DR Congo: Another Modern Tragedy
DR Congo: Another Modern Tragedy
Dans l’est du Congo, « la guerre régionale est déjà là »
Dans l’est du Congo, « la guerre régionale est déjà là »
Op-Ed / Africa 4 minutes

DR Congo: Another Modern Tragedy

Despite warnings from human rights groups, little is being done by the international community to address the crisis in DR Congo, writes Jason Stearns.

The eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo may soon be the scene of another modern tragedy. UN peacekeepers and Congolese warlords feature among the actors.

And despite a loud chorus of warnings from human rights groups and journalists, little is being done to prevent it.

The scene is the forthcoming elections in June. These elections, necessary though they are as a step towards peace, could create more instability. The current European debate about a possible German-led EU force to assist elections does not address the issue, because they would be based in Kinshasa, the capital, and this problem comes from the opposite side of the country, in the east.

All of the former warring parties in DR Congo now share power in a transitional government, but many of them stand to lose at the polls.

This is particularly true for the former Rwandan-backed rebels, who ruled a third of the DR Congo and who are unpopular with much of the population. In an effort to derail the elections, some of these former rebels have encouraged a mutiny within the army and are stoking the flames of ethnic rivalry in the eastern province of North Kivu.

The key figure in this drama is Laurent Nkunda. The son of a cattle farmer from the mountainous eastern part of the country, Nkunda is an ethnic Tutsi and has close ties with the Tutsi-led government across the border in Rwanda. He made his name as a ruthless commander in Kisangani in 2002, when, following a failed mutiny, troops under his command executed dozens of civilians, slit open their stomachs and threw them into the river weighed down with stones. When the rebels signed a peace deal in 2002, Nkunda refused to join the newly unified army. Instead, supported by his former patrons across the border, he launched a mutiny in the border town in Bukavu in May 2004. For one week, his soldiers raped, looted and killed. In one case Nkunda's soldiers gang-raped a mother in front of her husband and children while another soldier raped her three-year-old daughter. Nkunda later retreated to his home province of North Kivu. There he has thrown in his lot with a small group of former rebels who claim President Joseph Kabila is rousing hatred against their communities and that elections should not be held under these conditions. There is some truth in this accusation, as Kabila and his associates have in the past vilified the Tutsi. Just as rebel troops under Tutsi command were often guilty of torture and murder, on numerous occasions people around Kabila incited violence against Tutsi. But perpetuating this vicious circle of revenge is certainly not the solution.

North Kivu is dangerously unstable. The ethnic divides between the various communities run deep and are linked to conflicts over land and citizenship. In 1993, the last time the country tried to organise elections, various local militias took up arms and killed more than 7,000 civilians. Since then the number of small arms and militia in the province has increased exponentially.

On 18 January Nkunda's group launched an attack against one of the newly trained brigades of the national army, forcing 70,000 civilians to flee. In the wake of the fighting, locals armed with machetes manned roadblocks, chanting "Rwandans go home". Nkunda claimed he was protecting his community; instead, he has only provided ammunition to adversaries who are busy propagating prejudice against it, in particular the notion that Tutsi are oppressors and do not want peace in the DR Congo.

Even the Tutsi and Hutu customary chiefs had enough of his mischief: they wrote letters denouncing his attacks and calling for his arrest. "Certain individuals have used ethnicity as an excuse for their personal political ambitions," one chief wrote.

The tragedy can be averted. The Congolese government, with the international community behind it, must act to address the underlying political problems. The Congolese army commanders who have abused the local Hutu and Tutsi - and there are many - must be brought to justice.

Sustainable solutions must be found to long-standing disputes over land tenure. Above all, Congolese politicians must refrain from demagoguery and finally address genuine national reconciliation by acknowledging the massacres that have been committed by all sides.

At the same time, there must be an end to impunity. Congolese authorities have issued a warrant for Nkunda's arrest but show little will to carry it out. Two separate UN investigations have detailed his abuses; a UN resolution has called for freezing of his assets and a travel ban.

But this will not stop him. The 17,000 UN peacekeepers need to support the fledgling Congolese army against Nkunda, just as they have engaged in similar operations elsewhere in the DR Congo. At the moment, however, nobody is heeding the warnings. And if war breaks out again in North Kivu and hundreds more civilians are killed, it will not have been a tragedy of fate so much as a failure to act.

Key facts

  • 3.9 million people have died since 1998 from war-related disease and hunger
  • 1,200 people die every day
  • There are at least 40,000 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in Congo
  • Almost 1.7 million people were displaced at the end of 2005
  • There are more than 450,000 Congolese refugees, most of them in neighbouring countries

Sources: International Rescue Committee, Reuters and UNHCR

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