Congo rebel leader General Laurent Nkunda has been accused by human rights organizations of ordering his troops to rape and murder civilians and pillage communities. Huffington Post contributors Georgianne Nienaber and Helen Thomas traveled to Nkunda's compound in Kivu province, Congo, to interview Nkunda face-to-face.
On the eve of Congo peace talks this week in the Kenyan capitol of Nairobi, the BBC reported that Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda had been dismissed as commander of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP). Nkunda insisted that he was still in power and that the removal was just a rumor.
The rival who challenged Nkunda's leadership was CNDP military chief of staff General Bosco Ntaganda, who accused Nkunda of obstructing peace efforts in the region on January 8.
This is the second time in recent months that Ntaganda has caused a controversy. In October, the general signed a statement announcing Nkunda's death, according to AFP reports.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has been at war since 1996. The United Nations peacekeeping force in the region (MONUC) claims that it is over-committed and cannot maintain protection for the local populations from the confrontations between the Congolese Army (FARDC), the CNDP, local militias (Mai Mai), and the remnants of the Interahamwe (FDLR) who are responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
In January 2008, the Congolese Army and General Nkunda signed the Goma peace agreement, which fell apart eight months later, displacing over one quarter of North Kivu Province's population of 4 million people. According to Human Rights Watch, a total of 1.1 million people are displaced in North and South Kivu Provinces.
Nkunda's rebel delegation is in Nairobi for another round of UN-brokered peace negotiations, which began on Wednesday. The talks had been suspended in December.
The innocent victims of this war are civilians who are caught in the crossfire. Much information in this region is based upon rumor, and people in eastern Congo seem interested primarily in seeking safety from the fighting. This has resulted in severe overcrowding of the Internally Displaced People camps that have been in place since 1996.
Conditions in the camps are no better than that found in barnyards, and newborn infants are seen sleeping on beds made of lava rocks, with barely a piece of cloth for covering.
General Laurent Nkunda is the Tutsi leader of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) in eastern Congo. Nkunda stated in an interview with Australian and American journalists on Saturday January 3 that he recognized the Congolese people have paid the price for a decades' worth of war. Photo by Georgianne Nienaber
Following the interview, Nkunda invited the journalists to an informal conversation over dinner. Both the interview and subsequent conversation were conducted at Nkunda's compound in Kivu province. Photo by Georgianne Nienaber
In late August 2008 the regular Congolese army (FARDC) engaged in heavy fighting with the CNDP, precipitating a new humanitarian crisis. Ten years of war in eastern Congo has resulted in over 1.2 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPS). Photo by Georgianne Nienaber
The journalists spent over six hours in an unrestricted interview. The only request Nkunda made was that the interview run unedited. Video and audio records were made of the interview. Photo by Georgianne Nienaber
Nkunda and his staff have specifically refuted footage shown on the BBC regarding the Kiwanja Massacres that they say "betrayed" what happened there. Photo by Georgianne Nienaber
The Congolese Army (FARDC) is known to be aided by local militia known as the Mai Mai and PARECO. An alliance has been forged by these groups with the Democratic Forces for the liberation of Rwanda ( FDLR), whose members participated in the 1994 genocide. Up to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by extremist forces in 100 days. Photo by Georgianne Nienaber
Nkunda with his pet goat, Bettie. The General introduced his visitors to his family and allowed full use of cameras and recording equipment. Given the current situation, we have decided not to provide family photos in order to protect the children. Photo by Georgianne Nienaber
Currently 21,000 square kilometers are under CNDP control. BBC reports that CNDP officers had staged a coup and ousted Nkunda. Insider reports as of Tuesday, January 6 indicate that this is not the case. Western media have consistently portrayed Nkunda as a "rebel" leader who is fighting to protect the Tutsi community from attack by the FDLR. Nkunda says that his goal is to protect all Congolese people from the excesses and "poor leadership" of the current Congolese government under Joseph Kabila. Photo by Georgianne Nienaber
The following interview was obtained with General Nkunda at his compound three days before the BBC reports of his ouster. To date, Western media reports have been very unfavorable to Nkunda and the CNDP, including accusations of mass rapes and killings. Nkunda said he agreed to meet with Nienaber because he said he "was aware" of her reports on nature conservation from the region.
Question. Would you say that you have been portrayed in a negative way in Western media?
Nkunda. They cut my voice and they speak on my behalf. Journalists tell what they think will be sensational.
Q. Are you the man to provide the leadership to develop Congo?
N. I never talk about an individual when I talk about change or about leadership. I always talk about a spirit. Because a man cannot do, but a spirit can do. If you can find leadership, leadership can change Congo, but not a leader.
Q. There have been terrible stories about how women are treated in Congo, especially how there have been mass rapes.
N. You are in the area under CNDP control. Ask the women who have been raped.
I cannot believe that they are raped here and then going to be treated in Goma or Bukavu. But if you go to Goma or Bukavu [under FARDC control] you are going to see hospitals full of women raped. Go to Rumangabo and they will tell you that the area under CNDP control is the most secure area in Congo.
They say that we massacre Hutu tribes. The executive secretary of CNDP is a Hutu.
Q. Can you tell the world what happened at Kiwanja?
N. Kiwanja was liberated by the CNDP on the 28th of October, . We were in Kiwanja for one week without any killing, any rape, any looting. One week later the government [FARDC], along with Mai Mai, attacked Kiwanja and they occupied Kiwanja for 24 hours. My forces went back [withdrew] from Kiwanja. And in 24 hours, 74 people were killed.
And before we came back to Kiwanja the governor of Goma, in the morning, announced that in Kiwanja there were massacres. When I heard on the radio that there were massacres in Kiwanja, I called my guys [soldiers] on the ground and said, "Where are you?" They said, "We are in Rutshuru." I said, "Who is doing this?" They said they did not know, that they were in Rutshuru.
So we went back to Kiwanja on the afternoon of the 29th, or the 27th. [Nkunda leans over to check dates with an adviser.] We went back 24 hours later and some people were killed in the crossfire. To that we can testify. Because the Mai Mai, they do not know how to shoot; they shoot where they want and when they were retreating they were shooting.
And we saw that even the Hutu community in Rutshuru wrote a letter about that and they gave it to [unclear] and said they were not killed by CNDP.
Q. Do you have a copy of that letter?
N. Yes, I do.
Q. May we have a copy?
N. You will have a copy.
The same scenario was prepared in Goma. When we were around Goma, my intelligence services told me that there was a plan to kill people in Goma that night so that they could blame the CNDP. That is why I told my guys to not enter Goma.
I was informed that there was a plan for FARDC [the government forces] to kill in the night. Those who were in charge of the killing never knew that we withdrew. But I told MONUC [UN mission in DRC] that I was going to withdraw from Goma for 12 kilometers.
On that night, 64 people were killed in Goma.
Q. The other charge against you is that you ordered the refugee camps destroyed.
N. Please understand. Yes, there were internally displaced people in Kiwanja. When I came. I went to the camp and I told the population there, there are no houses here. You are in the rain. Please go back to your homes. I will take charge of your security. Please go home.
On the following morning they said Nkunda forced people to leave. I am asking people to go to their HOMES! MONUC has been unable to take charge. So it is a crime because I am asking them to go to their homes?
One day I told the person responsible for OCHA; the one in charge of humanitarian affairs, if we do a study in the camps around Goma, in each week there are about a hundred people dying from different diseases.
In four years, CNDP has been accused of killing 100 people. But you are killing one hundred people each week in your camps.
Who is the criminal?
Q. Can you explain the military ethic of your soldiers?
N. Rape will be punished by firing squad. This is known. And two weeks ago [approximately December 21, 2008] two officers were executed for this.
Q. Who executed them?
N. Other soldiers of the same rank. They were second lieutenants and they were killed by second lieutenants.
These are strong measures, I know.
Q. Some people call this a war for minerals.
N. How can you fight for your own minerals? [Laughter] If this were about minerals, I would not be here.
You see minerals are being exploited by China, by Belgium, by South Africa. Petrol is under French control, uranium under American control, copper under Belgium, diamonds under Jewish, and gold under South African control.
Q. Have you met personally with Alan Doss [MONUC]?
N. No. We talk only on the phone.
The first time I talked to him was in January when we were in Goma during the peace talks. One day I told him, you are coming with your tanks to ask us to shut our mouths.
And so you ask me to not fight. I said to him bring other tanks and other aviation forces because we will fight until we will be free. You want me to be a slave, an economic slave to China, I will not accept this. I'll fight till I die, then my brothers will continue to fight, and my elders will fight and my son will fight.
Q. So does China's influence concern you now?
N. Yes of course because we are going now into economic slavery. If we accept this Chinese contract it is the end for Congolese.
Q. Have you heard President-elect Obama's statement about Congo, that this is just an ethnic conflict?
N. He has to raise his thinking about Congo. If I could meet him one day, I would tell him that it is not a matter of ethnic conflict, it is a matter of leadership.
The world is talking about a black person in power, but Americans didn't vote for a black man, they voted for an American showing the capacity to rule. But they are talking about a black person. No, no, it is not that. On his identity card it doesn't say 'black'. When the American people were voting, they voted for an American.
Q. What are your views about Human Rights Watch?
N. I will tell you, they are writing from the UK and from the US and they are not on the ground.
I even talked to Anneke van Woudenberg. She came to see me in Masisi but after leaving here and then writing their things I had to call her back and say, "Why? You were here, now what are you doing?" She always says that the information is from "reliable sources." But all these reliable sources are unidentified.
Q. General, is there anything you want to say to us that we didn't ask you about as a last question?
N. I can say that what Congo expects from the world is help to be free from the leadership it is currently under. Instead of bringing so many troops, we want to have well-trained and equipped soldiers in Congo. Instead of spending money on MONUC we want to have roads. Instead of bringing ex-pats from elsewhere, we want well-trained leaders for Congo. Help Congolese leaders to have a vision for the country that is good for the people.
Georgianne Nienaber is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. She has written a biography of murdered primatologist Dian Fossey and has spent considerable time in African conflict zones since 2004.
Helen Thomas is a print and radio journalist in Australia. Her interest in African affairs stems from her involvement in an organization that seeks to provide a more balanced portrayal of Africa in the media. The confusion shrouding the Congo crisis compelled her to travel to the region herself to gain a first-hand insight of why one of the most resource-rich countries in the world continues to wallow in war, poverty and suffering.
Follow Georgianne Nienaber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nienaber