BUKAVU, CONGO — When a Rwandan Defense official was recently asked about his country's influence over neighboring Congo, he didn't so much as bat an eye. "Congo?" he said, "But we have nothing in Congo."
The idea of tiny Rwanda exercising any degree of control over a colossus the size of Western Europe does lend itself to skepticism. If true, it would be the first time since colonial days that an African nation took a chunk out of one of its neighbors.
Last year, the army that swept across Zaire in seven months to topple one of the world's most embarrassing dictators, Mobutu Sese Seko, was led by Rwandans.
At the time, the idea was to rid the region of an unpopular leader whose calculated support of different regional rebel groups had been a thorn in the side of neighboring countries. A half dozen nations - Ethiopia, Angola, Uganda, Eritrea, Zambia, and, most important, Rwanda - had a role in bringing down Mobutu.
Having succeeded in installing rebel leader Laurent Kabila in power in the capital, Kinshasa, the contributing armies ideally should have headed back home.
A walk through the streets of Bukavu, an indolent lakeside town across the border from Rwanda, is all it takes to realize that things haven't quite gone that way.
"The Rwandans never left," says one aid worker in the region, who asked not to be named. Indeed, scores of them can be seen patrolling the town. They cross the border in large numbers and frequently fan out in villages across the region. They have reportedly arrested Congolese soldiers on Congolese soil.
As a foreign presence in a neighboring state, they come across as distinctly unapologetic in their daily operations, which include guarding the governor's office. Close to a year after the end of the war, many in Bukavu are wondering if they will ever leave.
While it is hard to gauge the extent and the nature of Rwanda's presence in North and South Kivu, it is sufficiently large and prepossessing to have turned into a source of irritation and, increasingly, a cause for rage and violence.
"This force is an occupation force," says Raphael, an activist for Les Heritiers de la Justice, a human rights group in Bukavu. "If you [just] look at the people in the army, you can't really say that. But if you look at the way it is run, at the chain of command, then it's an occupation force."
Others think there is no need to look so closely. "Every time something happens in this region, it's the Rwandans who take care of it," a political analyst says. "The country may have been liberated, but the Kivus have definitively been occupied."
Chasing down rebels
The Rwandans do have one reason for being here. Lacking a proper army, Mr. Kabila has been unable to impose law in either of the two remote provinces. As a result, the Kivus have provided sanctuary for Hutu extremists waging an ethnic war against Rwanda's Tutsi-led government.
The rebels - formerly amassed in refugee camps in what was then eastern Zaire - have carried out raids and retreated back into Congo, giving the Rwandans a good excuse to cross the border in hot pursuit.
Still, security concerns do not appear to justify Rwanda's seemingly invasive presence. "If all the Rwandans care about are the Hutu rebels, why not pursue them and go back? Why are so many Rwandan civilians setting up shop there? More to the point, why are they being allowed to set up shop?" asks a foreign analyst.
In Bukavu, many believe Kabila has tacitly agreed to let the Rwandans take over the Kivus in exchange for their vital support in the war against Mobutu. "If Kabila has sold us out to Kigali, then we want to know," says Dieudonne Kisulu, a student at the University in Bukavu. "We want to know what exactly he has agreed to."
According to Jean-Charles Magabe, governor of South Kivu, Kabila has agreed to nothing. "The Rwandan Army is here with the state's permission," he says. "Our army is forming itself as we speak, and they are here to help us."
Bukavu Mayor Thaddee Mutware Binyonyo, a Tutsi, says the impression of Rwandans as an occupying force has been largely manufactured by Hutu extremists: "They are telling people: 'Look, the Rwandans have come here to dominate. They have come to take your country.' "
What Rwanda could ultimately gain from the Kivus is unclear. Some say living room that would relieve pressure in one of the world's most densely populated countries. Others say economic gain.
"The question really begs an answer," says a Western diplomat. "But as far as all this talk of annexation goes, not even the Israelis annex things these days."