High in the mist-shrouded Mushaki mountains, the rebel leader swept into the crumbling brick farmhouse, his sinewy frame swathed in a red-and-black shawl – followed by a pet lamb called Betty.
Gen. Laurent Nkunda, extolled by supporters as a gift from God, shook hands and exuded charm in an interview with The Associated Press.
The lamb was meant to symbolize peace – meshing with the image Nkunda has tried to show the world: that of a responsible, compassionate leader who wants only to liberate his people in the mineral-rich Congo. The rebels are battling Congolese soldiers in a conflict many fear will spread.
His fighters an hour's drive away were killing unarmed civilians, looting and burning, according to witnesses and a human rights body. Among those shot in the head: a 25-year-old radio reporter who angered the rebels with his broadcasts.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
The man blamed for a 10-week offensive that has forced 250,000 people from their homes as his fighters captured great swaths of eastern Congo says he's a born-again Christian and one-time Adventist pastor who'd rather be teaching than soldiering.
The conflict is fueled by ethnic hatred left from the 1994 slaughter of a half-million Tutsis in Rwanda, and Congo's civil wars from 1996-2002.
Nkunda defected from the army in 2004, saying he had to protect his tiny Tutsi minority from Rwandan Hutu militias. He has since expanded his mission to liberating Congo from an allegedly corrupt government.
New clashes erupted Friday outside Goma near Kibati, where about 45,000 refugees have taken refuge.
Nkunda, 41, called a cease-fire last week when his forces reached Goma's outskirts, but the truce has crumbled.
He says he wants to change the mentality of Congo's people, which he says has been polluted by centuries of exploitation and corruption.
“Everyone is for themselves. We have to learn … to want to serve our country. There is this lack of love of our country.”
Asked how that could be reconciled with the suffering his latest offensive has brought upon tens of thousands of refugees sleeping in the open or in unsanitary camps, threatened by hunger and disease, he said: “You have to suffer to be free. That is the price of freedom.”
Nkunda has been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
He dismissed the allegations: “The International Court conducted investigations and did not and has never found proof against Laurent Nkunda. It's normal for the Congo government to accuse its opponents.”
Charges cited by Human Rights Watch included a June 3, 2004, case when “Nkunda's soldiers gang-raped a mother in front of her husband and children as another soldier raped her 3-year-old daughter.” Amnesty International says his troops have abducted and conscripted children as young as 12.