The killer king of North Kivu

Bosco Ntaganda: smuggler king, kidnapper, war criminal and... general.

Bosco Ntaganda is the spider in the web of violence and looting in North Kivu, East Congo. The Terminator kidnaps people, smuggles raw materials into Rwanda and orders forests to be felled in Virunga Park. The International Court of Justice may be after him for crimes against humanity, but Ntaganda simply lives in Goma, at a stone’s throw from the Rwandan border. There is a simple explanation for all this: Ntaganda serves the interests of the Congolese president Kabila and his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame.

  • REUTERS/Katrina Man Bosco Ntaganda REUTERS/Katrina Man

Kidnapper (1)

Fabrice is crouching on the bench. He barely bothers to answer the first questions, he just sits there mumbling. But when asked how he was kidnapped, he begins to tell his story. ‘It was hell. I really believed I had ended up in hell.’

Singer Fabrice Munfiritsa is world famous in North Kivu. His music is popular because he’s candid about his roots. His roots are in Masisi, the Congolese Switzerland, an area largely dominated by the CNDP (Congrès National pour la Défence du Peuple). For years, this former Tutsi rebel movement fought the Congolese army with Rwandan support. Meanwhile, it has been incorporated in that same army.

Fabrice’s kidnapping was subtly planned. On the night of 4 November 2011, after leaving the studio for home, the musician does some quick shopping. Suddenly a 4x4 drives along, the speakers are playing Fabrice’s own music. The passengers greet Fabrice in a friendly way and offer him a lift home. The unsuspecting singer accepts the offer and gets into the car. Immediately he feels a gun in his back and he’s ordered to lie down on the car floor. Fabrice is driven to a house, where he is locked up in a cellar. The plastic thread used to tie up his arms, will leave permanent scars.

Fabrice’s wife is waiting for him that night, worried to death. He does not answer his mobile phone either. She calls Fabrice’s brother, who in turn gets in touch with some friends. By the end of the weekend, half of Goma is looking for Fabrice. Police and the governor are promising to do everything they can to find the singer. But results fail to materialize, and on Sunday a massive revolt breaks out. The streets of Goma are barricaded. The people are protesting against the rebels, against impunity and against the authorities’ indecisiveness. They are fed up.

The action appears to have effect. In the early hours of Monday morning, people in a village near Goma hear someone talking, singing and shouting. A searching party soon find Fabrice in a hole in the ground, completely disoriented and under the influence of drugs. He says he was given an injection and forced to kneel in the hole. ‘Say your last prayer.’ That is the last thing he remembers. He knows he began to pray and sing, but he cannot tell how many hours have passed. ‘I was completely at a loss, the only thing I knew is that I was in hell.’ Fabrice tells them how he was forced the day before to witness the beheading of an acquaintance of his. ‘They put the body in a bag and some rocks with it. They took me to Lake Kivu. There they threw him in the water.’

Fabrice is driven to hospital under surveillance of the presidential guard, who are treating him like a prisoner rather than a patient. He is not allowed to make phone calls or receive visitors. Fabrice is asked to pose for a photo with a Kabila election poster. He refuses. Finally, his network manage to get him to Kinshasa – a second kidnapping, since the presidential guard will not let him go.

No one is claiming responsibility for the kidnapping but the facts indicate that Congo’s president Kabila is behind this. His friends report that Fabrice had refused to write a campaign song for Kabila in the run-up to the presidential election – something he had done for opposing candidate Vital Kamerhe, who is very popular in Kivu. During the conversation, Fabrice himself remains vague about all this. He refuses to say what in his opinion is the reason for the kidnapping. He just says he was questioned about his music and his texts. Later, Frabrice’s friends claim that Bosco Ntaganda is the culprit.

War criminal appointed general

Ntaganda is the link between Kabila and Rwandan president Paul Kagame. Congo expert Kris Berwouts explains: ‘The marriage of convenience concluded late 2009 between Kabila and Kagame rests on Ntaganda.’

Born in 1974 in Bigogwe, Rwanda, Ntaganda moves to Masisi (Nyamitaba) at an early age. In 1990 Ntaganda, then a seventeen year-old member of Kagame’s Tutsi army, takes part in the invasion from Uganda into Rwanda, which at the time has been under the Hutu majority administration for thirty years. They occupy the north of the country. Four years and one genocide later, they take control over Rwanda.

In 1996 the Rwandan army invade the Congo, and together with Laurent Désiré Kabila they gain control over the country. As the old Kabila’s loyalty towards Kagame starts to wane, the Rwandans embark on a new war from East Congo, with their own army and various “local” militias. It is in those militias that Ntaganda is playing an increasingly important role. By 2008 he has become the CNDP’s number two, behind Laurent Nkunda.

The 2009 agreement between Kagame and Joseph Kabila includes the integration of the CNDP into the Congolese army. ‘Some claim that the Congolese army was integrated into the CNDP’, says Berwouts. ‘The fact is that the CNDP are now in control of both South and North Kivu. Never before did they have so much power.’

It is also agreed that from now on the Congolese army will go after the FDLR (Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda). The FDLR is what is left of the militia created by the organizers of the Rwandan genocide, and Kagame’s traditional enemy. So Kagame as it were has a Congolese army in North Kivu at his disposal, which is just as loyal to him as to Kabila. And what’s in it for Kabila? The agreement provides him with the guarantee that the CNDP leader, Laurent Nkunda, who had threatened to take control of the Congo, is put in prison in Rwanda. After Nkunda’s arrest, Ntaganda becomes CNDP leader, general in the Congolese army and … the most powerful man in North Kivu.

‘Nkunda’s arrest dismayed that part of the CNDP that would not let down the charismatic Nkunda’, says Berwouts. ‘That Nkunda wing is still there, and Ntaganda has no choice but to keep them satisfied. That wing poses a potential threat to Kagame too, as the Tutsi elite in Rwanda disintegrates and top people such as former army chief of staff Kayumba Nyamwasa and ex-secret service chief Patrick Karegeya turned away from Kagama in 2010 in search of Congolese support for an attack on Kagame.’ So the fact that Ntaganda controls the CNDP is very important for Kagame.

But Ntaganda is of use to Kabila as well. Berwouts: ‘With the CNDP, Kabila won the support of the only power that could somewhat stabilize East Congo and moreover serves his electoral interests. In the run-up to the election, only Kabila was able to campaign in CNDP areas.’ What was not part of the agreement, is that the CNDP remained a state within a state, establishing a proper administration in Masisi and considered a threat rather than bringing security by large portions of the population.

So Ntaganda is taking care of both Kagame’s and Kabila’s interests. That explains how he became a general of the Congolese army in 2009, in spite of the International Court of Justice issuing an arrest warrant against him three years earlier for crimes against humanity, mainly because of child soldier recruitment. The UN are after Ntaganda as well as the military responsible for the 2008 Kiwanja slaughter in which 150 civilians lost their lives. ‘As a party to the Court of Justice, the Congolese state has the obligation to cooperate in Ntaganda’s arrest. Just as it did in the case of Thomas Lubanga’, explains Sonia Robla, spokeswoman for the Court of Justice.

Meanwhile in North Kivu many people fear Ntaganda, not surprisingly. Indeed, this man appears to be responsible for kidnapping those people he thinks need to be taught a lesson. Like Fabrice. The strongest indication that Ntaganda is behind the singer’s kidnapping, is that the method used is a copy of the kidnapping of Sylvestre Bwira, president of Masisi’s civil society. In that case Ntaganda’s shade was even more visible.

Kidnapper (2)

On 30 July 2010 human rights activist Bwira wrote an open letter to president Kabila. In that letter he denounced the fact that ex-rebels who had committed serious crimes were recruited by the army in East Congo without any problem at all. He cited the case of Ntaganda and deplored that the Congo tolerates impunity by not extraditing him to The Hague. Bwira asked to assert the state’s authority in Masisi – a reference to the parallel administration – and to apply the rotating mechanism, distributing soldiers over the entire Congolese territory, to ex-CNDP members as well, and therefore not to give in to their demand to stay in East Congo.

Some days later Bwira got several phone calls from a certain colonel Janvier, who claimed to be working for Ntaganda’s cabinet. Janvier invited Bwira to Ntaganda’s office. Bwira refused the invitation, but felt increasingly insecure. He was kidnapped on 24 August, as he was preparing to flee to Kinshasa.

‘Two soldiers came up to me and said: “Either you step into our car, ou bien on te sabote ici.” Some discussion followed and I had to lie down on the car floor, their legs resting on me. I was locked up in a cellar, just after noon, my upper arms tied with fine plastic wire. In other words, in exactly the same manner as they would later tie up Fabrice. ‘In the middle of the night I was blindfolded and had to lie down in the back of a 4x4, with the spare wheel on top of me. In the morning, we arrived at an underground deposit. “Take that thing and lock it up”, I heard someone say. The were speaking Rwandan. “All the cells are full”, replied the guards. We took the road again for another deposit – a hole in the ground with tree-trunks for a roof – where I was detained until the evening. By means of a hook, they pulled me up from the hole by the plastic thread, which tore up the skin of my upper arms and caused them to bleed. Off we went again by car, but after some time we stopped and continued on foot. We climbed, it got colder. They beat me with a stick whenever I strayed from the path or fell due to my blindfold. We came at a third underground deposit. There was this terrible stench and the ground felt muddy. I crawled on all fours to a dry spot where I thought I felt pieces of wood. In the morning I discovered that the mud was not mud, but decomposing corpses, and the wood were their bones. I was without food. Two days later, they pulled me out of the hole with a hook, and a colonel started questioning me. Why did I want them to leave Masisi? Why did the parallel administration have to go? Why did I defend only my own community? I answered that my struggle was for all the people. “If that is the case, then why did you not defend a raped Tutsi woman?” I admitted that I had my shortcomings. “We are not going to kill you”, said the colonel after a while. I later learnt from the guards that my kidnapping had kicked up a dust, both here and abroad. “Who are you, that people are working so hard to liberate you?”, the soldiers asked.’

‘The marriage of convenience concluded late 2009 between Kabila and Kagame, rests on one person: Bosco Ntaganda.’
Bwira thanked his liberation to the local resistance movement. Contrary to his local network, some of the European NGOs had long given up on him. In the small city of Sake, thirty kilometres from Goma, a demonstration was held for Bwira’s liberation, and threats of violence were made. These actions were successful: Bwira was freed. ‘They injected me with a product and left me behind in the forest’, says Bwira. ‘I felt paralysed. I started feeling hot all over. I was exhausted. In the distance I saw a fire, a village. I crawled in that direction. I could not walk. I could barely eat and was covered in blood. From the village I was transported to Goma hospital.’

In November 2010 Bwira fled to the Netherlands, because he no longer felt safe in Goma or Kinshasa. But since his move to The Hague – where he still receives psychiatric treatment – his family is under attack. His uncle Aloys Bahati and his brother Kubuya Kiahi disappeared in October 2011 with one week’s interval. No one has seen them ever since. Bwira’s youngest brother explains that their lives are in constant danger. ‘I keep looking over my shoulder for fear of being followed. I do not leave my home after five a.m. My father has gone into hiding and never stays in the same place for long. We receive phone calls with death threats almost every day. The governor and the police take no action. That is why people were so angry when Fabrice was kidnapped. The rebels have free rein.’

René, a good friend of Bwira’s, is not safe in Goma either. ‘I stay because I work here’, he says. ‘But we are afraid and we never talk to strangers, because you never know who they really are. Ntanganda and his men have to leave, the sooner the better. But people are afraid to raise their voice, after Bwira dared to write that letter.’

Fabrice was kidnapped exactly two weeks before the presidential election. Tensions were building up in the whole country, and especially in Kivu. Many inhabitants there cannot help but think they are slowly being annexed by Rwanda. They claim that Rwandan farmers are buying land for their cows through Congolese agents. Any autochthon will tell you that there is creeping immigration from Rwanda. ‘There is effectively immigration from Rwanda’, says Congo expert Kris Berwouts. ‘Rwandan speaking Congolese soldiers have shown me their Rwandan colleagues. Every registration of voters offers an new opportunity to give Rwandans a Congolese passport. Kabila probably benefited electorally from this “Rwandisation”. Officially, Kabila won more votes than expected in densely populated Kivu, but heated discussions are going on as to how reliable the election results are. In many areas Ntaganda’s men prevented propaganda from other candidates and made people afraid to vote for them.

Smuggler king

The CNDP’s dominance in East Congo is also an economic dominance. In this, Ntaganda is never far away, especially in the mining sector. Some analysts are banking on the recent U.S. Dodd-Franck act to demilitarize the raw materials market. That act forces NYSE quoted companies to declare the origin of their raw materials, in particular whether they are benefiting armed groups. Major electronics brands using tin and coltan, such as Motorola, Apple, Philips and Samsung, are affected by this act.

In reaction to this act, president Kabila prohibited all traditional mining in Congo in September 2010. This measure was meant to weed out criminal networks involved in the mining industry. In reality, the reverse happened in North Kivu: higher military ranks use the mining prohibition to extend their illegal trading practices. Kabila’s ending the prohibition in March 2011, changed little to that situation. The harm was done.

MO* infiltrated in CNDP networks to map out the East Congo smuggling route. One of the smuggling routes begins in Numbi, a village west of Kivu lake. ‘A number of tin mines in this area are guarded by ex-CNDP soldiers’, confirms Henri Nkeng, expert at the UN MONUSCO peace force. Nkeng works for the International Tin Research Institute in Numbi, where he develops a certification system that makes it possible to trace raw materials back to their origin. Nkeng: ‘We established buying centres, where the bags receive ‘conflict free’ labels. Only the bags carrying such a label can be exported. Raw materials from mines exploited by the rebels or the army, are excluded.’

For the time being, that’s theory. In reality the smuggling network is working at full steam, says a villager who rents his house for raw materials storage. ‘The raw materials are packed in bags with a layer of beans on top, and then carried to Goma by porters.’

After following a cargo of “beans”, we arrive in Kalungu, a village halfway between Numbi and Goma. After five hours’ walking, the porters deliver their 50 kilo bags of under cover raw materials. Their reward is about twenty euro.

It’s market day in Kalungu. Mangos and bananas are sold everywhere. They are loaded on trucks together with the “beans”. ‘Four to six times a month I load beans’, explains a driver. ‘I charge eight to twelve euro per bag. Whenever the truck is inspected, I give the policemen a tip and continue my trip.’

‘The goods are delivered to us in trucks loaded with fruit and vegetables’, confirm some buyers in Goma, who are buying from Numbi. ‘From here, they are picked up by Congolese army vehicles and transported to the border, where their Rwandan colleagues take over.’ The friendly understanding between the CNDP and the Rwandan soldiers is nothing new. It is encouraged by the fact that both groups belong to the same Tutsi ethnicity and by the memory of common wars.

The raw materials pass the border in Goma via the bumpy Rue des Acacias. There at a stone’s throw from the Rwandan border lives Bosco Ntanganda, the patron of this raw materials maffia, in his highly protected residence. Here, the border is no more than a couple of rocks between the Congolese and the Rwandan side of the street. The cities of Goma and Gisenyi merge into one another, as a result of which the smuggling is really taking placing in an urban environment.

In December 2011 the UN Security Council published the final report of the expert group on the Congo. The experts describe in detail how Ntaganda is controlling the area of a few hundred metres between the two official border-crossings in Goma. Ntaganda also often visits Rwanda. Two other ex-CNDP officers, one of which is a relative of Ntaganda’s, live in this neighbourhood. According to the UN report this border-crossing alone would earn Ntaganda almost 12.000 euro per week.

Every time raw materials are carried into Rwanda, Ntaganda closes the whole area. ‘CNDP members operate independently from the official army hierarchy. Most of them only obey their former superiors’, says colonel Mputu Pende with a sigh. He is the chief of the military prosecutor’s office in Goma. ‘We receive threats whenever we try to tackle officers who are involved in the illegal mining exploitation.’ The UN report describes how agents who took action in June 2011 against the smuggling, were disarmed and imprisoned by Ntaganda’s men.

The illegal logger

According to the UN experts, Ntaganda owns not only a petrol station in Goma, i.e. S. Pétrole Congo, but also a flour mill run by his wife. In addition, they describe in their report how among other things Ntaganda was involved in the smuggling of 450 kgs of gold. Ntaganda owns large farms near Ngungu in Masisi, where he likes to spend his weekends. He also has his say in the local charcoal business. Charcoal is Goma’s most important energy source. The problem is that there is barely any wood left, except in nearby Virunga Park, Africa’s oldest natural reserve and Unesco world heritage. There, the CNDP plays a role in the illegal charcoal production.

September 2011. Near Burungu, where some years ago Nkunda gave his blessing to exploit Virunga Park, an entire village has developed on the outskirts of what used to be the park. We can see thousands of bags of charcoal. After a couple of hours’ walk we find that a vast forest area has already disappeared. The constant coming and going of charcoal bags indicates that production is still at full blast.

What strikes us is that everyone in this filière speaks Rwandan. My guide says that most of them have recently moved in from Rwanda. A villager who has been following us for some time, fulminates when we bring up the subject. ‘We are all Congolese’, is his hostile response. Emmanuel de Mérode, Virunga Park’s Belgian director, admits that he does not have the situation in the south west of the park under control. Burungu is very near to Kitchanga, which for many years was Ntaganda’s home base and CNDP area par excellence. The fact that large-scale charcoal production has been going on undisturbed for years in this Unesco world heritage, is only possible with the approval of Bosco Ntaganda, who offers protection against money. In their report, the UN experts mention that the CNDP also have considerable income from Bwiza and Tebero, two other charcoal producing sites.

It is one of so many examples of what “administration” means in North Kivu. In order to protect their interests, Kagame and Kabila made a deal which is put in practice by Ntaganda. This deal brings a very relative and sometimes violent peace, turns the rule of law into a farce, flouts international conventions and hardly allows for any other initiative in the region. Except for wealth in Rwanda and in maffia kingdoms. Anyone bold enough to criticize this state of affairs, is risking their lives. Many Congolese are wondering why MONUSCO, which is supposed to be the UN’s largest peace force, is so passive. It looks like the international community has resigned itself to Ntaganda’s rule.

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