Operation: Rwanda's African Odyssey
by Comer Plummer
While the African Continent has seen no shortage of war in our time, few of
these conflicts produced campaigns or battles worthy of study. One exception
emerged from the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire,
which lasted from 1998 to 2001. This conflict, which has been called Africa's
World War, came to directly involve nine African countries. This war was
remarkable in many respects, not the least of which was its opening phase that
featured a long range aerial insertion of ground troops behind enemy lines,
with the aim of achieving a quick knockout victory. This was an operation that
exemplified audacity and courage, and its aftermath became an odyssey fit for a
This conflict had its origins in the 1996-7 'war of liberation' in Zaire,
during which an alliance of Congolese rebels and foreign forces overthrew the
country's dying despot, Mobutu Sese Seko. While the liberation theme was pushed
for public consumption, the underlying causes of the war involved efforts by
the regimes of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi to defeat domestic opposition groups
operating from eastern Zaire. Rwanda, with the most serious crisis, was at the
center of this effort.
Rwanda sank into a period of civil war in 1994, during which Hutu and Tutsi
tribes engaged in a horrific genocide that took the lives of up to 800,000
people. Hundreds of thousands of Rwandans fled to refugee camps in eastern
Zaire, among them many Hutu soldiers and militiamen who took part in the
massacres. These groups used the camps to reorganize and resume their attacks
into Rwanda. By 1996, when Mobutu's decaying state was unable to deal with
the crisis, Kigali's Tutsi-dominated government determined to solve the problem
with its small, but highly disciplined army.
Plucking a rotund, aging Congolese Marxist revolutionary, Laurent-Desiré
Kabila, from a comfortable East African exile, the Rwandans set him at the head
of an army of liberation consisting of Rwandan 'advisors', Zairean dissidents
and military deserters, and child soldiers. With Ugandan and Burundian
assistance, the alliance swept to power in May of 1997. Kabila set about
remaking the country. One of his first acts was to change the country's name
back to its pre-Mobutu appellation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For
more than a year, Kabila and his Rwandan allies co-existed in power. The
Rwandans occupied many key posts in Kabila's government and the new Congolese
One of the central figures in the conflict in the Congo was a Rwandan Colonel,
James Kabare (also spelled Kabarebe). Kabare, a Tutsi, was born in Rutshuru in
eastern Congo in 1959. A long time confidant and aide to Rwandan President Paul
Kagame, he came to play a key role in Rwandan foreign affairs. During Kabila's
march across Congo in 1996-7, Kabare served as the rebel leader's Chief of
Operations. Kabila later appointed Kabare to be interim Chief of Staff of the
FAC. Kabare, wiry and intense, was hard liner with a 'never again'
determination to defend Kagame's regime. An ardent soldier, he claimed to have
participated in hundreds of combat operations.
Laurent Kabila was not the puppet the Rwandans expected. He came to resent
their control and feared Kigali planned his overthrow. Abruptly, on July 13,
1998, Kabila replaced Kabare as his military Chief of Staff. Two weeks later,
he ordered all Rwandan troops to depart the Congo. He then rounded up all
'counter-revolutionaries', including Congolese Tutsis (called, Banyamulenge),
which he suspect of being pro-Rwandan.
Congo's king-makers were not so easily dismissed. They decided to replace
Kabila. On August 2, 1998, Congolese military units mutinied in Goma, near
Congo's eastern frontier with Rwanda. Soldiers belonging to a new Rwanda-backed
rebel group took over a local radio station and announced a revolt to oust
Kabila. On cue, Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) forces steamed across the border
into Goma and Bukavu. As these events unfolded, in Kinshasa several hundred
Rwandan soldiers who had evaded Kabila's repatriation order, and supported by
Banyamulenge fighters, attacked FAC army bases. FAC units suppressed these
attacks, but were quickly overwhelmed in the east. Within days, the RPA
controlled Congo's eastern border from Bukavu to Uvira and was moving deep into
the Kivu provinces. In northeastern Congo, Ugandan Army (UPDF) forces invaded
Ituri District and began their drive for Kisangani – Congo's commercial hub on
the upper Congo River.
Laurent Kabila did not panic. The sheer size of his country, the nature of the
terrain, and the lack of trafficable roads would doubtless slow the enemy. The
year before, it had taken his forces months to march across Congo, and in the
face of little resistance. Surely, he would have the time to assemble forces
and international support to stem the tide.
The Rwandans and their Ugandan allies would deny him that luxury. They realized
that they needed a quick blow to hasten the end of this war. They had little
regard for Congolese forces, but feared a long campaign and the grueling march
across the tangled terrain of dense forests, marshes, and innumerable rivers of
the Congo River basin. Plus, a quick strike would minimize international
condemnation and the risk of drawing neighboring countries into the fight.
The Rwandans conceived a bold plan: As the offensive in the east developed,
they would airlift a contingent of troops 1,500 kilometers across the Congo
basin to Kitona air base, located 320 kilometers west of Kinshasa near the
Atlantic coast. From there, the contingent would march east, capturing key
infrastructure, and attack Kinshasa from the rear. Along the way, they hoped to
augment their numbers with Congolese deserters and dissidents, and by
liberating Banyamulenge rounded up by Kabila. A Rwandan 'fifth column' was
already at work in the ghettos of Kinshasa, distributing arms and bribing
indigent youths to act as guides within the city. The Rwandans hoped to
generate a popular revolt against the Kabila regime. Failing that, at the very
least they would sow chaos.
The Rwandan plan targeted Congo's economic umbilical, the Bas Congo province.
Located west of Kinshasa, this province formed the finger of land that linked
Congo's vast interior with its tiny, 43-km coastline. While Congo's smallest
province, it strategically the most important, containing its only known oil
reserves and its primary source of electrical power, the Inga dam complex. This
latter facility powered much of Congo, from Kinshasa to the mining cities of
Katanga province, 1,700 kilometers distant. Congo's only oceanic ports were
there, including the port of Matadi, and an oil pipeline and rail line linking
Kinshasa to the ocean.
It was an audacious plan, and one fraught with risk. This small force would be
required to push across more than 300 kilometers of difficult terrain, seizing
several intermediate objectives along the march, at the end of which it would
attempt to invest and occupy a city of some 6 million people. The logistics of
the operation would depend on a long, tenuous air bridge. The Rwandans did not
fear privations or their adversary. They counted on the psychological impact of
the operation. Surprise, and their network of agents in Kinshasa, would ensure
panic and the collapse of any organized resistance.
If the Rwandans feared anything, it was Angola. Geography loomed over the
Kitona operation. The Angolan frontier lay just south of the air base; to the
immediate north was the Angolan enclave of Cabinda. Angola had already shown
itself willing to act unilaterally to stabilize the region. The year before,
the Angolan Army had intervened to end a civil war in Congo-Brazzaville and its
troops were stationed in that country. Moreover, the Angolan Army was a
formidable force. Its 112,000 soldiers outnumbered the combined forces of
Rwanda, Uganda, and the Congolese rebels. Angolan soldiers were hardened by
more than two decades of civil war. In short, the entire adventure depended on
On August 3, as RPA units were still consolidating their foothold in eastern
Congo, Rwandan forces under the personal command of Colonel Kabare, now Rwandan
Army Deputy Chief of Staff, commandeered three civilian airliners at Goma's
airport. The following day, he embarked 500 Rwandan soldiers and a Ugandan
artillery unit and headed for Kitona.
The contingent landed at Kitona air base on the morning of August 4, 1998. The
defenders offered little resistance. Most were ex-Zairean soldiers who had been
sent there for re-training. Unpaid for several weeks, the sight of bundles of
U.S. dollars the Rwandans brought drew many to the ranks of the contingent. The
Rwandans captured nearby Muanda and Congo's petroleum operations. In subsequent
days, additional flights from Goma and Kigali brought another 3,000 RPA and
Congolese rebel soldiers. The contingent began its march east. Boma and Buama
fell in rapid succession. By August 13, the invaders had captured Matadi and
the Inga damn complex, the last of their intermediate objectives, and stood
halfway to their prize. The Rwandans ordered Inga's turbines shut down,
plunging Kinshasa and much of Congo into darkness.
Laurent Kabila moved to his provincial refuge at Lubumbashi, where he worked
feverishly to assemble support for his tottering regime. He lobbied the
Southern African Development Community (SADC) for military assistance. On
August 17, three key members of that body - Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia –
gave him their support. Zimbabwean troops began to arrive in Kinshasa shortly
thereafter. Angola remained on the sidelines. South African President Nelson
Mandela, then also SADC President, called an emergency meeting of its members
for August 22.
The contingent marched on, silently now, for resistance had dissolved. Villages
emptied before them. Weapons shouldered, the soldiers filed along the
undulating banks of the Congo River, moving ever closer to Kinshasa and the
gray waters of the Stanley Pool. Panic engulfed the city, as thousands tried to
flee across the river to Brazzaville. The government closed the ferry and
people retreated to the ghettos. Diplomats and foreign workers flooded the
airport. On August 22, the day the summit was schedule to occur, the Rwandans
and their allies were 30 kilometers west of Kinshasa. In the east, Rwanda and
Ugandan forces were more than 150 kilometers inside Congo and pushing west
under little resistance. It was a race against time, and the Rwandans
appeared to be winning.
Then, it all fell apart. Mandela's summit failed to come together. Despite his
efforts, Angola and Namibia were preparing to intervene in the war. On 23
August, Angolan President José Eduardo Dos Santos announced that his troops
would defend Kinshasa. They had in fact already entered Congolese territory.
That day, 2,500 Angolan troops, supported by tanks and fighter aircraft,
attacked the Rwandan rear base at Kitona. Overwhelmed, the Rwandans rear guard
dispersed. Feeling somewhat reassured, Kabila returned to Kinshasa. The hunter
now became the hunted. Their line of retreat severed, Colonel Kabare and his
commanders had little choice but to press on to Kinshasa. Two days later the
contingent began working its way into the hills that surrounded the capital.
The fight for Kinshasa began in the early morning hours of August 26, 1998. It
lasted for three days. The Rwandans surrounded the city and infiltrated key
areas, probing for weaknesses. Their attacks were concentrated against the
Kasangulu township at western approach to Kinshasa and N'djili airport in the
east. These efforts failed, largely due to the stout resistance of Zimbabwean
troops. The Rwandans also failed to generate a popular rising in the urban
quarters. Rumors of a Tutsi uprising launched a spontaneous vigilante hunt for
Banyamulenge and collaborators. In those frenzied days, dozens were lynched and
the streets smoked with the charred bodies of those burned alive.
The Rwandans and their allies pulled back into the hills, where they regrouped
and took stock of their plight. They were dangerously short of supplies, their
line of retreat was cut, and they were more than a thousand kilometers inside
hostile country. FAC and Angolan troops were converging on them from east and
west. One by one, they recaptured Muanda, Boma, Inga, Buama, and Matadi. The
contingent had only one choice - exfiltration. But from where? The nearest
airfield was north, across the Congo River in Congo-Brazzaville. This was not a
viable option, given the lack of barges and that country's alignment with
Angola. Looking over a map, Kabare spotted a small regional airport across the
Angolan border at Maquela do Zombo. UNITA rebels roamed this area during the
Angolan Civil War and it remained largely uncontrolled by Luanda.
As the main body hunkered down and licked its wounds, the Rwandans hastened a
reconnaissance team to Maquela do Zombo to determine the suitability of the
airport. The team returned a week later, haggard and parched by the height of
the African summer. The news was not good: The airport was occupied by 400
Angolan troops. Undeterred, the Rwandans began to plan for an attack on the
In mid-September 1998, Colonel Kabare was ready to make his move. Leaving
behind the sick and wounded, he took the contingent across the border and
marched on Maquela do Zombo. Arriving several days later, they launched a night
attack that surprised and routed the defenders. Over the following days, Kabare
had the sick and wounded brought to the new camp, while his forces prepared
defenses around the airport. Inspecting their prize, they found that the runway
would need improvements. They would need to extend the length of the runway
from 1,400 to 1,800 meters to allow for larger cargo planes to land. Runway
lights would be required for a night time evacuation. Kabare realized he would
need time. He pushed forward their defenses and blocked the only access road
100 kilometers from town.
For nearly two months the contingent held the airport against encroaching
Angolan forces. They repelled several Angolan attacks, including one
spearheaded by 26 armored vehicles. Small supply flights arrived from Rwanda,
bringing the tools and generators that enabled them to add extend the runway
and add lights. With the runway ready, aircraft began arriving to evacuate the
contingent to Kigali. Over the next few days, the Rwandans made more than 30
flights out of Maquela do Zombo. Kabare later remarked, "As we emptied the
airport, we fell back from the perimeters. On the last day, our defenses were
just a few kilometers from the airport." On the final night of the operation,
the Rwandan rear guard and the commanders made a dash for the last plane as the
Angolans closed in.
By Christmas Day, 1998, the last elements of the contingent returned home.
Thirty-one soldiers of the Ugandan artillery unit, healthy and smiling,
debarked to a heroes' welcome at Kampala. Major General Afande Saleh, the
Ugandan Minister of Defense, was on hand to greet them. Kabare later noted with
satisfaction, "We handed them all in good health to Afande Saleh." He paused,
allowing himself a rare degree of sentiment, "They were all really good boys,
some of the best."
The intervention of SADC forces saved Kabila's regime. After the Rwandans were
turned back at Kinshasa, the war in the Congo settled into a stalemate that
lasted more than two years. In January, 2001, a bodyguard assassinated Laurent
Kabila and his son, Joseph Kabila, replaced him. By then, war fatigue chased
off many of the belligerents, and those few remaining bowed to pressure to end
a conflict that had become increasingly indefensible and unpopular. Congolese
government and rebel leaders signed a peace agreement and formed a transitional
government. In 2006 Congolese went to the polls in the country's first free
elections in 40 years and elected Joseph Kabila president of a unified Congo.
Show Footnotes and
. "Africa's Seven Nation War", International Crisis Group Report, May 21,
. "The Scramble for Congo: Anatomy of an Ugly War", International Crisis
Group Report, December 20, 2000, pp1-2 .
. "Plus Jamais, le Congo…" L'Observateur de L'Afrique Centrale, March
4, 2003, pp1-3.
. "The Pros and Cons of Military Support", The Namibian, August 21,
1998, p 3.
. "Une Aggression Préparé de Longue Date", Skynet.be,
. "L'Epopée de
la Défense de Kinshasa", Skynet.com
. "Daring RPA Raid In Congo, Angola;
and a Heroic UPDF Unit", The Sunday Monitor,
April 16, 2000, p 2.
"Une Aggression Préparé de Longue Date", p. 2.
"Daring RPA Raid In Congo, Angola; and a Heroic UPDF Unit", p 1.
"L'Epopée de la Défense de Kinshasa", p 3.
"Daring RPA Raid In Congo, Angola; and a Heroic UPDF Unit" pp 2-3.
"Africa's Seven Nation War", International Crisis Group Report, May 21, 1999.
"Carve-up in the Congo", Le Monde Diplomatic, October 1999.
"Conflicts in Africa", Global Issues.org, www.globalissues.org, October 31, 2003
"Daring RPA Raid In Congo, Angola; and a Heroic UPDF Unit", The Sunday Monitor,
April 16, 2000.
"L'Epopée de la Défense de Kinshasa", Skynet.be , undated.
"The Pros and Cons of Military Support", The Namibian, August 21, 1998
"Plus Jamais, le Congo…" L'Observateur de L'Afrique Centrale, March 4, 2003
"The Scramble for Congo: Anatomy of an Ugly War", International Crisis Group Report, December 20, 2000.
"Une Aggression Préparé de Longue Date", Skynet internet article, , undated.
Copyright © 2008 Comer Plummer.
Written by Comer Plummer. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Comer Plummer at:
About the author:
Comer Plummer is a retired US Army Officer. He served from 1983 to 2004 as both an
armor officer and Middle East/Africa Foreign Area Officer. He is currently
employed as a DoD civilian and living in Maryland with his wife
Published online: 05/26/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.