Desperate Battle Defines Congos Warlike Peace Essay

This essay has a total of 2021 words and 10 pages.

Desperate Battle Defines Congos Warlike Peace

Desperate Battle Defines Congo's Warlike Peace

At the southern extreme of a ragged front line that winds 1,400 miles across Congo lies a
ferry, dirty pink and half-submerged in the muddy Luvua River. Facing it on a gravel ramp
stand the burned-out husks of 33 military vehicles -- armored personnel carriers, trucks,
an ambulance -- waiting in a line that never moved forward. Unopened syringes lie
underfoot, amid charred tires and a trampled note that a fleeing Congolese junior officer
left behind:

"Attaque," reads the neat cursive French.
But by the time Rwandan forces approached Pweto on Dec. 3, the Congolese government army
was in no position to attack. It was in panicked retreat, leaving a tableau of ruin on the
riverbank and opening a rare window on a war usually fought out of sight.

In two months of back-and-forth fighting here in the southeastern corner of Congo, all the
elements that make this country's 21/2-year-old war such a dangerous puzzle came into
play: foreign armies, ethnic militia groups, remote terrain and villages utterly emptied
of civilians who, from the safety of refugee camps in a neighboring country, repeat
matter-of-fact accounts of massacres. This is the "situation on the ground" that has kept
the U.N. Security Council from dispatching 5,500 peacekeepers to monitor a cease-fire that
appears to exist only on paper.

This lightly populated, mostly forested stretch between Lake Tanganyika and Lake Mweru had
been one of the few corners of Congo where both sides had essentially honored a peace
agreement signed 18 months ago. The Lusaka Accord, named for the Zambian capital where it
was signed, was meant to arrest the cycle of advance and retreat that has marked a
sprawling conflict that pits the Congolese army and allied troops from Angola, Zimbabwe
and Namibia against an assortment of rebel forces bolstered by Rwandan and Ugandan troops.

But Congolese President Laurent Kabila, who signed the Lusaka pact in a moment of military
disadvantage, has swept it aside whenever he spied what looked like a military opening.
Last spring, his forces pushed back rebels sponsored by Uganda in Congo's far northwest,
only to lose the same ground months later. And on Oct. 15, Kabila's armies launched a
massive assault on Rwandan-held positions in the southeast, striking 100 miles north of
Pweto at the town of Pepa. Six weeks later, just as happened in the northwest, Kabila's
forces once again lost far more than they gained.

Now the Rwandans have driven them out of Pweto, clambering onto captured armor as their
commander pointed out the escape route by which the Congolese army chief of staff, Joseph
Kabila, the president's son, fled the battlefield. "We have a cease-fire," Col. J.B.
Mulisa said with a dry chuckle, "a forced cease-fire."

In a war that has been stalemated for so long -- Congo was broken into factional spheres
of influence mere weeks after the war began, and so it remains -- such lightning gains
might have finally given the Rwandans the upper hand. But senior Rwandan officials, when
asked if they plan to push beyond Pweto farther into Congo, say they did not want to come
even as far as they have. In fact, the forces occupying Pweto showed no sign of massing
earlier this month.

Officials of Rwanda's Tutsi-led government say, rather, that their focus is on eradicating
the Interahamwe, the ethnic Hutu militia that orchestrated the 1994 massacre of Tutsis in
Rwanda and fled into neighboring Congo. The farther into the vast Congo the Rwandan troops
go, the harder that becomes.

"We were really talking about withdrawing" 120 miles to an operational zone closer to
Rwanda, said Col. Charles Kayonga, a defense adviser to Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
"Kabila must have misread our position. He apparently thought we were weak."

Reversed Alliances
The battle began at Pepa, a town of neat stone houses in the center of a vast cattle ranch
near the southern end of Lake Tanganyika. Rwandans had held the town since March 1999,
nine months after launching the current war by encouraging a rebellion in the Congolese
army's ranks, then pouring its own forces into Congo to topple Kabila -- the same leader
Rwanda had installed barely a year earlier by backing a rebellion that drove dictator
Mobutu Sese Seko from power.

At issue, according to Rwandan officials, was Kabila's support for the very forces Rwanda
had put him in place to eradicate: the Interahamwe -- thousands of ethnic Hutu extremists
who had fled into Congo in 1994 after leading an attempted genocide against Rwanda's
minority Tutsi tribe that left more than a half-million dead.

The Interahamwe were now allied with Kabila, and more formidable as a result. What had
been degenerating into a ragtag guerrilla force was receiving new weapons from the
Congolese government and new training from the army of Zimbabwe, which also rushed to
support Kabila against the Rwandan invasion.

But when shells began exploding behind the Rwandans' Pepa foxholes in the predawn hours of
Oct. 15, the charge was led by yet another force. Hutu extremists from Burundi -- another
tiny country divided by the Hutu-Tutsi chasm -- made up the brunt of the eight brigades
that pushed across the rolling rangeland, according to Rwandan commanders. The Congolese
infantry also advanced, reinforced by armored personnel carriers and British-made Hawker
combat aircraft, both from Zimbabwe.

"They were coming in big numbers, really very big numbers," said Lt. Col. John Tibesigwa, the Rwandan commander at Pepa.
With a much smaller force on hand, the Rwandans slowly pulled out of Pepa, along with the
Congolese rebels they sponsor, a force known as Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD). In
fact, Rwandan commanders maintain that they were already pulling some units back when the
attack came.

"While we were disengaging, they were massing troops," said Tibesigwa. "To keep them from
coming back, we had to take Pweto."

The Rwandan counterattack began on Nov. 5 and raged for four days. Tibesigwa described the
fighting as the most intense he had seen in Congo. At the Pepa hospital, Congolese nurse
Justine Kaimba Puta said fighting that started 15 miles away moved steadily closer,
bringing with it a stream of wounded that eventually covered the hospital floor. When the
Rwandans were two miles away, government soldiers brought a warning to flee.

The town emptied promptly, but several Pepa residents interviewed in Zambia, where
thousands have gathered in a U.N. refugee camp, said they feared more than the fighting.
When Rwandan forces first took Pepa last year, local residents were punished for allegedly
supporting the Congolese government troops, the residents said.

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