, equipment, sneakers -- the kind of articles refugees simply would never leave behind. It was also littered with bullet shells. According to nearby villagers, there had been a large-scale massacre there, but there were no bodies to be found. There wasn't a bone, nothing. The villagers told me the bodies had been thrown in the river which bordered the site. In terms of what I could personally verify, I would say hundreds were killed around these three villages. According to the testimony of local villagers, the number was in the thousands.

Which is one reason why the U.N. wanted inspectors to go in -- to determine just what happened and how many died. But Kabila refused.

He completely refused to allow the U.N. in, except under his conditions. He wanted the head of the mission be changed. He didn't like the first report on the subject, written in late March by Special U.N. Rapporteur Roberto Garreton from Chile, which said there was a high likelihood of large-scale massacres committed in the eastern Congo. Kabila also insisted that investigators go back before the war that brought him to power, all the way back to 1993, to examine the killings within the context of the Tutsi-Hutu ethnic conflict. I think that was a legitimate request.

And the U.N. did agree to change the head of the mission.

They caved in. It's a terrible precedent to set, allowing any dictator to tell the U.N. who it wants to conduct its investigations. I thought it was a major embarrassment to the U.N. But (U.N. Secretary-General) Kofi Annan thought he was being pragmatic. He said the U.N. needed answers; that it wasn't about who runs the mission but about getting the truth out.

How much truth has the mission been able to get out up to now?

Very little. Kabila let them go to the eastern Congo. But the problem there is that until very recently it had been a war zone. There was no security, and it was very difficult for the team to get out there and do its work. The other problem is that most of the massacre sites in the eastern Congo have been cleaned up. Kabila's soldiers and Rwandan troops already have gone in to the places where there were mass graves, exhumed the bodies and either burnt them or hidden them in other places. The U.N. team found very little.

Now, for the first time, they've gone to western Congo, beginning with Mbandaka on the Congo River. Are they likely to have any more success here?

In Mbandaka, there was a very well-documented massacre of as many as 1,000 people in broad daylight in front of all the residents. So there are many witnesses, everybody knows where the mass graves are. Journalists have visited them.

But five months have passed. Couldn't Kabila and his forces destroyed or removed much of the evidence in the region.

That's an important question because there are several mass grave sites in and around Mbandaka that are very well known. Have they been tampered with? That's what the U.N. team will find out.

What should the inspectors be looking for?

They have to look for forensic evidence -- bones -- and eyewitness testimony to corroborate the allegations, of course. But I don't think anyone doubts that massacres took place; it's generally accepted. What the team should really be looking for is to establish who was responsible, who ordered the killings, who let them happen. The point is that we shouldn't be doing a U.N. investigation just so we can get on with pumping in aid dollars. Unfortunately, that is the attitude of much of the diplomatic community -- that this is simply a hoop we have to jump through before we can get on with giving money to Kabila. The real issue should be: How do we avoid these horrible killings from happening again and again in the region?

How can U.N. inspectors do this?

They can't make recommendations for prosecuting those found responsible. But they can make those names known to Kofi Annan. Then it becomes his responsibility and the responsibility of the Security Council to take the measures necessary to hold these people responsible. That's what will prevent it from happening again. If that doesn't happen, we'll see the same thing happening in Rwanda, Congo and the rest of the region within the next year.

So much depends on Kabila's cooperation. Do you think his recent concessions signify a genuine change of heart?

Not at all. I suspect he will do everything he can on the ground to make sure the mission doesn't get anywhere. I think the interference will be more subtle than before. There will be more tactically placed obstacles placed in the way -- security problems, for example. This isn't over by a long shot.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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