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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 November 2004, 11:59 GMT
Retracing Che Guevara's Congo footsteps
In the final entry of a four-part series on the Democratic Republic of Congo, the BBC world affairs correspondent Mark Doyle follows in the footsteps of revolutionary Che Guevara in Uvira, in the south-east of the country.

Almost 40 years ago, the mountains towering above this lakeside town in South Kivu province were the scene of some of the opening shots in DR Congo's post-colonial wars.

Che Guevara
Che was unimpressed with Congo revolutionaries
In 1965, with the world on a tense Cold War footing, the Latin American revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara came here to try to spark a left-wing revolution.

Che aimed to pit himself against what he called the "Yankee Imperialists" whom he saw as backing compliant pro-western candidates for power in DR Congo.

Kabila encounter

Among Che's would-be Congolese allies was the then 26-year-old Laurent Kabila, who he met in the Fizi Baraka mountains, now soaring up above me from the Ruzizi River Plain which empties into Lake Tanganyika at the town of Uvira.

People in Uvira bathing in the river
Despite the impression of calm, residents fear war could be round the corner
Laurent Kabila did eventually come to power, in 1997. But the revolution he headed was far from left-wing.

He ousted the ailing President Mobutu Sese Seko after forming a tactical alliance with neighbouring Rwanda.

Rwanda wanted Mobutu deposed because he had hosted the defeated Hutu army which had orchestrated the genocide of Tutsis and other government opponents in the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Che diaries

But Rwanda lived to regret its choice of Kabila as an ally in the 1996 invasion of DR Congo.

He turned against them after coming to power in 1997, a switch which rekindled the war in DR Congo as Rwanda attacked again - not with Kabila this time, but against him.

Che's recently published personal diaries make it clear that he was unimpressed by Kabila.

Perhaps if the Rwandans and their American advisers had had better intelligence from the Cold War period, they would not have made such a costly mistake.

Unmitigated disaster

Che Guevara's seven-month stay in the Fizi Baraka mountains was, as he admits himself, an "unmitigated disaster".

School children and Mark Doyle Kamanyola
Kamanyola's residents fear war at any moment
The mercenary Colonel "Mad Mike" Hoare, who had been contracted by the American-influenced government in Kinshasa, squeezed Che's small Cuban force into an ever smaller area until he had to escape back across Lake Tanganyika into the then-friendly territory of revolutionary Tanzania.

Today, this region is no less pivotal to the war, and potentially the peace process, in the DR Congo.

I drove, with a military escort of UN soldiers from Uruguay, up the Ruzizi River plain from the town of Uvira to the village of Kamanyola which is on the border with Rwanda.

Rebel complaints

Along just 50km of road I encountered such a variety of armed groups that I began to think of the Ruzizi Plains as the theatre of a wider Congolese war, but in miniature.


The first roadblock (ostensibly to denote territory but also to levy illegal taxes) was near the village of Kiliba.

The armed men there were polite to their surprise BBC guest, but uninformative.

They belonged to the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD).

Originally backed by Rwanda, the rebel RCD controlled Uvira until June when they were ousted by forces loyal to the government.

A young RCD major in uniform broke off from a meeting of officers to complain to me about his conditions in the bush.

Protected warriors

The RCD is now a major component of the coalition transitional government in Kinshasa - although it is regularly accused of still taking orders from Rwanda.

A few more kilometres up the road, past the village of Sange, was another checkpoint.

This was ostensibly manned by the pro-Congolese government militia known as the Mai Mai after the water they douse themselves with to create a magical, bullet-proof shield.

A young man - who said he was 25 but looked no more than 17 - said he was the commander of the post.

A well-informed source in the area told me that this checkpoint was in fact shared between the Mai Mai and anti-Rwandan government rebels that have a base in DR Congo in the hills above the Ruzizi Plain.

"They share the loot", said the source, who asked not to be named.

There were numerous other checkpoints - at least a dozen in total - but many of these were quickly dismantled as the men with guns saw the small Uruguayan army convoy approach.

It would have been very different if we had been ordinary Congolese civilians.

Sane comment

Along the road, I came across a village which had been attacked by one of the groups because they were perceived to support another.

The villagers were clearly terrified, hungry and desperate.

My last stop was the village of Kamanyola, on the border with Rwanda.

Tired now of men with guns, I was relieved to do something ordinary.

I bought some tomatoes and pineapples for a snack and visited a school.

A teacher there said one of the sanest things I had heard all day: "The situation here is very bad", he explained, "because we fear war at any moment."

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