General Nkunda (center) being interviewed in his CNDP compound in eastern Congo. (photo by G. Nienaber)
Rebel leader General Laurent Nkunda generally gets short shrift in the Western media as a “Bad Guy”, while the president of the DR Congo, Joseph Kabila, generally gets a “Good Guy” pass. But is that the case in reality? How many times has the lazy, opinionated, power-worshipping mainstream media gotten it wrong in the past? WMDs in Iraq, the “successful” coup against Chavez in Venezuela, the Gulf of Tonkin, the “Good Guy” Diem in Vietnam, the “Good Guy” Saakashvili vs. the “Bad Guy” Russians in Georgia, and on and on. Is it possible that, once again, the Western media has got it all wrong, this time in the Congo, scene of one of the worst nightmares on the planet? Getting it wrong here could sink an already devastated country into the lower rings of Hell.
Independent journalist Georgianne Nienaber certainly thinks the media has it backwards, and she has just returned from the eastern Congo, where she has been gathering facts on the ground, including a face-to-face interview with General Nkunda, which is a lot more than other mainstream so-called journalists have done. Here, in her own words, is what she has to say about him, as well as a postscript timeline to bring the reader up to date regarding rumors and reports that Nkunda has been arrested or overthrown as chairman of the CNDP:
Nkunda: More than One Side to the Story
by Georgianne Neinaber
January 23, 2009
I was completely surprised upon meeting National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) General Laurent Nkunda that his first words to me were to describe me as a “nature writer” who was in Congo to protect the gorillas. The General had obviously done his homework on me, but had no clue as to my personal and moral evolution regarding humanitarian issues in DRC since 2007.
Western media has fabricated an image of Nkunda as an eccentric warlord and murderer who is to be despised and feared. Nkunda is a military leader and military men kill. Nkunda admits that war has its consequences. Every army in the history of humankind has been responsible for atrocities, and citizens of the United States need look no further than Abu Ghraib. Who is ultimately to be blamed?
An underground resistance movement arranged the interview with Nkunda. This movement is not populated with wild-eyed freedom fighters, but rather by serious professionals and government officials who believe that Nkunda offers the possibility of hope and change for a country riddled with corruption.
Aussie journalist Helen Thomas, an American medical doctor and a former member of the RPF army, joined me in entering rebel controlled territory. The most difficult and stressful part of our entry was a Ugandan border check where an inebriated Ugandan official demanded $50 each to guarantee our “safety.” After much arguing and discussion, a call came from “Chairman” Nkunda that we were his guests and should be allowed to pass the short distance to the Congolese border, where we were met by well-trained and disciplined officers of the CNDP army. This was obviously no rag- tag group of freedom fighters. CNDP “Captain Sahara” met us with a polite “bon jour” and assisted our crossing into Nkunda’s 21,000 square kilometers of territory.
Entering the rebel stronghold was far less intimidating than entering the United States Coast Guard monitoring station at Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans, Louisiana.
At no time while under Nkunda’s rule did we feel frightened or threatened. On the contrary, I can say that I am absolutely terrified of the regular Congolese army (FARDC), which controls Goma and points north and west. This is not an investigative report, but suffice it to say that we received many instances of personal testimony describing harassment and shootings by the FARDC. A human rights worker told how the windows of his aid vehicle were shot out by a uniformed FARDC solder riding a motorcycle on the pulverized tarmac that passes as a “road” through the spine of Virunga Park. The same aid worker said he felt safe while crossing into CNDP held territory.
Refugees related stories of being chased from their homes by “soldiers,” but could seldom identify which army. In one instance in FARDC territory north of Goma a woman said she was “chased by Mai Mai,” and in one other instance a woman said she was “told” that it was the CNDP that attacked her village, but that she “never saw them.”
Congolese president Joseph Kabila rules through intimidation and fear. His army (FARDC) is undisciplined and guilty of many more atrocities than the allegations leveled against Nkunda. Kabila is clearly exploiting the wealth of Congo as much or more than Mobutu did, yet Western interests, including the United States support him. Dan Rather recently did an excellent report “All Mine,” which is available for $.99 on iTunes.
Human Rights Watch has also condemned the suppression of free speech in DRC under Kabila. (reference)
We have heard again and again that Kabila owns homes all over the world, including a mansion in Malibu, California. Instead of persecuting Nkunda, perhaps the New York Times might want to do an investigative report on this.
In CNDP held territory, villagers were in extreme poverty by Western standards, but had gardens, pigs in the yard, flowers growing, and they happily waved and shouted as we drove along the road cut by Nkunda’s army. Villagers were engaging and offered none of the blank, sullen stares or frightened responses one gets in FARDC controlled sectors.
As far as Nkunda is concerned, human rights groups will have fits of apoplexy as I report that he was completely appropriate in demeanor. I cannot judge the man, but the medical doctor who was with us remarked that Nkunda exhibited no grandiose, narcissistic or paranoid traits. He is certainly charismatic and one must always be on guard when in the presence of charisma, but my impression of Nkunda is that he is a man who has dedicated his life toward the liberation of Congo from foreign interests, graft and corruption.
Nkunda was surprised when I told him about the distorted photos that accompany articles about him in the Western media. Weird angles, harsh shadows and imaginative prose by writers intent upon furthering writing careers, rather than journalism, have dominated the New York Times and other western print media.
Nkunda was courteous, engaging and welcoming. As the dirt floor flooded during the course of our interview, Nkunda became concerned for our gear and equipment. This was hardly the reaction one would expect from an imperious warlord. Was it a snow job? I doubt it. He seems serious about reaching out to Western interests. And I am not ashamed to say that I enjoyed our informal conversations after the interview. Why? Because I found a human connection that involved serious concern for the people of Congo.
I shared dinner with the man as an intense Virunga thunderstorm raged outside of the open-sided rondeval with a shredded tarp from UNICEF providing the only buffer from the wind. We talked politics, family life, and shared a pleasant conversation..
Eating dinner with the general (photo by G. Nienaber)
I am ashamed to know that some American journalists who provide reports that shape world opinion have been too frightened to enter Congo to see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears.
It was horrible to learn from sources in Rwanda that a noted US reporter was terrified to meet with Nkunda. Instead, he paid for information, instead of accepting an invitation for an interview as we did.
Journalists should be witnesses. We should tell the story. We can use our gift of turning thoughts into words to describe the conditions we encounter in the world. Let the politicians and think tanks determine policy. If we are able to present a clear picture, perhaps the politicians will be forced to act in the name of humanity.
What should I say when a member of the resistance comes to me and asks with tears in his eyes, “Why won’t journalists tell the truth?” I heard the phrase “we are crying,” many times from Congolese.
We were invited back to visit at any time. And Nkunda had a request. Would I try to bring a Congolese American to visit with him?
Then, there was the final question. Would the new Obama government listen to what we reported with an open mind for the Congolese? I replied that I was very small but that I would shout in a loud voice on behalf of the Congolese people. I also told him that I did not know how I would do this.
Nkunda told me, and I will never forget this, “Don’t worry about what you will do. You are “doing” now. By coming here, by speaking on behalf of the Congolese people when you write about the conditions in Goma and in the camps, by speaking openly about this, you are doing. You are doing.”
January 3, 2009: Australian Journalist Helen Thomas and I meet with General Laurent Nkunda in occupied territory. We spend over six hours with him. Nothing seems unusual in terms of stress or concern on the part of his troops. Peace talks are scheduled to begin in four days in Nairobi. The CNDP Commissioner of Foreign Affairs, Rene Abandi, joins us for discussion. Abandi is scheduled to be at the peace talks.
January 5, 2009: While in Goma, rumors begin to surface that Nkunda has been removed from power of the CNDP. Sources from within the CNDP tell us this is not true. We wait.
Western mainstream media picks up a consistent drumbeat castigating Nkunda. The stories originate in Dakar, and Kinshasa. No one is reporting this from our location.
January 12, 2009: Posting from Dakar, Senegal, the New York Times said, "Disagreements over tactics and power have split the once seemingly invincible Congolese (CNDP)."
Nkunda vehemently denied the NYT article in a phone interview with us.
One thing is clear. The Congolese Regular Army (FARDC), under President Joseph Kabila, attacked the CNDP in August 2008, and quickly lost ground despite superior numbers. The attack shattered a tentative peace agreement. The NYT account supports BBC reports that Nkunda is fighting off an attempt to topple him by CNDP faction leader Jean Bosco Ntaganda.
"This is absolutely not true," Nkunda said from his location in north Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Nkunda said that Ntaganda was "unable to move more than one kilometer from his home," and was surrounded by CNDP forces. Nkunda estimated that Ntaganda had "as few as 36 soldiers" with him.
January 19: Rwanda announces a “joint operation” with DRCongo that has been agreed upon since December 2008 in which troops will attempt to disarm remnants of the Interahamwe in eastern Congo. Leaders of the FDLR are responsible for the genocide of 1994. Nkunda has said all along he is protecting his people from attacks by the FDLR.
Thomas and I are no longer in country and must rely upon emails and phone conversations with sources on ground in Congo.
One source close to the CNDP described a meeting which took place in Gisenyi, Rwanda in which the CNDP, Ntaganda, Congolese General Numbi and “others Rwandese and Congolese staff were invited.”
“In that meeting the chief of Staff of Rwanda told our high commander that there was a plan and they must be part of it and for that they must accept Ntaganda as their chief of staff. It was an order and it wasn't negotiable. And they said that General Nkunda must be removed as the chairman of CNDP and that they won't deal with him.
“Of course our high commander refused at first to sign the document which was already prepared, but the Chairman (Nkunda) told them to sign and they did so.
“The chairman is in danger because he has an army which is loyal to him and as long as he is around the plan can't be carried out as they want.”
Apparently there was a deal between DRC and Rwanda that no one in the Western media has reported.
Sources say Rwanda assured Kabila that Rwanda was capable of destroying Nkunda. They tried to accomplish this by installing Ntaganda as head of the CNDP, but the plan fell apart when the CNDP army remained loyal to Nkunda.
Sources say Ntaganda was given $250,000 and promise of amnesty from his indictment by The Hague for war crimes.
Rwanda sends 3000 soldiers into DRC.
Another source, not connected to the CNDP, described the situation.
“In all honesty, I just don't know what is happening at the moment, and I suspect it wasn't exactly planned.
“Like so many things over here, it's basically quite messy.
“I think Nkunda has taken a slight hit, because he was not able to quell Bosco's (Ntaganda’s) insubordination, but as far as I can tell, he is still very much in the driving seat of CNDP, but he's obviously going to have to make some compromises if the Rwandan and Congolese governments are behind Bosco's initiative.
“It was reported that MONUC have been blocked out of Rutshuru, but that's not actually true. For now everything is very calm, but we're bracing ourselves. A major coalition assault on the FDLR may well be in the pipeline, but I can't believe they'll actually succeed in bringing them in.
“We're quite worried about the consequences, in terms of insecurity, but at a very superficial level, I can't help hoping that something good may come of the fact that CNDP, FARDC and RPF are together, if it means the fighting will stop and the IDPs can return to their homes without getting attacked.”
January 23, 2009: From source close to Nkunda:
“I know you've heard the news that the Chairman has been arrested, that is not the truth but he came by himself to Gisenyi last night to meet the Chief of staff of Rwanda. He is at Gisenyi in a hotel but anything can happen. Although the option of arresting him will be a huge mistake because there will be a terrible fight between CNDP and RDF and FARC. “