The Rumpus Interview With General Laurent Nkunda


“What I know is that we are conducting a war of liberation”

Picture of General Laurent Nkunda during the interview with Nienaber. His hat says “Survivors Never Surrender.”

In bringing you this interview with General Laurent Nkunda, we walk a very fine line. The world has roundly condemned both him and his Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) in the Congo. Human Rights Watch accuses Mr. Nkunda and the CNDP of conscripting children, of rape, and of summarily executing civilians. The New York Times calls him “Congo’s No. 1 troublemaker.” The United Nations levels charges of war crimes against him, citing “massacres” at the hands of his troops dating back to 2002. The takes these accusations against Mr. Nkunda seriously. But we also take seriously the obligation to probe a story from all angles.

But backup a second.

War has plagued the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1996, and the locus of that fighting has always been to the east. Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi—all war-ravaged nations themselves—line the DRC’s eastern border. Mr. Nkunda, explains the BBC, “built his reputation as a loyal and capable military leader in the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – the rebel force which ended the genocide of 1994, and drove the ethnic Hutu Interahamwe (FDLR) militias out of Rwanda and into eastern Congo.” After that, the General colluded with Laurent Kabila’s rebels in the Congo (then called Zaire) in their effort to overthrow President Mobutu Sese Seko. Mr. Nkunda split with Mr. Kabila and took command of his own rebel troop, the Congolese Rally for Democracy. Mr. Nkunda eventually formed a new militia, the CNDP, insisting that the mission of this force was to secure eastern Congo against the last vestiges of the FDLR.

And it gets even more convoluted than this. On January 23, 2008 the Goma peace agreement (Goma is the capital of one of the easternmost Congolese provinces, North Kivu) was signed between the Congolese Army (FARDC) and General Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP. This agreement fell apart in late August 2008, displacing over one quarter of North Kivu’s four million residents. The United Nations peacekeeping force in the region (MONUC) claims that it is over-committed and cannot maintain protection for local populations threatened by confrontations between FARDC, the CNDP, local militias (Mai Mai), and the remnants of the Interahamwe (FDLR)—the group responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

While these factions have vied for power, the displaced populations have fled mainly to refugee camps, some clustered on the perimeters of the United Nations’s Congo compounds. Conditions in these camps are “no better than those found in barnyards,” reports independent journalist Georgianne Nienaber. “Newborn infants are sleeping on beds made of lava rocks.”

Nienaber has been traveling the DRC sending back dispatches on what she sees. And with the assistance of a network of underground contacts, she, her co-interviewer Helen Thomas, and a couple others secured an interview with General Nkunda. Three weeks after she conducted this interview, which follows, Rwandan and Congolese forces teamed up to arrest Mr. Nkunda in what the BBC called “a spectacular reversal of fortune” for him and what the Times described as “removing an explosive factor from the regional equation.” Nienaber says she sought an interview with Mr. Nkunda “because some independent journalists felt that Nkunda and the CNDP have been heavily edited in media reports, especially in regard to accusations of mass rapes and killings. We feel,” she says, “that Nkunda should be allowed to speak in an unedited, unbiased format.”

We salute Nienaber and those who went with her for their bravery in conducting this interview. It is always difficult to know where the truth lies, or who is spinning what, and these journalists do us a service by presenting Mr. Nkunda’s side of the story.

The words of poet Robert Creeley, writing during the height of the Vietnam War (a war he despised), are worth chewing on. He’s talking about poetry, and poets, but he’s also talking about anyone with a desire to creatively engage even the uglier dimensions of this life. Creeley’s words, by the way, were hard for us to hear. He was writing to Denise Levertov, his dear friend, and he annoyed her, offended her, flat out pissed her off, when he said: “The poet’s role is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it: what if Shakespeare had opposed Iago, or Dostoyevsky opposed Raskolnikov—the vital thing is that they created Iago and Raskolnikov. And we begin to see betrayal and murder and theft in a new light.”

As we write this, bullets are flying in the eastern DRC. Mr. Nkunda is in captivity. Some call this the “beginning of the end of all the misery,” and some say it’s just a reshuffling of the political deck. Whatever it is, the situation is not, of course, a fiction created by an artist (just ask the dead), and anyway who knows who the real Iago or Raskolnikov is in this context. The point is, we publish this interview as an exercise in, for just one minute, not judging. Consider it an act of listening. May journalists be journalists and judges judges.

-Jesse Nathan
San Francisco
January 24, 2009

Georgianne Nienaber: We are here because we believe the reports in the media have not been fair and balanced as to how they represent yourself and the CNDP. We want to make a commitment to you here today that whatever we record is unedited. As journalists, we will not put our own spin on the story.

General Laurent Nkunda
: Maybe you want to know about CNDP?

Nienaber: Would you say that you have been portrayed in a negative way in western media, especially regarding conservation and the gorilla killings?

Nkunda: Yes. Even after the killings, there was evidence that gorillas were killed in areas under control of the government forces. After that, there were some gorillas found in Goma. The one that was in charge of regional conservation was selling gorillas in Goma. An investigation was conducted and the provincial director of ICCN was arrested. It was a campaign against CNDP. At the time I was controlling this area and the mountain you see there, and the gorillas were safe. But near Rumangabo, that is where the gorillas were killed. At the time, that area was not under our control. We attacked Rumangabo in August of last year [2008], but in the two years prior, Rumangabo and Bukiva were under the government control, so I will say again it was a campaign against CNDP.

Biased Journalists

Nienaber: The western press was not interested in your story?

Nkunda: They cut my voice and they were speaking on my behalf. When they told me that you were coming, because you have been involved in writing about nature conservation, that is why I said I would receive you. You are interested in nature conservation. You will tell the truth. Journalists tell what they think will be sensational. You came here to give your life to protect nature. When I tell you that you will protect the gorillas I am telling you that you will also protect the wealth of Congo and Jombo, and North Kivu. And when you protect gorillas, you will also protect the people. It is their wealth. That is why I said you have to come and see and tell only the truth. Is Nkunda eating gorillas? Is Nkunda selling gorillas?

The Future of Congo

Nienaber: What is your vision for the future of Congo?

Nkunda: Oh! See Congo in the present and imagine what it will be in the future with good leadership. We have a problem with leadership, but all of the possibilities are there, waiting only for someone to raise the life of the Congolese. I believe that Congo can be the most economically developed and strong country in Africa. And in the world, I say that Congo can be the fourth or fifth most developed country. Why? Because we have the resources. The mineral resources.

Nienaber: Are you the man to provide the leadership to develop Congo, and if so, why?

Nkunda: I never talk about an individual when I talk about change or about leadership. I always talk about a spirit. Because a man cannot do, but a spirit can do. I always enjoy thinking about leadership instead of thinking about a leader. If you can find leadership, leadership can change Congo, but not a leader. If your people are not educated you will be seen as the enemy of the people. Like in 1961,when Lumumba was killed by Congolese. Because he was saying that Belgium did not develop Congo, Congolese thought he was…not normal, and they killed him. We need a new spirit for the Congolese. That is why I think we must educate our people. If we educate the people then they will choose good leaders and these leaders will bring Congo to my dream. Congo will be so strong in Africa and in the world.

Allegations of Rape and War Crimes

Nienaber: There are some really terrible stories going around in the media. There have been terrible stories about how women are treated in Congo. How there have been mass rapes. Can you tell the world how you feel about what is happening to the women of Congo?

Nkunda: Hmmm. It is difficult to explain, but you are now in Congo. You are in the area under CNDP control. Ask in the hospitals under our control. Ask the women who have been raped. I cannot believe that they are raped here and then going to be treated in Goma or Bukavu to be treated. But if you go to Goma or Bukavu (under FARDC control) you are going to see hospitals full of women raped. But ask here, go to Rumangabo and they will tell you that the area under CNDP control is the most secure area in Congo. Even when they are telling about brutal massacres that we have done, it is not true. They say that we massacre Hutu tribes. The executive secretary of CNDP is a Hutu. So you tell me about killing Hutus. In my area, 60 or 70 percent are Hutu. Then you tell me that I used these soldiers to kill Hutu. It is not understandable. But you are now here. Go and ask. You can go into Kiwanja, ask them. You are going to see the women, ask them.

Killings and Rapes at Kiwanja

Nienaber: Can you tell the world what happened at Kiwanja?

: Kiwanja was liberated by the CNDP on the 28th of October 2008. We were in Kiwanja for one week without any killing, any rape, any looting. One week later the government (FARDC), along with Mai Mai, attacked Kiwanja and they occupied Kiwanja for 24 hours. My forces went back from Kiwanja. And in 24 hours, 74 people were killed. And before we came back to Kiwanja the governor of Goma, in the morning, announced that in Kiwanja there were massacres. And I was asking myself, who is doing this? Because when I heard on the radio that there were massacres in Kiwanja, I called my guys on the ground and said, “Where are you?” They said, “We are in Rutshuru.” I said, “Who is doing this.” They said they did not know, that they were in Rutshuru. So we went back to Kiwanja on the afternoon of the 29th, or the 27th  [Nkunda leans over to check dates with an advisor]. We went back 24 hours later and some people were killed in the crossfire. To that we can testify. Because the Mai Mai, they do not know how to shoot. They shoot where they want and when they were retreating they were shooting. And we saw that even the Hutu community in Rutshuru wrote a letter about that and they gave it and said they were not killed by CNDP.

Nienaber: Do you have a copy of that letter?

Nkunda: Yes, I do.

Nienaber: May we have a copy?

Nkunda: Yes. You will have a copy. [View page 1, 2, and 3 here] The president of the Hutu community in Rutshuru will tell you that they were not killed by CNDP. If it was the CNDP we would not be in Rutshuru today. And this letter is there, and the telephone is there and if you want we can bring you to Kiwanja. You ask the local leaders. You can meet the president of the Hutu community. He will confirm what I am telling you. How can I be managing Rutshuru and Masisi where there are 80 percent Hutu and then I come only to kill in Kiwanja? I have been here for four years. How can anyone imagine that? It is not true.


Nienaber: What happened in Goma?

Nkunda: The same scenario was prepared in Goma. When we were around Goma, my intelligence services told me that there is a plan to kill people in Goma that night so that they could blame the CNDP. That is why I told my guys to not enter Goma. I was informed that there was a plan for government forces to kill in the night. There were uncontrolled forces. Those who were in charge of the killing never knew that we withdrew. But I told MONUC that I was going to withdraw from Goma for 12 kilometers. Now, you have to control Goma, because I know that there is a plan of killing. On that night, 64 people were killed in Goma. The plan was to do it, but FARDC did not know that CNDP had pulled back. In the morning there were no CNDP in Goma. In the meeting where they planned it, one of ours was there. We were informed that there was a plan to kill Hutu that night. That is why I said, “OK, pull back.” They did the same thing in Rutshuru so that CNDP would bear the blame for the massacres. We will tell them that CNDP is coming to kill you and then they would do the killing. That is why the president of the Hutu community wrote the letter. He said if the CNDP had not come, there would have been a disaster. If you want I can call him and he will come to meet you tomorrow. That is the truth.

Alleged Destruction of Refugee Camps

Nienaber: The other charge against you is that you ordered the refugee camps destroyed.

Nkunda: Please understand. This is what I want you to understand. Yes, there were internally displaced people in Kiwanja. When I came I went to the camp and I told the population there, There are no houses here. You are in the rain. Please go back to your homes. I will be in charge. If someone will be killed, I will be in charge. I will take charge of your security. Please go home. On the following morning they said Nkunda forced people to leave. I am asking people to go to their homes! And I am taking charge of their security. I am in charge. MONUC has been unable to take charge. So it is a crime because I am asking them to go to their homes? The journalists are not telling the story. Go to Rutshuru. You will find 90 percent of the people in their houses. You cannot force someone in the rain to go to his house. Maybe you can force someone to leave his house. This is a crime. If we do a study in the camps around Goma, in each week there are about a hundred people dying from different diseases. In four years, CNDP has been accused of killing 100 people. But you are killing one hundred people each week in your camps. And for you, it is not a crime? This is what I said. CNDP asked for an investigation and they did not accept the idea. Go and compare the life of the 95 percent in CNDP territory with the life in the camps. Here, they are cultivating, they are in their homes. Who is the criminal? The one maintaining the people away from their homes, or the one who brought them back to their homeland? Because Nkunda is known as a killer, people just accept that. But I know that I am working for my people. Someone doing business here cannot quote me. I will be quoted by my people, not by someone doing business in the name of humanitarian affairs. They are paid for being in Congo, but I am not paid for it. I have a responsibility for my people.

Military Code of Conduct

Nienaber: Can you explain the military ethic of your soldiers?

Nkunda: We have a military code of conduct. If you want, I will give you a copy. When we began this fight, I said to my guys, either we are fighting for what is right, or we will not do it. Rape will be punished by firing squad. This is known. And two weeks ago two officers were executed for this. They were drunk on the local beer and did not control themselves and raped.

Nienaber: Who executes them?

Nkunda: Other soldiers of the same rank. They were second lieutenants and they were killed by second lieutenants. Looting by use of arms is also punishable by death. We will use your weapon against you. These are strong measures, I know. What I know is that we are conducting a war of liberation.

Congo’s Resources

Nieanaber: Some people call this a war for minerals. Is it?

Nkunda: How can you fight for your own minerals? [Laughter] If this were about minerals, I would not be here.

Nienaber: What are the western interests here in Congo?

Nkunda: They want to control the leadership and then take what they want to take. Do you want Congo ruled by a corrupted man where the western interests can do what they want? If there is good leadership, they cannot do this. You see minerals are being exploited by China, by Belgium, by South Africa. Petrol is under French control, uranium under American control, copper under Belgian control, diamonds under Jewish control, and gold under South African control. The Congolese people have never benefited from their own resources. You can see it on the ground, how can a country as rich as Congo be like you are seeing it? There is no salary, there are no roads, there is no infrastructure for so big and so rich a country, so you ask me if we benefit? No. We are not benefiting because we don’t have leadership, because western countries are exploiting us. Angola was exploited, but Angola is raising its economy. It’s not a matter of these countries coming to exploit Congo, it’s a matter of the contract we are arranging with them. Congo is not serious, there is no leadership.

Nienaber: Throughout the history of the Congo, the leaders that have taken charge have always made themselves rich through corruption and have left the people poor. How do people know for sure that that is not going to happen under your leadership?

Nkunda: Let us say that people are discouraged because since 1960 and before 1960 when Belgium was here, they did not get anything from the Belgium economy and from the Congolese Government. You can see what the British colonies got from British colonialists, what the French colonies got from the French colonialists but what we got from Belgiam colonialists is very different. There has been no resource income for the people. When people think about the power of Kinshasa, the presence of the UN here, they think that we are not in the right. They think the UN is right. That is what the people can think. But the ones who know very well what is going on, like somebody does in Kinshasa, like somebody does in Goma, Bukavu, they know very well that we are bringing changes and we will. It’s a must.

Actions of MONUC

Nienaber: Have you met personally with Alan Doss [head of MONUC]?

Nkunda: No

Nienaber: You’ve never met with him?

Nkunda: No. We talk only on the phone.

Nienaber: What do you say to him when you talk to him?

Nkunda: The first time I talked to him was in January when we were in Goma during the peace talks. We were talking about the situation that was going on. One day I told him, you are coming with your tanks to ask us to shut our mouths. When I go into the former British colonies there is infrastructure for the colonies and there is education, but in Congo there is nothing. No education, no infrastructure. That’s why I told him, if the African countries who were under your control refused you to continue to colonize them even though you were doing something for them, don’t think that you are going to force us to shut our mouths because we are going to fight this. It is a problem of freedom. Our President [Joseph Kabila, son of Laurent Kabila] is bad. So bad compared even to Apartheid in South Africa because he is robbing the country. He is destroying the country. He is destroying the people. He is destroying the economy and the minds, because there is no education when teachers are not paid. He is destroying the nature of Congolese. And so you ask me to not fight. I said to him bring other tanks and other aviation forces because we will fight until we will be free. That is the last time I talked to him when he engaged MONUC to fight. I told him I will fight because I’m fighting for freedom. You want me to shut my mouth and be a slave, an economic slave to China, I will not accept this. I’ll fight till I die, then my brothers will continue to fight, and my elders will fight and my son will fight.

Nienaber: So does China’s influence concern you now?

Nkunda: Yes, of course, because we are going now into economic slavery. If we accept this Chinese contract it is the end for Congolese.

Leadership, Heroes, and Obama

: Do you have a hero, do you have people you look up to, a hero from history?

Nkunda: Yes.

Nienaber: Who are those people?

Nkunda: Let me tell you. I can say about America, about France, maybe South Africa. In South Africa I can talk about Mandela. When he accepted the reconciliation it was a way to say that even if Apartheid was the wrong way to rule, those rulers did something for the country economically. I accept the kind of person who is not a negativist, who sees things not only in a negative sense. We have to see both. In France, I have a hero. De Gaulle, the French General, Charles De Gaulle. Because when Marshall Patton accepted German rule, De Gaulle refused it and he went to England opposing this, and with the American General Eisenhower they liberated France. These are the kind of people who are heroes for me. The president accepted the German authority but De Gaulle refused. We are not obliged to accept things, even if the president can accept, we are not obliged to accept.

Nienaber: You know more about American military commanders than Americans do?

Nkunda: Yes. I can also tell you about General MacArthur. He said that the Army has to protect the nation because if the army loses, the nation will be destroyed. That’s the one who told the American Army that the mission of the army is to win wars.

Nienaber: Have you heard Obama’s statement about the Congo, that this is just an ethnic conflict? What would you say to educate Obama about what’s happening here?

Nkunda: Saying that it’s an ethnic conflict, it’s an image they have from the outside. He has to raise his thinking about Congo. If I could meet him one day, I would tell him that it is not a matter of ethnic conflict, it is a matter of leadership. These ethnic groups are not being ruled or managed so the majority can overcome the minority and kill. The real fire here is the lack of leadership.

Nienaber: If Obama was sitting at the table right now, is there anything you would ask him?

Nkunda: I only ask him to bring leadership from America to Congo. Train our people for two weeks or three weeks because America showed to the world how they understand leadership in the recent election. The world is talking about a black person in power, but Americans didn’t vote for a black man, they voted for an American showing the capacity to rule. But they are talking about a black person. No, no, it is not that. On his identity card it doesn’t say ‘black’. When the American people were voting, they voted for an American. If I can meet him I will ask him, please, tell the Congolese to be leaders, to be Congolese leaders, not to be ethnic leaders. If our leaders can be trained like that I think Congo will change and go forward. That’s what I can ask of him.

Accuracy of Human Rights Watch reports

Nienaber: What are your views about Human Rights Watch?

: I will tell you, they are writing from the UK and from the US and they are not on the ground. They say they get their information from “reliable sources,” and unfortunately they are trusted but really, if you take their report, and then you come to the ground, you are now here on the ground, you compare. They tell some facts, but for them to help they have to come to the ground and do their report not from “reliable sources” but from live sources.

: Have they ever personally talked to you?

Nkunda: Yeah, I even talked to Anneke van Woudenberg. She came to see me in Masisi but after leaving here and then writing their things I had to call her back and say, “Why? You were here, now what are you doing?” She always says that the information is from “reliable sources.” But all these reliable sources are unidentified. I think the world wants such sensational stories. They don’t want reality. That’s why MONUC, and even the UN failed their mission in the world because they rely on sources that are not credible sources. They rely on some unidentified sources. That’s why they failed.

Nienaber: Some people here in Congo don’t call MONUC peacekeepers, they call them warlords, what do you think about that?

Nkunda: No, I cannot say that. They are not warlords. But they are getting money from the war in Congo. There are war benefits for them.

: General, is there anything you want to say to us that we didn’t ask you about as a last question?

: I can say that what Congo expects from the world is help to be free from the leadership it is currently under. Instead of bringing so many troops, we want to have well-trained and equipped soldiers in Congo. Instead of spending money on MONUC we want to have roads. Instead of bringing ex-pats from elsewhere, we want well-trained leaders for Congo. If they really want to help Congo, please help us train leaders, train soldiers, and help Congolese leaders to have a vision for the country that is good for the people.

Georgianne Nienaber is an independent journalist based in northern Minnesota. She has written a biography of murdered primatologist Dian Fossey and has spent considerable time in African conflict zones since 2004.

Download the entire transcript of this interview with a background statement by Georgianne Nienaber (pdf).

Read the CNDP Press Release on General Laurent Nkunda’s arrest here.

Watch the video of the interview with Mr. Nkunda here.

Some parts of this interview were also published in The Huffington Post.

Jesse Nathan is an editor at McSweeney’s and the managing editor of the Best American Nonrequired Reading. His poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in jubilat, the American Poetry Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Nation. He was born in Berkeley, grew up in Kansas, and lives now in San Francisco. More from this author →