When eight Western tourists were killed by Rwandan Hutu rebels in Uganda last week, the world caught a glimpse of one of Africa's darkest conflicts - one that started with a genocide in Rwanda and is now remodeling the geography of Congo, perhaps setting the first example of border dissolution in post-colonial Africa.
The rebels have been zigzagging across Uganda's border, often attacking villagers in southwestern Uganda. But the attack on the tourist camps came as a surprise to most, and set a precedent both in terms of the audacity the rebels displayed and their apparent resolve to draw in the international community by targeting foreign nationals.
A certain logic
"It's something new for them ...," says Barnett Rubin, director of peace and conflict studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "But there is a certain logic in finding rich people to loot, in destabilizing Uganda by undermining its economy and terrorizing countries aiding the Rwandan and Ugandan governments into withdrawing their support."
British and American nationals were singled out, because both Britain and the United States are believed to have lent Uganda and Rwanda financial and logistical support. Two New Zealanders were also abducted and killed, evidently for no other reason than that they were Anglo-Saxons.
In two postcards left behind, the killers accused the international community of complicity in the war waged by Rwanda and Uganda to silence the "struggle of the majority against the minority."
The range of weaponry in African conflicts now ranges far from ancient spears to rifles and artillery on the ground and war jets in the skies.
But the primitive brutality with which the tourists were killed has been a constant in a conflict that spilled out of Rwanda long ago, affecting most countries in the region and turning Congo into a battleground entangling the armies of seven countries.
"Being hacked to death is not an unusual event in this region, it just happened that these were white foreigners," notes Mr. Rubin.
Roughly half a million people were killed with machetes in Rwanda in the spring and summer of 1994 by the same rebel group whose members stormed the camps of gorilla-watchers at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwestern Uganda.
Known as the Interahamwe, or "those who fight together," the rebels are of Rwandan Hutu origin.
They are the remnants of a crudely armed force assembled by Rwanda's then-Hutu government to carry out the intended genocide of 1-1/4 million people belonging to Rwanda's Tutsi minority. Eventually 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutu politicians lost their lives.
Having provided the impetus for much of the killing, the Interahamwe were the first to flee when a Tutsi-led army took over Rwanda's capital, Kigali, in July 1994.
They initially settled in refugee camps in what was then eastern Zaire, now Congo, but have since been dispersed and now operate in the densely forested terrain along Rwanda and Uganda's western borders.
Despite many attempts to expel them from the area, the Interahamwe have largely held their ground, launching cross-border raids into Rwanda to destabilize the Tutsi-led government there, and retreating back into the forests of Congo.
Their presence just across the Rwandan border constitutes one of the greatest sources of instability in the region of the Great Lakes: It's the reason Rwanda fought to topple longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko two years ago in former Zaire and part of the reason the tiny central African country is currently embroiled in a second war in the newly renamed Congo.
"This is one of our biggest concerns and why we are in Congo," says Emmanuel Gasana, a Rwandan official who acts as political adviser to Paul Kagame, Rwanda's de facto leader.
Rwanda says it will stay in Congo until its borders are secure from Interahamwe activity.
Uganda, which is also fighting to overthrow Congo leader Laurent Kabila, has cited similar security concerns to justify its own involvement.
Also drawn into the Congo conflict are Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia on the government side, with Sudan and Chad joining in some fighting for the government. Rwanda and Uganda support Congolese rebels, many of whom are ethnic Tutsis.
The Hutu make up 85 percent of Rwanda's population but have become increasingly marginalized by the Tutsi elite currently in power.
They are largely excluded from political power and confined to their fields in rural areas.
In the northwestern prefectures of Ruhengeri and Gisenyi, Hutu civilians have been the target of often brutal military raids to flush out the Interahamwe. Human rights groups say the Rwandan Army has consistently failed to discriminate between rebels and civilians, a charge that the government denies.
Still, the Interahamwe can hardly claim to represent Rwanda's Hutu population in its entirety.
They have yet to articulate a discernible agenda and appear motivated by the same logic of hatred that prompted their initial involvement in the genocide.
Finally, they have never expressed any desire to reintegrate themselves into Rwandan society.
Where solution lies
"As an organization, the Interahamwe is a criminal organization that should be destroyed. This does not mean that every member of the Interahamwe should be killed," says Rubin.
Observers believe that the solution to the Interahamwe problem lies partly with the government of Rwanda.
"The government has made many positive efforts," says Rubin, "but it has become more exclusionary as the war in Congo intensifies.... I don't see a solution in what they are doing."