Rebel Force Tries to 'Liberate' Congo From Liberators

Hailed last year as having started the "liberation war" that freed Congo from Mobutu Sese Seko's yoke, Congolese Tutsis are now coming in for their own share of disapproval.

Known as the Banyamulenge, the Tutsis resisted efforts by Mr. Mobutu to expel them by taking up arms and training on Rwandan soil under the auspices of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Army.

But now there is a feeling among residents that the Banyamulenge's compensation has been disproportionate. Many have traded their rural life for the urban comfort of Bukavu, taking over houses and cars once owned by the tetrarchs of the old regime. Their political payback has also been generous: The vice governor of South Kivu, the mayor, and the vice mayor of Bukavu are all Tutsis.

Their presence in such key political offices has set off a dizzying vortex of conspiracy theories, the most common of which has Banyamulenge acting as Rwandan agents in a Tutsi-led plan to dominate the Kivus, Congo, and ultimately, the world.

Riding on the back of such theories, a mystifying paramilitary entity has set out on a war to "liberate" the Kivus from their liberators. Calling themselves the Mai-Mai - a term which means water - they have carried out attacks against the Rwandan Army with the support of exiled Rwandan Hutu extremists and disparate elements of the vanquished armies of Zaire and Rwanda.

The name is borrowed from a group who fought alongside the Banyamulenge to topple Mobutu. Some wear shower caps and faucets on chains around their necks and believe their magic will cause bullets to turn to water.

But as for the makeup of this new group: "The truth is no one really knows," an aid worker says, "I could be Mai-Mai, you could be Mai-Mai."

Their declared objective is to rid the region of both Rwandan and Congolese Tutsis. According to some, the Mai-Mai number in the thousands; others believe they cannot be more than a hundred. Some believe they are immortal, protected by magic after bathing in water. Many think they are just ordinary people who have picked up guns.

Their presence in the hills around Bukavu has unleashed savage army reprisals in villages where civilians are suspected of having provided the rebels shelter. In a recent visit to Bukavu, Congo President Laurent Kabila warned that anyone caught supporting the Mai-Mai would be shot on the spot.

But, says an analyst and longtime resident of Bukavu, "the Mai-Mai will not go away until the Rwandans do."

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