KIGALI, RWANDA — People about to meet Rwanda's Paul Kagame are usually warned about his physical appearance. "Be prepared," one diplomat was told. "He's thin" - as if that actually said something.
But his manner may be more striking than his appearance - and makes him a difficult read. Mr. Kagame's silences are usually long and deafening.
After four years in power, Rwanda's vice president and army commander remains the largely inscrutable force behind three invasions in central Africa. Today, Kagame is intent on altering the geography of Congo. If he succeeds in carving a security zone out of a 145-mile stretch of Congo to protect Rwanda's western border, prospects are good for the survival of his government and his people.
Of Kagame, there are few known facts, the main one being he was raised in exile. He was four years old when his family fled Rwanda. A blue-blooded Tutsi, he belonged to the ethnic minority that ruled the country for centuries and were overthrown by the Hutu majority. Tutsis across Rwanda were being hunted down. Roughly 20,000 were massacred in the Hutu revolution of 1959.
As a refugee in Uganda, Kagame resolved to acquire military training. By his early 30s, he was acting chief of intelligence in the Ugandan Army, conspiring to invade Rwanda. The Rwandan Patriotic Front, of which he was a leader, invaded Rwanda Oct. 1, 1990. Two weeks later, Kagame assumed command. On July 4, 1994, after four years of fighting, the RPF took Rwanda's capital.
To this day, no event in recent African history has had consequences as far reaching and violent as the RPF's invasion of Rwanda and the reinstatement of the Tutsi elite to power in a country where they are outnumbered 7 to 1. The fall of Mobutu Sese Seko's dictatorship in the neighboring former Zaire and the current conflict in the renamed Congo are the harsh echoes of that enterprise. The cost in human lives has been staggering.
As the RPF fought for power, the Hutu leadership conceived and executed plans to exterminate Rwanda's Tutsis. In 1994, as many as 800,000 Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were killed in three months. When the RPF got to power, putting an end to the genocide, the definition of power in Rwanda had changed.
"The genocide was so ... huge, it's no longer about politics, it's about survival," a Western diplomat notes. Kagame has never tried to pretend otherwise. The residue of the genocide, an army of Hutu supremacists sits just across Rwanda's border in Congo. There are 130,000 genocide suspects in jail, none with friendly views of the government. There is the logic of numbers: 7 million Hutus and 1-1/2 million Tutsis. Baldly put, there is the need to survive.
Kagame is the first to acknowledge that. "The issue is always: If somebody doesn't ensure your security and instead causes insecurity to you, what do you do?" he said in an interview. "My job is to deal with that eventuality. But I certainly would be a very, very happy person if I didn't have to deal with these uncertainties."
The uncertainties he faces today are largely the result of Rwanda's proximity to Congo. The size of the country, the lack of any recognizable infrastructure, makes it a difficult place to govern - and an ideal sanctuary for armed Hutu rebels. "Initially, we had hoped to handle [Congo] adequately with [Laurent] Kabila's government," Kagame says, "Apparently, the decision has turned out to have the opposite effect."
Rwanda's capital, Kigali, and Congo's capital, Kinshasa, are more than 1,000 miles apart. Congo is the size of Western Europe, Rwanda is the size of Maryland. It is a comment on Kagame's personality - and the predicament he is in - that such technicalities have never bothered Kagame. In November 1997, he sent troops into Congo to topple a 32-year dictatorship because it had proven unfriendly. What started as an attack on refugee camps harboring hostile elements in eastern Congo changed after Kagame and his advisers had a closer look at the map. Kinshasa, they decided, was far, but weak. Seven months later, Kinshasa fell. Laurent-Desir Kabila, a previously unknown warlord, was brought in to replace Mobutu.
Kagame and Mr. Kabila are a study in opposites: Where Kagame is calculated and discreet, Kabila is, by accounts of those who have met him, impulsive and assuming. It is unclear how long and to what extent the partnership worked. But in late July alarms went off across the region. Apparently on a whim, Kabila served the Rwandan troops in Congo with an expulsion order.
Kagame remembers, "We were already involved in a process of withdrawing all our troops from Congo, it's something I had agreed on. Well, I told the officer, don't worry, since you are coming anyway. Forget about it. Just pack your bags."
A week after the expulsion, the Congolese town of Goma, a five-minute drive from the Rwandan border, fell into the hands of an ill-defined rebel group. Technically, they belonged to the 10th brigade of the Congolese Army, stationed in Goma.
Who's implicated in war
But the degree of daring and efficiency the rebels displayed as they mounted a massive airlift to the west of Congo raised immediate suspicions of Rwandan involvement. Accused of invading Congo, Rwanda issued a categorical denial. Since then, however, the government has softened its stance.
"What is important is not to know whether we are [in Congo] or not, but to measure what is on the ground and see whether there is a need for us to be involved," Kagame says. "It would take people to understand the real issues ... and not confuse things by saying that if we were to be involved in Congo, that we have invaded Congo, but rather that we have done so in line with our concerns about security."
In Kagame's vocabulary, the term "security" implies first and foremost the notion of survival. The genocide has made it hard to ask whether a minority can legitimately exact such a high price for its hold on power. Congo is already split in half. The attack on Kinshasa failed after Angola, the region's military giant, inexplicably stepped in on Kabila's side. Zimbabwean and Namibian troops have also volunteered to protect the capital. Congo has now turned into a colossal battleground for seven armies.
For Kagame, the issue of legitimacy is an academic one. After his troops were unceremoniously kicked out of Congo, he and Kabila had a lengthy conversation. At that stage, Kagame knew Kabila was training Hutu militia on Congolese soil - an act amounting to a declaration of war - and Kagame was planning the attack on Goma.
Nonetheless, Kagame talked about "future cooperation" between the two countries. "It was a good discussion," he recalled. Asked how it could have possibly been good, he waved his hand. "If Kabila were to call me right now, I would pick up the phone. And even if he were to abuse me, I would say 'Thank you.' But if he came close to our border, the phone call would have nothing to do with the decisions made."