There is a long, narrow bridge in the eastern Congo that women cross before climbing down to wash on the pale rocks below. Beneath its slatted deck, the sweep of the Ulindi, a tributary of the Congo itself, starts a slide into rapids. Here, not so long ago, hundreds, perhaps thousands, were murdered.
"Over on those rocks," a man who was crossing the bridge said, fiddling with the cross around his neck. "That was where they killed. They threw the bodies into the water." Another said: "The refugees reached the bridge and they couldn't cross and they were driven into the water." In their war-weary minds, it was not the bloodletting that upset the most, but the numbers who drowned.
"So many," a man who had been employed to count refugees explained. "There were 84,000 in one camp and 38,000 in the other and they all tried to get across the bridge. There were missing sections then and many fell through, or they were driven down the banks and tried to swim." It happened just where the river, already wide and powerful, picks up speed. This massacre, a response to genocide, has never been written of before.
I first came to Shabunda, a pretty town of wattle houses, destroyed Belgian avenues and gold-bearing dirt when the Democratic Republic of Congo was still Zaire. Mobutu Sese Seko, despot for 30 years, had returned to Kinshasa, the capital, to announce that he - "Le pere de la nation" - would repel the invaders who had cut into the distant eastern borders. It was Christmas 1996 and Shabunda was on the front line. Refugee camps had formed and the International Committee of the Red Cross was flying in food, attempting to see off famine.
The reasons for the conflagration in west-central Africa, a war that would suck in eight countries and cost between three and four million lives, are as convoluted as they are tragic - but they come down to Rwanda's genocide, the clash between the Tutsis, once promoted by the Belgians and now determined to protect themselves, and the Hutus - the downtrodden who had had enough.
BEYOND THE PALE
The refugees were, for the most part, Hutus, many of whom had been responsible for the genocide of the Tutsis in 1994. Mixed in among the distressed and innocent were members of the infamous Interahamwe, those who had slaughtered their neighbors as "cockroaches." Despite killing just short of one million people, they failed in their attempts to annihilate a whole group of people, and in 1994 were driven out of Rwanda by the brilliant Tutsi general, Paul Kagame. The Hutus established camps just beyond the Rwandan border and for a while were relatively secure. Then, in 1996, Kagame decided to act, backing an invasion of the area by the Zairean rebel Laurent Kabila.
As the vast camps of Hutus emptied under the assault, Kagame told the refugees they had nothing to fear in coming home to Rwanda and many complied, forming great columns on the volcanic landscape of Goma and the green hills of Bukavu that are still the enduring image of that time.
Some refugees, who didn't believe they would be safe in Rwanda, headed in the opposite direction, further into Zaire. Some were undoubtedly members of the Interahamwe, but many were innocent, scared and did not know which way to go to remain safe. "I just followed," one woman said. "Everybody was running and I just followed."