Foreigners are suspect. 'Kill them, kill them' is the cry

As the rebels close in, the streets of Kinshasa are ruled by hysteria and xenophobia, writes Ross Herbert
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"IF YOU kill Rwandans you receive benedictions. If you don't you receive maledictions," was the chant last week as several hundred university students marched down the main boulevard of Kinshasa's business district, raging about the war in Congo.

Cloth banners and screamed slogans decried Rwandan colonialisation and the United States and France, which are blamed for causing the current rebellion. "If white people install people in power we don't want, we will take guns and kill them," shouted one man who seemed to enjoy the surge of hate.

As my photographer and I approached the parade, a man carrying a sharpened stick as if it were a gun came running forward ready to spear us. "Are you French? What are you doing?"

I shouted that I was from South Africa, which appeased them but provoked a flood of rhetoric about the hypocrisy of the international community. As rebels march ever-closer to the capital, Congolese are increasingly venting a xenophobic rage at anyone who looks remotely like the ethnic Tutsis said to be organising the rebellion, or anyone white.

"All the population supports President [Laurent] Kabila. The war is coming from the United States and France because they want to take all of our resources," said Dianzenza Kunsikila Diaku, an English student at the national polytechnic.

To many Congo veterans the present mood is taking on a frightening twist. Fifteen months ago, when Tutsis installed President Kabila in power with help from Uganda and Angola, foreigners were greeted warmly (except for the French who were popularly believed to be propping up the late President Mobutu Sese Seko) despite the efforts of the Mobutu propaganda machine in whipping up bitter hatred of Tutsis and foreigners. Once it became clear Mobutu was going to lose, opinion about Tutsis shifted quickly with young men embracing arriving Tutsi fighters, offering to carry their bags or fetch water.

With a bald head, round face and jaunty cowboy hat, Jean Mukanga is a startling Kabila look-alike who says he wants to rebuild the Congo by mobilising the masses. He is head of the 20,000-strong Group for Action and Support of President Kabila - a combination fan club and promoter of public participation in reconstruction. On Friday it marched through Kinshasa to tell the Congolese that the French and United Nations are conspiring against Congo.

"The United Nations doesn't want to recognise it as an aggression by Uganda and Rwanda. The fact that they are being silent is ... complicity in the death of Congolese children," Mr Mukanga said.

Diplomats in Kinshasa acknowledge that most of the major powers have washed their hands of President Kabila, who is seen as both arrogant and inept. Wildly intolerant of criticism, he banned opposition political parties and routinely arrested journalists who might have rallied to his support. With the help of state television and harsh speeches from his ministers, he has created an intolerant climate that may be his only enduring legacy as well as an insurmountable obstacle to reconciliation. "With soldiers or police who are getting aggressive, they don't care what nationality you are. You are white. That's all. That was not there before," said Jean-Marie Falzone, a coordinator at the International Committee for the Red Cross.

After rebels captured the Inga Falls power station, government ministers accused international journalists of telling lies and favouring the rebels. Within hours, the effect of such statements were palpable on the streets of Kinshasa.

Last week minister of Human Rights, Leonard She Okitundu, held a press conference to accuse the rebels of violating the Geneva Convention and the international press of creating "a campaign of intoxication" that was causing people to flee. He was asked by journalists if they could report on the harm rebel power cuts were causing in hospitals. He assented and two journalists went to a nearby hospital, only to be arrested shortly after arriving.

Minutes after arriving at the University of Kinshasa to interview students, two British journalists on Friday were surrounded by an angry crowd screaming "Kill them. Kill them". Bodyguards had to beat back the students, whisk the journalists into a nearby building and out a back door. On Wednesday two French television crews were arrested by soldiers who forced them to their knees at gunpoint and smashed the front teeth of their Congolese driver with a rifle butt.

Journalists were regularly targeted in the dying days of Mobutu Sese Seko's rule, but this is different. Under Mobutu the game was to hassle and detain until journalists coughed up cash after which soldiers often shook hands and asked for contact details in case they wanted to emigrate to the journalist's country. Now journalists are assailed by a broad and bitter hostility to foreigners.

In part, it flows from President Kabila's charge that the war is an invasion by Ugandan and Rwandan troops in whose aggression France, the United States and the United Nations are complicit. In part it is a sign that the Kabila government is unravelling. Many government ministers have fled to the south-eastern city of Lubumbashi.

As rebel troops close in on Kinshasa, they have cut off the city's electricity and access to the only Congolese port at Matadi. In coming days, the economic pain will only fan the flames of ethnic hatred.

"We are suffering and no one wants to help us," said one woman queuing for paraffin at a Kinshasa filling station. As I asked how long she had waited, a crowd surged around me. "It is a national secret. You are suspicious," she said. In seconds angry shouts filled the air, "Go away. Go away ... We don't need foreigners."

The big question now is what happens if Kabila and his foreign backers gain the upper hand? Would Rwanda's Tutsi-dominated military - still flush with memories of the 1994 anti-Tutsi genocide, and fighting an ongoing war against those who committed the genocide - sit back as its ethnic kin and some of its regular army soldiers are massacred?

To bolster his weakened army, President Kabila has proposed arming the angry population to fight. Diplomats said they have tried to warn Kabila of the folly of introducing weapons into a cauldron of xenophobia and regional instability. "For the moment the people think that it is a good idea to hand out guns," said an unemployed student. "They want to fight the Rwandan people."