Identities of Zaire's Rebels Hint at Rwanda Link

Rwandan Tutsi war heroes resurface in a rebel-held Zairean town. But some were born in Zaire. Who are their masters?

James "Goodman" Ruzibiza is - or perhaps was - one of the best fighting soldiers in Rwanda. Now, it seems, he is based in Zaire.

In 1994 Major Ruzibiza gained fame as second in command of the unit that liberated the key town of Gitarama as the mainly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) stormed their homeland to drive out a genocidal Hutu regime. Last weekend the Tutsi soldier was spotted in Goma, the eastern Zairean town which fell on Nov. 1 - fell to a previously unknown alliance of antigovernment rebels, again dominated by ethnic Tutsis.

Rwanda has denied providing any backing to the rebels, although it admits to sympathizing with their plight under Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko's corrupt and brutal regime. The rebels have denounced Zaire's claims that they receive foreign backing as crude xenophobic propaganda. Yet here was James Ruzibiza, in plain clothes but with a team of uniformed bodyguards, walking the streets of Goma.

One British journalist who had become friendly with Ruzibiza during the 1994 Rwandan campaign, approached him and asked him what on Earth he was doing in Zaire. The embarrassed major admitted he was a "volunteer."

There may be many such RPF volunteers in the rebel forces. Take, for example, Lt. "Rams" Ramazani, who has patroled Goma town in recent weeks.

Local people say Lieutenant Ramazani is a "child of '59" - born to Tutsi parents exiled when Rwanda's Hutu majority seized power with a series of brutal ethnic pogroms in 1959. Many fled to Uganda or Burundi, but Ramazani's parents went to Goma, where he was later born. Local people, who remember Ramazani well, say he joined the Zairean Army, then defected to the RPF after it invaded Rwanda from Uganda in 1990. Now he is home again.

Few observers in Goma have any doubt about Rwanda's power in the area, but the evidence is mostly anecdotal. One evening last weekend, a German journalist watched as the Zairean border officials packed up their papers and stamps and drove home to Rwanda for the night.

With by far the best soldiers in the region, Rwanda had the means to intervene in eastern Zaire's political-ethnic conflicts, and it also had the motive.

Until the beginning of this month, huge masses of hostile Rwandan Hutu refugees still sat on its border at the towns of Goma, Bukavu, and Uvira. Their camps were controlled by the remnants of Rwanda's deposed Hutu government and the Interahamwe militias, responsible for the genocide of up to 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The Hutu extremists had the backing of Mobutu, long hostile to Zaire's own ethnic Tutsis, and were planning to retake Rwanda by force.

Then earlier this year, local authorities in South Kivu intensified ethnic pogroms against the "Banyamulenge," ethnic Tutsis who had lived in eastern Zaire for centuries before the country even existed. The provincial governor declared in October that the Tutsis were not real Zaireans, and had to go "back" to Rwanda or Burundi. Instead they rebelled and swiftly routed Zaire's Army of ill-disciplined and unpaid bandits. Zaire and its principal ally, France, called foul, accusing Rwanda of sending troops and weapons to help the rebels.

The rebellion soon spread to North Kivu province, where 10 days ago the rebels did the Rwandan government an enormous favor by driving the Rwandan Hutu forces out of Mugunga camp, west of Goma. The victory precipitated the return to Rwanda of an estimated 500,000 Hutu refugees. Earlier, during the fall of Goma, Western journalists watched as RPF troops stormed into Zaire to help rebel forces.

Yet while Rwanda has clearly increased its influence in eastern Zaire, it still has room to deny charges of mounting an invasion. Ruzibiza may or may not still be an officer of the RPF, but, like Ramazani, he was born in Goma and served in the Zairean Army. Local sources say that many of the soldiers they identify as RPF were also born in the region: Perhaps these, too, see themselves as Zairean rebels.

The rebels' supposed leader, Laurent Kabila, is from distant Shaba Province and has described his "Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire" as a multiethnic coalition. Locals assert that many of the troops patrolling their streets are bona fide Zaireans.

Little information leaks out of the RPF, and its intentions in eastern Zaire can only be guessed at. Mr. Kabila rejects suggestions that the rebels want to secede from Zaire, but his hostility to Mobutu's regime and injured pride in Zaire's capital, Kinshasa, make any short-term rapprochement difficult to foresee.

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