Desperate Battle Defines Congos Warlike Peace

Desperate Battle Defines Congo’s Warlike Peace Desperate Battle Defines Congo’s Warlike Peace At the southern extreme of a ragged front line that winds 1,400 miles across Congo lies a ferry, dirty pink and half-submerged in the muddy Luvua River. Facing it on a gravel ramp stand the burned-out husks of 33 military vehicles — armored personnel carriers, trucks, an ambulance — waiting in a line that never moved forward. Unopened syringes lie underfoot, amid charred tires and a trampled note that a fleeing Congolese junior officer left behind: Attaque, reads the neat cursive French. But by the time Rwandan forces approached Pweto on Dec. 3, the Congolese government army was in no position to attack. It was in panicked retreat, leaving a tableau of ruin on the riverbank and opening a rare window on a war usually fought out of sight. In two months of back-and-forth fighting here in the southeastern corner of Congo, all the elements that make this country’s 21/2-year-old war such a dangerous puzzle came into play: foreign armies, ethnic militia groups, remote terrain and villages utterly emptied of civilians who, from the safety of refugee camps in a neighboring country, repeat matter-of-fact accounts of massacres.

This is the situation on the ground that has kept the U.N. Security Council from dispatching 5,500 peacekeepers to monitor a cease-fire that appears to exist only on paper. This lightly populated, mostly forested stretch between Lake Tanganyika and Lake Mweru had been one of the few corners of Congo where both sides had essentially honored a peace agreement signed 18 months ago. The Lusaka Accord, named for the Zambian capital where it was signed, was meant to arrest the cycle of advance and retreat that has marked a sprawling conflict that pits the Congolese army and allied troops from Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia against an assortment of rebel forces bolstered by Rwandan and Ugandan troops. But Congolese President Laurent Kabila, who signed the Lusaka pact in a moment of military disadvantage, has swept it aside whenever he spied what looked like a military opening. Last spring, his forces pushed back rebels sponsored by Uganda in Congo’s far northwest, only to lose the same ground months later.

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And on Oct. 15, Kabila’s armies launched a massive assault on Rwandan-held positions in the southeast, striking 100 miles north of Pweto at the town of Pepa. Six weeks later, just as happened in the northwest, Kabila’s forces once again lost far more than they gained. Now the Rwandans have driven them out of Pweto, clambering onto captured armor as their commander pointed out the escape route by which the Congolese army chief of staff, Joseph Kabila, the president’s son, fled the battlefield. We have a cease-fire, Col. J.B.

Mulisa said with a dry chuckle, a forced cease-fire. In a war that has been stalemated for so long — Congo was broken into factional spheres of influence mere weeks after the war began, and so it remains — such lightning gains might have finally given the Rwandans the upper hand. But senior Rwandan officials, when asked if they plan to push beyond Pweto farther into Congo, say they did not want to come even as far as they have. In fact, the forces occupying Pweto showed no sign of massing earlier this month. Officials of Rwanda’s Tutsi-led government say, rather, that their focus is on eradicating the Interahamwe, the ethnic Hutu militia that orchestrated the 1994 massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda and fled into neighboring Congo. The farther into the vast Congo the Rwandan troops go, the harder that becomes.

We were really talking about withdrawing 120 miles to an operational zone closer to Rwanda, said Col. Charles Kayonga, a defense adviser to Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Kabila must have misread our position. He apparently thought we were weak. Reversed Alliances The battle began at Pepa, a town of neat stone houses in the center of a vast cattle ranch near the southern end of Lake Tanganyika. Rwandans had held the town since March 1999, nine months after launching the current war by encouraging a rebellion in the Congolese army’s ranks, then pouring its own forces into Congo to topple Kabila — the same leader Rwanda had installed barely a year earlier by backing a rebellion that drove dictator Mobutu Sese Seko from power. At issue, according to Rwandan officials, was Kabila’s support for the very forces Rwanda had put him in place to eradicate: the Interahamwe — thousands of ethnic Hutu extremists who had fled into Congo in 1994 after leading an attempted genocide against Rwanda’s minority Tutsi tribe that left more than a half-million dead.

The Interahamwe were now allied with Kabila, and more formidable as a result. What had been degenerating into a ragtag guerrilla force was receiving new weapons from the Congolese government and new training from the army of Zimbabwe, which also rushed to support Kabila against the Rwandan invasion. But when shells began exploding behind the Rwandans’ Pepa foxholes in the predawn hours of Oct. 15, the charge was led by yet another force. Hutu extremists from Burundi — another tiny country divided by the Hutu-Tutsi chasm — made up the brunt of the eight brigades that pushed across the rolling rangeland, according to Rwandan commanders.

The Congolese infantry also advanced, reinforced by armored personnel carriers and British-made Hawker combat aircraft, both from Zimbabwe. They were coming in big numbers, really very big numbers, said Lt. Col. John Tibesigwa, the Rwandan commander at Pepa. With a much smaller force on hand, the Rwandans slowly pulled out of Pepa, along with the Congolese rebels they sponsor, a force known as Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD). In fact, Rwandan commanders maintain that they were already pulling some units back when the attack came. While we were disengaging, they were massing troops, said Tibesigwa.

To keep them from coming back, we had to take Pweto. The Rwandan counterattack began on Nov. 5 and raged for four days. Tibesigwa described the fighting as the most intense he had seen in Congo. At the Pepa hospital, Congolese nurse Justine Kaimba Puta said fighting that started 15 miles away moved steadily closer, bringing with it a stream of wounded that eventually covered the hospital floor.

When the Rwandans were two miles away, government soldiers brought a warning to flee. The town emptied promptly, but several Pepa residents interviewed in Zambia, where thousands have gathered in a U.N. refugee camp, said they feared more than the fighting. When Rwandan forces first took Pepa last year, local residents were punished for allegedly supporting the Congolese government troops, the residents said. Two refugees described a massacre that year in Mazembe, a village near Pepa, in which dozens of residents were ordered into their huts, which soldiers then set afire. Both residents named people killed in the fire, including old men and small children.

One described seeing the charred bodies. The residents were uncertain whether the soldiers were Rwandan regulars or the RCD rebels they sponsor. Both have been accused by international human rights groups of similar atrocities in territory they occupy, but the charges surface most often against the rebels. With the RCD, there are some undisciplined elements, acknowledged Nicephore Kimpinde, the assistant district commissioner installed in Pepa by the rebels. But you can’t say the whole RCD is undisciplined.

Kabila’s forces, too, slaughtered civilians when they occupied the area in October, he said. We collected 10 civilian bodies and buried them, said Patrick Murlambui, another Pepa official. They were accused of belonging to the RCD intelligence. They were innocent. There was no proof.

Everybody who stayed in this region is looked at as an RCD sympathizer. It’s a war on civilians, said Puta, the nurse. ‘The Right Tactics’ The Rwandans and the rebels took the countryside as well, exploiting a degree of mobility that would prove decisive. The Rwandan army is essentially an all-infantry force that by a shrewd collusion of economy and design carries no weapon heavier than one man can handle. Kabila’s retreating forces, by contrast, were tethered to the road. Their armored vehicles required the Congolese alliance to move predictably, confined to a tree-lined track that runs across the handsome cattle ranch like a country road through rural Belgium, its owners’ ancestral home.

When open range gave way to elephant grass, the Rwandans attacked. The village of Mutoto Moija, a decrepit Interahamwe base whose name translates as One Child, fell after six hours. At midnight, we heard sounds like they were retreating, said Mulisa. In the morning they were no longer there. We followed.

What ensued, according to Rwandan and Congolese soldiers alike, was a three-week running battle across the 100 miles between Pepa and Pweto. Weeks later, the road south toward Pweto remained speckled not only with green and white butterflies, but with corpses — here the body of young man cut down clutching an AK-47, here a splayed green poncho topped by a skull. But veterans of the battle said most of the fighting took place in the surrounding woods. The Congolese and their allies sought the high ground above the road. The Rwandans and RCD rebels moved through the woods behind them and caught them in crossfires.

The Rwandans are very strong; they do flanking actions, said a Congolese soldier, Selester Mbanza, 30, from a hospital bed in Nchelenge, Zambia, where he was being treated for a bullet wound in the buttocks. They get around behind people. That’s how they fight. They used the right tactics. They came when we were resting, and we’d be distracted.

There was a major engagement at every village, half of which had been fortified by bunkers or other defenses that the Congolese in each case ended up abandoning. We would pursue them very closely, said Mulisa, the Rwandan commander. That’s the secret. We don’t give them any time. Panic and Destruction By Dec. 1, the Rwandan forces had Pweto nearly in sight, approaching the lakeside plain around the town of perhaps 50,000 on an abandoned road along an encircling ridge.

By the evening of Dec. 3, when the Rwandans entered the town, the civilian population had pushed en masse down a muddy road into Zambia, and Kabila’s forces were betraying something like panic. The Mi-17 helicopter that had carried Joseph Kabila to Pweto was burned on the soccer field that doubled as a landing pad, apparently too unreliable to use but too valuable to leave to the Rwandans. The president’s son escaped by water, taking a ferry named the Alliance with senior Zimbabwean commanders and Burundian Hutus to the far side of the Luvua River. When the boat returned, a 40-ton, Soviet-made T-62 tank was loaded onto the port side.

Dozens of soldiers scrambled to starboard. It was imbalanced, said Mulisa, and the ferry got drowned. With the Rwandans’ gunfire audible across town, the stranded troops splashed diesel fuel onto the line of 33 waiting vehicles and set them afire. Then they split up, some setting off along the riverbank deeper into Congo, others joining the throng of refugees fording the small stream that marks the Zambian border. On the other side, Zambian soldiers collected arms and counted heads. At least 3,000 Congolese regulars were assembled in primary schools about 75 miles south of the border in Nchelenge, where last week they were still waiting for a lift back to Congo. Zimbabwe sent a plane for several hundred of its troops, a return load lightened considerably by the sheer tonnage of armor left behind in Pweto.

Two howitzers, two T-62 tanks and at least a half-dozen armored personnel carriers were left intact for the Rwandans, as well as three ammunition dumps and a weapons cache with 1,000 rifles. The total does not include a tank submerged about 200 yards upstream from the ferry, its turret just visible in the middle of the river, which its desperate driver thought was shallow enough to ford. History.