DRC 1998: "Africa's first world war"

© Kadir van Lohuizen Click on image for larger version. The day we visited the camp it was horrible - there were dead bodies everywhere. The camp looked like a prison; the soldiers - who were in fact twelve to eighteen year old children - were living in houses containing hundreds of people; there were no beds, no mattresses, the children would sleep on the actual floor.
In July Kabila ordered the Rwandan troops to leave the country, triggering a rebel insurrection which started on August 2 from the east. The "Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie" (RCD), backed by Rwanda and Uganda, soon occupied a large part of DRC. The rebels' attempt to overthrow the government in Kinshasa failed only when Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia sent troops into Congo to assist Kabila. Heavy fighting occurred in many parts of the country leading to displacement. The situation was so unstable that aid organisations were often unable to reach the victims. In the beginning of 1998 a cholera outbreak in a military camp near Kisangani revealed that some 3000 children were being detained in overcrowded and "dangerously unsanitary" (Footnote: 9) conditions in Kapalata training camp. Although the epidemic had already been raging for months, killing hundreds of children, the military authorities guarding the camp consistently blocked the efforts of humanitarian agencies and the local health authorities to access and assist the children. At the end of January 1998, of the 767 patients who had been transferred to the MSF cholera treatment centre, more than 16% had died. CHOLERA OUTBREAK IN KAPALATA TRAINING CAMP Nurse "At that time I was working with MSF in Kisangani; the Congo River had overflown, and we were preparing a possible cholera outbreak. Meanwhile, we heard that soldiers were dying in a military camp in town; the boys who were in the so-called Kapalata camp had been recruited in the forest to be trained and integrated in Kabila forces - they had allegedly been poisoned by the Rwandan army who was training them. "At a certain point the humanitarian agencies took the decision to pressurize Kabila's army to have access to these dying children. They really had to put high pressure on Kabila's government - these children were interned, because they were trained to resist the foreseen rebellion of the RCD. Only a few agencies were allowed to visit the camp because it was very politicised. "The day we visited the camp it was horrible - there were dead bodies everywhere. The camp looked like a prison; the soldiers - who were in fact twelve to eighteen year old children - were living in houses containing hundreds of people; there were no beds, no mattresses, the children would sleep on the actual floor. "There were no latrines in the camp; the children had to get out of the camp and relieve themselves in the bush. There was no water either - they would go and collect water from a little river beside the camp. The children were very sick and suffering from severe malnutrition; the dead were buried in mass graves, inside camp. The very sick children were transferred to the general hospital, in the military ward; but they were very badly taken care of. "When we found out about these atrocities all the NGOs shared out the work; ICRC would go and collect the sick children in the camp and bring them to the cholera treatment centre that MSF had put in place. Ten to twenty children a day died in the first two weeks, because we didn't know exactly what these children were suffering from - every day I would go back home exhausted and stressed out. Then, when we sent samples of faeces abroad we found out that there were many intermingled diseases involved - dengue, typhus, cholera, etc… I don't know what happened to the children who finally recovered." THE SECOND WAR BREAKS OUT Guard "When the RCD soldiers launched the offensive against Kabila, the Mai Mai rebelled against them As the Mai Mai had settled in Sake, 30 km west of Goma, where I was living, there were constant attacks in the village - the military would kill anybody. My own cousin died at that time. They would even go up to the mountains around the village and kill the people they met in the fields… When there was fighting we would spend the entire following day burying the cadavers. "At that time I decided to leave because it had become very difficult to move in and around the village - all men were suspected of being Mai Mai, only the women could circulate freely; it was like we were in jail, we couldn't even go and look for food. When I took to the road towards the north there were many dead bodies on the road. "At the time when the UN people came to investigate the massacres the Tutsis organised themselves to gather all the bones remaining from the cadavers and to burn them. Nurse-aid "When I fled from Goma with my father we were taken as hostages by the Interahamwe; I stayed one week in the forest transporting luggage for them. They had killed two persons who were initially with me - two neighbours who had refused to give them money; they had beaten my father and left him almost dead on the side of the road. "I spent three days without eating; on the fourth day, they gave me one litre of water to drink, and on the fifth day I fled: I told them I had to relieve myself, and I escaped. I was then twenty-three years old. Nurse "When the RCD launched the rebellion I fled from Bukavu towards the north, in a truck, with many other people. They told us that in a village half-way the Mai Mai were fighting against the RCD. With us, in the vehicle, there was a twenty year old Tutsi soldier - he was carrying grenades, but he had taken his uniform off in order not to be caught. When we arrived in that village, the Mai Mai stopped us; nobody betrayed the soldier. "Unfortunately, the Mai Mai felt there was something strange going on in the truck - they spotted him and killed him in front of our eyes, with a machete, they decapitated him. After we left I heard that the Tutsis coming from Goma had settled the scores and started to kill everybody in the village. "When I finally reached my house, I stayed three days hidden - I was still terrified." I was just a bride. Then I found my husband's body in the backyard - they had caught him and killed him with machetes.
ON-GOING VIOLENCE IN THE KIVUS Patient/displaced and widow (North Kivu) I was pregnant when my husband was killed, in 1998, by the Interahamwe. "I was just a bride then. One night the Interahamwe attacked our village; I knew it was them, and not another armed group, because of their peculiar way of shooting. I fled with many other villagers, to escape from them; my husband was not with me, but I thought he had managed to flee as well. After the attack, when we came back, at around four o'clock in the morning, I found my husband's body in the backyard - they had caught him and killed him with machetes. I mourned for three days and then I went back to my family at K. "Two months ago my father also died because of the war. One day, as we were at home, the Interahamwe attacked us. I fled with my family, but my father stayed at home, he was drunk, and he was sleeping - they killed him with machetes too. "Now my mother is the one who goes out for food for the whole family, but she suffers from blood pressure, and therefore we don't have enough food; I cannot work, I don't have enough money to have a shop and I cannot cultivate because I suffer from pain in the chest. I haven't been to the health centre because the nurses there ask money for the consultation, and I haven't got any. "Now we still live in fear and insecurity. When the Rwandan military and the Interahamwe arrive in our village, they take people forcibly to carry their things, and then these people disappear. The people of my family who have been taken that way have fortunately come back, but many neighbours have disappeared. Anything can happen, anytime. Patient/displaced (North Kivu) "I've been displaced since 1998, when the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) started to spread violence in the area. They took village after village; they would put all the inhabitants, the men, the women, the children, inside the houses, and they would burn the houses down. They raped many women; they would tell them to urinate in a bottle, and then they forced the population to drink it. "I don't know how many people have died, nor the reason why the RPA did all this. This is war… The RPA attacked my village again in 2001; they wanted to steal things from the families, and if the people didn't have anything to offer, they would torture them. I saw many men and children being tortured, and many women being raped by the RPA. "Now, I am living in a village where I rent a house and some land; I pay the rent by selling the things I cultivate. My child is suffering from malnutrition, and I think it is due to sorcery - the people of the neighbouring villages have certainly put a spell on me and my family, because of my ethnic origin. I have two other children back home, in addition to the one I have brought to the feeding centre. My other three children have already died of malaria."