One thing you notice about African bush wars: when one side is pushed to the edge of extinction, it can strike back against the enemy's soldiers, who aren't as willing to die. This happened in Uganda, in the Lowery Triangle (see my Uganda column), and it happened in Rwanda. The Tutsi had nothing left to lose, and they started retaking the country. The Hutu, who'd been so brave when it was a matter of chopping kids' heads open like coconuts, weren't so brave going up against real soldiers. They lit out for the jungle -- for Congo. The Tutsis' new army pursued, and realized it had marched into the biggest power vacuum since Gerald Ford got sucked into Nixon's slipstream. There was just nobody to stop them. Mobutu had never wanted or allowed any power in Congo other than him. Now that he was dead, there was nobody at all.
Mobutu had an old enemy, Laurent Kabila, who'd been hiding out in the bush preaching rebellion for decades, getting exactly nowhere. Kabila wasn't classic hero-rebel stuff. He was a fat man, for one thing. They always mention that in the wire stories, like getting fat is the biggest sin anybody could ever commit. Pisses me off. Us fat people have dreams too, you know. You know the saddest thing about being fat? Having some kind of heroic daydream, then suddenly seeing your reflection in a window or mirror. Suddenly you realize whoa, I'm not entitled to dream about that stuff.
Jean Pierre Bemba (MLC)
Well, to be fair, fat old Kabila wasn't very heroic by anybody's standards. Just another killer/thief with a taste for chorus girls and a history of ivory-poaching and gem-smuggling. But in the waste of Congo, Kabila was the closest thing to new blood you could find. When Mobutu saw how the Tutsi revenge strike just kept moving west toward the capital, Kinshasa, without meeting any armed opposition, he suddenly saw the light. After thirty years of preaching Maoism, Kabila started talking free enterprise. And even though he was from the Luba tribe, he became a born-again Tutsi for the duration.
Nobody, not even Kabila, expected this ragged little army to make it all the way to Kinshasa. But they did. Kabila was so shocked he had no idea what to do next. Then it came to him, the traditional Central African formula: embezzle, lie, and murder your enemies! One of the fat man's bodyguards got sick of it and shot Kabila dead in January 2001.
Kabila's worthless son Joseph took over for his worthless dad. The Tutsis' brief period of clear-headed soldierly discipline was over. Hell broke loose, on cue, back in the homelands of Rwanda and Burundi. Every Cub Scout Pack in Congo declared itself a Liberation Movement and declared its independence. In December 2002 the CIA dragged all the camo-wearing generals together, and all the crazy gangs in Congo signed a peace pact.
Last time I checked, every party was accusing of everybody else of violating the agreement. Now there's a surprise: a Congo peace deal breaking down. Who could have guessed? You wonder why the Foreign Service types even bother setting these conferences up. Who's kidding who?
Just figuring out who's who in this boneyard rumble is impossible. As near as I can tell, here are some of the factions:
The Mai-Mai: my personal faves. Hicks with bows and arrows. They believe charms make them immune to bullets. Funny how that notion hangs on.
MLC: run by a big Congo businessman. Imagine if Ross Perot had his own army. They're backed by Uganda and call the shots in most of northern Congo.
RCD-Goma: this group is based, not so surprisingly, in Goma. They're Rwandan, originally, and run a big swathe of Eastern Congo.
There it is, friends. Not a pretty picture. Remember what I said about borders? At the moment, there is no Congo. Uganda runs the North, Rwanda the East, Angola the south, and a bunch of stone-age loonies stalk around the backwoods bushwhacking anybody they think they can overpower.