Kisangani, DR Congo | AFP | Twenty years ago, two East African countries came to blows in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, fighting a “Six-Day War” that the world has now forgotten but whose pain lingers.
The anniversary of the battle between Rwanda and Uganda is being recalled internationally by just a single event — the launch on Wednesday of a documentary selected for the Cannes Film Festival.
The conflict was a bloody footnote to the wider 1998-2003 Congo War, which sucked into its maw nine African countries and caused millions of deaths.
Backed by Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia, the DRC’s then-president, Laurent-Desire Kabila, turned his back on former allies Rwanda and Uganda, which had helped him overthrow dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in May 1997.
But in a sprawling country the size of continental western Europe, Kabila still had no control over the country’s east.
And it was here that Rwanda and Uganda jostled to control the region’s fabulous mineral wealth, either directly or through armed surrogates.
On June 5, 2000, fighting between their armed forces erupted at Kisangani, the DRC’s fifth largest city, which straddles a region rich in diamonds and is the gateway to the mighty Congo River.
The two sides poured down artillery and mortar rounds on each other, killing between 244 and 760 civilians and wounding about a thousand others, according to a 2010 UN report, and destroying hundreds of buildings in the city’s centre until the fighting halted on June 10.
– Death –
“I remember seeing dogs devouring bodies littering the streets, the stench, our neighbours’ grief and the joy of people who realised they were still alive,” said Dieudo Hamadi, who was 15 years old at the time.
Hamadi is the maker of the documentary “En Route pour le Milliard” (“Downstream to Kinshasa”) which describes how victims make a perilous trip to the capital to plead for compensation.
It is part of the official selection of films for Cannes, although the festival has been scrapped in its physical form this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In December 2005, the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ), in response to a complaint by the DRC, found Uganda guilty of “looting, plundering and exploitation.”
Uganda was additionally condemned for “occupying” the eastern province of Ituri and “actively extending” military and other support to armed groups on the DRC’s soil.
In January 2006, the ICJ said it had no power to adjudicate in a DRC complaint against Rwanda.
The ICJ also ruled in favour of compensation for the consequences of Uganda’s intervention since 1998.
The DRC has demanded up to $10 billion (8.9 billion euros), but not a penny has been paid — a situation that rankles to this day.
Marking the 20th anniversary of the Kisangani bloodshed, 2018 Nobel Peace laureate Denis Mukwege urged the DRC to “pursue negotiations with Uganda” for implementing the 2005 ruling.
Mukwege, a gynaecologist who helps victims of sexual violence in the still-troubled east, also pleaded for “sincere dialogue” with Rwanda and the creation of an “international criminal court for the DRC.”
– ‘Neglect’ –
In a ceremony in Kisingani at a cemetery where victims of the “Six-Day War” are buried, provincial governor Louis-Marie Wale on Friday pledged “justice will come.”
But local journalist Jose des Chartes Menga said the trauma of that time was still keenly felt and many in Kisangani felt neglected.
“Our wounds have still not fully healed. We don’t feel a real involvement by the government to redress what happened in Kisangani 20 years ago,” he said.
Pierre Kibaka, who heads a human-rights group, said the passage of time would make it hard to allot meaningful reparations for each family.
“There are symbolic reparations which can be done,” he suggested. “You could build a hospital, a school, even a monument to the victims.”
The events of June 2000 became intertwined in the toxic political legacy from the Second Congo War.
The DRC had tense relations with both Rwanda and Uganda right up until 2018, when the long reign of Kabila’s son, Joseph Kabila, who became president after his father was assassinated in January 2001, came to an end.
One of the first missions of his successor, Felix Tshisekedi, was to go to Kigali and Kampala on a fence-mending trip.
But resentment among many Congolese is still strong — they accuse the country’s two eastern neighbours, especially Rwanda, of seeking to “balkanise” eastern DRC to control its rich mineral wealth.