DRC 1996: Rebel offensive results in worrying massacres

© Remco Bohle Click on image for larger version. The rebels attacked the camps were some 1,2 million Burundian and Rwandan refugees had been living since 1994. In a massive exodus, hundreds of thousands of refugees, along with the local Zairian population were driven into the jungle by the rebels and subjected to horrifying massacres. Others had no choice but to go back to Rwanda.
The constant high level of violence led to the displacement of over 300,000 people, of which 15,000 sought refuge in neighbouring Rwanda. The health care system had completely collapsed and the only two hospitals that were operational at the end of 1996 could only serve one ethnicity, leaving the vast majority of the population without access to secondary health care7. At the end of 1996, chaos broke out all over eastern Zaire when rebels took up arms against the army of President Mobutu. The rebels were soon joined by other political dissidents to form the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL), led by Laurent-Desiré Kabila. It was supported both by Rwanda and Uganda. Rwanda was avid for wiping out the remnants of its former Hutu government who were still retraining and rearming troops in the Kivus, Uganda was willing to destroy the Zairian rear bases of the Ugandese rebels Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). The rebels attacked the camps were some 1,2 million Burundian and Rwandan refugees had been living since 1994. In a massive exodus, hundreds of thousands of refugees, along with the local Zairian population were driven into the jungle by the rebels and subjected to horrifying massacres. Others had no choice but to go back to Rwanda. By November 1996 ADFL forces had already occupied a large part of eastern Zaire. THE OUTBREAK OF THE WAR Nurse "In 1996 I was in Bukavu when the war broke out - it was the first time I had experienced such events. At five in the afternoon, we started to hear shooting, and it went on all night long with heavy artillery. We were lying on the floor, on our stomach, under the beds, and we had no food. We could see Tutsi military coming from Rwanda. On arrival, they already knew which people they were going to target - they would go and get them, and take them to an unknown destination. It was a settling of scores with the families who had mistreated the Tutsis before the war. I know of a Tutsi family who had moved to Rwanda before the events and whose cows had almost all been eaten by the Congolese people. During the war, the owner came back to Congo as a Rwandan soldier and killed more than five young men who had taken the cows. "While I was in Bukavu, the military looted my house and took all I had." Nurse "Just before the Kabila war broke out in Goma, landmines started to blow up in the city. At that time, I was working in one of the refugee camps, north of Goma. Every day a truck would pick up the staff to go to the camp. The patients who could walk fled in disarray - around twenty patients were left behind, immobilized in their beds with tractions
"One day, our truck was blown up by one of these landmines - the people sitting in the front of the truck were very seriously injured. One of my colleagues had a fractured clavicle, and another man had a fractured leg. Fortunately, those who were sitting at the back of the truck - including me - were not badly affected. "Then, four or five months later, on the same road, only two hundred meters from the place where the truck had been blown up before, the UNHCR bus that was driving us to work was again blown up by a landmine and this time it was a bloodbath. "Those who were sitting in the front were mutilated, and some of them died. Amongst these people there was a nurse who lost her two legs; another nurse who lost one leg; two guards who died straight away and another guard who received pieces of landmine in his eyes... We were very shocked. I lost close friends, colleagues, school comrades and many others are now disabled. I say to myself that God protected me during all these events. "Then, when the Kabila war started, the Tutsis organized raids on Goma to empty the refugee camps. At that time I was working at the Red Cross hospital. When they started to drop bombs, the patients who could walk fled in disarray - around twenty patients were left behind, immobilized in their beds with tractions. When we went back to the hospital, two weeks later, we found them dead, their bodies still hanging from the traction." Mechanic "One day, on a Thursday morning, we were stopped on the way to school. They told us not to pass by anymore, and to go back home. We heard bullet crackles; the clashes were starting north of Goma. The next morning, bombs started to fall on Goma. "Everybody fled. Some people even fled by foot to Kisangani, which is located some 550 Km away from Goma - my own father walked a whole month to get there. I fled with the rest of the family towards the north, and so did a lot of Rwandan refugees. Some of them settled down somewhere on the way. There, they were massacred by the Rwandan army that was accompanying Kabila's forces, and by the Mai Mai. "They didn't let anybody live; men, women, children - they eliminated whole families, so that nobody would be able to claim. I saw them on my way back to Goma - it was two days after the massacre. You could see dead bodies all over the place, and even corpses floating in the water. Their skin had turned bright white. It was the first time I was seeing dead bodies like that. Their skin looked as if it was rubber. You had the impression that the bones were just floating inside..." © Remco Bohle Click on image for larger version. I told God, if ever these people were to die, please preserve the life of my son whom I refused to have with me - and that is effectively what happened.
Nurse "When the Kabila war broke out, I fled by foot westwards. While we were fleeing, the Rwandese supporting Kabila would drop bombs on us and shoot at the people - they would especially target the nice cars, because they suspected them of being Mobutu's military. "A bomb exploded just in front of me. It killed three people, right in front of my eyes. Another man walking in front of me was hit by a bullet in the head and a car nearby was hit by a rocket - only two people made it out alive. "Then a bullet passed right next to my own head. It is God who saved me that time. In fact the Rwandese wanted to kill the Hutu refugees and Mobutu soldiers, but they couldn't differentiate between them and the rest of the population - they would just target everybody. "When we arrived near Bukavu, the road was blocked and we had to climb a little hill to reach the town; on the top of the hill, the military was waiting for us, looking for Mobutu soldiers. They were checking if the people passing by had socks marks on their calves, because Mobutu soldiers used to tie their socks with elastic; if you had these kind of marks, they would kill you. There were already nine dead bodies lying on the ground. "As we proceeded further into town we bumped into a group of ex-Mobutu soldiers. They stole all our money. I had to give them all the savings I had taken with me when I fled - five hundred and thirty-five US dollars. Then they started to point their guns at us, wanting to kill us. Fortunately one of the soldiers recognised us - we had taken care of him at Bukavu hospital. He intervened, and we escaped." Administrator "When Kabila's forces managed to enter Goma, the population didn't flee immediately from town. We thought the bursts of gunfire wouldn't force us to leave - besides, the radio was broadcasting a message of hope, telling us not to leave Goma. "Many people rallied to help out Mobutu's soldiers, bringing down fields of banana trees to improve the visibility. The population was hostile to the Tutsis' incursion to annex the Kivus. I saw with my own eyes how a Rwandan - or maybe an Ugandan - soldier was tortured by a group of young people; with a machete they cut his whole leg off, put the dying man on a sedan chair and stuck a cigarette between his lips and joyfully marched all over Goma. "The same day or maybe the day after, Goma fell into the hands of Kabila. That day there was a lot of shooting, and around noon, the population started to flee towards the west. "In theory, we were not allowed to leave Goma. I told my family that I wanted us to stay at home. Many people were passing by in front of our house. Heavy weapons were crackling; the young people, and also the refugees, had just obtained weapons at the military camp. Many young people who didn't have any military formation fell that day. I even know of a young boy who was hit by a bullet and is still buried in his brother's plot. "Goma fell at around one o'clock in the afternoon. I managed to keep my family at home until three o'clock then, my wife said she couldn't stand it anymore. She said she wanted to leave the house and go to my brother's house, in the west of Goma. © Henk Braam Click on image for larger version. "I joined the team of first aid workers who were in charge of burying the victims. We would put chlorine on the already rotten bodies to disinfect them, and then we would dig holes into which we would throw the cadavers. There were approximately twenty of us doing that; it took us one week. One week after, the Rwandan military came back, dug up the dead bodies and burnt them."
"I refused, but she still packed her things and took the five children with her. The youngest was only two years old. My seven year old son wanted to stay with me, but I told him he had to be with his mother and his brothers. When they left, I retreated in the house and prayed for them. I told God, if ever these people were to die, please preserve the life of my son whom I refused to have with me - and that is effectively what happened. "My wife and the children arrived in Sake where all the people from Goma had sought refuge. Many people were trying to escape from there, because they knew what had happened in Goma in 1994 with the overcrowding. My family took a truck towards the north, together with more than 650 persons divided up in five trucks - they never reached their destination. On the road, they were arrested by a group of Interahamwe, who burnt all the trucks. Less than fifty people survived. "By miracle, my seven year-old son escaped death. Through the thick smoke coming from the burning trucks and the dead bodies, he was able sneak away to the bush, following a young man whom we knew. This man was carrying his baby hit by a bullet in the leg - his wife had just been killed. "Soon after, the young man abandoned the baby who was about to die, and took care of my son. This happened on the 7th of November 1996; my son came back to me on the 5th of December. He had a sore on his foot, because he had walked on a big thorn. His clothes were covered with blood in the front. "My son has been very affected by this event; psychologically he is not the same anymore. He often thinks of his mother and his brothers. He even tried to commit suicide in April 2002 - he is 13 years old. By miracle, my seven year-old son escaped death; through the thick smoke he was able sneak away
Nurse aid "I was in Goma when the war broke out, and like many people I fled to Sake, 30 km west of Goma. From there, I climbed on a truck to drive up north; there were five trucks in total, full of people.We were attacked on the road - when the shooting started, I was the first one to jump out of the truck. I spent three days in the bush; almost all the others were massacred. There were friends and relatives of mine among the victims. "One and a half month later, I joined the team of first aid workers who were in charge of burying the victims. We would put chlorine on the already rotten bodies to disinfect them, and then we would dig holes into which we would throw the cadavers. There were approximately twenty of us doing that; it took us one week. "One week after, the Rwandan military came back, dug up the dead bodies and burnt them."