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from issue no. 05 - 2008

The uncivil war

Despite the Goma agreement, the North Kivu area continues to represent a humanitarian emergency “because chaos helps those who want to plunder the natural resources in which the country is rich”. An interview with Bishop Melchizedek Sikuli Paluku, Bishop of Butembo-Beni

Interview with Melchisedec Sikuli Paluku by Roberto Rotondo

“Neither war nor peace”, “abandoned by the government in Kinshasa”: so the Congolese daily Le Potentiel describes the current situation in the North Kivu region (in the north east of the Democratic Republic of Congo), the most unstable area of the country, where there is continuous violation of the agreement signed in Goma last 23 January between the government and the irregular armed militias for the cessation of hostilities which in a year have caused more deaths and refugees than the crisis in Darfur. Yet it is here, on the border with Rwanda and Uganda, that the fate of former Zaire, the sick giant of Africa, is being decided. Here it will emerge whether the peace process, set going after the historic elections of 2006, will continue, whether the country will succeed in moving on from the aftermath of a war that in ten years has caused more than five million deaths, whether it will be able to re-appropriate the immense natural resources looted by multinationals and neighboring countries, whether the refugees will return home, whether there will be tangible economic and social progress. So many “whethers” and questions that we turned to fifty-six year old Monsignor Melchizedek Sikuli Paluku, bishop since 1998 of Butembo-Beni, a diocese in the North Kivu region that covers 45,000 square kilometers and is inhabited by a million and a half people, of whom 65% are Catholic. In 2006 the diocese, which today is divided into thirty-six parishes, celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the first evangelization brought by the missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Melchizedek Sikuli Paluku

Melchizedek Sikuli Paluku

Monsignor Paluku, what is the current situation in North Kivu?
MELCHISEDEK SIKULI PALUKU: There is a widespread sense of unease among the population. We bishops emphatically welcomed the outcome of the Goma Conference in January, which led to the signing of the document whereby the armed groups engaged to cease hostilities. But some groups of militias are not laying down their arms nor agreeing to join the ranks of the Congolese regular army. There are still clashes, often linked to the fight for control of illegal mines, causing many deaths among the innocent population. The farmers are abandoning their crops to flee, going to swell the number of displaced persons without a future and making low food production even lower. Even today, despite the Goma agreements, hundreds of thousands of people (between 500,000 and 800,000 according to the UN) aren’t confident enough to return to their villages and resume a normal life, for fear of being subjected to further violence. Even though a real peace process started, with the historic elections of 2006, the first truly free and multi-party elections fifty years after the end of colonial domination, we are victims of a long period of war, devastation and rebellion, the prime cause of the extreme poverty in which people live and from which it is difficult to recover. The fear is that if the government does not soon find concrete remedies for the poverty, distrust will increase and there will be a threat of further rebellion.
Why can’t peace and security be achieved in the Kivu area?
SIKULI PALUKU: Because chaos helps those who want to plunder the riches of the country. In recent years the Congo has been assailed from all sides. The state of continuous rebellion was created and nourished because it is easier to take away mineral wealth without paying taxes or having to respect contracts in a situation where the constituted power is weak, in a situation of anarchy, general chaos. As bishops, in our final document, Let us change our hearts, we ask the question whether the future of our country is not threatened both by the interests of international economic groups and the attitude of some neighboring countries with expansionist ambitions, backed by foreign powers.
A tragic paradox: when new discoveries of natural resources are made (as in the case of the two minerals, coltan and niobium, valueless until a few years ago and now precious) the living conditions of the Congolese population worsen rather than improve, because new wars break out for the exploitation of the resources. Is it only a problem with outside aggression or do the Congolese have their own responsibilities?
SIKULI PALUKU: The responsibility is to be sought in several directions. Often there was a lack of will on the part of our politicians to pursue the common good rather than power and wealth. And the most glaring evidence is that for decades there were no democratic elections. But it’s also certain that those politicians who were interested in working for the common good had little room of maneuver, and were opposed by foreign powers and multinational companies. So I can’t make a league table of culprits. Of course I can’t accuse the international community tout court, which gave strong and decisive help in bringing about the elections in 2006, which have strengthened and stabilized the country. But the exploitation by small and powerful lobbies continues and the Congolese voter sees, for example, that despite the Congo having most of Africa’s water resources, its hospitals need benefactors from abroad to come and dig wells so they get water. And sees also that highly valuable wood is exported worldwide from our forests, while at school his children don’t have a bench to study on. People are tired of war and poverty and don’t understand why they get no benefit from living in an area so rich in oil, gold, diamonds and every benefit God sends. There is a social malaise that leads to impatience and distrust, and if the state isn’t concerned to exercise its prerogatives (security, taxation, administration of public affairs, justice) there will be strikes, riots, perhaps further rebellion, which may be the way in for new devastating incursions.
A Congolese soldier checking a group of people fleeing the clashes between the regular army and rebel militias in North Kivu. Despite the Goma agreements in January, the area is not peaceful: according to the UN, a struggle is going on between militias for control of the illegal mines

A Congolese soldier checking a group of people fleeing the clashes between the regular army and rebel militias in North Kivu. Despite the Goma agreements in January, the area is not peaceful: according to the UN, a struggle is going on between militias for control of the illegal mines

What memories and thoughts do you keep of the celebrations for the one hundredth anniversary of the first evangelization of the area that includes your diocese?
SIKULI PALUKU: I was surprised that, despite the difficult situation and our human limitations, the Church is so alive and growing. During the centenary year I was almost always on the go. I spent three or four days in each of our thirty-six parishes, which are missions themselves, set in vast stretches of land, and some difficult to reach. There’s a pressing need to open ten more parishes to respond to the necessities of the Christian life of our people, and we would open them if we had more personnel. But the thing that struck me most, living in such contact with people, is how important the Catholic faith is to them. How people find comfort in faith, despite the difficulties and sufferings, people who live it in a very simple but also profound fashion. I heard several people use the phrase “if after so many years of war, we are still here it is only by the grace of God”. I was moved by the purity of heart with which they pronounced those words. But the centenary was also an opportunity to meet the grass-roots ecclesial communities and discuss with them how to move forward.
And what are the problems to be faced, in addition to those resulting from the economic and political situation?
SIKULI PALUKU: There is a certain temptation to return to the religious practices of their fathers that don’t go so well together with the Catholic faith. But I’m not worried so much about that as the confusion, that in a world like ours totally devoid of development, especially cultural, is emerging with the intrusion into everyday life of extremely advanced modern elements. Let me explain: we need basic structures: schools, universities, an improved health system, productivity, we need in short to create progressive development for the whole person. Instead we are assailed by messages and products that, thanks to globalization, arrive from areas far more advanced than us. I was in villages, in the middle of the forest, where people have difficulty finding food, where there’s no trace of medical care, but among the trees there are giant antennas for satellite phones. We receive images from the Repairers of the Holy Face Benedictine Nuns

Yet your diocese, which is two thousand kilometers from the capital, has managed to create a Catholic university that trains doctors, vets, agronomists…
SIKULI PALUKU: I’ve always tried to make people become aware of our potential. We too can make a contribution even while continuing to rely on others. The University of Graben was set up by my predecessor, Monsignor Emmanuel Kataliko, a great bishop. It was he who told us: if you want to be helped, set about working without waiting with your hand held out, because those who see you doing something will be more willing to help. The State is remote from our area, and its presence is hardly felt. But the Church has always tried to push people to move for their own good and what we see today is the result of all that.
In 2008 you celebrate ten years as bishop. You were consecrated bishop in the dramatic days when the civil war was breaking out in the Congo because of the tide of refugees arriving from neighboring Rwanda, where genocide had already taken place. What do you remember of that dark period?
SIKULI PALUKU: I asked myself what my predecessor, Kataliko, would have said and done. In the most difficult moments for the country he succeeded in being spokesman for people’s needs and denouncing situations that wouldn’t do. It was immediately evident that this unjust civil war was imported. For centuries four hundred different ethnic groups have lived in the Congo. How was it suddenly possible for ethnic and tribal hatred to overturn everything? It was obviously a cover-up. Thank God, somehow, I continued on the same path as my predecessor and, in difficult times, I have managed to get the voice of the Church heard on matters of the violations of human rights that we undergo each day. All this has helped to catch the attention of the international community and has forced the violent men to take account. I don’t know what would have happened if the voice of the Church had been lacking. It has been a great weapon, because those leading the rebellion needed silence to go ahead with their plans. I just tried to have trust first and foremost in the One who chose me as shepherd of this people and I hope I can continue along this line, in communion with the whole episcopate of the Congo, which has never failed in its mission.

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