As the battlefront moves from west to east in Congo, President Laurent Kabila is launching another kind of warfare. It is a race-based attack on minority Tutsis reminiscent to some of the Nazi characterization of Jews.
On Sept. 1 the forces of Mr. Kabila's allies, Angola and Zimbabwe, arrived for the first time in eastern Congo to confront rebel forces, according to the United Nations. They had already joined in ending the rebel onslaught on the capital, Kinshasa.
Late in August, calls were broadcast on national radio for Congolese "patriots" to take everything, from "sticks to bows and arrows and machetes" and use them against anyone bearing a remote physical resemblance to an ethnic Tutsi.
Crude descriptions of Tutsis were provided. "Watch the nose, it's thin and narrow, and the height: Tutsis are tall" - that's what was told to one Kinshasa resident, a Congolese woman who has since fled the country.
There was nothing subliminal about Kabila's messages. Like the infamous radio broadcasts that primed Rwanda's Hutus for the massacre of more than 500,000 Tutsis in 1994, the invitation was to kill.
"Squash the cockroaches," the radio told Rwandan Hutu peasants in 1994.
The current conflict comes in the aftermath of that massacre, which was followed by a Tutsi-controlled Rwandan government's driving Hutus into Congo. Rwanda's Tutsis helped Kabila oust dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The present Rwanda-supported Tutsi revolt goes back to Kabila's failure to control extremist Hutus on Rwanda's frontier. Rwanda wants a buffer to protect itself.
Given the historical precedent, it came as a shock to human rights organizations - indeed, to anyone familiar with the genocide in Rwanda - when Kabila showed no hesitation to lay the emphasis in his denunciations of the Tutsis on race.
"They [the Tutsis] will enslave you," Kabila was quoted as saying before the military drive eastward. The rebellion had been backed by two sovereign states, Rwanda and Uganda, for clearly political reasons. But analysts say Kabila's propaganda machine successfully manufactured the notion of a racial war waged by a despotic people innately convinced of their own superiority: the Tutsis.
Tutsis are a tiny ethnic minority in the region. As in the Nazi portrayal of Jews in Germany, the Tutsis accused of warmongering by Kabila were depicted as powerful and secretive and ultimately lethal.
A profile of the Tutsis' intended victims soon followed. They weren't just the Congolese, who cut across a country the size of Western Europe and belong to many different tribes: It was the Bantu nation, pictured as a racially distinct entity historically targeted by Tutsis in Central Africa.
"From the beginning, Kabila has been trying to forge a Bantu identity," notes Barnett Rubin of the Council of Foreign Relations in New York.
Experts say there is no such thing as a Bantu identity. "It's a fictional construct," says Alison DesForges, a political analyst and an activist with the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"In proper anthropological terms, the Bantu people do not exist. It's a linguistic definition that applies to groups who speak Bantu languages. It covers a great diversity of people."
Such technicalities, however, never seemed to trouble Kabila's spin doctors. And they could prove irrelevant in the end, observers say. Once manufactured, the notion of a Bantu identity could very well stick. Its effects could be far-reaching, and disastrous.
"When there is a shift from all other basis of identification to an ethnic one, you have set a mechanism in motion," says Ms. DesForges, "It was only when the leaders of the genocide in Rwanda managed to group the Hutus under the flag of Hutuness that the killings were able to start."
The immediate effects of President Kabila's inflammatory speeches are already well known. Tutsis in Kinshasa have been rounded up and killed. Foreigners from countries like Senegal, easily mistaken for Tutsis, have also been targeted. Some have gone into hiding, others have been killed. Over the long run, millions could lose their lives in genocidal uprisings in Rwanda and Burundi as Kabila proclaims himself the leader of a nonexistent Bantu nation and, by association, of Hutu rebels seeking to overthrow the Tutsi-led governments in both countries.
As DesForges points out, "Kabila could become a hero in the eyes of the Hutus." Buoyed by perceptions of racial solidarity, Hutu extremists would most likely intensify their armed struggle. At the same time, disparate groups in Congo might be coaxed into providing more than moral support to their Bantu brothers in Rwanda and Burundi, where Tutsis are roughly 10 percent of the population.
In the ever-shifting politics of this region, however, the creation of a Bantu identity could backfire badly. Analysts say the first casualty might be Kabila himself. Congo has strong internal divisions of its own - the main one being the one between Lingala speakers in the west and Swahili speakers in the east - and the concept of "Bantuness" itself might be redefined in increasingly narrow terms.
"Someone from [the province of] Ba-Congo could point to someone from Katanga and say, you're not a real Bantu, so off with your head," says an observer in Kabila's home province of Katanga who did not wish to be named.
Resentment against Katangese, who have benefited extensively from Kabila's rise, is rife in many regions of Congo.