Hopes high as Rwanda, Congo sign peace pact

More than 2 million people died in four-year conflict

July 31, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PRETORIA, South Africa - With smiles and a firm handshake, the leaders of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo signed a peace agreement yesterday that Africans hope will end one of their continent's most destructive and hopeless conflicts.

More than 2 million people, most of them civilians, died during four years of fighting in Congo, formerly known as Zaire, a Central African nation the size of Western Europe. Dubbed Africa's "First World War," the conflict drew in soldiers from a half-dozen nations, rebel armies and, at times, traditional tribal warriors armed with spears, bows and arrows.

They battled in Congo's rain forests, river valleys and mountains in a series of wars: between Congo and Rwanda; Congo and rebel groups; and competing rebels backed by warring African nations.

"No more blood must run," declared Congolese President Joseph Kabila during a ceremony with Rwandan President Paul Kagame in South Africa's capital. "Everything has a beginning and an end. ... There is a time for war. There is a time for peace."

Finding a lasting solution to the bitter war is considered the key to bringing stability to the continent as a whole.

"It's a bright day, I think, for the whole African continent," said South African President Thabo Mbeki, who sat between Kabila and Kagame during the ceremony. "I would say without peace in this region, you couldn't talk about peace and development on the continent generally. This matter is crucial."

Although other attempts have been made to end the war in Congo, including a 1999 cease-fire, the peace has not held. Yesterday's agreement, however, is being hailed as the first accord to address the primary causes of the war, which date to 1994.

Rwanda accuses Congo of harboring thousands of Hutu militiamen, who led the slaughter in Rwanda of a half-million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994 before fleeing across the border.

The war started in 1998, when the Rwandan army invaded Congo to crush the militias, secure its borders and topple then-President Laurent Kabila, whom Rwanda accused of threatening its security. Allied with Uganda, Burundi and Congolese rebels, Rwanda's army occupied much of eastern Congo. Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe rushed to Congo's defense.

Under the peace accord, Rwanda will withdraw 40,000 troops from Congo. In return, Congo will cooperate with the United Nations in rounding up thousands of Hutu militiamen hiding in Congo, disarming them and repatriating them to Rwanda. The countries have 90 days to complete those steps.

Rwanda's Kagame said his country is ready to fulfill its part of the agreement but appealed to the world to help with what may be a difficult process.

"As the international community has historically been part of the problem, they cannot escape the responsibility of being part of the solution," he said.

Overseen by Belgium's King Leopold in the late 19th century as his personal property, the Congolese people endured decades of horrific colonial rule before being granted independence in 1960. The country eventually sank into more than three decades of dictatorship under the U.S.-backed Mobutu Sese Seko, who cleaned out the country's treasury and sentenced his people to lives of poverty and despair.

In 1997, guerrilla leader Laurent Kabila overthrew Mobutu, promising free elections. Instead, Kabila plundered the country, plunging it into war with Rwanda before being shot by one of his soldiers last year.

His son, Joseph, a major general in the army, was appointed to replace him. Unlike his father, Joseph Kabila has expressed more interest in peace than war.

"One less conflict means one step toward sustainable development that the continent needs so much," Kabila said yesterday. Critics, however, are skeptical about the ability of either side to meet the terms set out in the agreement. Tracking down the militias while meeting the 90-day deadline poses the greatest pitfall.

"The militias have to be caught, disarmed and repatriated." said Henri Boshoff, an analyst for the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria. "How willing are they going to be to be taken back to Rwanda? That is going to be difficult."

Rwanda, however, says it is only interested in bringing the leaders of the Hutu militias to justice. Most foot soldiers would be reintegrated into Rwandan society, Kagame said.

The hunt for the militias received a boost this week from the United States, which offered a $5 million reward for the capture of the nine most wanted fugitives from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The suspects have been indicted by an international tribunal but are in hiding in Congo.

A number of rebel factions continue to plunder Congo's countryside, and Zimbabwe, one of the main forces involved in the fighting, still has troops in Congo. If the peace holds, however, it will mark the latest breakthrough on a continent suddenly finding solutions to its longest-lasting conflicts.

After 30 years of civil war, Angola's government and rebels are working to heal the wounds of a conflict that has devastated their country, leaving 1.5 million dead.

In Sudan, the Khartoum government and main rebel group in the south are seeking to resolve 19 years of civil war, which has killed 2 million.

In Burundi, where a civil war erupted in 1993, government officials have announced plans for peace talks with rebel leaders starting next week.

Africa's record of carrying out peace agreements is not good. But South Africa has led new, more intensive efforts at negotiating agreements, and Western and African leaders have backed the New Partnership for Africa's Development, an agreement that African states will solve the continent's political problems in return for Western investment and development.

African leaders also launched the African Union, designed to aggressively promote democracy, peace and development on the continent.

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