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The Comfort of Strangers

Jinmi Adisa


Zaire: A Worse Case Scenario?

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1. Introduction

1The political complexities in Burundi have created a bad scenario for refugees fleeing from Rwanda. Yet, the situation in Zaire merits serious attention for three reasons. First is Zaire’s own experience as a failed state, stigmatized by corruption, a free-fall economy and political instability. Second is the sheer volume of refugee influx and the clear inability of the Zairian political authorities and aid agencies to cope with it. Third are the political difficulties associated with the refugee presence, which impinge on the prospects of regional stability in the Great Lakes Region.

2. Arrival and Reception : The volume

  • 1 Keesing’s Record of World Events, July 1994.
  • 2 ibid.
  • 3 Some UNHCR sources put the figure at around 1.2 million, other estimates put it as high as 2.2 mil (...)

2The flight of people into Zaire commenced when the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) moved towards Ruhengeri and Gisenyi in the terminal stages of the Rwandan war in mid-July, 1994. On 15 July alone, over 500,000 refugees arrived in the Zairian border town of Goma, and by 17 July, they had been joined by another 500,000.1 On 18 July, 100,000 men, women and children crossed from the French-held zone to the Zairian town of Bukavu, and others followed soon after.2 At one point, a human chain 25 kilometres long was winding over the border at the rate of 30,000 people per day. Current estimates put the total Rwandan refugee presence in Zaire at approximately 1.2 million ;3 this figure is higher than in any of the neighbouring countries and about twice as many as Tanzania. The political crisis in Burundi has encouraged even more refugees to seek relocation to Zaire.

3The sheer volume of the refugee population and the speed of their arrival overwhelmed the UN and other aid agencies. Newly established refugee camps lacked food, water, sewage systems and health facilities. The situation was aggravated by the deteriorating political conditions in Zaire and the border town of Goma was wholly unprepared and unable to cope with the influx. The acute shortage of drinking water presented serious health problems. Contingency planning was impossible. The UNHCR had planned for an outflow of 500,000 into Zaire. The World Food Programme (WFP) had to increase its estimate to one million almost overnight. As the numbers increased, the estimate was raised to about 3.3 million.

  • 4 ibid.

4The refugees that came to Bukavu were comparatively well fed, and some brought goats and chickens with them. Those that came to Goma required food and water. Unfortunately, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was only able to provide an estimated 2 per cent of the required five litres of water for each refugee per day. The WFP had sufficient food stockpiles in Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya and in Entebbe in Uganda, but lacked transport. A convoy of trucks was sent to Kampala, the Ugandan capital and to Nairobi, but the rate at which they returned was painfully slow. The International Committee of the Red Cross tried to help alleviate the situation by distributing rice, beans and oil to about 300,000 refugees, using one aircraft that shuttled back and forth from Nairobi, but this also failed to meet the needs of the refugees.4 Conditions were desperate.

3. The Ravages of Disease

  • 5 Armed Forces Journal International (December 1994).

5The situation continued to deteriorate, and a cholera epidemic struck the camps near Goma, around 20 July. The disease spread rapidly, initially claiming about 1 200 victims per week. Over the next week, the death rate rose to between 2 000-3 000 per week and at its peak, was estimated at 6 000 per day.5

‘It was impossible,’ one observer stated, ‘to drive or walk along the road from Goma through the camps to Katale (about 70 kilometres north) or Sac (22 kilometres west) without passing a corpse every few paces. In some cases, the dead were stacked high ; others lay beside roadside stalls where fresh bread and beer were sold. Orphan children were to be found crouching beside their dead parents. It was a nightmare.’

6The horror was compelling. President Clinton of the United States responded quickly to the epidemic, calling it the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation. On 21 July 1994, the United States decided to send soldiers to help the French in a continuous around-the-clock effort to get clean water to the refugees. A military task force under Lt. General Schroeder was entrusted with the task of initiating a Kigali-centred relief operation. Western donors supported the pro-gramme. The international news media contributed to the rescue/relief effort by giving the plight of refugees extensive coverage. This spurred aid agencies to rush in to ‘show the flag’ and assist the needy. Competent personnel were moved from Tanzania and elsewhere to Goma to sustain the effort.

7The concerted effort of the international community eventually overcame the crisis. In Goma, UN humanitarian and relief agencies were back in control by late August. Medical and food programmes were put in place. The death toll fell to below 250 per day. By mid-September, Kigali airport increased its throughput from 300 to 600 tonnes of aid materials per day. Civilian management took over airport terminal operations as the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) and non government organizations (NGOs) took charge of the transhipment of relief supplies. Ad hoc assistance stopped when UN operations were re-established in the crisis area.

4. Impact on Host Communities and Host State

8The impact of the massive influx of homeless strangers on the host communities in Zaire was devastating. The psychological damage was incalculable.

  • 6 Author’s interview, Goma, June 1995.

‘No one can imagine what it is like. Hundreds of thousands of dirty, scabby, sick people arrive in your hometown,’ one local resident in Goma noted, ‘They machete down ail your trees, they light fires and cook on your paths. They defecate and vomit on your doorsteps and throw their dead brothers and sisters over the fence into your garden.’6

9This psychological trauma was aggravated by a process of social dislocation. The refugees spilled over into every available space, cutting down trees for miles around to build huts or to make charcoal for cooking. Flower beds were trampled on by thousands of feet. The refugees scared off wildlife, including antelopes and chimpanzees. They crammed themselves into schools, offices and churches ; anywhere they could find shelter. The vast majority squatted in open spaces in Goma. Zairians dared not leave their houses because squatters would move in. "We feared the worst," observed one food seller in Goma.

10In a sense, the worst did happen. The refugees placed severe stress on public infrastructures, including roads and health facilities. Their initial stay in schools, empty buildings and hospitals invariably damaged public property. Materials were also stolen. The problem was not confined to Goma. In Bukavu, the refugees not only cut the trees around the buildings they occupied — Alfajiri Institute, Ibanda Institute, Bukavu Cathedral, the General Hospital and the Nyrakavogo-Parizi clinic — but also used the furniture in several of the buildings as fuelwood. Even so, the case of Goma was far more pathetic.

  • 7 Daily Nation, Nairobi (28 Sept. 1994).

11In September 1994, Mr. Mashaka Mamba Sebi, the Mayor of Goma, complained that the cost of living had skyrocketed because of the influx of foreign relief workers and that much of the town’s infrastructure — roads, schools, sewers, drain-pipes and traffic roundabouts — had been severely damaged by refugee in-flow. He said that the bill for repairs which he expects the international community to pay will be very high.7 The concern of the international community, however, was focused on refugee welfare.

12Zaire was a pariah, because the regime of President Mobutu Sese Seko was perceived as a military autocracy which had resisted ail attempts at democratization and had institutionalized widespread corruption. Development assistance had virtually stopped ; therefore, the international community was not keen to respond to compensation requests for refugee damage, as such payments might be diverted for other purposes. Moreso, the possible beneficial effects of such assistance on the regime of President Mobutu was still to be determined.

  • 8 Environmental impact of the Rwandan refugee presence in North and South Kivu (Zaire). Report submi (...)

13The Zairians merited compensation, in view of the scale of environmental degradation. Deforestation in North and South Kivu Province needed urgent attention, particularly in Goma and the Virunga National Park. Total deforested areas in Goma were estimated at 300 hectares, including land denuded of trees along roads, in compounds, hospitals and churches occupied by refugees and on Mount Goma, which had been reforested. Inhabitants of the refugee camps, Kibumba, Mugunga, Katale and Nyabirehe, (figure 8) caused extensive damage to the forests in Virunga National Park since parts of Kibumba, Mugunga and Katale camps were located within the park. Deforestation accelerated problems of environmental degradation ; in addition, there was a significant increase in soil érosion and a loss of biodiversity. An environmental impact study commissioned by UNDP (Zaire office), documented various categories of extensive damage and identified other problems such as poaching in national parks, and landslides in refugee camps located on hill slopes of Bukavu caused by the uprooting of trees and bushes. This also resulted in a loss of material for germplasm for the National Institute for Agronomic Studies and Research (INERA) centre in Bukavu. In addition, the authorities were faced with the difficulties of achieving environmentally safe disposal of human, medical and solid wastes, as well as providing safe drinking water and health facilities.8 The report concluded that ‘the environmental impacts of Rwandan refugees in North and South Kivu are significantly more serious and critical than the Zairian government and ail the multilateral and bilateral agencies currently realize.’

Figure 8. Location of refugee camps in North Kivu

14The widespread environmental damage fuelled the irritation and hostility of local residents of Goma toward the refugees. When the refugees were moved out of Goma to the camps, local Zairians saw this as just the first step : they wanted them out of the country. "They have destroyed everything, ail the forests and flowers. They brought diseases and people died," observed Mr Kabanya Kimuha Tassi, the administrative director of North Kivu region. Zairians also noted that the Rwandan refugees harbour a criminal sub-culture.

  • 9 New African (January 1995).

‘When they arrived they had money,’ said Weza III, the Mwami (king) of Ngweshe in South Kivu, ‘they bought our beans and bananas but now they go to our houses and force people to seH them food. But our people want to keep something for the future. Clashes are frequent. Often Rwandan soldiers throw grenades into the market. Our people retaliate with knives and pangas. By October (1994), 15 people had died in our area alone.’9

15Mr. Giullami Baurti, who sells soap, candies and batteries in the market labelled the refugees as hoodlums. "The number of pickpockets everywhere has increased," he stated angrily,"and they are ail Rwandans." He also complained that refugees were getting a better deal than the local population whose well-being they had put in jeopardy. "They have medical care and food because they are helped by relief organizations, but nobody looks after us."

  • 10 Sunday News, Dar-es-Salaam (30 April 1995).
  • 11 ibid.
  • 12 ibid.

16The attitudes and perceptions of the host communities influenced the political leaders in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire. A special parliamentary investigating commission, set up to look into the issue, recommended that the refugees should be forcibly repatriated.10 Deputies from North and South Kivu, where the refugees were concentrated, forcefully urged for the adoption of the report in April when it was considered by the national assembly. On 28 April 1995, the national assembly adopted the report and called for unconditional repatriation on a unanimous show of hands. Bwassa Butchumbu, a deputy from the Kivu area urged that the reaction of the international community be ignored. "The country must assume its responsibility with courage whatever the international society might think."11 Justice Minister Gerard Kamanda Wa Kamanda put the case more diplomatically. "We cannot be responsible for organizing the reintegration of the Rwandan refugees into Zairian society,"12 he told deputies concerned about international reaction to such a move.

5. Militarization in the Camps

  • 13 Confidential interview.

17Apart from the devastating impact on their local communities, one major consideration that informed the deliberations of members of the Zairian parliament in their debate was the issue of militarization in the camps. The old guard in Kigali — including members of the ousted government, the bulk of the former national army, Forces Armée Rwandaises (FAR), and Hutu militias, the interhamwe — have established their regimes in Zairian camps. They have set up a government in exile with their former President and Prime Minister. Precise figures for armed strength is yet to be established, but some observers reckon that about 30,000 ex-FAR soldiers and 10,000 militia are in the camps.13 The camps also provide a ready supply of recruits and a base for training, and as some aid workers claim, the chance for almost daily incursions into Rwanda.

18The camps in Goma are set up according to prefectures, secteurs, communes and cells, while those around Bukavu are organized by quartiers and sous-quartiers. A similar system as in Bukavu was established through elections, but in practical terms, this simply implies that there are two sets of leaders in the camps ; the chefs de quartiers and sous-quartiers perform administrative functions while the chefs de prefectures, communes, etc., undertake political roles. The latter are clearly more important in the social hierarchy.

  • 14 Author’s interview with refugees in Zairian camps and RDR leaders in Nairobi, 1995.

19These political institutions notwithstanding, the control exerted by the former government, the military and militias remain strong. Their décisions carry the most weight and affect almost everything, including who cornes into the camps and what activities are permitted. They also enforce security through vigilante groups. Their hold on the refugees is not total. Professional groups, especially women’s associations, and Rwandan non government organizations are developing voices of moderation and these could be strengthened as essential elements of the apparatus for reconciliation. Another group, the Rally for Return and Democracy in Rwanda (RDR) was recently launched in Nairobi, and represents those who want to ensure the safety of those who return.14 None of these parties openly condemn the former Hutu government ; a situation that illustrates the commanding position of the old guard.

20There are, of course, variations between Goma and Bukavu in terms of camp structure and even intra-regional differences within both provinces. Goma is almost a reflection of Rwanda because the distribution of people follows the same line ; whereas in Bukavu, people from the same prefecture, sector, commune, cell etc., do not live together. In Bukavu, former government leaders, the military and militia are in complete control in Kitshushu and INERA camps, but in general, their hold is stronger in the Goma region.

21Mugunga camp is a remarkable example. Soldiers from the army of Rwanda’s Hutu government loll about in uniforms wearing a severe countenance. Weapons are hidden close by and vehicles purloined from the former army are often parked on the premises.

22Feelings run high. Old FAR and Hutu militia elements and even some members of the RDR have a penchant for a common phrase : Gutaha twulitse urutwe — literally, we cannot go back with our tails between our legs, i.e., in shame. The implication is that a return match with the Tutsi dominated elements in Kigali is a Hutu pre-condition for any meaningful negotiation. The Hutu old guard are re-arming and preparing for this.

23Three elements in this scenario have security implications. First, there is a requirement for social conformity within camps. Ex-FAR and Hutu militiamen run run propaganda campaigns and, at times, intimidate refugees to dissuade them from repatriation. Even so, it is necessary to note that enforced loyalty is now hardly necessary. Events in Rwanda, especially the Kibeho massacre, have stiffened the resolve of refugees not to go back. In this case, they need little or no persuasion.

24Second, refugee clashes with local Zairian citizens and violent confrontations with aid workers have produced a number of casualties. These violent encounters have often attracted the attention of the Zairian military, including paracommandos and the presidential elite guard ; wherever the local military joins the foray, looting, killing, rape and pillaging generally follow. The issue of security in camps has compelled UNHCR to secure the presence of 1500 Zairian troops as guards in Goma. Interestingly, this contingent has so far behaved with commendable discipline.

25The third and most important aspect of the security crisis borders on the re-armament and preparation of the old guard for resumption of the Rwandan war, which would result in a wider conflict with even more disastrous regional consequences. A lengthy research report produced in May 1995, by the Human Rights Watch Arms Project, concluded that :

  • 15 Human Rights Watch Arms Project. Rwanda/Zaire : Rearming with Impunity, International support for (...)

... the old guard perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide have rebuilt their military infrastructure, largely in Zaire, with aid of security and military assistance of Zaire, France and South Africa.15

26It claims that men are given training at a French facility in the Central African Republic, a former French colony, north of Zaire.

27The report is scathing about the role of the Zairian authorities and listed several caches of weapons that have been flown into Goma ; two in early June 1994, in flights operated by Air Zaire, a state owned company ; three in early July, carried by cargo companies ; four more, not identified in late July and August ; and another five in February and March 1995. The investigator alleged that in February 1995, he saw heavy weapons and equipment which were brought from Rwanda being maintained by soldiers of the former Rwandan government and that Zairians have permitted, condoned and even encouraged militiamen to conduct military training.

  • 16 Observers generally agree that the Prime Minister, Leon Kengo Wa Dongo, does not control the army. (...)

28The report raised a great deal of concern in local and international circles. Zairian parliamentarians and opposition elements in the transitional government were particularly alarmed by its implications for Zairian politics. The Watch Arms Project investigators used the term Zairian authorities imprecisely because there are a ‘multiplicity of authorities’ present in the country. Even so, Mobutu Sese Seko is in control of the army and the only person who could conceivably undertake the alleged role.16

6. Survival Game : Implications for regional political stability

29The question then asked was whether or not the report by the Watch Arms Project was true ? Mobutu had a close personal relationship with assassinated President Juvenal Habyarimana, and was his staunch ally in the antagonism directed at Museveni of Uganda. As evidence, Zaire sent troops to aid FAR in its successful bid to repel the RPF in 1990, and thereafter helped in training Habyarimana’s new Presidential Guard. There were also unrefuted reports that Mobutu brought the remains of the murdered president to his hometown, Gbadolite, for burial. There was, therefore, an apparent reservoir of goodwill in Mobutu’s court for the Hutu cause or the old guard.

30Zairian political leaders would have been content to leave the matter alone if they perceived it as based on mere sentiment. However, the problem, as they saw it, is that Mobutu is not a sentimentalist but a shrewd power calculator, astute in intrigue, whose every step resembles a move in a chess game taken in the name of political survival.

31Within this context, the Rwandan refugee crisis was an opportunity for the old manipulator from Gbadolite. It could not have come at a better time. The collapse of Zaire as a nation-state and the collapse of the economy, symbolized by hyperinflation at a rate of about 24 000 per cent a year, was eating deep into Mobutu’s chances for survival, particularly, as observers, local and foreign, held him responsible. The Western donor community had frozen development assistance and insisted on the political conditions which would permit a credible march to democracy. Mobutu manoeuvered the process by elbowing out uncompromising prime ministers and taking advantage of a fragmented opposition. Even then, it appeared as if he was merely buying time. Mobutu faced strong opposition from his erstwhile Western supporters, many of whom perceived him as ‘yesterday’s man’, and no longer of any serious political importance in the changing international landscape that followed the demise of communism.

32The Rwandan crisis and Mobutu’s role in the mediation in Angola, began the slow process of rehabilitating the general to his former position. Mobutu’s role in opening up Goma, Bukavu and Kisangani (see figure 9) to French troops in Operation Turquoise, as well as his mediation between Luanda and Jonas Savimbi, appeared to re-establish him as an African leader to be dealt with, even if not loved. France seems to have adopted a pragmatic posture, that whatever his faults, Mobutu was a political leader of some substance who could serve as a new axis for influence in Central Africa. Western donors and non government organizations also needed Mobutu’s cooperation to assist refugees in camps near two major towns, Goma and Bukavu, in Kivu province.

33The situation offered Mobutu an opportunity to re-state his claim to regional supremacy. Until 6 April 1994, when both president Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart were killed, Mobutu was the undeclared but undisputed ‘elder brother’ of the Communauté Economique des Pays des Grands Lacs (The Great Lakes State Economic Community). The accession to power of the Rwanda Patriotic Front, which is enamoured of Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Mobutu’s great rival, destroyed that rôle. In 1990, Mobutu had ordered his crack Division Spéciale Présidentielle (Special Presidential Division) to attack the RPF in Kigali. This turn of events was an irritation. As such, Mobutu probably saw the maintenance of a sanctuary, for the recruitment and training of Habyarimana’s old army, as a potential source of pressure on both Kigali and Kampala, as well as a useful pawn in his strategy for obtaining Western approval for his political survival game.

34Against this background, the decision of the Zairian parliament and the majority of the transition government to back the forcible repatriation of Rwandan refugees may be strictly regarded as a political error, since it gave Western donor countries the impression that Mobutu was the only credible political figure with whom the West could work on the refugee crisis. This gave Mobutu a political card to play, especially as those who opposed him were in favour of a forced repatriation of refugees which could ignite a regional political upheaval. On the other hand, it could be argued that coming face to face with the human rights’ implication of forced repatriation in an hostile international context would weaken the resolve of the Zairian opposition to carry out repatriation ; moreso, as they would require the support and goodwill of the same donor community to rebuild the Zairian state in a post-Mobutu situation. Indeed, one can make bold to say that, given such circumstances, the parliamentarians ‘may have to eat their words’.

Figure 9. Map of Zaire

35Of more crucial significance is the danger that Mobutu’s survival game could backfire and degenerate into a civil war, with various Zairian military factions locked in confrontation, creating a state of near-anarchy in which Zaire itself would begin to generate refugees. A free-for-all climate would be created in which the RPF forces in Kigali and the old guard in Goma could operate. The conflict would certainly affect Burundi and Uganda and have wider implications for regional order and stability. The whole of the Great Lakes Region and beyond would be at risk. If that happened, Zaire would have surpassed even its own reputation as having a ‘worse case scenario’.


1 Keesing’s Record of World Events, July 1994.

2 ibid.

3 Some UNHCR sources put the figure at around 1.2 million, other estimates put it as high as 2.2 million. Some refugees live, at their peril, outside the camps. In late November 1994, for example, Zairian paracommandos burnt out the huts of about 20,000 Rwandans living alongside Zairians in their villages in North Kivu area and forced them into official camps.

4 ibid.

5 Armed Forces Journal International (December 1994).

6 Author’s interview, Goma, June 1995.

7 Daily Nation, Nairobi (28 Sept. 1994).

8 Environmental impact of the Rwandan refugee presence in North and South Kivu (Zaire). Report submitted to the UNDP (Office for Project Services) 18 November 1994.

9 New African (January 1995).

10 Sunday News, Dar-es-Salaam (30 April 1995).

11 ibid.

12 ibid.

13 Confidential interview.

14 Author’s interview with refugees in Zairian camps and RDR leaders in Nairobi, 1995.

15 Human Rights Watch Arms Project. Rwanda/Zaire : Rearming with Impunity, International support for the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, Washington (May 1995).

16 Observers generally agree that the Prime Minister, Leon Kengo Wa Dongo, does not control the army. Army generals owe allegiance to Mobutu. Civil guard commander, General Kpama Baramoto is Mobutu’s brother-in-law ; the Commander, Division Spéciale Présidentielle, General Etienne N’zimbi, is his nephew ; and the Chief of Staff, General Eluki Monga, Force Armée Zaïroise (FAZ) is from Mobutu’s Ngbandi tribe. So family ties and ethnic association bind most force commanders to Mobutu. Money is also a crucial factor, since Mobutu appears to have a firm grip on the purse strings.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 8. Location of refugee camps in North Kivu
Fichier image/jpeg, 106k
Légende Figure 9. Map of Zaire
Fichier image/jpeg, 214k

© IFRA-Nigeria, 1995

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