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REPORTAGE FROM THE...
from issue no. 03 - 2009

The curse of natural resources


Chronicle of a ten-year conflict that may have arrived at a turning-point


by Davide Malacaria


Rwanda: the Murambi memorial [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Rwanda: the Murambi memorial [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

The Great Lakes region is very rich. Perhaps one of the richest in the world. In particular, a plethora of natural treasures is the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo [Congo hereafter, ed.]. And unfortunately, when an area in Africa is rich, war breaks out. It comes from afar, or from nearby Rwanda.

From Rwanda to the Congo
To try to understand a complex picture it’s best to look at it with detachment, from a distance. That’s how it is with our story that begins in Rwanda, where, in the early ’sixties, the Hutu took power. For many Tutsi, the defeated minority ethnic group, the path of exile opened. A diaspora that spread into neighboring countries and that in the ’eighties began to converge on Uganda, where the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) was formed.
In September 1990 Rwanda welcomed John Paul II: a visit that, in the intentions of the Pope, was to restore hope to the country. Instead, by a tragic irony of history, as soon as the visit was over, chaos broke out. In October the RPF invaded the country. The leader of the rebels was Paul Kagame, a soldier with links to the Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni. After years of carnage, the first peace talks. But on 6 April 1994, Holy Saturday, on the flight back from a negotiations meeting, the plane carrying the Rwandan president, Juvénal Habyarimana, was shot down. The Hutu, supporters of the President, went wild. So began the slaughter of Tutsis and so-called moderate Hutus, ones immune to the murderous madness sweeping the country. In one hundred days 800,000 people were killed. In the summer of 1994 Kagame took Kigali. The war ended and with it the genocide. It seemed the end of a nightmare, instead it was the start of another.
The Hutu, fearful of a possible Tutsi revenge, left the country and took refuge in the Congo. They numbered two million people, including regular soldiers, Interhamwe militias (over whom the accusations of genocide mostly thickened), but were mainly civilians, women and children, whom the UN crowded into refugee camps set up near the borders of Rwanda. Tension remained high until, in 1996, came the explosion: Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda invaded the Congo. The conflict lasted two years, then, after a brief pause, another broke out, from 1998 to 2003, that was even bloodier.

A gold mine at Kilomoto, near Bunia, chief town of Ituri

A gold mine at Kilomoto, near Bunia, chief town of Ituri

Of war and mines
Father Franco Bordignon has the sharp eyes of those who know how to discern. We met him in the Xaverian mother house, in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, a city that has suffered the conflict more than others. “In the invaders’ propaganda the first war had several justifications. First, the defense of the Banyamulenge, a Rwandan Tutsi people, who settled in the Congo since the last century and which at the beginning of the ’nineties began to suffer violence. And then the threat of Hutu refugees on the borders of Rwanda, who, according to the Rwandans, were ready to come back and perpetrate a new genocide. In reality it was to take advantage of the weakness of the Congo, which was falling apart under Mobutu’s regime. In 1996 the armies of Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda invaded the country. At their head was the Congolese Laurent Kabila, presented as the liberator of the Congo.
The war ended in May 1997. Kabila became president. He inherited a devastated country, with the eastern regions still in the control of the occupying armies. But in the span of a year he made new alliances, perhaps with Cuba and China, Bordignon suggests, and rebelled against his patrons, telling them to withdraw their soldiers. And that happened, but only for a little while.
On 2 August 1998 hostilities resumed. In theory it was a rebellion of some eastern warlords against the government in Kinshasa, in reality Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi (and Western money and instructors) were behind them. In Ituri the militia of Jean-Pierre Bemba were let loose, in Kivu the RCD (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie, a pro-Ugandan movement) which, in fact, was formed in Rwanda two weeks after the start of the conflict, as Bordignon explains. The missionary remarks: “Had it been an invasion, the UN would have been forced to do something. Whereas this was an internal problem and the UN was virtually sidelined...”.
In a few months Kabila had his back against the ropes, when, unexpectedly, troops from Angola, Namibia and contingents from other African states such as Zimbabwe and Sudan came to his rescue. It was the so-called African First World War.
“A conflict entirely in the interests of the Western multinationals, which are grabbing the eastern mines”, Bordignon claims. “Even now Rwanda is one of the major producers of precious minerals in the world, including coltan, but there is almost no mining on its soil...”. Bordignon smiles, referring also to the hypocrisy of the multinationals: coltan is used in the making of components for mobile phones. Following criticism of what was happening in the Congo, various producers, frightened by the bad publicity, have hastened to put on their phones the words “Made with materials that do not come from war zones”. “Naturally,” exclaims the Xaverian, “they come from Rwanda ...” . And suddenly comes to mind the memory of that district, in Kigali, with clean and tidy little villas, called by the local people Merci Congo (Thanks Congo), which also houses the imposing US Embassy...
“In reality there is a very large design behind Kagame, which accompanied his rise and consolidation in power,” says the Xaverian nun Teresina Caffi, of “Peace Network for the Congo”, “and is the driving force to achieve geopolitical changes in the Great Lakes. The United States, but the Anglo-Saxon world in general, backed him in order to gain access to the mineral wealth of the east of the Congo. To do that they needed a supporting base in Africa. And Rwanda, a small and easily controlled country, was ideal ...».

The Congolese genocide
Thus far the wars, which ended with the Treaty of Sun City, in South Africa. A conflict that resulted in four and a half million dead between 1996 and 2003 (but there are those who speak of five and a half million in the second war alone). Among them, not only the victims of violence, but also those the war killed by hardship, forced into the forests without food and medicine, prey to viruses and tropical diseases. Indirect deaths, they call them, no less intended for that.
But the word war is not enough to describe what has taken place in this corner of the world: systematic slaughter, rape used as weapon of mass destruction (to terrorize and spread AIDS), daily raids by hungry soldiers, on both sides, which thus deprived the villages of any source of sustainment, widespread recruitment of child soldiers. “According to one study,” Bordignon continues, “in 2001 there were 2,950 deaths a day, a number of deaths equivalent to that caused by the attack on the Twin Towers. In practice we had a September 11 each day. But it wasn’t news...”.
In 2006 presidential elections took place, a crucial moment for the peace process. It seems the turning-point: a straight mass vote brought in Joseph Kabila, son of Laurent (assassinated in 2001), without causing excessive complaint. Integration of the militias of the warlords in the regular army pacified the situation further.
But the carnage continues. In the east, and elsewhere, there are killings attributed to armed groups known as Rasta, or the usual Interhamwe. “In reality,” says Sister Teresina, “many believe that there is a hidden strategy aimed at putting the blame for these killings on these groups, and in particular on the Interahamwe. To criminalize them, to keep the tension high.” To justify another, eventual, invasion. Among other things, mostly everybody says that very few remain of the original Interhamwe. Fifteen years have passed since then...

Laurent Nkunda [© Afp/Grazia Neri]

Laurent Nkunda [© Afp/Grazia Neri]

The nightmare of Nkunda
What re-ignited the east of Congo was an uprising led by Laurent Nkunda, one of the old warlords. The new butcher spread death and terror around Goma. In addition to displacing two million people. There are those who see a link between his military escalation and the agreement signed in 2008 by President Kabila with China, which includes public works and infrastructures in exchange for mineral resources. An agreement severely challenged by the rebel...
Nkunda’s folly spread mainly through North Kivu, stopping at the approaches to Goma. It seemed that the city was destined to fall and the war to spread. Then, however, something changed, and on 22 January last year, in an unexpected and unforeseeable joint operation, Rwandan and Congolese forces arrested him. A turning point after years of hatred. Is peace finally close? Maybe. Or, as Bordignon explains, Nkunda had become unreliable in the eyes of those who were maneuvering him. And then there was the international pressure, particularly from some European countries, designed to make it clear to Rwanda that they would tolerate no further adventures.
The agreement that led to the capture of Nkunda has caused fierce argument in Congo. What arouses the worst suspicions is that the Parliament was kept unaware of its contents. In particular the authorization for Ugandan and Rwandan troops to enter the Congo has caused great concern. The former, in the north-east, were allowed to pursue the rebellious LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) into Congolese territory. The latter, further south, as well as taking part in the arrest of Nkunda, has the task of getting rid of the armed Interhamwe militias, considered a threat by the Kigali regime. So there’s been talk of a new invasion, this time legalized, and those who fear the beginning of a new round of carnage.
In fact, despite the foreign presence continuing somewhat beyond the time agreed, fears seem to have died down. The Rwandan and Ugandan military, at least according to official sources, have returned to their respective countries.
Are we truly at a turning-point for peace, brought, paradoxically, by the very players of the past? The signals in favor are multiplying, but after years of war and disinformation they have to overcome natural reservations and reasonable suspicions. In short, we must still wait.
The bishops of Congo, after the meeting held in Kinshasa last February, made public a document that calls for watchful waiting. Indeed, while stressing with relief the small and large “signs of pacification”, the bishops pointed out “gray areas” still to be clarified. Particularly significant was the title of the document: Be vigilant.
An exhortation addressed also to the international community.


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