The rising scream of pain emanating from the people of eastern Congo, trapped in a horrific and accelerating cycle of murder, mutilation, rape, exploitation and mass displacement, is barely heard. While the world has focused on Syria, Barack Obama’s re-election and now Gaza, the plight of nearly 800,000 people uprooted this year by near-anarchy in North Kivu and South Kivu provinces hardly rates a mention.
With rebel forces now demanding immediate concessions in return for sparing Goma, North Kivu’s largest city, this slow-motion disaster is reaching crisis point. The world’s biggest UN peacekeeping operation, Monusco, appears powerless to halt a descent into chaos. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) government and its undisciplined security forces are part of the problem. And according to a new report by Oxfam, the plight of the civilian population grows ever more desperate.
“Communities are being preyed on mercilessly by their own government’s troops and officials, as well as rebel groups and local militias,” the report, Commodities of War, states. “Congolese civilians are not only suffering violent abuse on a massive scale, but are also being subjected to an unprecedented level of financial exploitation, as belligerents loot and extort illegal taxes in their battle for control,” the report says.
Elodie Martel, Oxfam’s associate country director, said: “This is a humanitarian catastrophe on a massive scale and people cannot continue to turn their backs ... It is reprehensible that another year goes by with people saying that they go to bed afraid of killing, lootings and abductions and that women are too afraid to go to their fields for fear of being raped. The Congolese government, the UN and the international community must listen and respond to the people paying the ultimate price for the conflict.”
However, knowing what to do involves deciding who to blame — and that is the problem. In Congo, just about everybody is at fault. The DRC government led by President Joseph Kabila is weak, truculent and corrupt. Even if it were not, it would have trouble controlling so vast and undeveloped a country.
The government’s efforts to reform the army, backed by international donors, have been patchy at best. The withdrawal of troops from parts of the Kivus, while the reorganisation was under way last year, created a power vacuum that was filled by armed groups. The army’s own depredations remain a prime cause of insecurity, according to aid workers, though civilians mostly still prefer it to the rebels and mai-mai (local militias), whose abuses are legion.
A parallel attempt to integrate former rebels of the Tutsi-dominated National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) into the DRC army collapsed in the spring amid a mutiny that saw the creation of a new rebel force, the M23, which is now threatening Goma. Instability was further exacerbated by a joint DRC army-UN offensive, begun in February, against the Rwandan Hutu-dominated Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), mai-mai and remnants of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. This fighting also sparked a new round of human rights abuses and internal displacement.
Monusco, the 19,000-strong UN mission, has become increasingly compromised by its military support for the DRC’s army. UN helicopters have been flying combat missions to try to halt the latest rebel advance. However, the UN was forced to look on helplessly at the weekend as the tide of refugees swelled and a temporary camp for 60,000 people at Kanyaruchinya outside Goma emptied overnight.
Congo’s neighbours are to blame, too, according to the UN. A report leaked earlier this year said Rwanda and Uganda were aiding and abetting the M23, motivated as in the past by a desire to control and exploit eastern Congo’s vast mineral wealth. Both countries flatly rejected the allegations, although their denials are viewed with much scepticism.
The ultimate source of international authority, the UN Security Council, has done little to address Congo’s worsening plight this year. Meeting in an emergency session last Saturday, it said: “The members of the Security Council strongly condemn the resumption of attacks by the M23 and demand their immediate cessation.” Beyond that, in terms of concrete steps, it did not go.
The hands-off attitude of the western powers was exemplified by William Hague, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, speaking last Sunday. “I urge those with influence over M23 to call on them to stop fighting and not to provide them any external support. I call for all parties to engage to resolve this crisis without further bloodshed,” he said. All British nationals should leave Goma, he added. Duty done, Hague moved on to other matters.
Yet, the fact that Britain, the UN, Rwanda, the DRC government, the M23 and other parties directly or indirectly involved in this tragedy continue to act irresponsibly, or fail to act at all, is partly a result of the ignorance and indifference to Congo, as evident among public opinion in the developed world. In theory, the world cares, which is why the UN is there in strength. However, for whatever reason, Congo does not register internationally as a cause or an issue. It is a stain on the global conscience that is largely ignored. For this lethal state of denial, all are to blame.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd