The most bizarre experience on this trip so far has been the visit to General Laurent Nkunda. It's hardly an everyday occurrence to go to the military camp of an actual "warlord" who is accused of raping and massacring thousands. (He prefers to be referred to as "liberator of the people", and denies all allegations against him.) That a journalist well known for opposing him had just been assassinated in the Congo, and that General Nkunda made several references to our security, made us apprehensive during the interview and cautious in subsequent reporting.
One of the most striking parts of the interview is the religious fervor with which General Nkunda led his troops. Apparently, he is very influenced by the evangelist movement, and as a pastor in the Pentecostal church, he helps to convert and baptize his troops. He proudly sported a pin, "Rebels for Christ." Before each drink and meal, he and his faithful prayed. "We fight in the name of the Lord," he told us. "That is what I tell all my troops. When they fight, they have God on their side."
As a lapsed Christian, I have to admit that I don't know much about Christianity. But something about Nkunda's comments made me feel ill to my stomach. Was he really using God as a license to kill? Was it really his conviction that God was with him in battle, or was he using "the God card" as a way to manipulate and control his troops? It would not be the first time that the name of God has been used to consolidate power, and certainly not the first time religion has given hope and purpose to unemployed young men without good futures.
I spoke with another pastor in the Pentecostal church about my discomfort. This pastor lives quite a different life from Gen. Nkunda: Reverend Samuel Meyele is one of the pastors working for HEAL Africa hospital who counsels women victims of sexual violence. There are no international warrants out for his arrest, only international praise.
According to Pastor Samuel, Nkunda's faith at one point seemed real. Pastor Samuel recalls when Nkunda first joined a neighboring Pentecostal church in Goma. He and Nkunda were even friends at one point. When Nkunda first started leading his troops into war, Pastor Samuel said that none of the local churches would believe it. They were finally convinced that he was the one leading the crimes and atrocities, and his own church ended up excommunicating him. "What he does now, it is not part of the church. It is not right. He can call himself Pastor and Pentecostal, but this is not what we believe."
Pastor Samuel sees firsthand the spoils of Nkunda's "religious" mission. So does Sister Dominique, a Polish nun who runs a feeding center and hospital in Rutshuru province. For seven years, she has seen children who are severely malnourished, mothers who are starving to death, and people of all ages displaced, injured, and despondent. We asked her to explain how it is possible for her and the soldiers working for General Nkunda to both be working for God. "All people fighting say that they do so for God," she responded, with tears in her eyes. "But if they are stealing, raping, killing, they do not understand God. It is not God they work for."
I lie awake at night thinking about our experiences in the Congo. Meeting this charismatic General who sounds like a preacher is superimposed with seeing the villages destroyed and hearing the stories of those who lives were cut short because of conflict. To be fair, other "warlords" and rebel groups are also implicated in the conflict. And I may not know much about Christianity, or God. But the basic values of humanity are such that killing and maiming innocent people—in anyone's name—is just wrong. That General Nkunda is able to use religion as a rallying cry to the point of committing such atrocities is testament to the depth of the problems and the erosion of human values in the Congo.
Last night at dinner, we were joined by a young Italian woman who had been kidnapped and held hostage in Iraq, a story that received a good deal of world media attention. Less than 10 hours later in the Congo, Nick Kristof was advising Leana and me how to respond in case we were stopped by bandits or soldiers on our journey from the city of Goma to the mountains for an interview with "warlord" (media's words)/"liberator of my people" (his words) Laurent Nkunda. He is the leader of the Military Council for the Defense of the People, a rebel group that is amassing soldiers and arms in opposition to the current national government of Congo.
I do not know the name of our jeep's driver for yesterday's trip, but he was in his late teens, and our lives were in his hands. Honking at U.N. trucks full of troops to get out of his way, our driver was going 80 and passing everything in sight on this narrow one-and-a-half lane road, forcing oncoming bicyclists and pedestrians into the safety of the ditch.
The road turned from paved to horrendously rocky as we left the city and entered the bush region of the Congo. Bouncing between the jeep's seat and roof like tilted pin balls, we started the slow mountainous ascent to Nkunda's military compound.
Looking out the window, this was the Africa that I expected: lush vegetation hiding primitive housing, smoke rising from the crop fields, old men and young kids herding goats up the road to the next pasture, beautiful women of all ages walking erect and balancing anything and everything on their heads. There were even the very young kids running on the side of the jeep, waving and yelling, until they could go no more.
However, I was not prepared for the beauty of Africa's mountains, a spectacular blend of the Appalachians and the tropics. Sheer cliff, postcard-quality mountain vistas on either side of the road, trees stretching to the heavens; Alice Walker should have called it The Color Green. Eric Metzgar, the director of the documentary film crew that is traveling with us, perfectly observed, "It is hard to believe a land of such beauty is the home to such vicious violence."
So far no bandits, but there were lots of soldiers in camouflage with gigantic machine guns straight out of the Hollywood movies about Africa. Other folks were walking the road and many more were just sitting on the high banks, but really all you saw were the soldiers. Shortly after the first of several military check points, the soldiers switched from government troops to Nkunda's men, differentiated only by different color bands on their shoulders.
After three hours, we finally arrived. There were about ten soldiers to welcome us. These soldiers were much bigger, stronger, and healthier than the average Congo male. An officer in civilian clothes, including a Che Guevara baseball hat, searched our possessions and led us to yet another checkpoint, this time just a long stick resting like a barricade on two other sticks. There, more soldiers searched us again and escorted us to a run-down two-story country house that was surrounded by several ruins of buildings. Soldiers were everywhere, all with assault rifles or larger.
First, his Communications Officer, Brigadier General and Colonel held a short briefing to explain the policies and beliefs of the Military Council. They also showed us where the Military Council holds Pentecostal Christian church services every day for their men in the military base.
Then Nkunda himself entered. Tall, young in appearance, and good looking, Nkunda was wearing camouflage, tinted glasses, a beret, and a lapel pin that read, "Rebels for Christ." He is the son of farmers, the father of six children, a psychology major in college, and a former teacher. He considers himself "a soldier and a trainer" and also a "traditional chief." He speaks with great conviction and glowing excitement, he quotes everyone from Gandhi to Gen. MacArthur. In short, Nkunda is charisma defined.
Unfortunately, I do not know nearly enough about the Congo or Central Africa to understand what Nkunda talked about during the interview, but hopefully Nick and Leana will write in greater detail in their blog entries about his history and the origins behind the Military Council. However, in brief summary, Nkunda sees the current government as ineffective and worse, while he believes he can and will be "the liberator of his people."
After the interview, Nkunda displayed several young opposing soldiers that his own troops had captured in a recent battle. The youngest, who spoke French, was 16.
The visit with Nkunda ended with a communal meal of fish. meat, plantains, greens, rice and beans under a small tarp in the heart of his military compound in the middle of the bush in the middle of nowhere. The outside walls to his fort are made of old corn husks, and armed soldiers are standing at every corner.
On the three-hour drive to our temporary home back in Goma, I sat in the back seat with an armed escort whose automatic assault rifle could barely fit underneath the seat. During the mountainous descend, I accidentally touched the cold steel of the gun's barrel, and I shivered. The jeep's bouncing lights cut through the African night to illuminate flashes of laughing teenagers, scrambling goats, tiring families, and always, soldiers.
-- Jean-Louis Kayitenkore Procurement Consultant Gsm: +250-08470205 Home: +250-55104140 P.O. Box 3867 Kigali-Rwanda East Africa Blog: http://www.cepgl.blogspot.com Skype ID : Kayisa66