The white mercenaries of the Congo, now in rebellion, have humiliated black men everywhere in Africa, and by doing so shattered some of the self-confidence that Africans need to run their affairs well. Moreover, some Africans have struck out at whites to assuage this humiliation, and the beatings and killings have torn relations between white men and black men over the continent.
These are terrible consequences. Yet it is pointless to condemn these confused, aimless and distorted men. Their role in the Congo was created by others. The rebellion of the mercenaries was the legacy of an attempt by the United States Government to stage-manage the unmanageable Congo. Using them worked for a while; then they flew out of hand. Why blame them?
The present group of rebellious mercenaries first came to the Congo in 1964 with the support of the United States Government, then as now the most powerful and significant outside influence on the Congo. It was prepared to do whatever it could, even to the point of supporting mercenaries, to help Moise Tshombe, the new Prime Minister, put down a leftist rebellion in the eastern Congo.
Officially, the State Department said it could not condone Tshombe's use of mercenaries, but there are reliable reports that the United States took part in the original planning. And whether or not it was in at the start, the United States openly maintained the mercenaries, flying food, equipment and ammunition to them in four U.S. C-130 transport planes and three H-34 helicopters. Washington also gave the Congolese Air Force five B-26 bombers, flown by CIA-hired Cuban refugee pilots and serviced by ClA-hired ground crews, to support mercenary attacks upon the rebels. When the mercenaries took over Stanleyville, after the American-Belgian parachute drop in November, 1964, Maj. Michael Hoare, the mercenary leader, decided to live in the abandoned American consulate there.
Without the mercenaries, the Congolese army would probably have failed to put down the rebellion, and the Congo would have splintered. In a sense, their use was not unusual. Many African armies employ white officers, mostly on loan from European countries. Nevertheless, the presence of mercenaries in the Congo incensed African nationalists, their anger stemming in part from sympathy for the rebels but mostly from disgust at the way many mercenaries vaunted their white supremacy. Several made no bones about the pleasure of killing Kaffirs for a buck. It humiliated Africans to feel that stability in the Congo depended on racists.
By 1967, the mercenaries had become more an embarrassment than an asset. Save for a few bands here and there, the rebels were defeated. In addition, President Joseph D. Mobutu, branded as an American stooge and an accessory to the murder of Patrice Lumumba, wanted to repair his image among African nationalists. He started to disband the mercenary units, to get them out of the Congo before September, when the Organization of African Unity was to hold its summit conference in Kinshasa.
Foreseeing the end of their adventure, the mercenaries decided to switch sides, and agreed to take part in a plot to overthrow Mobutu. According to sketchy evidence, the organizers of the plot were associates of Moise Tshombe, then living in exile in Madrid. The plot was mad. It encompassed the sabotage of the railway carrying copper from the Katanga mines, a mutiny by mercenaries in the east, an attack by new mercenaries elsewhere, the proclamation of a Congo Free State, and the return of Tshombe. But in the massive, undisciplined, impossible Congo, it might have worked.
By the end of June, the railway had been struck by four explosions, one crumbling a bridge east of Mutshatsha. Several new mercenaries, recruited by agents of the plotters in Rhodesia, had flown into Kindu. This was groundwork for a coup still some months away. Then Tshombe was kidnaped. At gun point, Francis Bodenan, a French croupier turned Congo agent, forced the pilots of Tshombe's plane to land in Algiers. The embarrassed Algerians imprisoned him.
The abduction caught the white mercenaries in the Congo with no patrons for their wild plan. Led by a Frenchman, Col. Bob Denard, and a Belgian, Maj. Jean Schramme, they decided to plunge into action much sooner than planned. At dawn on July 5, six days after the kidnaping, the mercenaries rebelled in Kisangani (the former Stanleyville), Bukavu and Kindu in the eastern Congo. The mutiny began with carnage, the mercenaries spraying two camps of the Congolese army with submachine gunfire, killing scores of soldiers and their wives and children.
The Congolese Government panicked at the uprising. Mobutu declared a state of emergency and restricted the movement of whites. The Congolese radio broadcast anti-white diatribes around the clock, entreating the Congolese to kill their foreign enemies. All this unleashed the anger and bitterness toward whites that had long been building up in the Congolese.
In Lubumbashi (the former Elizabethville), Congolese soldiers found whites on the street between 6 and 7 P.M. on July 6. the first night of the curfew on whites. The whites were confused because some announcements had said that curfew would begin at 6, while others gave the deadline as 7. The soldiers took nine whites into the woods at the edge of town and executed them, with their bayonets.
At first, the mercenaries fared badly. The small unit at Kindu failed to take the town. Mercenaries captured Bukavu but abandoned it and headed north, having misunderstood an order from their leaders in Kisangani. Though Kisangani was taken easily, the mercenaries met some unexpected resistance. Instead of running, a few Congolese soldiers fired mortars. Denard was wounded in the head and evacuated to Rhodesia.
Schramme then became colonel and commander of the mercenaries and changed the character of the rebellion. As a British mercenary put it later, "The trouble with Schramme is that he's an idealist, and there's no room for an idealist in a mercenary army." Unlike most of the hired white soldiers, Schramme has roots in the Congo. He went there in 1944 as a boy of 14. At independence, he owned a plantation of coffee, rubber and palm oil in the eastern Congo. With Schramme at their head, the mercenaries were led by a confused visionary who talked in vague, diffident tones about remaking the Congo and replacing Mobutu with a stable, representative government that included Tshombe. He did not see himself as the hired hand of plotters but as a prophet cleansing the Congo through turmoil.
Schramme withdrew from Kisangani, regrouped with the mercenaries who had mistakenly left Bukavu, and trekked through the eastern Congo picking up whites who were threatened by the hysterical soldiers of the Congolese army. During these weeks, the Congolese radio boasted that its soldiers had trapped Schramme, his 160 white mercenaries and their allies, 1,000 African soldiers who had been gendarmes in Tshombe's secessionist Katanga province. But, on August 9, with the Congolese soldiers scampering away from the onrushing mercenary force. Schramme shocked the Congo by seizing Bukavu, an old colonial resort town in the hills alongside Lake Kivu.
The mercenaries led more than 100 white refugees across the bridge that leads from Bukavu to the little country of Rwanda. Then they returned to celebrate their romantic triumph with caviar and champagne stolen from the stocks of the town. In the flush of victory, Schramme decided to keep Bukavu and wait for a revolution. He evidently expected it to break out in either of two ways: The chaos caused by his march—whites fleeing, mines shutting, crops rotting—might ignite the hostility toward Mobutu. Or, if that proved not enough, more chaos could be provoked by an invasion of Katanga by Denard and other mercenaries assembling in Angola.
But Schramme and his men waited in vain for three months; the revolution never came. The mercenaries grew tired and testy with one another and with Schramme. Their bickering arose from the pointlessness of their life and the uncertainty of their future. Even mercenaries want to know occasionally where they are going and why. Moreover, they received very little pay while awaiting Schramme's revolution. Many wanted out.
By October, the Congolese army, with the help of American transport planes, had put at least 5,000 men in the hills commanding Bukavu. They bombarded the mercenaries and Katangese with mortars. The mercenaries, while troubled by these continual attacks, were still contemptuous of the Congolese soldiers. Schramme toyed and hesitated, negotiating with Red Cross officials who were trying to arrange an evacuation at the request of the Organization of African Unity.
In early November, the mortar attacks intensified, and the Congolese soldiers rushed at Bukavu. Schramme radioed to Angola. Denard and a group of mercenaries invaded Katanga in what looked like the long-awaited thrust designed to ignite the revolution. But it was evidently only a diversionary tactic. While the Congolese Government shouted about the trouble in Katanga, Schramme and his men withdrew from Bukavu into Rwanda. According to diplomatic reports, Denard and his men then slipped back into Angola.
With this chapter of the mercenary adventure over, an outsider can try to draw a few conclusions. The first of these is that administering the massive Congo is a hopeless task. The lumbering, luxuriant Congo is too big, too cruel, too unnerved to be managed by an incompetent and emotional government in Kinshasa. The mercenaries have shown that any small group of armed adventurers can snap the Congo into chaos almost at will.
In view of this, something must be wrong with an American policy that always shores up the central government of the Congo, however inefficient, childish or hysterical it may be. But it is not easy to prove it wrong, for on the surface the policy seems successful. By sending the mercenaries in 1964, the United States helped to end a savage rebellion, whose bloodthirsty leaders were unfit to rule. By opposing the mercenaries in 1967, the United States calmed the Congo somewhat and convinced the rest of Africa that Americans are heroic anti-imperialists. Yet these recent successes seem hollow when it is realized that the troubles they mitigated were caused by the earlier success. The Congo is a quagmire for the United States; every step sinks it deeper. Every American move to pull the Congo out of turmoil seems only to prepare the ground for a new round of turmoil.
Finally, the reaction of the Congolese to the rebellion revealed for a moment the bitter sense of inferiority and resentment of Africans toward whites in Africa. Of course, the Congo differs from the rest of Africa; in some ways, in fact, it is a parody of the continent. Yet the terrifying attacks on whites there may be a foretaste of more intense terror to come. The mercenary rebellion was ugly; the consequences may some day be uglier.
Mr. Meisler, Africa correspondent of the Los Angeles Times, is a frequent contributor to The Nation.