Part one of an interview with Jason Stearns, author of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Welcome to Voices on Genocide Prevention. Today’s episode is part of a special series on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For information about the entire series, please visit our website at www.ushmm.org/genocide. Today’s episode is the first part of an interview with Congo expert, Jason Stearns. He’s here to talk about his new book Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa. Jason, thank you for joining me.
JASON STEARNS: It’s a pleasure.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: The great contribution I think that this book makes is that it adds detail and nuance and storytelling to descriptions of Congo that have for the most part been based on really broad strokes. I’d like to start by asking you why you chose to go through storytelling rather than a broad strokes analysis, or even tell it from the perspective of an expert analyst which you certainly are.
JASON STEARNS: I spent many years living in the Congo and as working for the United Nations Peacekeeping mission, working for a local human rights group. And in the course of my travels there and staying there I lived with a local family for a long time. The war that I saw described in the media in the United States or in Europe when I used to come home to the States was not really the war that I recognized.
I thought the only way that I would be able to make people care and make them interested is by telling the human story alongside the analysis that should be in there as well.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: You really challenged some of the core existing explanatory narratives for why the collapse of the state, why the wars, for the current situation. So what I’d like to do is go through some of these narratives and ask you to help us understand both what they do explain because there is validity to them, but also where they come up short based on your experience and your interviews and work with Congolese. So the first one is the idea that the problem is national and it arises out of the collapse of the Zairian state as it was sort of carved out and made hollow by Mobutu and then with the leadership after him. So how does that understanding of the conflict reveal aspects of the situation today and how does it obscure it?
JASON STEARNS: I think it goes a long way to explaining an important part of the conflict over 32 years of misrule by Mobutu first, but really going back much, much further there has been a centuries’ long history of the erosion of state institutions in the Congo. And what I try to explain in the book is that the Congo used to have strong states. The Congo kingdom that existed in the western part of the Congo was a strong pre-Colonial state, one of the strongest in Africa. They were so strong in fact that they had ambassadors in the Vatican. They had an ambassador to Spain and to Portugal.
So it’s not that the Congolese people or the people living in the area we now call the Congo are incapable of state formation. It’s just that there has been since the slave trade in the 17th, 18th century but then continuing on through the brutal reign of King Leopold II of Belgium who turned the country into his private fiefdom, and then on through this brutal post-Colonial era as well. There’s just been one reign after another of rulers who do the opposite of trying to build a strong state. So this is really the legacy that the Congolese people are grappling with.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And another explanation that many people have given to explain the situation is the role of regional players. Can you talk about what role you think the regional dynamics and how do they help us understand what’s happening today?
JASON STEARNS: To paint a simple picture, 1994 the genocide happened in Rwanda. This was really the trigger of the Congo war as well because you had the incumbent government which was led by the Hutu ethnic community in Rwanda, butchered a large number of Rwandan Tutsi, over half a million and some say up to one million. And they sort of then fled into exile. Now being pushed down into the Congo, they fled with about one million Hutu refugees in to the Congo and continued attacking Rwanda from these camps in the eastern Congo.
The new government in Rwanda thought the fact that their arch enemies, the people who had just butchered a million people in their countries were lurking across the border, and were projecting their hate messages into Rwanda over radio stations etcetera was unacceptable. And that those refugee camps had to be broken up or they would go and invade those camps. And so the international community refused to act and the Rwandan government then took the bull by its horns so to say and in 1996 they invaded the refugee camps, and that became the beginning of the war that eventually then toppled Mobutu in 1997.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And the force that went into then Zaire in 1996 was not just Rwandan though. They also tried to create a façade of a Congolese national movement.
JASON STEARNS: Right.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Can you describe how that came to be?
JASON STEARNS: The Ugandan President was very close to the Rwandan President and he told Paul Kagame “Look, we’re going to have to do something about these refugee camps in the eastern Congo.” But if there’s one thing the international community doesn’t like is foreign invasions. They don’t like foreign aggression. It’s just not done, and it’s illegal in terms of the United Nations and the International law. So “Let’s do something about these refugee camps, but let’s make sure that it looks like a domestic rebellion and not like a foreign invasion. So we need to go and recruit, find a domestic rebellion, we need to find some Congolese to lead this.” And I’m not joking this exactly actually how he himself described the process of going around and basically shopping for a bunch of rebels.
They come up with these four guys representing different sort of factions. And then they find Laurent Kabila who was this sort of dated Maoist revolutionary who had been active in the Congo, had been leading rebellion there since the 1960s in the remote eastern Congolese highlands, but he spent most of his time abroad in Tanzania.
And basically then brought these four leaders together with Kabila as their spokesman and put them in a house together and said “Okay come up with some sort of document and come up with a name of a rebel group and we’ll back you.” It was this mix and match of different personalities. And it was really a big of a joke but they needed a fig leaf to cover their invasion.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: One of the other things that comes across really strongly to me in the book is how much better organized the Rwandans seem to be than almost any other player. Do you agree with that?
JASON STEARNS: The Rwandan government let’s put it this way is very well organized. And that can be good in terms of implementing government initiatives and transforming the country and developing it, but it can be bad in the sense that it has a long history of being a police state and controlling its population.
So when they invaded the Congo in 1996, they were probably the best organized party. They were also the party with the most invested in this thing. Remember in 1996 they invaded the Congo first and foremost to break up these refugee camps that were on the border and to get rid of these armed groups that continued attacking Rwanda from Congolese territory.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And the book details time and time again a story of allegiances falling apart and creating more and new and different sorts of dynamics within the violence. One part of the story though that I don’t think has been told very well elsewhere is what happened in the fallout when Rwanda and Uganda ended up initially going in together to support Laurent Kabila overthrowing Mobutu, but then later also falling apart. Could you talk a little bit about what happened in Kisangani between Rwandan and Ugandan forces, and the fate of the Congolese trapped in that town?
JASON STEARNS: You have the Congo as you mentioned supported by Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia on the one side, that’s Laurent Kabila. And then on the other side of the country you have these various rebellions supported by Uganda and Rwanda primarily.
So this is the sort of situation we’re in in 1999 when Uganda and Rwanda are in control of the city of Kisangani which is the third largest city in the Congo. It’s a large city in the middle of the jungle on the bend of the Congo River. Both of these countries were backing this big rebel group in the eastern Congo, it was called the RCD and the Rwandans wanted to control this rebel group and Ugandans wanted to let them do it on their own more or less and learn by mistake and take control of their own lives.
We should also remember that almost all of the leaders in Rwanda, the military leaders including President Paul Kagame had basically cut their teeth and grown up in Uganda and the Ugandan military. These were people who had helped Museveni come to power in Uganda. So from the Ugandan point of view the “little brother,” Rwanda, was sort of a young upstart, and they had taught the Rwandans everything they needed to be taught. And from the Rwandans’ point of view you had the Ugandans who were sort of overbearing, were arrogant and weren’t very efficient. So there was this sort of these more personal issues that I think were actually very, very important.
The other side of the story that I think a lot of other analysts have highlighted that is also very important, is that by this time, by 1999, what had initially been an invasion of the Congo for self-defense had become tainted with you could say, self-interests and greed. Kisangani was a big diamond trading capitol and while the troops from both of these countries were occupying the city, each of their armies was cultivating relationships with various diamond traders around the city. And so competition over who controlled what part of the diamond trade sort of fueled these differences between the two parties.
And eventually fighting broke out and in 1999 and then again in 2000 over these relatively petty differences between these two countries and devastated the city, killed thousands of people. We’re talking about heavy machinegun fire, mortar fire, rocket propelled grenade fire in downtown in a city of half a million people.
This I think was also the last straw for Uganda and Rwanda’s international reputation. They had been proclaiming all along this just a war of self-defense and both of us are trying to defend our territories against these rebels that are based out of the eastern Congo. Then why were they 1,000 kilometers from their own borders and why were they fighting each other if they were really in it just to protect their own borders? It didn’t make any sense and I think that was sort of the last straw for their international reputation and it was the beginning of the end of their occupation as well.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: In Kisangani, the story you tell us of Pastor Philippe. I wonder if you could tell us his story.
JASON STEARNS: This is a man who I met in Kisangani, who’s a carpenter, but I describe him as a man with huge hands-- very soft spoken, a religious man. Like much of the town of Kisangani, the fighting broke out in broad daylight in the middle of the city, and, basically, everybody was stuck wherever they were. They couldn’t move and this is-- we’re talking about a jungle city-- extremely hot without any water-- and when I say sort of locked down, they couldn’t even go outside to go to the bathroom.
So Phillipe was in the same situation. His family-- they hid in the hallway. Hallways are better places to hide because there’s enough brick between you and the outside that an AK-47 bullet, as many Congolese will remind me, can go through one layer of brick, but have a hard time going through two layers of brick. So you hide in the corridor. So they were hiding in the corridor-- him and his large family-- on the floor, basically, for several days. And in the lull in the fighting, his-- two of his children tried to go out-- outside to get water because they’re-- it’s a 100 degrees and humid, and the people are thirsty. So they go outside and mortar shell explodes outside and instantly kills his daughter and then tears through the body of his son.
Then the fighting has then erupted again. He, under machine gunfire, puts his son into a wheelbarrow and tries to race him to a close by medical clinic. They get to the medical clinic, and the medical clinic-- as well-- the same situation. You have everybody lying on the floor of the medical clinic, because they can’t stand up, so the patients aren’t on the beds. They’re all on the cement floor. There’s mercurochrome spilled everywhere. I think that there was an aorta that had burst in his son’s body, and they didn’t have the equipment to save his life. All they could do was give him painkillers, and his son died.
The second war is about a year later. Same thing—Rwanda and Uganda still fighting for downtown Kisangani. One of his sons had gone to school, and fighting broke out while he was at school. And after the fighting stopped, he went everywhere around the city trying to find his son, and, eventually, the Red Cross came upon a school bag that had belonged to his son. By the time the Red Cross could get to the bodies, the bodies had more or less decomposed or started to decompose. So they just had to bury them as quickly as possible, but they found his school bag that was caked in blood.
The people who had witnessed what had happened said that, basically, a soldier had gotten into an argument with the people in the shop. They just opened fire on the whole shop and killed everybody inside. So these are the kind of stories that you hear time and time again about the Congo, but it’s not really until you go there that you can-- you really-- you can really understand and also just understand what it was like for-- imagine, this guy lost three of his children. This was devastating.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Join me next week for the second part of my interview with Jason Stearns
NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about responding to and preventing genocide, join us online at www.ushmm.org/genocide.