Skip to content

Out of Africa

In 1975, three Stanford Students were kidnapped and held hostage by African rebel leader Laurent Kabila. Now Kabila is president of Congo -- and the three alums are urging Washington to hold him accountable for his terrorism.

Courtesy Emilie Bergman

The Captives: (clockwise from top left) Emilie Bergman, Carrie Hunter, Barbara Smuts and Steve Smith, in photos taken at the time of their 1975 ordeal.

View photo album >>

By Brian C. Aronstam

Crowds surged into the streets of Kinshasa to celebrate. It was May 17, 1997, and rebel chief Laurent Kabila had finally pushed longtime Zaire dictator Mobutu Sese Seko into exile. In the city’s downtown, grateful residents showered cheers on Kabila’s advancing army. “Ka-bi-la, Ka-bi-la,” they chanted. “Mobutu is an animal.” Many wore white headbands reading “Viva Kabila.”

In the United States, Carrie Hunter read reports from Kinshasa in the Washington Post. She did not celebrate. For months, she had been monitoring Kabila’s rise to power -- and waiting for the U.S. government to reveal his history as a terrorist. “I was dismayed,” she recalls. “I couldn’t believe that nothing was being said publicly about his past.”

Hunter was one of three Stanford students kidnapped by Kabila strongmen in 1975. As she learned of Kabila’s triumph, she relived the horror of that spring 22 years earlier. The three students, along with a Dutch colleague, had been taken at gunpoint from a Tanzanian research camp and held hostage for weeks in cold mud huts. They lived alongside African civilians seized by Kabila’s guerrillas and forced into slave labor. The students were released only after their families paid a ransom totaling nearly a half-million dollars.

Until recently, the former students -- Hunter, ’75, Stephen Smith, ’75, Barbara Smuts, PhD ’82, and Emilie Bergman -- said nothing publicly about their ordeal. After their release, they saw no way of helping the Africans held by Kabila and wanted only to leave the nightmare behind. But now they’re speaking out. They fear for the nation Kabila has renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They’re angry that the U.S. government is silent about his crimes -- and they worry that Kabila will interpret such silence as indifference, perhaps as an invitation to commit new wrongs.

So the former students are seeking out anyone who might help -- members of the Clinton administration, lawmakers in Congress, human rights groups, reporters. In public letters and private meetings, they’re urging Washington officials to confront Kabila, to insist that he acknowledge his rogue behavior. But the U.S. government, they complain, is unmoved.

The group is particularly angry with Daniel H. Simpson, U.S. Ambassador to Congo. Last November, Simpson met at the State Department with Smith, Hunter and Bergman. “I was amazed at how we were rebuffed,” says Smith, an environmental planner in California. “I just made this plea -- here I am, an American citizen, asking my government to do one thing for me -- and he flat-out refused.”

To administration officials, the “one thing” Smith wants is no small request. The U.S. government has decided to support Kabila, not embarrass him. Washington is seeking to boost trade and investment in central Africa while reducing the region’s dependence on foreign aid. African leaders who share that vision, and who seem able to deliver the stable government it requires, receive U.S. aid. It’s a matter of realpolitik -- requiring that the United States sometimes look the other way if a country is slow to move toward democracy or fails to adequately protect human rights. With a policy aimed at helping Kabila succeed, officials have little incentive to scrutinize his past abuses.

Hunter, Smith and Smuts had never heard of Laurent Kabila when they left Stanford for Tanzania in early 1975. They had signed on to do research at Gombe Stream National Park, where they would study chimpanzee behavior with famed naturalist Jane Goodall. Even though Kabila’s forces operated in eastern Zaire, just 34 miles across Lake Tanganyika, the students were never warned of any safety risk.

“Personal security was never an issue,” recalls Hunter, now a management consultant on the East Coast. “The sorts of things you worried about were more the mamba snakes, the copperheads, the occasional leopard.”

On a typical day at Gombe, students tracked groups of chimps through the park, collecting data on their behavior for five or six hours at a time. Then they’d prepare detailed reports before heading off to the camp dining hall, where they’d eat dinner and discuss the day’s activities with Goodall.

At night, the students slept in thatched-roof huts surrounded by the sounds of the jungle -- the cry of a leopard, the snort of a bush pig, the slither of a snake in the reeds. But on the evening of May 19, Smuts woke up to a different noise.

“I heard Steve screaming,” recalls Smuts, now a university professor in Michigan. “What flashed through my mind was that he must have been bitten by a snake. I ran toward the sound, and as soon as I arrived on the scene, they grabbed me.”

“They” were some three dozen uniformed men, several of whom were beating Smith to subdue him. They ordered Smith, Smuts and Hunter -- who also had rushed from her hut to investigate -- to their knees and cinched their hands behind their backs. Bergman, a research assistant to Goodall, had already been dragged from her hut, beaten and bound.

“It was sheer unmitigated terror,” Hunter says. “They kept hitting me with their guns, pointing the guns at my head.”

The raiders did not say who they were, where they were from or what they wanted -- only that they had been sent to kidnap “Europeans.” No other camp members were seized. Several of the 14 other students based at the camp -- including five others from Stanford -- were away on vacation, and Goodall slipped into the jungle after a local Tanzanian spotted the guerrillas and warned her of the raid.

After stealing money and supplies from the camp, the guerrillas ordered the four onto a leaky boat for a seven-hour trip across the lake to Zaire. On the other side, the students were marched up a steep hill to a compound of three huts not far from the guerrillas’ camp.

The students were assigned to two of the mud-and-wattle huts; the third was for their two guards. They slept on bamboo cots covered with thin blankets. When thunderstorms washed the camp, as they did almost daily, the students shivered inside. They ate ugali, a paste made from the roots of the cassava plant, and an occasional bony chicken.

On their third day as prisoners, the students were brought before a tribunal of officers -- members of the Marxist Parti de la Révolution Populaire, or PRP. They told the students that their commander was Laurent Kabila, who for six years had been leading attacks against the army loyal to Mobutu. The students never met Kabila, but they were told “in no uncertain terms,” says Smith, that he was “the man in charge.” On his orders, the students were to write ransom letters to the Tanzanian government demanding close to $500,000, a cache of weapons and the release of PRP rebels from Tanzanian jails. If the terms were not met within 60 days, the students would be killed. “The demands were pretty outrageous,” says Smith. “We thought, ‘Oh God, we’re doomed.’ ”

A week after the raid, the guerrillas selected Smuts to deliver the ransom letters. They ferried her back across Lake Tanganyika to a beach one mile from a Tanzanian town and let her go. Three days later, the Tanzanian government rejected Kabila’s demands.

During the month that followed, Hunter, Smith and Bergman spent hours each day at “re-education sessions.” They were instructed in the PRP’s history and required to read and report on Marxist-Leninist tracts. Their guards hovered nearby, toying with their hand grenades and automatic weapons. After the raid at Gombe, the students were never again abused physically, but one of Kabila’s generals, Alfred Nando, proved adept at psychological manipulation. “You didn’t look forward to his visits,” says Hunter. “He’d always find a way to remind you that you might not live through the experience. You often couldn’t prevent the sense of having your heart crowd your toes.”

The PRP’s war against Mobutu was never far off. Twice, government gunboats on the lake fired mortars on the compound, driving the students and guerrillas into trenches. At other times, the ground fighting was so close that those in the camp could hear it from their huts.

The guerrillas were served by African civilians pressed into slave labor. The students’ food and wash water were provided by three women -- two from Zaire, one from Tanzania -- who had been held for as long as two years. One of the hostages was an African physician who treated Bergman for malaria and attended to the guerrillas’ battle casualties. A guard told Smith that the guerrillas crossed the lake periodically to kidnap Tanzanian women and “make them wives.”

Six weeks after the kidnapping, Hunter and Bergman were released when the students’ families paid a $460,000 ransom. Kabila held Smith for another month, apparently in an effort to maintain pressure on Tanzania to release PRP prisoners. (The students never learned whether the Tanzanian government met Kabila’s demands to free his men.)

After their release, the students briefed the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania on the kidnapping and what they learned about Kabila. Weak and riddled with parasites, Smuts had left for home 10 days after gaining her freedom. Hunter and Bergman, in better health but still exhausted, stayed on until Smith was let go.

Back in the United States, the students assessed what they could do -- especially to relieve the suffering of Kabila’s African hostages. They already knew from their embassy briefings to expect nothing from Washington, which would not risk embarrassing its ally Mobutu by calling attention to Kabila’s rebellion. The students were pessimistic about rallying support for the hostages through the media; the New York Times, for example, showed slim interest in their story, relegating all reports about the kidnapping to inside pages.

“The politics of the time were dominated by the Cold War,” says Hunter. “Amnesty International had opened its doors only a few years before. There seemed nothing we could do about the hostages.”

The students reached a decision the way they have settled every group issue since the May 19 raid -- by consensus. They agreed to say nothing publicly about the kidnapping. “It had been a very disconcerting time for our friends and families,” says Hunter. “It was time to move on.”

Over the next 21 years, the kidnapping’s imprint on the students faded but never disappeared. They got on with their lives but stayed in touch. They remained cautious, too, closely guarding their phone numbers and addresses. In speaking out now about Kabila, they fear that they may, as Hunter puts it, “annoy somebody who is in a powerful position -- and given world communications [and] travel, you’re not beyond their reach.”

In late 1996, after hearing practically nothing about Kabila since their release, the former students were jolted by the news of smashing victories by his forces. (See sidebar, next page.) They waited for the State Department to tell the world how -- and why -- it had labeled Kabila a terrorist in 1975. They were surprised by the silence. “There seemed a complete lack of institutional memory” about the kidnapping, says Hunter.

The former students were especially concerned about Congolese citizens who were falling subject to Kabila’s forces. By phone and e-mail, they renewed their conversation from two decades before about whether they could do anything to help. This time, they decided they could. After all, few others could speak with such passion about Kabila’s methods. With the Cold War over and Kabila about to become a national leader, they figured Washington just needed a little nudge, a history lesson. Then, they believed, the administration would make Kabila’s past abuses a factor in setting its Congo policy.

Specifically, the former students wanted the Clinton administration to tell Kabila that the U.S. government knows about his record of human rights violations -- including their kidnapping and his enslavement of Africans. They wanted Washington to tell Kabila that while the United States is eager to help his nation recover from Mobutu’s ravages, he must make improvements in human rights and democracy building if U.S. aid to Congo is to continue.

Their point was simple, says Hunter: “With a Kabila, who is very clever and very capricious, you have to go eyeball to eyeball with him­­tell him, ‘We know, in your past, these are the sorts of things you used to do. We understand that the United States has a lot to be accountable for [regarding its policy of support for Mobutu], and this is what we in the United States will do that’s different from the past. Now, what are you, Laurent Kabila, going to do that’s different from the past?’ ”

By May 1997, the same month Kabila’s forces seized power from Mobutu’s army, the former captives were ready to launch their lobbying campaign. Because Hunter has a background in political science and, of the four, lives closest to Washington, she became the leader. She drafted position letters, conferred with human rights organizations and made the rounds of administration and congressional offices. Smith and Bergman later joined Hunter for a week of meetings at the State Department and on Capitol Hill.

On May 23, Hunter sent a letter to Secretary of State Madeline Albright signed by all four. In it, she summarized the kidnapping and presented their goals for U.S. policy. Albright herself never responded.

Meanwhile, Congresswoman Lynn Rivers intervened. The Michigan Democrat, who represents Smuts’s congressional district, had been talking for some time with the former students. After Rivers put on the pressure -- what she calls “a lot of kicking and screaming and door knocking” -- Hunter was granted meetings with senior officials, including John Shattuck, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.

The State Department position was plain. Officials were sympathetic to what the four had endured as hostages, but they believe Kabila is making progress toward establishing democracy and protecting human rights. They said it would serve no purpose and might harm relations to revisit past events with Kabila.

Privately, State Department officials admit Kabila is far from perfect. A spokesperson says the administration appreciates that Kabila’s human rights record has been “checkered” and notes that Washington has “deplored two or three incidents.” But, adds the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, “There’s a timetable for democratic elections, a relatively free press [and] some 300 political parties.”

Albright crystallized this position in December. At a press conference following bilateral talks with Kabila, she acknowledged that “there is a long way to go” toward a civil society in Congo. But she praised Kabila for making a “strong start” on economic reforms and naming a commission to draft laws leading to an election. She said she was encouraged by Kabila’s “positive steps” and noted their meeting reflected “shared interests . . . and a joint willingness to solve problems.” Albright pledged $40 million in U.S. aid for health programs and infrastructure projects.

Even as Albright was offering U.S. help and hope, there were signs that Kabila’s government was inflicting fresh abuses. In late 1997, news reports indicated that, under Kabila, the government was jailing political opponents and harassing journalists; that his troops had stripped and raped women on the streets for wearing nontraditional clothing; that his forces allegedly massacred hundreds of civilians. In February of this year, his security forces detained an opposition leader. (Albright telephoned Kabila “to express deep concern.”) Then the Kabila government blocked a U.N. human rights investigation into the possible massacre of tens of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees by Kabila’s Tutsi troops.

When President Clinton traveled to Uganda for a conference with Kabila and other central African leaders in March, Hunter tried to turn up the pressure. She published an open letter to Clinton in a Ugandan newspaper, urging him to take note of Kabila’s present and past abuses and to ask Kabila “what it will take to cause [him] to abandon such behavior.”

At the summit, Clinton did criticize Kabila, telling him his record had been “lacking” since taking control and adding, “You haven’t come this far to fail.” To Hunter, the remark was “a miniature step in the right direction.” But all the former hostages remain frustrated that nothing was said about Kabila’s history as a terrorist.

From Capitol Hill, Rivers, too, is disappointed in the U.S. response. “There tends to be far too much hand-patting going on here, saying, ‘Yes, yes, we know this happened, but life goes on,’ ” she says. “The desire to have Kabila’s past front and center as we talk about millions of dollars in aid and agreements with him is a reasonable position to take.”

The policy conclusions seem clear. In this region racked by wars and refugee crises, the administration cares less about reforming rogue rulers than it does about stability and economic development. If a leader is committed to these goals, human rights abuses may not discourage U.S. support. As for past conduct, well, that rarely enters into the equation.

Rebuffed by the administration, the former captives are taking their battle to the congressional panels that will review the $40 million foreign aid request. “The intent,” says Hunter, “is not to stop aid but [to ensure] that everybody knows about [Kabila’s] past.” Adotei Akwei, advocacy director for Africa at Amnesty International in Washington, says the four could play a key role in persuading lawmakers to rethink U.S. policy. While interest groups “can talk about a massacre here and an attack there,” Akwei says, the former hostages can go the next step: “They can say, ‘We have seen [his methods] firsthand, and there’s nothing to indicate that Kabila has changed. What more do you need?’ ”

Still, Akwei is realistic about their prospects. The administration has decided on its course, he notes, and on Capitol Hill, “Africa is still very much off the burner.”

But the former hostages remain resolute. Bergman, who lives on a New England farm with her husband, David C. Riss, ’73, MD ’79, rejects criticism that they’re trying to use public policy to redress a private wrong. “People say we just have a personal vendetta,” she says. “But that’s just a very easy excuse to ignore us.”

And one thing is clear: Though they were silent for 22 years, these are four people now determined not to be ignored.

Brian C. Aronstam, ’77, is editor of the Palo Alto Weekly.

Comments (0)

  • Be the first one to add a comment. You must log in to comment.


Your Rating
Average Rating



Be the first one to tag this!

Related Links