Like Art, Like Life

This photo was of a painting I saw hanging above the bed in my hotel room in Goma, Congo in 1999. - Photo by Todd Pitman

Hutu rebels who slew tourists wreak havoc in Congo
01:01 p.m Mar 04, 1999 EasternBy Todd Pitman

RUTSHURU, Congo, March 4 (Reuters) - A colourful painting hanging in a popular but modest roadside restaurant in the small town of Rutshuru gives an accurate portrait of life in eastern Congo, a stronghold of Rwandan Hutu rebels.

It shows soldiers running across a stream from a burning car in pursuit of militiamen clad in leaves, one of whom is about to be gunned down against a rural backdrop of green terraced hills.
Residents of the lush volcanic highlands on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo say they live in constant fear of attacks, ambushes, looting and killing sprees by the notorious ``Interahamwe'' militia of extremist Hutus.

That same militia brutally murdered eight foreign tourists this week after abducting them and 23 others while they were on holiday tracking rare mountain gorillas just across the border in southwestern Uganda.

The Interahamwe militiamen led the massacre of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda's 1994 genocide and, after being forced into exile, have set up bases in the dense jungle of eastern Congo.

``We're living in a war zone,'' said a traffic policeman sporting a yellow motorcycle helmet as he flagged down passing vehicles in Rutshuru on Thursday.

``The Interahamwe are all around us. They come every day to steal, to loot, to rob,'' he said.

Residents say the Hutus have taken advantage of lax security in the area since a rebellion began last August to oust President Laurent Kabila in the region's second war since 1996.

Rwandan soldiers have also descended on the area, backing the Congolese rebels against Kabila and launching a major offensive against the Interahamwe four months ago.

Authorities and residents say the Interahamwe hide in the hills among civilians but also roam freely under the dense canopy of forests inside the Virunga National Park.

Local authorities said at least 14 vehicles were ambushed and burned and as many as 30 people killed on three different roads radiating out of Rutshuru over the last two weeks alone.

``They're animals. All they do is burn houses and cars and loot people's goats and cattle,'' said an immigration officer working on the Congo-Uganda border.

The violence has forced tens of thousands of civilians from their fields and into the houses of relatives in safer areas.

``The Interahamwe are still there in every forest, every bush, every mountain, so we can't go back to our fields to cultivate the crops,'' said Jules Ruyango, 35, a displaced peasant who moved in with relatives in Rutshuru after Rwandan soldiers clashed with militiamen near his rural home last month.

Authorities are now training civilians to patrol villages with soldiers every night in ``popular self-defence forces.''

On a field north of Rutshuru, around 100 bare-chested boys armed with sticks chanted songs under the searing sun as the region's governor looked on.

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.