Encounter with a rebel leader

David McDougall's encounter with Laurent Nkunda

He is called either a rebel leader or a renegade general, the latter for having rejected his command in the Democratic Republic of Congo armed forces to lead his small but well-trained group of Tutsi soldiers in a startlingly successful campaign that has once again tied the ethnically fractious Congo in knots.

Tutsi commander Laurent Nkunda in November 2008, warning he will continue his fight, right to Kinshasa, if the government won't negotiate with him. ((Associated Press))

A one-time psychology student and a soldier for the past 15 years, the lean and scholarly-looking Laurent Nkunda is, by several accounts, a complex man: both a supremely self-confident commander who understands the power of the international media and a rugged warlord whose troops have been accused of local atrocities as they have gradually come to control much of the eastern Congo.

A year ago, as his campaign to battle Hutu militia and gain power in the eastern portion of the Congo was getting underway, Nkunda agreed to be interviewed by the CBC's David McDougall near Kilolirwe in the eastern Congo. Here is McDougall's account of the encounter, from August 2007.

Just minutes after calling the cellphone number I was given, rebel leader Laurent Nkunda agreed to be interviewed. His handler makes just one admonishing condition: it isn't going to be another safari adventure to meet a savage warlord. If I'm going to interview the general, I will have to tell the real story.

I'm still wondering what that story is, exactly, as I set out early the next day in a rattling four-by-four from my hotel in the eastern city of Goma. Presumably it isn't the one about Nkunda who is wanted on an international arrest warrant, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, who is known to abduct and recruit child soldiers, and is accused by some human rights groups of using rape as a weapon of war.

Congo rebel leader Laurent Nkunda with CBC reporter David McDougall near Kilolirwe in August 2007. ((David McDougall/CBC))

We slip past the last government checkpoint on the outskirts of the city and veer into rebel-held territory, winding up the steep switchback roads into the lush, mist-soaked mountains of Masisi.

We eventually arrive at a posse of heavily armed soldiers and a crumbling brick farm with hollowed out windows, a relic from colonial days.

I'm ushered into a grass-roofed hut and told to wait. A soldier enters with a silver platter and smiles awkwardly as he serves me a glass of warm milk. It's around midday and the general is sleeping.

Patio talk

When it's time, I'm led into a dull, starkly furnished room. Nkunda and I face each other sitting on plastic patio chairs, his chief military officer, Bwambame Kakolele, sits to the right, nodding and occasionally repeating the last few words of the general's sentences.

I timidly ask about what I've seen since arriving in Congo — waves of villagers fleeing down dusty roads from the areas controlled by his rebels; overflowing displacement camps filled with stories of brutality at the hands of his men; looting and summary executions and bodies dumped in latrines.

But Nkunda understands a thing or two about speaking to the media. He knows just how much he can and can't deny in a war-ravaged country like Congo where all sides have committed atrocities.

Wearing a button that reads "Rebels for Christ," he tells me about his duty as a pastor in the areas controlled by his rebels, about the schools he's building and his weekly sermons, which touch on topics such as ethics and responsible child birth.

He becomes increasingly animated as he speaks, banging his brass-tipped baton against a bare wooden table to emphasize his points. His eyes almost burst open like a pair of high-beams glowing through his dark face. His charisma is intoxicating, the conversation engrossing.

In the third person

Nkunda discusses himself in the third person, peppering his speech with references to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Patrice Lumumba, one of the Congo's great nationalist leaders.

We talk about politics and psychology, and we share a laugh at "the Group of Che," a band of his rebels who insist on wearing Che Guevara T-shirts as their uniform.

Nkunda tells me he feels deeply betrayed by media like The New York Times, BBC and CNN, which, like me, he welcomed as guests only to find himself portrayed as a monster and a warlord.

When he's finished with the interview, Nkunda takes my digital camera to a young soldier with a rocket propelled grenade slung over one shoulder, directing me to where he says the light is best for portraits. Standing beside me, he strikes a practiced pose with his signature baton while the soldier snaps away.

What have I seen?

"I hope that you will tell the true story about what you've seen here today," Nkunda says to me before sending me off.

But I haven't seen anything, and I know it — though I'm already drafting the story in my head on the long sunset drive down through the rolling mountains, past all the picture perfect communities guarded by Nkunda's righteous rebels, feeling the whole way like I'm the first outsider to understand the most misunderstood person on the planet.

I'm still thinking about it the next day on a secluded stretch of road north of Goma when the men come running out of the bush.

"Rebels!" says my driver, looking suddenly alarmed.  "Which rebels?" I ask, snapping back to reality.  "Nkunda's rebels!" says my driver, coming to an unfortunate stop.  After a few tense moments with rifles ready to fire, we drive on. Minus cash. Minus cellphones. Minus a bag full of gear. Minus my passport. And minus one digital camera (luckily I had already downloaded many of the photos to my laptop).

I'm already conjuring up the most demonizing account of Nkunda and his rebels I can imagine — even before the men dive back in the thickets alongside the road, probably to switch on the camera and find a picture of me, smiling stupidly next to the one they call "mon general."