Government has kept a tight lid on information about the controversial deployment, which was allegedly carried out to prevent Congolese President Laurent Kabila from being ousted by rebels. Kabila’s son, Joseph, has since succeeded his father as head of state.
Getting combatants to share their battle stories is also no easy feat. But in unguarded moments, some of them reveal how it feels to be in the Congolese rainforest, encircled by Ugandan- and Rwandan-backed rebels.
The conversation lightens when it turns to the subject of Congolese women, whose neatly-chiseled features are often cited as one of the reasons why so many Zimbabwean soldiers quickly achieved fluency in Lingala, a language spoken in the DRC.
Little wonder, the troops note, that scores of Ugandan soldiers are said to have married Congolese women by the time they were withdrawn in terms of various peace agreements signed in 2002. DRC government and rebel representatives are now included in a transitional government.
According to press reports, complaints have been brought to Zimbabwean Defence Forces Chief Constantine Chiwenga by indignant wives of certain senior army officers, who have allegedly brought home second and even third wives from the Congo.
For five years, about 12,000 soldiers from Zimbabwe helped prop up the fragile Congolese government – along with forces from Angola, Namibia and at one time even Chad and Sudan. The Zimbabweans arrived in the DRC after Kabila had fallen out with neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda, his former backers.
Despite the scale of the Zimbabwean deployment, it now receives little attention in a country besieged by other political and economic woes – although the government-controlled media sometimes refer to the troops’ alleged triumphs in the DRC. Even the cost of the deployment remains unknown.
Initially, the government claimed that Kinshasa was footing all Zimbabwe’s expenses in the Congo. Later, it was said that concessions in the mineral- and timber-rich DRC would be used to offset the cost of the deployment. At the time, it was estimated that a million U.S. dollars a day were being spent on the mission.
Economist John Robertson says it is possible that some money was made through the exploitation of timber, diamonds and the like: "But the question is whether the money came back to the country or is lying in Swiss bank accounts."
The United Nations has implicated top generals, ruling party politicians and other members of Zimbabwe’s elite in illegal resource exploitation in the Congo – along with individuals in Uganda and Rwanda.
Robertson puts the cost of the DRC operation at about one billion U.S. dollars, but adds that this estimate could prove conservative if the loss of several fighter aircraft was taken into consideration.
An economist with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, Tendai Makwavava, claims that the country’s economy has been critically affected by the unbudgeted spending used to deploy troops.
"We are failing to import electricity, fuel and pay our debts because of a shortage of foreign currency, because the government siphoned off the forex in financing the war," she notes.
Authorities have also been reluctant to reveal the number of fatalities the troops suffered in the DRC, and many remain unaccounted for. Three months ago, however, 47 were confirmed dead after relatives pushed for an enquiry in order to finalise the estates of the soldiers.
"People don’t have information, they don’t know what happened in the Congo," says Gorden Moyo of the local pressure group Bulawayo Agenda. And, it’s unlikely that government will give up any more details without a fight.
"It is not to the advantage of the ruling party to make those revelations considering the elections coming next year," notes political commentator Eldred Musunungure.
Even if death didn’t come in the DRC – it may well be shadowing many of the troops now back in Zimbabwe: soldiers who had sexual encounters with Congolese women could have returned home with the HI-virus. "There were sexual as well as military casualties," says Moyo.
Earlier this year, the Zimbabwe Human Development Report for 2003, produced with the support of the UN Development Programme, revealed that 75 percent of soldiers die of AIDS within a year of being discharged from the military.
Despite the unpopularity of their deployment amongst ordinary citizens, certain soldiers are loath to speak ill of the DRC mission.
A man who identifies himself as Sabelo claims that his unit, which guarded Kinshasa’s airport for four year, showed a local population used to strong-arm military tactics what "honorable soldiering" was all about.
He also found the hard-currency allowance of 12 U.S. dollars a day attractive. Converted on a black market that was thriving as the Zimbabwean dollar declined, this allowance was worth its weight in gold.
"You’d think to yourself, I’ll buy a house, and then a car," he told IPS. A man who goes by the name of Munya was able to buy two houses – one in the working class suburb of Cowdray Park. Due to the concentration of homes bought with soldiers’ allowances from the Congo, a section of this area is now informally known as the "DRC".
Sabelo notes that morale took a dive when a decision was made to pay the soldiers the Zimbabwe dollar equivalent of the allowances – converted at the official, reduced exchange rate.
Even at this point, however, there were lessons to be learnt from what he terms the "culture of trading" in the DRC: "In the Congo, even if you see a doctor, he’ll be selling something. Even at a (government) minister’s house there’s likely be something on sale."
Ironically, these skills have now been brought back to a country where there is little to sell – and even fewer people to buy it.