War in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) did not end when fighting ceased in 2003 in most parts of the country, according to Gen Laurent Nkunda, a Congolese army officer who led dissident troops in June to capture Bukavu, the capital of the eastern province of South Kivu.
Following the 13 August killing of 160 Congolese Tutsi refugees in a Burundian camp, Nkunda again threatened to recapture Bukavu in order to prevent the "completion" of a genocide of the Congolese Tutsi, known as the Banyamulenge. IRIN interviewed Nkunda on 21 August, in the eastern town of Goma, on his rebellion against the transitional government, his views on the integration of the national army and whether or not he would make real his threat to seize Bukavu. We bring you excerpts of that interview.
QUESTION: Do you see your occupation of Bukavu in June and the recent killing of Congolese Tutsis in a Burundian refugee camp as signs that war could erupt again in eastern DRC?
ANSWER: They are signs of war. In fact, in eastern Congo, the war has not ended; there are always clashes in both North and South Kivu [provinces] between numerous factions like the Interahamwe [Rwandan Hutu militia based in eastern DRC] and the Mayi-Mayi [former Congolese militia], or Mayi-Mayi and government forces, or at times government forces against each other.
But the recent situation in Burundi is indeed a disturbing one; it affects Rwandans, Burundians and Congolese. It's provoking and reflects that there are people within the region who are for the extermination of the Tutsi. Indeed, the way the Congolese government handles the latest massacre in Burundi will determine if a fully-fledged war would break out or not.
Q: Because of your weeklong occupation of Bukavu in June, you have been accused of being the root cause of trouble in the Kivus, what is your reaction to this accusation?
A: When I went to Bukavu, I went to stop the first stage of a planned genocide. It started in Bukavu and it was completed in Burundi. They cannot condemn me because what happened in Burundi [the killing of 160 Congolese Tutsi on 13 August] proves me right. The same people we fought in Bukavu are the very ones who committed those atrocities in Burundi. We now have to look at means of ending this situation. My role in Bukavu was purely a humanitarian one, to protect innocent civilians who were being hunted down.
Q: Still, you disobeyed orders, especially when you refused to join the new unified army under the transitional government. Why did you refuse to go to Kinshasa to be sworn in?
A: I clearly stated my reasons for refusing to go to Kinshasa. There were numerous loopholes in the [April 2003] Sun City [South Africa] agreement [under which the transitional government was set up]; especially as far as integrating the army is concerned. There were no clearly stipulated mechanisms [in the Sun City agreement] of integrating the army. The process of integrating the army is done without taking into consideration aspects of confidence building; it is just done randomly and this, of course, cannot work.
When one is integrating soldiers who were belligerent there must be that aspect of building confidence reflected in clearly defined guidelines. When I asked for this, they referred to me as an indisciplined but I still stood by my principles because of my experience in the army. I could not join an institution that could not go far.
This is why the fighting is going on up to now - in the 10th Military region [whose headquarters is in Bukavu], the Mayi-Mayi are fighting government soldiers. We need joint training for the soldiers, let the soldiers camp in one place, and let us come up with strong guidelines to build confidence in the forces.
Q: You have also been accused of war crimes, especially in Kisangani [the capital of the northeastern Orientale Province]. Is this why you declined to join the army because you feared you could be prosecuted?
A: I have nothing to do with Kisangani situation. I was under the command of the [former rebel movement] Rassemblement Congolais pour la democratie (RCD-Goma) and the first people to be asked about such incidences are Azarias Ruberwa (leader of RCD-Goma and one of the DRC's four vice-presidents), Sylvie Buki [chief of staff of the land forces] and not me. I was under a command of a top officer and so I should not mention anything on this issue. Let my superiors answer that.
Q: But did you kill innocent civilians?
A: It's not even me who conducted this war. I was in Kisangani under a commander, and I know we did not kill civilians. But certainly there were civilians who were killed in the crossfire.
Q: Some local NGOs and the UN accused your forces of rape and looting during the fighting in Bukavu. What is your response?
A: I cannot say there was no robbing or looting. What I did was to arrest many soldiers even those of [Gen] Mbuza Mabe [commander of the 10th Military Region] and asked MONUC [the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC] to go and see them. But, certainly, my soldiers left with nothing from Bukavu when we withdrew.
Q: Was your leaving the 8th Military Region, which is based in Goma, to invade Bukavu in the 10th military region not an act of indiscipline? Was this not a mistake on your part?
A: It was not a mistake because I invaded killers who were killing innocent civilians. It is my responsibility to protect people when they are targeted [for killing]. It was my responsibility as a general to intervene because Kinshasa could not come to protect them as it [the Kinshasa government] was siding with the killers. But I am still ready to receive a team of investigators to give them information regarding circumstances that led me to Bukavu.
Q: After the killing of the refugees at Gatumba camp in Burundi, you vowed to resume fighting. Do you still stand by your statement?
A: Yes, so far. If the government shows that it cannot protect us, we are going to assume that responsibility ourselves. We cannot accept to be killed like animals, even in national parks animals are protected. That’s why I am now asking my government to carry out an investigation and punish those responsible. Failure to do this will show that the government is interested in the continuation of ethnic cleansing. If the international community does not intervene then we will take up arms and defend ourselves.
Q: Have you issued an ultimatum regarding when you want the investigations to be completed?
A: I have not issued an ultimatum. I am giving them time. And I have come here [Goma] to meet Vice-President Ruberwa because he also said he was going to suspend his participation in the transitional process. We are still watching the situation but certainly we should not be taken for a ride.
Q: President Joseph Kabila wants you arrested and prosecuted while Ruberwa has been pushing for you to attend a military course in a foreign country. What do you think of these suggestions?
A: All two are not in my interest. The suggestion that I should go for a military course in a foreign country looks more like relegation. It is an excuse to throw me out of the country so that government forces [could] continue with their acts. It is not good for me to go leave my people being hacked to death on a daily basis. This is a problem with the peace process; government has taken a wrong path.
Q: What do you mean by this?
A: The peace process was not implemented like it was signed. The memorandum on the army and security was not discussed. That should have been the first thing to do before a government was formed in Kinshasa. We want them [the political leadership] to go back and discuss this memo on security and army integration; this is the only way the current problem can be solved. Failure to do this would mean continued war.
Q: Do you wish to be integrated into Congolese army if your recommendations are taken into consideration?
A: I am definitely working to be integrated in the Congolese national army. I had refused to join the army because there was no proper mechanism on integration. The integration process was done like that of a schoolboys’ scout. But I certainly want to be integrated in the national army after proper guidelines have been put in place. If this does not happen, I will remain in my present status.
Q: Where are yours troops drawn from?
A: I mobilise the troops from the existing ones here. I was a divisional commander for North Kivu, a brigade commander in Kisangani and Kasai in RCD. These forces know me very well and when I mobilise, they certainly join. They see the problem like the one that was in Bukavu as being their problem also, because most are "Rwandaphone" [Congolese of Tutsi origin].
Q: So you use forces from the 8th military region?
A: Yes, and some from the 10th Military Region, I took a brigade from there.
Q: What is your relationship with Rwanda?
A: There’s no special relationship, I am Rwandaphone and I was in the Rwandan army and I have some friends in Rwanda but in terms of a military relationship, at the moment [that] is zero.
Q: Is it true that Rwanda has been backing you in all your activities?
A: It is not true; I was not backed by Rwanda. My enemy was not strong and so I did not need any help. Rwandans came to Congo officially and left officially and I think if they are to come back it will be officially.