"I don't have an opinion." The man from Butembo looks uncomfortable.
"You don't have an opinion or you don't want to tell me your opinion?" I ask. He looks relieved. He laughs and points to me with a wink before walking off. Miles away from Rwanda, it's hard to find anyone who will speak about newly re-elected President Paul Kagame, for fear of being killed. His terror is far-reaching.
As the elections passed a few weeks ago, the Congolese people I live and work with didn't even glance towards the East. "It's a joke," says Jean-Richard, a University graduate who would not let me use his name for fear of reprisal. "It's all a masquerade to create an image of democracy. But all of his opponents were in his circle, and anyone who was a real opponent, he had killed."
"He didn't win because the Rwandan people like him. He won because he killed his opponents and intimidated the people," says Martin, another University graduate with a similar fear of speaking out. "That 93 percent doesn't mean a thing."
In the North Kivu city of Butembo and the surrounding villages, there is only one view of Kagame. Cruel dictator and bandit are the first words out of any Congolese person's mouth when I ask about the man. Kagame's Presidency is often compared to that of Mobutu Sese-Sekou, a Dictator in the Congolese past, who similarly used fierce intimidation to rule the people.
When I explain the recently leaked United Nations report and the accusations against Rwanda, nobody looks surprised or shows any emotion, until I mention that Rwanda is vehemently denying the report. Then they roll their eyes, shake their heads and start to get angry. "[The report] is absolutely accurate," says Jean-Richard. "And it's clear in Kagam'es reaction. When you provoke someone, you can see if they're guilty by how they respond; and you see how he is responding. [It gives] suspicion."
Kagame is widely considered to be one of, if not the primary player in the devastating Congo war, which began soon after he came to power. He is thought to be collaborating with Laurent Nkunda, the supposed ex-leader of one of the primary military factions in North Kivu, in order to extract the precious minerals which Rwanda does not otherwise have access to. Nkunda was arrested by Rwandese authorities, yet his detainment in Rwanda is considered to be as much of a masquerade as the recent elections. Rwanda is one of the main exporters of diamonds and coltan in the world, yet doesn't have a speck of the sparkly money in its soil. Within Congo boundaries, however, the land is rich with the minerals.
Many here believe that Rwanda's International support, in the guise of post-genocide aide, is the primary reason the war continues. The United States provides substantial financial support to Kagame's government and he has received many awards in recognition of his so-called peace-keeping abilities. When I refer to this here, people shake their heads and say it must be either corruption, or an obscene level of gullibility. "It doesn't make sense to me how anyone could consider him even a remotely decent person," says Martin.
Kagame is also thought by many Congolese to be collaborating with Joseph Kabila, the current President of the D.R. Congo. With Kagame's subsantial International support, Congolese governmental forces are unable to push Rwandan rebel forces back across the border. In order to stop Rwandan forces (specifically, the CNDP, headed by Nkunda), from raging outright war, Kabila is thought to have made an agreement, giving mineral access in return for relative "peace." The coming elections for the Congo in 2011 are expected to be a similar masquerade, and if President Kabila does not maintain his power, many people are terrified of what will happen. "If Kabila doesn't win the elections, there will be a problem so terrible here," says a Congolese humanitarian aid worker in Butembo. "Kagame and Kabila have some sort of deal, and Kagame needs our minerals."
The Congolese I speak to consider their views to be fact not opinion, because they have lived and are still living through the many phases of the war. Overall, the election results are not unexpected but are not happy news. "We are very sad that he is still President," says Martin. "We are very sorry about it because as long as Kagame is in power, the Congo will not see peace."