Bomb the Other Side of the Runway!
Zimbabwe's epic, 1998 defense of a Congolese airport
The Democratic Republic of Congo has seen next to no peace since its independence in 1960. While a series of bitter secessionist wars — involving large numbers of West European mercenaries, and then the CIA and its paramilitaries of Cuban origin — dominated the headlines in the 1960s, ever since hardly a day has passed without at least some sort of low-intensity fighting occurring in the country’s expansive forests.
Indeed, not a few parts in the north and east of the country remain outside the reach of official authorities to this day. Corruption and banditry remain endemic.
In May 1996, what was originally declared an “insurgency” in the eastern DRC — but was actually an all-out invasion by the militaries of neighboring Rwanda and Uganda — swept from power the long-time dictator and a close U.S. and French ally Mobutu Sesse Seko.
Two years later the sequence of events that the invasion set in motion culminated in a bizarre battle, during which clashing armies occupied opposite sides of an airport runway.
A small-time Marxist rebel leader and gold-smuggling “businessman,” Laurent Kabila, replaced Mobutu. In a matter of few months, Kabila turned against his primary foreign supporters the Rwandans. By the summer of 1998, tensions between him and his aides on one side, and Rwandan officers appointed in command of the entire Congolese military, reached a point where Rwandan strongman Paul Kagame decided to remove Kabila from power.
A map depicting the movements of Rwandan and Zimbabwean forces in August 1998. Tom Cooper map
For this purpose, Kagame and his chief of staff James Kabarebe developed a plot that might sound familiar — they would instigate a mutiny in the Congolese military, which would then justify a coup de main by Rwanda that could topple the government in Kinshasa.
On Aug. 4 1998, as a number of Congolese garrisons mutinied, Rwandan special forces entered Goma, a major town in eastern DRC on the border to Rwanda. While securing the local airport, they commandeered at least four and possibly six different airliners. Using these, and reinforced by a battalion of Ugandan army troops, the Rwandans then flew to Kitona, a base on the Atlantic coast of the DRC 1,240 miles from Goma.
Using unprotected airliners to deploy hundreds of troops for an invasion of a major capital of a foreign country might seem risky, even insane. However, the fact is that much of the air space over the DRC remains unmonitored even today. In 1998, the DRC had no real air force.
Therefore, the resulting air bridge went on, entirely undisrupted, for several days. The flight control at N’Djili International did notice some of related movements — including a total of eight flights on Aug. 8, 1998 — but could do nothing to stop them.
Once in Kitona, Kabarebe first took care to free thousands of Mobutu’s troops being held in re-education camps by Kabila’s military. After spending a few suitcases full of dollars, his task force — now numbering around a thousand Rwandans plus a few hundred Ugandans and reinforced by up to 10,000 Congolese mutineers — set the course for Kinshasa on Aug. 10, 1998.
James Kabarebe, at center, was the military mastermind behind Rwanda’s attempt to topple Congolese president Laurent Kabila in August 1998. U.S. Defense Department photo
Theoretically, the distance was not great. However, there was only one poor road and one railway line Kabarebe’s troops could use.
Unsurprisingly, Kabila was quicker. Anticipating the Rwandan plot, he signed a major deal with Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. The Zimbabwean Defense Force would deploy a significant troop contingent in the DRC with the aim of monitoring the withdrawal of Rwandan military from the country.
In exchange, Mugabe received official permission to exploit several large mines in the country.
It so happened that in early August 1998, as the Rwandans were hauling their troops and arms from Goma to Kitona — i.e., from eastern to western Congo — the Zimbabweans were doing the same from their home bases, via Zambia, to Kinshasa. That is, from southern to western Congo.
To further increase the irony — many of Rwandan officers had trained in Zimbabwe, which meant that the future belligerents actually knew each other.
The ZDF of the 1990s was a highly professional force. Thus, while Kagame’s hodgepodge of Rwandan and Ugandan troops and Congolese mutineers needed two weeks to reach Kinshasa, by Aug. 22 the ZDF had one squadron of its own Special Air Service, 800 paratroopers, 15 Cascavel armored cars of Brazilian origin, 16 helicopters and eight combat aircraft staging from N’Djili.
Following the tradition of the Rhodesian military from the 1970s, the AFZ operated its French-made Alouette III helicopters over the DRC in two versions for transport and fire-support, the latter armed with a 20-millimeter cannon firing out of the port door. ZDF photo
The first clash between Kabarebe’s force and Zimbabweans occurred on Aug. 24, 1998, around 60 miles southwest of Kinshasa. After one of AFZ’s fighter-bombers detected a column of Chinese-made Type-59 main battle tanks operated by Congolese mutineers, the Zimbabwean Special Air Service quickly attacked. After the lead Type-59 was knocked out, the rest of crews abandoned their tanks and ran away into the jungle.
Kabarebe thus lost the heaviest component of his force before the fateful battle for Kinshasa even began. Nevertheless, Kabarebe regrouped his forces and continued the advance. Early on the morning of Aug. 26 1998, his troops finally reached the southeastern outskirts of Kinshasa.
The city was all but unprotected. The regular Congolese military was in turmoil and hardly capable of protecting the presidential palace. Air Marshal Perence Shiri and Air Vice Marshal Mike Nyambuya — commanders of the ZDF’s deployment in the DRC — decided to concentrate their forces for the defense of N’Djili. As long as the airport remained in their hands and operational, they could always receive reinforcements via transport aircraft from Zimbabwe.
The first Rwandan attack on N’Djili came by surprise. Kabarebe rushed a column of rebels disguised as retreating Congolese regulars toward the airport, and another in direction of the presidential palace. The first column approached N’Djili without any interruption. They were identified as enemy by the crews of several Cascavels while fewer than 100 yards away.
Together with heavy-machine-gun crews, the Zimbabwean armored cars poured murderous fire down on the assailants. The smoke hadn’t yet cleared when the second wave of Rwandans and more Congolese rebels appeared. The ZDF was forced to withdraw toward the main terminal.
The main terminal of N’Djili International, as seen from a helicopter in 2007. The control tower is on the right, northern side of this photograph. Bundeswehr photo
Thus a strange situation developed in which the Rwandans and Congolese mutineers managed to capture not only the western threshold of N’Djili’s runway, but also the main terminal. The Zimbabweans remained in possession of the northern, military side of the airport plus the control tower, where a small group of paras and the SAS snipers entrenched.
The Zimbabweans recovered rapidly, scrambling all the available troops and aviators into defensive positions. What followed is a story from which legends are made. All of the ZDF’s Hawk fighter-bombers, Lynx attack planes and helicopters were airborne within minutes. Using the northern half of the runway, they launched downwind, made a turn over the Congo River and then returned to bomb — literally — the very other end of the runway from which they took off!
For the rest of the day, the Hawks, Lynxes and helicopters continued pounding enemy positions, causing heavy casualties and forcing the enemy to stop further attacks and entrench around the western threshold.
The heaviest fighting erupted on the morning of Aug. 27, when Kabarebe deployed his last few remaining Type-62 light tanks and a significant number of anti-aircraft guns in support of his next assault. Supported by Cascavels and the SAS, the Zimbabwean paras routed the first wave, while the ZDF’s fighter-bombers and helicopters flew one strike after the other.
The same happened to Kabarebe’s second attack, launched late in the afternoon. Through all of this time, Zimbabwean aircraft and helicopters continued launching from the northern end of the 15,420-foot runway and attacking targets around its southern end. With the enemy that close to their base, they were able to take up maximal amounts of bombs and rockets. Pilots kept their engines running between successive sorties, relaunching in just five minutes.
Originally designed as an advanced trainer, the Hawk Mk. 60 that Zimbabwe acquired in the early 1980s was actually dedicated light striker. British Aerospace photo
The speed of the Zimbabwean air force’s operations was such that nobody had his breakfast or lunch. Even medics and caterers were pushing bombs and ammunition boxes to the aircraft — refueling and arming process became everyone’s business, with the armorers concentrating solely on the safety checks.
After being airborne for nearly 20 hours, three helicopters and one of the Lynxes became due for their periodic maintenance. The required servicing was undertaken the following night, after the necessary spares were delivered to N’Djili by transport aircraft.
Early on Aug. 28, the ZDF counterattacked. Already shaken by heavy losses, the Rwandans and the Congolese fell back. By the end of the day, they withdrew into the built-up areas of N’Djili, where they engaged Zimbabweans in savage trench warfare for another two days. Finally, during the night of Aug. 31, 1998, Kabarebe ordered the surviving Rwandan troops to disengage in direction of Kisantu, leaving behind thousands of dazed Congolese mutineers.
The Battle of N’Djili — during which combat aircraft and helicopters literally bombed the other end of the runway from where they launched — thus ended in a clear-cut defeat for the Rwandans. However, it only marked the beginning of the so-called Second Congo War, which was to last well into 2003.