Reporters Brave Peril for Coverage on the Endless Conflict in the DRC

An armoured personnel carrier of the Tanzanian contingent of the MONUSCO, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, drive past a UPDF (Uganda People's Defence Forces) patrol car in Mukakati on December 10, 2021. PHOTO/AFP

In early July 2000, hundreds of Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) troops trekked for 350km from Kisangani to Lindi towards Buta in Orientale Province where they were airlifted back home.

This came at the time when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on July 1, 2000, demanded that they withdraw their forces after the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) filed cases of armed aggression and human rights violations against Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi in June 1999.  

President Museveni and his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame, on July 1, 2000, met at Botanical Beach Hotel Entebbe, Wakiso District, where they agreed to implement the Lusaka ceasefire agreement. 

A week after, Gen James Kazini, one of the UPDF commanders, who had been withdrawn from the frontline, was rushed to St Mary’s London Hospital with suspicion swirling that he had been poisoned.

On July 19, 2000, Brig Katumba Wamala returned from a one-year military course at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and took over as the commander for Operation Safe Haven.

A day after, Capt Dan Byakutaga, the UPDF paymaster in the DRC, disappeared with a Shs1.6 billion war chest meant for soldiers’ salaries. He has never been seen again, although it is believed he fled to the US. Two days later, the UPDF High Command chaired by Museveni met in Bombo where they discussed, among others, Byakutaga’s disappearance.

Detention ordeal
Grace Matsiko, a former New Vision security journalist, who later worked at the Daily Monitor, was among those who covered the Kisangani war and was briefly detained by Rwandan troops alongside the President’s son-in-law, Odrek Rwabwogo, a journalist then.

“All signs were on the skyline that Uganda and Rwandan troops were heading for a fight in Kisangani, even when some in government dispelled our reports we were filing from the war front given the historical ties between the two militaries,” Matsiko recalls, adding, “I was among a group of Ugandan journalists reporting from Kisangani, who interviewed Prof Wamba Dia Wamba.”

The professor was leading a faction of a Congolese rebel group after another led by Bizima Karaha broke away and allied with Rwanda. On returning from Wamba’s heavily fortified headquarters, Masiko recalls meeting “a roadblock hurriedly erected by the Rwanda Patriotic Forces, who cocked their weapons as we approached and demanded that our Ugandan armed escorts don’t cross the line.”

Matsiko remembers their escorts jumping off the vehicle and taking cover in the bush.
“We holed up in the vehicle, fear engulfing us as the war of words between the two groups of soldiers pierced the air,” he recounts, adding, “For the fear of a gunfight as a neutral party to the conflict, we decided to abandon the vehicle with our hands raised and we crossed the roadblock and our escorts drove back to Uganda military headquarters at Laforestiere.”

Matsiko later learnt that the Rwanda army had taken control of large swathes of the city, including the hotel where they were staying shortly after the first Kisangani clashes broke out.

“They searched us and put us under interrogation for a greater part of the night and separated us from each other until morning when, under heavy military escort, we were taken to Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) headquarters where we met their sector commander, a colonel then, Patrick Nyanvumba, [later appointed the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) Chief of Defence Staff] who calmed us down, gave us food and promised to protect us and offered to provide a flight to take us to Uganda through Kigali as Bangoka Airport in Kisangani was now in the hands of Uganda”.

Warning
Matsiko says Kazini, the Operation Safe Haven commander, had been in communication with Nyanvumba throughout the night and informed President Museveni about their captivity.

“At one time, Kazini attempted to send a force to rescue us, but apparently was restrained … warning Col Nyanvumba that should any of us get hurt, Uganda will be forced to use force to rescue us because we had gone there under Uganda’s protection,” he says.

Nyanvumba conceded and handed them to the Uganda army contingent. Matsiko and Rwabwogo made their way to Bangoka Airport where an Air Alexander flight operated by Efforte Corporation, a company which had links with Gen Salim Saleh, had delivered supplies.

“The flight, which came to be the last to leave Kisangani now under heavy military protection, had almost left us behind before the military ordered the pilot to abort take off as we raced to catch the flight,” he recalls, adding, “Apparently, the crew were warned of the attack on the aircraft any time. We found many Ugandans on board, who were fleeing Kisangani, landing at Entebbe late evening. Shortly after, we started getting reports that fighting was underway and Rwanda had attacked Prof Wamba’s headquarters, sparking what came to be called the first Kisangani clashes. Among the journalists in our ordeal was Odrek Rwabwogo, then a freelance journalist and now the President’s son-in-law.”

Merchant of death
Matsiko had earlier travelled to DRC on an Islander executive aircraft co-piloted by then rebel leader Jean Pierre Bemba, who is the current DRC Defence Minister. He recalls that the plane from Entebbe airport landed at an airfield in the town of Lisala, the capital of Mongola Province, north-eastern DRC.

“Immediately it came under aerial attack from DRC air force planes. Apparently, Kinshasa had intelligence about our flight and the high-profile individuals on it and had mobilised the ground troops to overrun the small rebel force and capture Bemba,” he disclosed, adding, “The rebel force repulsed the warplanes and after a brief lull in the bombardment, our flight took off heading to Gbadolite, the headquarters of Bemba as the sun was setting.”

However, on approaching Gbadolite airport, it was unlit and very dark, Matsiko recalled. “The lights were switched off for fear of an aerial attack. An argument between Bemba and the chief South African pilot ensued on forced landing, which Bemba, a trained pilot, preferred. At one point, Bemba commandeered the aircraft but the South African pilot abandoned landing as he could not see the runway since light from the few vehicles that lined up the runway to guide the hazardous landing was not enough and went up another round in the skies. There was now a great danger of hovering above Gbadolite City and the possibility of ground or aerial attack as Kinshasa troops were close by or the aircraft running out of fuel mid-air and it crashes,” he said.

Matsiko says Bemba communicated on his satellite telephone with some of his commanders as more vehicles were brought to the airport and they finally landed, to the great relief of everyone after more than 30 minutes. After the perilous flight, they made their way to Bemba’s palatial residence, where they spent the night.

Hard landing
On the aircraft was Viktor Bout. The global kingpin in the trade of illicit arms from the huge stockpiles of the collapsed Soviet Union, had been jailed in the United States for 25 years but was freed in a swap deal last year with female US basketball star Brittney Griner, who was arrested in February 2022 and imprisoned in Moscow.

Bout had earlier on during a sting operation been caught on camera agreeing to sell undercover US agents, posing as representatives of Colombia’s leftist FARC guerrillas, 100 surface-to-air missiles, which they would use to kill US troops. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested by Thai police.

After over two years, during which Russia protested his arrest and claimed he was innocent, the so-called Merchant of Death was extradited to the US, where he faced a raft of charges, including conspiracy to support terrorists, conspiracy to kill Americans and money laundering.

Matsiko revealed: “On the aircraft, we had a quiet passenger who only spoke to Bemba and avoided discussions with any of us. There was a security presence wherever he was. He introduced himself to me as a researcher, but I came to learn he was Viktor Bout. He also had been suspicious that I knew his true identity … even after we returned from the Gbadolite trip, his minders kept in contact with me. But as a young journalist, I had innocently not known his serious connections with illegal weapons sales and its impact on the regional stability and threat to humanity until later on when he was put on the international wanted list and his subsequent capture.”

Gbadolite’s Versailles of the jungle
Bart Kakooza, the chief executive officer of Media Plus Ltd, is another journalist who covered the DRC conflict.

He first travelled to the DRC in 1996 when Uganda and Rwanda supported Laurent Kabila, who later ousted Mobutu Sese Seko.

“Some of the key memories I have were in a place called Basankusu, north towards Mbandaka [Equateur Province]. I was with Anna Borzello [BBC Focus on Africa journalist then]. We arrived in Lisala [Mongola Province capital] in the night and we had nowhere to sleep, so we ended up in a church. So Bemba set up a tent and we slept near the pulpit,” he recalled, adding, “During the firing in the night, we had to hide with [Borzello] and it was difficult for her as a lady. We stayed there with Paul Busharizi [consulting New Vision and former Reuters journalist] and Emmy Allio [former New Vision journalist and former deputy External Security Organisation boss], so the following night, we went to Busankusu, they (DRC fighters) were using drum bombs with explosives and an Antonov [plane] would come and hover over the village, I saw people who were devastated and I was terrified.”

Kakooza says during his war reporting, he travelled to Gbadolite, the ancestral home of President Mobutu Sese Seko, nicknamed ‘Versailles of the Jungle’ a symbol of his profligacy.

“This was a town created in a jungle, with boulevards, which were a copycat of those in Paris, France. There was even a Coca-Cola plant that he used to serve a stream of visitors. There were three palaces, the first one which was to the west, the next one was like a Thai temple, and the third had all the luxuries that you can think of on earth,” Kakooza says.

Kakooza says Mobutu also built a palace in Lisala, where he constructed a first-class boulevard from the airport to his home.

“One of the things I remember is the statue of Mobutu’s mother holding the son on her lap, the statue was later looted as it had a bit of gold.”

Plane ride from hell
Tired of the perilous life at the frontline and the diet, including snake meals, Kakooza longed to go home.

“We had to wait for a week to get a plane to Entebbe. Kazini and Bemba promised Borzello a plane to meet her family and she was frustrated. Bemba offered a plane. It was so risky, but I had to leave. The runaway had lights, but as usual, the Kinshasa government had a satellite to trace the planes. If lights were switched on, they (DRC troops) would bomb that area. Secondly, the pilot of that [four-seater] Piper Aircraft had fallen in a ditch and fractured his leg and was under sedatives. So they woke him up to come and fly us. I was tired and wanted to leave, I did not want to stay in Congo. They had brought me snakes and I was only having bread and soda. I did not want to stay another time, and endure another week, so around 8pm, they drove us to the airport.”

“Gbadolite has an airport, which can land a Concorde plane, one of Mobutu’s favourite toys that matched his opulent lifestyle,” recalls Kakooza.

“We went to the runway and they put on a torch and we taxied. As soon as you are air-bound, they switch off the lights. [Borzello] sat in the co-pilot’s seat and I sat behind. After 10 to 15 minutes, the pilot placed the plane on autopilot and said: ‘I am feeling drowsy. Wake me when we are about to hit the storm.’ Borzello started looking at the radar. I knew we were going to die. The plane moved and the radar turned red, the plane hit a heavy cloud, the pilot struggled with the plane, I knew we wouldn’t survive. We later scaled the turbulence and the plane landed in Entebbe,” he recalls.

In the last part of the series, we reconstruct the murky details of how President Laurent Kabila, paranoid, isolated and dejected by the shortcomings at the frontline, was assassinated in a plot hatched by his former allies—the Kadogos (child soldiers) in the neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville.

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