“THIS is the story of a failure,” Marxist guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara wrote in his journal after a bid to bring “revolutionary war” to the Congo 50 years ago.
Che arrived secretly at the head of a dozen Cuban fighters of black African origin on April 24, 1965, to join rebels in what today is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Their aim was to make the heart of Africa a bulwark against neocolonialism and “Yankee imperialism”.
Sent by Cuba’s communist leader—and Washington’s arch-enemy—Fidel Castro, the expeditionary force disembarked in the east after crossing Lake Tanganyika from Tanzania, then moved onto the lakeside town of Baraka.
“He came as a friend and a lover of revolution,” recalled Andre Shibunda, local branch leader of the main party behind current President Joseph Kabila, son of a former rebel chief in the eastern mountains.
The Argentine-born guerilla “spent a while with us in the forest, but he found that our leaders lacked political maturity and he preferred to go,” Shibunda said of Che’s seven-month adventure with the Simba (“Lion” in Swahili) rebels in South Kivu province.
In “The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo”, Che wrote that Baraka had “displayed traces of its former relative prosperity, including a cotton-baling machine, but everyone had been ruined by the war and the little factory was bombed out.”
In five years after rushed independence from Belgium in 1960, the Congo endured successive conflicts, including a secession bid by the mineral-rich southeastern province of Katanga.
Independence leader and first elected prime minister Patrice Lumumba sought help from the United States, but tarnished his image in Washington’s eyes during a disastrous visit.
He then turned to the Soviet Union, making him a prime Cold War target and—though still held in high regard by many in his divided country—was assassinated in January 1961. The question of direct US involvement is still being debated today.
Washington needed the Congo. The uranium for the atomic bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 had come from its mines. It was also a vital source of cobalt used in the weapons industry, since most of the rest of global resources lay under Soviet soil.
When Che arrived, the young republic was still in upheaval. Katanga province was back in the fold but the rebellion by the Simbas, who combined Lumumbists with Maoists, had broken out the previous year.
The rebels had gained control of almost a third of the country, only to lose it by April 1965—the month of Che’s arrival—when they were confined to two pockets in the centre and east of the Congo.
Che wanted to meet with rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila, whom he had seen a few months earlier in Brazzaville, capital of the neighbouring former French Congo, but Kabila was travelling abroad.
When he finally showed up on July 7 Kabila stayed only four days amid circumstances Che described as “organised chaos”.
“The main flaw of the Congolese is that they don’t know how to shoot,” Che wrote.
Yet he was growing disillusioned, finding that Simba forces lacked revolutionary fervour and practised magic rituals they thought would make them invulnerable.
They were also prone to flee heavy fighting. Their camps were full of women and children and incongruous loud music in the jungle, where they drank, danced and sought food.
Conditions were difficult. “In the camp, we’d share an ear of corn among 10 people,” former resistance member Tabu Azizu said.
“They told us the white man (Che) was going to help us and bring us more weapons,” said former rebel Floribert Milimba, an evangelical pastor who said Che’s arrival brought “much hope”.
Che “travelled round all the positions” of Kabila’s resistance over a wide area “to teach politics and army tactics,” Shibunda recalled.
“I was a simple soldier” in 1965, General Lwendema Dunia, now in his 80s, says in a hut in South Kivu’s capital Bukavu, recalling how Che “taught us how to make a revolution. He gave us military training and taught us politics.”
But “once we started to take from the people and trample on revolutionary ideals… they left,” he said.
Castro had reinforced the Cuban contingent to around 100 men, helping to win a few clashes, but Shibunda said government soldiers were advancing.
By October 1965, Che wrote to Castro: “It’s not really weapons that are lacking here… Indeed, there are too many armed men and what is lacking are soldiers.”
“When Che Guevara left, there was a great battle,” Shibunda adds. “We were almost routed.”
Rebel positions fell one after another in the face of a ground offensive and air raids by planes flown by Western mercenaries.
Che and his men finally left the eastern Congo on November 21.
Three days later, General Joseph Mobutu seized power, to enjoy US backing even as he became a nepotistic authoritarian steeped in corruption. He ruled for nearly 32 years.
Che was killed in Bolivia in 1967. For his part, Kabila bided his time until he ousted Mobutu in May 1997 in a rebellion backed by neighbouring Rwanda before they fell out, starting a new war.
Poverty and unrest still dog the region.
“Bring back Che Guevara and we’ll follow his ideas until Congo’s on its feet again and we have peace here,” former rebel Anna Binti Shabani said.