Walter James (SOS Femme en Danger – SOSFED): Walter graduated in 2006 from the University of Minnesota. Following college, he worked on international development in Haiti and Senegal, and studied human rights and international development in Senegal, Costa Rica, and Morocco. Walter first visited Eastern Congo as a 2009 Peace Fellow for The Advocacy Project, where he documented the work of civil society organizations such as SOS Femmes en Danger, Arche d’Alliance, and Tunza Mazingira. The following year, he graduated from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy with a Master’s degree in Public Policy.


29 Aug

Uvira seems to be a rather anonymous town deep in Central East Africa. The architecture: crumbling. The nightlife: sparse and risky. The inhabitants: unpretentious and lively. The sole attraction: Lake Tanganyika, although all the good beaches are over in Burundi. However, Uvira has a bit of its own dark history and intrigue, despite not having the glamour or mzungu creature comforts of Bukavu, Goma, or Beni.

In the same way, Fizi Territory has cultivated a sort of infamous reputation in the Congo, despite its rather innocuous appearance. Laurent “Mzee” Kabila operated in Fizi Territory, back when he was a Leftist rebel leader in the 1960s/70s. Che Guevara visited this area, back when he lent himself to the revolutionary cause against Mobutu; Che came away totally disillusioned by the state of the revolutionary struggle in this part of Africa that has so often resisted misguided outside attempts at transformation or analysis, of all ideological types.

Monuments in towns and villages all over Fizi Territory memorialize those slaughtered by the brutal RCD during the Second Congo War. However, I have seen no monuments marking the slaughter of the Banyamulenge that occurred in the frenzied anti-Banyamulenge hysteria in the days just before the Rwandan invasion.

In August 1996, when it was clear that the Rwandan government was arming some of the Rwandophone Banyamulenge in the Kivus in preparation for an invasion, the Kivus were swept with a wave of xenophobia. Local politicians poured out rhetoric against the Banyamulenge “traitors”, encouraging jobless and shiftless young men to “attack the Banyamulenge” and seize their assets. In Uvira, many Banyamulenge were kicked out of their houses, beaten, and thrown in jail by angry mobs. All over Fizi Territory, the “autochtone” population rose up to kill Banyamulenge and take their cows. In Bukavu in October, the provincial governor declared the Banyamulenge persona non grata and ordered their expulsion from South Kivu. The xenophobia was not limited to just the Kivus; all over Zaire, persons with “Tutsi” morphology were harassed, beaten, and even murdered.

The slaughter of the Banyamulenge pulled the trigger for the Rwandan invasion of the Congo. Up until then, the RPA had been watching the Hutu refugee camps just over the border in Zaire become rallying points for the former genocidaires, without any international intervention to stop this travesty. The regrouping Interahamwe and FAR had even begun raids back into Rwanda, and the newly installed RPF government could hardly tolerate a cross-border insurgency made up of the perpetrators of the Tutsi genocide. Several other African governments were eager to see Mobutu go, and they saw this as an opportunity to change the leadership in Kinshasa. In addition, the Rwandan military had been recruiting disaffected Banyamulenge youth and giving them arms and military training, in preparation for an invasion. The xenophobic purging of the “Tutsi” Banyamulenge in the Kivus was the final straw. Using an alliance of Zairian rebel leaders (the AFDL) as a front, the Rwandans invaded Zaire.

Uvira, in fact, was the first town to fall to the AFDL and its allies, on October 24, 1996. A mere seven months later, Kabila pere and his kadogos (child soldiers) were marching on Kinshasa. By mid-1997, Mzee Kabila was the president of the newly-christened Democratic Republic of Congo.

It is interesting to think about Mzee Kabila returning to South Kivu/Northeastern Katanga, after many corpulent years of being a smuggler in Tanzania. Here, in this eastern region, he fought against Mobutu’s agents from remote mountain camps. Here is where his son Joseph was born, in a village called Mpiki in the view of Mlima ya damu (“Mountain of Blood”). Here was where he trudged along with Che Guevara, among the gnarled trees and manioc fields and jagged piles of rocks. The aging, largely irrelevant rebel, with his Maoist tracts and monochromatic wardrobe of safari jackets, had been made ruler of Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country, perhaps a few decades too late.

In late 1998, when Kabila decided to thumb his nose at his “minders”, the Rwandans quickly put together a new rebel movement based in the east to challenge Kabila’s authority, the RCD. Thus, the Second Congo War had begun; today, mentioning this war to most Uvirois will cause them to wrinkle their brow and sigh. While many Kivutians saw the AFDL invasion as a war of “liberation” from Mobutu’s tri-decade dictatorship, the rule of the RCD is remembered with sorrow and chagrin. The RCD soldiers were mostly Rwandans or Congolese Rwandophones (such as the Banyamulenge), and in South Kivu they did not easily forget the anti-Banyamulenge pogroms committed by the “autochtone” Congolese. Now, the Banyamulenge were in charge, and they were looking to subdue the population by violent means. In Fizi Territory, the RCD committed horrid massacres in villages such as Makobola, slaughtering hundreds of civilians at a time. When I ask Congolese people my age about what life was like in Uvira/Fizi during the RCD-era, the reply I get most often is “Well, we just survived”.

In the days since the end of the Second Congo War, Uvira/Fizi has been one of the sites of the ongoing struggle between state-sanctioned armed forces (the FARDC) and the remaining non-state armed groups (in Uvira/Fizi, the FDLR, FRF, FNL, and various Mai Mai groups). Occasionally, events here make small waves in foreign journals, but sadly mostly related to tragedy and continuing human rights abuses committed by armed groups.

And thus, events that occurred in Uvira and Fizi Territory have been extremely pivotal in Congo’s recent history. The easygoing nature of Uvirois makes it easy to forget how much the region has been through, and in a way it is a bit encouraging that there are very strong efforts at ethnic conflict transformation going on in Uvira/Fizi.

Nonetheless, the Dark Side does persist. Anti-Rwandan sentiment can still be fairly strong here in Uvira/Fizi (just like xenophobic anti-Congolese sentiment can be fairly strong across the border in Rwanda). In this area, many Congolese people hate Joseph Kabila because he “made a deal” with the Rwandans to end the Second Congo War, and political discussions with Uvirois often result in absurd statements about a “double genocide” and about Joseph Kabila being a Rwandan puppet. Down in Fizi Territory especially, the tendency seems to be to blame outsiders for all the problems, whether it be Rwanda, Belgium, the United States, or even just Congolese from other parts of the country. This may explain a lot of the success of Mai Mai Yakutumba; despite their documented violations of human rights, they remain strongly tied to the community of Babembe political elites in Fizi.

For an outsider like myself who is relatively new to the Kivus, the simmering ethnic/political/class tensions may seem silly and superficial, and very often we non-Africans try to make what Jason Stearns calls “simplistic solutions to complex problems”. However, there are years of economic decay, local power struggles, political manipulation, warfare, colonial social restructuring, and oblivious international involvement that have formed the image of what we see in this particular section of South Kivu today.

I have always found it a bit interesting the independent nature and identity of Uvira and Fizi, even within South Kivu. The two territories are also very different from each other, most starkly when it comes to ethnic makeup and topography. In Fizi, the Babembe are dominant. In Uvira, it is much more diverse, with Bafulero, Bashi, and Bavira. In terms of geography, Uvira has the great Rusizi Plain, which borders with Burundi, whereas Fizi has massive forests high in the hills. The Rusizi looks like something straight out of The Lion King, a broad and burnt-red stretch of savannah where cows roam free. For sure, I have always preferred Uvira to, say Bukavu, the sophisticated (if rather pretentious) provincial capital of South Kivu.

Each part of the Congo has had a different story; in northern Congo in Ituri and Equateur, the story includes the MLC and fighting between Rwandan and Ugandan troops over Congolese territory and resources. In Katanga and Kasai, the story is of the large-scale exploitation of minerals such as gold, diamonds, and copper. In Kinshasa, the story includes bizarre tales of nuclear reactors built by priests, spectacular examples of corruption, and the fast-fading majesty of what used to be one of the most exciting cities in Africa. All over the Congo, there are stories, all interlinked at some point, but all possessing an individual spirit. Point being, the Congo is very big, but it is still fascinating at how events starting in somewhere like Uvira can change the course of history for the behemoth of Central Africa.

I know Uvira by its labyrinth-like markets (Mulongwe, Kalmabenge), the hordes of moto-taxis clogging the main road, the signs with the various NGO acronyms (AVSI, AJID, PSVS, SOFIBEF, 8eme CEPAC), the quick geographic orientation of the rising hill on one side and the turquoise lake to the other, the piles of fetid garbage that line the streets, the crowds of boys smacking their lips and croaking “goomawneng” (good morning) to get my attention, the ravines and vine-covered cemeteries, the crates of Primus bottles outside the Depot Bralima, the colorful pagne dresses and oddly-tailored western-style suits, the huffing Mitsubishi flatbed trucks, the groups of money-changers sitting under umbrellas, the trucks full of green-clad soldiers wielding Norinco 56s and RPGs, the women rolling chapatti next to a crackling pan of oil under the shade of a tree, the thumping of manioc leaves being crushed in a pestle, each bridge and river and ronde-point. I know Fizi Territory mostly by just the utter sense of remoteness it inspires whenever I visit. This is my home in the Congo.


Posted Aug 29th, 2011

Enter your Comment


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *