Friday, April 17, 2009

NYT Review of the Book "Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe"

April 5, 2009

A Wound in the Heart of Africa

New York Times

AFRICA’S WORLD WAR: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe
By Gérard Prunier
529 pp. Oxford University Press. $27.95

There is a rusty old bridge over a narrow finger of Lake Kivu, which separates Rwanda from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Walking across it is like taking a journey across two Africas, in the span of about 100 yards. On the Rwandan side, immigration officers at a freshly painted cubicle-like border post peck away at computers, the smartly dressed worker bees of a regime that has made enormous strides fighting poverty, corruption and AIDS. The streets are safe.

The street lights even work. It all adds up to a small miracle, especially remarkable because of Rwanda’s recent genocide, its overpopulation and its notable lack of resources. The drive to the border takes you past one denuded hillside after another, unmistakable proof that this packed little country is definitely not a land of plenty.

And then on the other side of the bridge is Congo. The instant you cross, you’re hit by a riot of dazzling colors, loud music, drunken border policemen, and women hoisting just about every imaginable kind of fruit and vegetable onto their heads. The soil here is some of the most fertile on the planet. And then there are the minerals, Congo’s seemingly limitless supply of them — gold, diamonds, zinc, nickel, cassiterite, copper, cobalt and coltan, old-school and modern gems. But somehow, for the past 12 years and counting, Congo has been the theater of one of the worst civil wars in modern history, a truly continental disaster that has sucked in many of its neighbors and killed millions of people, a festering wound in the green heart of Africa.

How could this be?

“Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe” is one of the first books to lay bare the complex dynamic between Rwanda and Congo that has been driving this disaster. According to Gérard Prunier, everything conspired to turn Congo into a kill zone: a dying dictator; the end of the cold war; Western guilt; and a tough, suspicious, postgenocide, Israel-like Rwanda, whose national ethos, simply stated, was Never Again.

The trouble began in 1994, when Hutu death squads massacred 800,000 people in Rwanda, mostly from the country’s other main tribe, the Tutsis. A Tutsi-led rebel army then seized power, causing more than one million Hutus, including some of the men who had orchestrated the genocide, to flee into Congo. At the time, Congo was called Zaire. It was a gigantic, corrupt blob of a country ruled by Africa’s most notorious kleptocrat, Mobutu Sese Seko. But he was dying of cancer, and the United States and other former cold war allies, embarrassed by his excesses and no ­longer needing him to fight the Communists, were happy to see him go.

This is where Prunier begins. He details what was brewing inside the two countries right after the genocide, with the Rwandan leadership hardening and Mobutu steadily losing his grip. He describes the Congo-Rwanda border area, plagued by its own unresolved ethnic and land issues, primed to explode. In 1996, Rwanda invaded Congo, arguing that it needed to crush Hutu militias on the Congolese side of the border. It installed a new Congolese government, but the alliance didn’t last long, and in 1998 Rwanda invaded again.

By this point, others had jumped in. Burundi. Uganda. Angola. Zimbabwe. Even countries as far away as Namibia and Chad sent troops. Each was settling its own scores on Congolese soil, chasing down long-troublesome rebels who had been hiding out in Congo, or intervening simply to cart off Congo’s riches or back up an ally. Prunier reconstructs major battles where very few, if any, Congolese fought on either side. At times, the text becomes a blur of village names, massacre sites and tributaries of the mighty Congo River. Readers may want to keep a map of Congo on their walls.

But what is never lost in Prunier’s sweeping narrative is the sense of scale. Several years ago, a humanitarian group made the following headline-grabbing statement: More people had died in Congo than in any conflict since World War II. Many people were skeptical at first. There had been the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Iran-Iraq war, all cases where the fighting was much heavier than in Congo’s bush battles. But because the Congo war has been waged mostly against civilians, driving millions of people into malaria-infested jungles and cutting them off from desperately needed aid, the current estimate of four to five million dead seems chillingly plausible.

Prunier has a reputation as a maverick historian. A research professor at the University of Paris and the director of the French Center for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa, he has written not only about Rwanda but about Darfur, too. Probably the best way to read him is to assume that most of what he has to say is solidly researched, but that some of it is not. In “Africa’s World War,” for example, Prunier says the Rwandan Army invaded Congo using rubber boats provided by an American aid organization. He cites unnamed eyewitnesses as his sources and presents this as possible evidence of wider American involvement.

No one comes out a hero in this book, neither the guilt-ridden United States nor the pusillanimous United Nations, and definitely not the French, whom Prunier blames for enabling the génocidaires. But that, to Prunier, is old news. His sharpest barbs are reserved for Rwanda’s current leaders, who in his pages lie, betray, plunder and kill, massacring tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, in vicious revenge attacks. He even asserts that Rwandan death squads were reputed to carry special little cobbler’s hammers in their backpacks to “silently and efficiently smash skulls.”

Some of this is undoubtedly true. The United Nations has documented the vast criminal enterprise set up by Rwanda in the late 1990s to pump Congo’s minerals back to Kigali, the Rwandan capital. But the more overtly bloodthirsty material in “Africa’s World War” still seems to lie somewhere between rumor and fact.

In Africa, however, you never know. And things change fast. Congo is no exception. There hasn’t been a coup in the country, but the political landscape has shifted dramatically just in the past year.

Since this book was written, Jean-Pierre Bemba, the explosive Congolese opposition leader, has been arrested in Belgium and sent to face war crimes charges before the International Criminal Court. Laurent Nkunda, a Rwandan-backed rebel general, is gone too. Rwanda and Congo are now cooperating to flush out the rebels at the center of their long, bitter proxy battle, and the lush green hills along the border are relatively blood-free for once. What isn’t clear, though, is whether this development represents genuine and durable change, or is simply a quiet time in the fighting, a time to look up, look around and reload.

Jeffrey Gettleman is the East Africa bureau chief for The Times.

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