Opposing tribes debate peace or war, life or death: Richard Dowden, journeying through Zaire, reports from Masisi on the struggle for survival between migrants and local people

THE TRACK climbed into the hills. Although they are as steep as stairs they are dotted with huts and every available space has been cultivated. Hundreds of women passed us on the road, heaving great baskets on their backs held by a strap round their foreheads. They seemed the epitome of oppressive poverty. But then the tops of the hills opened out into pasture. It looks like Switzerland and suddenly we saw a herd of pale-brown Swiss cattle, large and sleek. Could this really be Zaire?

We stopped at a small farmhouse, a bungalow set in a beautifully kept garden of African and European flowers. A tall casually dressed man introduced himself as Ndayire Daima, the farm manager, and we sat on the verandah drinking glasses of fresh milk, still warm from the cows. The farm had 2,000 cows at the moment, he said, but they had terrible problems getting veterinary drugs and special feeds and the milk yield could be far higher. All the milking is done by hand. The farm had been built by an Italian during colonial times but was now owned by a local man.

It sells meat and cheese in Goma but Mr Ndayire complained that all the foreign-exchange profit went to the merchants there and the farm only received worthless Zairean money. He was proud of their Friesian-Swiss crossbreeds and showed us photographs of the herds.

There were several other dairy farms on the road and we reflected on their apparent richness and the poverty of the peasants who still passed us on the road.

We were on our way to Masisi, some 40 miles away, but the track is so bad that it took about four hours by Land Rover. That is the way most roads are in Zaire, so it is impossible to drive from one part of the country to another.

The original inhabitants of this area are Bahunde people but throughout this century there has been a steady westward migration of Tutsi and Hutu people from Rwanda. Although they are notorious enemies in Rwanda, the Hutu and Tutsi unite here against the Bahunde. Although some families have lived here for more than 50 years, the Banyarwanda, as they are called, are not given Zairean citizenship. But they form more than 80 per cent of the population.

The local Bahunde chiefs rent them land and exact a percentage of their crop in return. The Tutsi and Hutu have a reputation for hard work and productivity and they resent the power of the Bahunde chiefs. Last March the situation exploded and between March and July 5,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes. The survivors lost a crop and food aid had to be sent in.

This week a peace conference was held in a school in Masisi. It was sponsored by the local churches and chaired by a professor from Kisangani University. There were a few local-government delegates but they simply wished the conference well and did not try to dominate it. Outside were armed police but they protected the conference and no one said they felt intimidated by them. When it began the Bahunde chiefs and the representatives of the Banyarwanda would not look at each other or speak to each other, but after the first day they began to argue passionately and nervously.

As night came it seemed deadlocked. The Banyarwanda wanted some sort of democratic control over the chiefs and suggested setting up committees which could recommend that bad chiefs could be replaced. The chiefs, who are hereditary, said that there were already existing structures locally and the conference had no authority to set up new ones. They said the Banyarwanda were foreigners and therefore had no rights to land or any say in local affairs.

It was about tradition and democracy, about land rights and people's rights, about tribalism and ethnicity. It was about all the things which are at the core of Africa's problems. But for these people it was no academic debate, it was a matter of peace or war, life or death. Late in the night they were still debating.

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