TENS of thousands of people in Zaire's southeastern Shaba province have been forced from their homes by a rival ethnic group in what appears to be the renewal of a longstanding conflict sparked by politicians in the capital, Kinshasa.
The latest expulsions of Kasai by Katangans, sometimes called Africa's brand of "ethnic cleansing" by diplomats and observers here, could cause the eventual breakup of Zaire and allow President Mobutu Sese Seko - the dictator of 28 years believed to be behind the unrest - to declare a "convenient" state of emergency.
At least 1,000 Kasai were arriving here daily last month after the latest wave of attacks began in late March. Armed Katangans told the mostly Kasai workers at Gecamines, the national mining company, to leave immediately or face death. They burned 80 houses to underscore their threats. So far at least 11 people have been killed.
Conflict between Zaire's 250 ethnic groups has existed for millenia, but the colonization of the "Congo Free State" by King Leopold of Belgium around the turn of the century - and the subsequent shifts of workers between regions - created further tensions.
When Belgian companies came to Shaba (then called Katanga) to mine cobalt and diamonds, they recruited workers from the central Kasai region. Local Katangans, it was thought, were not capable of or interested in the hard mining work. Provided with top jobs, good schools, and better food, the Kasai eventually took control of Shaba's economy, gaining a reputation for their business acumen. Evidence of `cleansing'
Today, spurred on by tribe-based political events in the capital and fiery ethnocentric speeches, bands of young Katangans armed with stones and machetes are brutally forcing the Kasai out of Shaba.
At the rail station of the mining center of Kolwezi, rusting rail cars stand motionless, some of them packed with belongings, most empty and immovable. They watch over an unfolding human tragedy as tens of thousands of Kasai evicted from their homes chaotically pile up, waiting for a train to carry them back to the Kasai land of their ancestors.
The stench is strong, a mixture of human waste lining the tracks, piles of garbage burning with acrid smoke, oil and grease from the trains, and fresh blood as a cluster of young Kasai slaughter one of their dogs to eat.
The victims cling to their belongings, bitter that no one seems to know - or care - about their suffering. They live mostly under burlap and scrap metal shelters; others are packed into a vast trackside warehouse.
The streets of Kolwezi are crammed with carts loaded with lounge chairs, plush sofas, cabinets, and ovens, as Kasai search for a free space along the road where they can display their goods for sale in this impromptu outdoor bazaar. One man was so desperate to get on a rare train to Kasai that he sold his deep freezer for the equivalent of $14.
Relief workers have yet to set up permanently here, but they estimate that already some 150,000 Kasai have been forced from their homes in Kolwezi, Likasi, and nearby mining areas.
"They destroyed my house and sold everything after we left," said Tshibangu Lukalu, who was warned by his children that he was targeted by Uferi, the Katangan political party believed to be responsible for most of the expulsions and intimidation.
"Uferi said they would kill me if I stayed," he said.
Like so many other Kasai, Mr. Lukalu's family arrived in Shaba two or three generations ago, recruited by the Belgians to work in the mines. He does not speak the Kasai language or even know - except for the name of a village he has never seen - where his ancestry lies.
Uferi have created a "very explosive situation" in Shaba, says a Western diplomat in Kinshasa. Government involvement
There are indications here that the actions of the Uferi, led by Katangan politician Mgaz Karl I Bond, are supported by President Mobutu's government. Official government vehicles have been used to carry Uferi militants and gasoline to burn houses from town to town.
Just days after the new Kolwezi attacks began, government-controlled television reported that since Katangans had taken over the mines from the Kasai, "production has doubled." The dispatch concluded: "Bravo, Katangan workers!"
According to Raphael Bokassa, a Kasai teacher who now lives in the camp that straddles the Likasi train station, the solution to the problem lies in Kinshasa: "Mobutu wants the problem. He knows that we don't support him, and he wants the dictatorship to continue."
In Likasi, where relief agencies have helped the Kasai since the first wave of expulsions in October, 23 percent of the children near the railroad station are malnourished. Of the 40,000 to 50,000 people waiting for a train, two or three die each day from disease and starvation, down from 60 per day last year. Trains that do leave are so crammed full that passengers have died of asphyxiation, but very few trains have come recently.
"The Katangans honestly believe that the second they get rid of Kasai, all their troubles will be over," says a missionary in Kolwezi who knows both communities well. "No one knows where it will end."