Matthew Bigg, Reuters correspondent, finds himself the victim of ethnic rage in eastern Zaireby Matthew Bigg / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Drunk and loaded with an assortment of weapons, Zairean troops in the town of Bukavu started hunting for ethnic Tutsis. Hundreds of civilians gathered to watch the spectacle of the notoriously ill-disciplined Zairean army at work after the authorities had given an estimated 300,000 ethnic Tutsi Banyamulenge one week to leave. The ultimatum gave civilians and soldiers licence to start an open season against the ethnic Tutsis, and even non-Banyamulenege-myself included-were trapped in the spiral of popular hatred.
The Tutsi Banyamulenge arrived from Rwanda up to 200 years ago but are still denied Zairean citizenship. They have, nevertheless, thrived in eastern Zaire as cross-border traders and cattle farmers, turning their knowledge of Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s national language, to advantage. Accor-ding to Banyamulenge refugees who fled to Burundi, their troubles started in 1994, when Rwandan Hutus came to Zaire as refugees after the genocide and started denouncing them to the authorities.
When I arrived in Bukavu on an aid flight from Kenya, within one hour residents had tipped off Zairean state security that I, a tall, black British journalist, was a suspected Banyamulenge. State security agents and soldiers picked me up from my hotel. I was arrested, strip-searched, locked in a small cell (after my shoes and socks had been confiscated) and screamed at by a prison guard wielding a crowbar. Only the intervention of UN officials and the deputy governor of South Kivu secured my release after an hour. The soldiers who had made the arrest saw no reason to apologise for their mistake.
The next day a group of foreign journalists watched as a contingent of Zairean soldiers decided to give us a military escort to the troubled town of Uvira, south of Bukavu. The soldiers ordered an aid agency employee to hand over the keys to two pick-up trucks at gunpoint and loaded them with an assortment of weapons including machineguns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and a cannon.
Again one of the soldiers decided I might be a Banyamulenge. Showing a British passport and other documents did not help and an ugly scene was starting to develop. Most of the time Zairean soldiers simply want money. This time they wanted blood.
The soldiers who had been ordered to release me the previous day did nothing to intervene and the deputy governor’s envoy, detailed to guarantee our security, could not stop the soldiers trying to arrest me.…