Bout’s trade gave him an outsized role in matters of war and peace. He neither shied from the pressure nor took sides. He flew Belgian peacekeepers into Somalia, and after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, he says, he brought French troops into eastern Congo. Not long after, with the help of Mirchev and others, he was transporting arms from Russia, Bulgaria, and Iran into conflict zones.
In the fall of 1998, four years after the Rwandan genocide, Bout began transporting arms to Rwanda. Mirchev contracted with the Rwandan government to supply arms, and Bout ferried them from Burgas to Kigali. (Employees passing through Kigali stayed at the InterContinental hotel, where Bout had rented all the rooms on the top two floors.) But not all the arms stayed in Rwanda. The country’s Tutsi-led government was backing Tutsi militias next door, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, against Congo’s President, Laurent Kabila. Some of the weapons were being diverted, aboard Bout’s airplanes, into the hands of rebels in Congo. At the time, Congo was not under sanctions; nevertheless, Bout and Mirchev contributed to a conflict that ultimately entangled eight African nations.
James Roberts, a pilot who worked for Bout, has said that he witnessed ammunition boxes, Russian rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, and Japanese pickup trucks with mounted machine guns being “driven up onto the ramp” of an Ilyushin-76, along with Rwandan soldiers marching “three abreast, double-time.” Bout, he said, sometimes stood on the tarmac as the cargo was loaded. The flights landed in either Goma or Kisangani, eastern Congolese cities where Rwandan-backed militias were strong. According to a 2008 International Rescue Committee report, Congo’s civil war caused several million deaths—more than any other conflict since the Second World War.