Ask any man in Goma, a small town on Congo's eastern border, about who is really behind the war in his country and chances are he'll say a woman.
"You know why he is fighting this war?" a Goma resident who gave his name as Sylvain said of Jean-Pierre Ondekane, the leader of a five-month-old rebellion. "Because he has a Tutsi girlfriend."
The Tutsis are the ethnic minority currently in power in neighboring Rwanda, and their leaders are widely believed to have masterminded the insurgency against Congo's President Laurent Kabila.
Rwanda delivered Mr. Kabila, a Congolese, to power a year and a half ago but has since turned a cold eye on him, largely because of his failure to prevent attacks on Rwanda by Hutu rebels seeking to overthrow its Tutsi-led government.
Unlike the seven-month campaign that swept Kabila to power in 1997, the current insurgency is seen as little more than a foreign invasion. In Goma, the presumed headquarters of the rebellion, anti-Tutsi sentiments run deep. Those among the Congolese who have joined the fighting on Rwanda's side are dismissed as "etiquettes," stick-on labels, and privately disparaged.
General Ondekane's own involvement at the head of the anti-Kabila movement became the subject of intense speculation after it emerged that he was a bona-fide Congolese, not a half-blood of Tutsi origin.
"At first we thought maybe his mother was a Tutsi," a student explained. "But then we find out no, he is full Congolese - father, mother, everything. His wife is Congolese, too. We are baffled. Then we see him driving around with a beautiful Tutsi woman. And we understand. We are not stupid here, you know."
According to a number of unconfirmed reports, Ondekane married his Tutsi girlfriend in a lavish ceremony in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, sometime after the start of the rebellion. Polygamy is widely accepted and practiced in most of sub-Saharan Africa.
Tutsi women are known for their height, thinness, and classical beauty. They have played no part in the rebellion and are far from being the cause of it. The suspicions surrounding them, observers say, have more to do with plain misogyny. However, they provide a measure of how unpopular the rebellion is among the Congolese.
In fact, the depth of anti-Tutsi resentment may help Kabila survive the war.
Some men in Goma, such as an unemployed electrician named Jacques, say Rwanda's Tutsi women make excellent spies. With a distant, soulful look in his eyes, he adds: "Because, in truth, they [Tutsis] have beautiful creatures."
A friend Pascal nods and, in a fierce whisper, says: "If it weren't for the women, the Rwandans would have nothing of what they have. Nothing! It's a strategy. That's why they have all the beautiful women. To subjugate us and the rest of the world."
Subjugation was probably not a word hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Tutsi women had in mind when they were rounded up and killed by Kabila's military in August, at the start of the rebellion. It is unclear just how many Tutsis living in Congo were massacred then, but the government of Rwanda insists the numbers are high enough to justify the charges of genocide it has insistently brought against Kabila.
Upwards of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus belonging to the country's ethnic majority were killed in 1994 by the Hutu regime in power at the time. Many of the killers, known as the Interahamwe, or "those who fight together," fled to eastern Congo and set up bases there. They started killing again, targeting Congolese Tutsis, with the help of Kabila's forces in August.
According to Angele Mobile Ngalia, a Congolese businesswoman, Tutsi women and children were killed at a staggering rate. Ms. Ngalia had been arrested for her family ties to another rebel leader, Arthur Z'Ahidi Ngoma. She spent one month in a jail in the Congo town of Kalima. From her prison cell, she witnessed the slaughter of several hundred Tutsis over the course of one month: "Every day they brought in about 20 of them. As the new batch arrived, the ones they had brought in the day before were taken out. They tied their hands and feet together and tossed them in the back of a truck. The trucks always came back empty." This stopped only when the government lost control of Kalima in October, says Ngalia.
IN GOMA, few people believe the massacres ever took place. "It's all a lie," says Pascal Didier. "The Congolese don't kill people. It's the Rwandan Tutsis that kill. Look at what they did to their own people: They killed a million!" Surprisingly, several people in Goma shared the conviction that the Tutsi had killed 1 million Hutus in 1994, and not the other way around. The Hutu rebels in Congo, or the Interahamwe, were victims, not executioners, many residents say. "We have no problem with the Interahamwe," one driver says. "They are Bantu like us."
One of the macabre successes of Kabila's propaganda machine has been the creation of a phony Bantu ethnic identity defined in opposition to the Tutsis, a people with origins in the Nile valley. Experts say there is no such thing as an ethnic Bantu; the definition is strictly linguistic. In Goma, no one seems to realize that. "This is a war against us, the Bantu," says the jobless electrician.