The disaster in Congo is all the more tragic because it was utterly avoidable.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 14 2008 5:39 PM

Five Million Dead and Counting

The disaster in Congo is all the more tragic because it was utterly avoidable.

There are more than 1 million displaced people in North Kivu, 250,000 of whom have been displaced in the last month
There are more than 1 million displaced people in North Kivu, 250,000 of whom have been displaced in the last month

In the North Kivu province of eastern Congo, people are living in ditches along the sides of roads. They're filling up the floors of churches and schools. Displaced people are surrounding the compounds of bewildered U.N. peacekeepers. Young boys and men are hiding in the forest to avoid being killed or forced into armed groups.

"There are only girls left in the schools in my village," one 13-year-old boy told me. The day before, he and three friends had run from rebel soldiers who'd come to kidnap them.

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There are now more than 1 million displaced people scattered throughout the province. In the last 10 years of fighting, more than 5 million people have died in the Congolese conflict—mostly civilians who haven't had access to enough food or health care because of the fighting. And let's be clear: That's 5 million and counting.

In many of the displaced communities, only the generosity of neighbors keeps people from starving. The insecurity in the region makes it dangerous for aid groups to provide humanitarian support. Consequently, tens of thousands of average citizens have let strangers stay in their homes or yards and work their fields in exchange for a little food.

But now, many of those host families are displaced, too. One in five Kivutians has left home because of the fighting. People are terrified and starving, and it is an utter disaster that is all the more tragic because it was utterly avoidable.

Earlier this year in Goma, U.N. official Phil Lancaster told me, "As much as the international community can feel responsible for Rwanda, it should feel even more responsible for what happened here in Congo." Lancaster knows what he's talking about. As a U.N. soldier, he watched the 1994 genocide happen in Rwanda. And until September, he led the U.N. program that encouraged Rwandan Hutu rebels who'd been living in Congo since the genocide to go home.

Congolese terrified of the fighting between the government and Nkunda's rebels have moved into churches and schools and courtyards
Congolese terrified of the fighting between the government and Nkunda's rebels have moved into churches and schools and courtyards

Here's how the chain of cause and effect unfolded: In 1994, after the Rwandan genocide, the Hutu militias responsible for perpetrating the deaths of hundreds of thousands fled across the border to Congo, along with more than a million Rwandan Hutu civilians who feared for their lives. Since then, some of the perpetrators have remained in the Kivus, the part of Congo that borders Rwanda, with disastrously destabilizing consequences. In 1996 and again in 1998, the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Army invaded the Kivus, ostensibly to track down the remaining génocidaires; they killed hundreds of thousands of others in the process, and at least eight other countries became involved in the fighting. The war continues in the Kivus today, another chapter in a bloody saga that could have ended long ago.

The current installment involves a Congolese Tutsi, Laurent Nkunda, a former general in Congo's army who now styles himself a protector of his tribe from the remaining génocidaires and a liberator of the oppressed all across Congo—whether they want to be liberated by him or not. He's supported by a cadre of Tutsi but also by some Hutu and others who run the economy of the Kivus. He is also not-so-secretly supported by the Tutsi-led government of Rwanda.

Nkunda has launched a war of libération totale (his words) to save the Congolese people from a government that provides neither development nor security (the former being true because in the land of Mobutu Sese Seko, corruption is still rampant, and the latter being true mostly because of Nkunda himself). Technically, Congo is a democracy, so this total liberation should have waited until the next elections. But since Congolese Tutsis are such an insignificant part of the general population, Nkunda—a lifelong soldier—decided to use means other than the ballot.

And the early returns look like displacement, starvation, rape, murder, and terror.

Laurent Nkunda has declared a war of total liberation in eastern Congo unless the government agrees to negotiate with him
Laurent Nkunda has declared a war of total liberation in eastern Congo unless the government agrees to negotiate with him

The Congolese army has lost almost all control and command in North Kivu. Instead of pushing back the rebel advance, they've turned into a monstrous version of Dylan Thomas' childhood set of tin soldiers, "Who, if they could not fight, could always run." And rape. And loot. And kill the very people they're supposed to protect from Nkunda. It is an unfortunate truism in eastern Congo that the army is just as bad as the rebels, only there are five times as many of them.

Power-hungry Nkunda, his shameless Rwandan supporters, and the feckless Congolese government are primarily to blame. But the Rwandan and Congolese governments remain in power only because of the foreign powers that support them with enormous amounts of aid and diplomatic support. The failure of the United Nations and the international community—by which I mean the European Union, the United States, and the African Union—is massive.

Only 10 months ago, peace seemed within reach. Rwanda and Congo had signed an agreement to disarm, finally, the Rwandan Hutu militia. In January, Nkunda's rebels and the government (along with more than 20 other armed groups) signed a cease-fire overseen by the European Union, African Union, and United States and committed to a peace process.

But even before the January conference was over, Nkunda started rearming and recruiting. At the same time, Congolese government planes began roaring into Goma full of troops, until 25,000 undisciplined, underpaid soldiers were staggering drunkenly around the province.

The government insisted the soldiers were there to fight the Rwandan Hutu rebels (the FDLR), but everyone knew they were there to fight Nkunda. It was no secret that the army was only willing and able to disarm the FDLR, their erstwhile allies against Nkunda, with support from the United Nations and the international community and with cooperation from the Rwandans themselves.