By Gewn Thompkins
When asked what quality he valued above all others in a general, Napoleon said he liked the lucky ones. And Monday, at a military base in a remote village in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gen. Laurent Nkunda was feeling his luck.
The general was in a good mood: His rebel army now controls more ground than ever in the region, and his hand is stronger than ever in determining the future of eastern Congo, and perhaps even Congo itself.
Nkunda's eyes were shining behind his spectacles. "Today we are strong because the international community understands that we are a cry for freedom," he said. "We are, that is, spiritual, we are not physical."
Longstanding tensions between Congo and neighboring Rwanda have fueled the destabilization of eastern Congo, where a humanitarian crisis is now brewing. Nkunda is said to have Rwandan backing.
Sitting in his upholstered chair, the tall and wiry rebel leader was expansive in his remarks. Nkunda, who is a Congolese Tutsi, says he fights to protect other Tutsis in eastern Congo from extremist Hutu militias bent on killing. But he also says he speaks for all Congolese people who have suffered through civil wars, poverty and neglect.
Nkunda blamed his nation's leaders — from the Belgians to current president Joseph Kabila — for the suffering. The general's territorial advancements have killed an untold number of civilians and pushed an estimated 250,000 Congolese to the point of desperation. But Nkunda saw no connection between the suffering then and the suffering now.
"That's the cost of freedom," he said. "I accept Congolese to suffer for one year, two years, three years, four years — but be free forever. Freedom is not a gift. You have to suffer for it and fight for it. And we are ready to suffer, but be free forever."
Good luck selling that idea to Bibiyana, who goes by only one name. She was about 60 miles away from the rebel base, walking to the Kibati camp for internally displaced people outside Goma. The strap of a huge plastic bag was digging into her forehead. The bag was on her back, a baby was on her breast, she was pulling another child with one hand, and she had another bag in the other. Bibiyana hadn't eaten in days.
"We are missing water. We are suffering," she said. "We don't have medicine to treat us. Maybe God will have to help us."
Aid organizations are now moving to feed the people who have reached the outermost edge of desperation.
At the governor's office in Goma, a kind of political desperation is sinking in. This Nkunda rebellion, if not resolved quickly, is potentially career-killing for Julien Paluku, the governor of North Kivu province in eastern Congo and part of the nation's new, democratically elected leadership. Paluku is up for re-election in two years, and he says all of Congo's current leadership will be judged by what happens in eastern Congo.
"We must do efforts to solve the problem," Paluku said. "We can't maintain the population in this condition, because after two years, it will be a problem for us. Because people will ask us, 'Why you didn't bring peace for us?' "
Sitting in his upholstered chair in an immaculate blue suit and shiny black shoes, Paluku says the people will also blame Nkunda, who has aspirations to one day be in government. The general will then really have to be lucky — because everyone knows that a political campaign is one of the hardest fights of all.