Journey through Congo. A new chance for Africa's ravaged heart
Journey through Congo. A new chance for Africa's ravaged heart
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Journey through Congo. A new chance for Africa's ravaged heart

I have just returned from a harrowing yet hopeful journey with the actress Angelina Jolie, who is a UN goodwill ambassador, through war-torn areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One Congolese after another told surreal and horrific tales of mutilation, rape, plunder and forced exodus perpetrated by a host of predatory armed groups supported by the governments of Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Congo itself. Globally, nothing comes close to the human devastation in eastern Congo. It is Africa's Ground Zero.

In remarkable contrast, there is also substantial evidence of the dawn of a new day in the country. A national unity government has finally formed as part of a peace agreement, and it is attempting to extend itself into the ungoverned east of the country where we visited and where the war has been concentrated. In the east, local deals are being forged as part of that process, and Congolese are taking charge of their own reconstruction and reconciliation. The UN Security Council has finally authorized a suitably robust mandate for its previously ineffectual peacekeeping mission, even though - for a country the size of continental Europe - there is still only one quarter the number of peacekeepers that tiny Kosovo has.

With an estimated 3.3 million civilians dead as a direct and indirect result of the war, the world must make the protection of civilian life the No. 1 priority in the Congo. It is no coincidence that with no viable economic opportunities, no functioning government, no accountability for war crimes, and no check on external arms supplies, armed groups continue to prey on communities with unparalleled cruelty.

A more effective effort to protect civilians can be neither simplistic nor cheap. The first step must be a commitment to help build responsible government where none has existed. That means focusing on the basics: schools, clinics, courts, roads, police and the bare-bones capacity to administer these essential services.

As a relevant state is being built, the myriad armed groups must be dealt with in a comprehensive way, lest they continue to deepen their cycles of brutality. First, increased support should be given to the process of building a new national army, which will occur by integrating all of the Congolese combatants whose leaders are signatory to the peace agreement. This means providing support to keep them in the barracks and quartering areas, ensuring they are paid, vetting them to determine who goes into the new national army or the police, training and professionalizing those who remain in service, and demobilizing those who don't.

Second, there are Congolese and non-Congolese armed groups that are not signatory to the peace agreement that must be disarmed, demobilized and reintegrated. This process is most pressing for the Rwandan militias, many of whom participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide and continue to haunt the Congo. Further negotiation must occur to create security guarantees for the return of those militia that did not participate in the genocide, and mechanisms to ensure accountability for those that did.

Third, a heavy price must be paid by those who continue to pillage in the face of the growing momentum toward peace. The U.S. and other governments should give full backing to the International Criminal Court to try the commanders of armed groups - as well as their Rwandan and Ugandan accomplices - who are responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, particularly those who persist in committing atrocities and undermining the peace process.

In speaking to women throughout the east who have been victimized by systematic mass rape, it is clear that this specific crime should receive particularly urgent attention of any investigation and prosecution. Raping and kidnapping women has become a common behavior of war, and no effort must be spared to punish this heinous act.

Fourth, outsiders throwing gasoline on the fire in eastern Congo must be put on notice that their support for proxy armed groups will no longer be tolerated. UN investigations have shown that the governments of Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Congo itself have backed the plunder of gold, diamonds, timber and coltan (a mineral essential for cell phones), continuing a predatory tradition dating back to King Leopold. Now that the Security Council has imposed an arms embargo on armed groups, it should impose specific penalties on those that continue to violate the embargo. Rwanda and Uganda in particular must be monitored for arms deliveries.

Despite recent enhancements, the policy of peace on the cheap won't work. It will only lead to more killing that will require a humanitarian response 10 times more expensive. Donor governments and institutions should step up now to protect Congolese lives, end the deadliest conflict since World War II, and invest in a cost-effective conflict prevention strategy that would restore honor to the United Nations.

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