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DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
from issue no. 11 - 2010

A local war of global interest


In August the UN published a report which documented crimes committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo between the nineties and 2003, a period when the country was being devastated by two wars. The report sheds new light on a conflict that still persists and behind which enormous interests move. This document was discussed at a conference held in November at the University of Parma


by Davide Malacaria


The Eastern provinces of the democratic Republic of Congo

The Eastern provinces of the democratic Republic of Congo

An explosive report, so controversial that its publication was opposed to the bitter end. No, nothing to do with the Wikileaks revelations but only the honest work of some UN personnel who documented the horror into which the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) plunged between the mid-nineties and 2003, a period when the country was ravaged by two bloody wars forgotten by the media. An act of neglect by the media that has also been the fate of this United Nations document, despite its devastating content. Or perhaps precisely because of them. A conference held in Parma in late November tried to pull back the veil of silence. The conference was organized by Rete pace per il Congo (an organization that brings together people and organizations linked to the missionaries who work in the war-torn African country) and the Department of Political and Social Studies at the University of Parma.
The gathering was introduced by the quite informal greeting of the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Roberto Greci, who mentioned the reason why the academic world had taken on the initiative: as “humanists,” he said, we cannot remain indifferent to the tragedies that are tormenting the world. After the Dean came Sister Teresina Caffi, a Xaverian working in eastern DRC. She summarized what happened in the country in those dark years, during which she explained, referring to a study by the International Rescue Committee, three million eight hundred thousand people died because of the war.

Blood-stained wealth
It all began on 1 October 1990, said Sister Teresina, when the then Head of the Ugandan Information Service, Paul Kagame, launched a rebellion to overthrow the government of Rwanda, a country considered strategic for gaining access to the wealth of the east of the DRC. A venture “supported and followed by the Anglophone powers eager to replace France in access” to the resources. Kagame relied on the thirst for revenge of the Tutsi whom the Rwandan regime, monopolized by the country’s ethnic majority, the Hutu, had ousted from power. The war between government and anti-government supporters went ahead with various massacres until, in 1994, the ferocity reached its climax. On 6 April the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and of neighboring Burundi, returning from a meeting of negotiations, was shot down. Both presidents died in the incident. In response Hutu extremists massacred 800,000 people: mostly Tutsis, but also many Hutus. A genocide known to the world, but of which, Sister Teresina said, much remains to be clarified. The massacres lasted a hundred days, that is until Kagame managed to seize power in Rwanda. The Hutu, terrified by the idea of collective vengeance, fled en masse to the neighboring DRC where they crowded into refugee camps. But the camps were too close to Rwanda, as various humanitarian organizations made clear, and tension, instead of diminishing, grew. The new Rwandan regime, in fact, considered them a threat, and in October 1996, after yet another ultimatum, bombed them. It was the beginning of the first war: troops from Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda invaded the DRC. At their head was placed an old Congolese opponent of the oppressive government in Kinshasa, Laurent-Désiré Kabila: in that way the “war could be called a war of liberation”, Sister Teresina commented. Although, the Xaverian sister added, with the progressive sickness of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, the Kinshasa government had opened a process of democratization heralding positive developments... In May 1997 the war ended and Laurent-Désiré Kabila declared himself president. But the peace did not last long. After about a year, the new president, “also driven by popular pressure”, asked foreign troops to leave the country. In response, a second war broke out in August: the Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie, a rebel group which has its operational base in the eastern regions, rose against the government in Kinshasa. But, said Sister Teresina, it was a “screening rebellion” behind which lay Rwanda and Uganda yet again. Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Chad entered in support of Kabila.

Crimes against humanity
During the wars, which ended in 2003, unspeakable atrocities took place in the Congolese jungle. The UN experts made a kind of chart of the violence, ascertaining 617 slaughters, defined as “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes”. Emma Bonino, vice president of the Italian Senate, at the time of the war was commissioner of the European Union. Asked for her opinion, she tersely remarked: “To my knowledge, for the period in which I was an eyewitness, the UN report is very well done”. And she revealed that very strong pressure had been exerted to prevent its publication. In her speech she spoke of the start of the first war, recounting the shock at the bombing of the refugee camps, although the flag of the United Nations was flying over them. And she recalled an episode in which she was personally involved. It happened in the first phase of the war and the Rwandan government, fearing reactions to the invasion, had reassured the world that all the Hutu refugees had returned home, a total of 500,000 returning Hutus. Information confirmed by the general commanding the UN multinational force stationed in the DRC. So all was well, everything normalized, so much so that the international force was dissolved. But questions arose from many quarters: at the beginning of hostilities there was talk of 1,200,000 refugees, while the returnees were only 500,000... It didn’t add up. Doubts grew as disturbing news came from the missionaries in the DRC, who spoke of masses of fugitives on the move within the jungle. “We decided to check”, Bonino resumed. “So, after several searches, we found the Tingi-Tingi camp, 250,000 people crammed into an area four hundred kilometers from the border. Hundreds of thousands of refugees who simply did not exist for the world. They had done four hundred kilometers on foot... you can imagine their conditions...”. After that, she recalled, appeals and calls for action to stop the war multiplied, unfortunately in vain. She had the documents telling of those insistent appeals and showed them. “The fact is that, in the course of that first war, the international community was prepared to accept any wickedness just to end Mobutu’s regime”, she explained. She also spoke of the effectiveness of the propaganda of the invasion forces, which capitalized on the genocide in Rwanda: the Rwandan Hutus were indiscriminately accused of those murders, a stigma which justified any atrocity against them. “But the perpetrators of the genocide were some tens of thousands... The Hutu refugees in DRC were more than a million, most of whom women and children”, Bonino remarked.
During those years, the United Nations experts noted horrors without end: mass murder, brutal violence, people burned alive, cannibalism... A series of crimes committed by the forces opposed to the Congolese government, but also (to a lesser extent, according to the UN report) by government forces. In particular the report focused on a modus operandi very much used by the forces of “liberation”: once arrived in a village, the weary civilians were asked to gather together for a food and clothing distribution. Then, when the intended victims (mainly Hutu of Rwandan origin) had been picked out, they were tied up before being killed with blunt instruments (mostly with hammers). Sometimes in dozens, others in hundreds, including women and children. A similar selection was made at checkpoints, separating those who were to be repatriated to Rwanda from the others. Then, instead of Rwanda, those selected were killed and their bodies made to disappear in mass graves or thrown into rivers or latrines. Another ploy for identifying the prey was to allow the humanitarian organizations to enter the territories under the control of the forces of “liberation” to permit assistance to be given to the fugitives hiding in the jungle. Permission granted so that the relief workers took with them trusted persons to check on their operations. In reality, the latter then located the fugitives and passed the information to the executioners... The UN report includes variations on the tragic theme set out above: women and children buried alive or killed by smashing their heads against walls or trees. A score performed with method and dedication, so much so that the United Nations experts speculated that a veritable genocide had been committed against the Rwandan Hutu refugees in the DRC. And they asked that a special court be set up to verify the truth of this hypothesis. Among the many crimes, also the mass kidnapping of children to turn into soldiers or to subject to sexual violence. But the acts of pedophilia committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo did not make many headlines...

Refugees in North-Kivu in November 2008 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Refugees in North-Kivu in November 2008 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

War and mobile phones
Mathilde Muhindo Mwamini, a former member of the DRC parliament, spoke at the Parma conference on the sexual violence that took place in those years, and explained how it, carried out on a large scale and in a systematic way, had served as a weapon: the aim being to spread AIDS and erode the social fabric of the civilian population, since it resulted in the psychological disruption of family relationships. Also, since the domestic economy of Congolese society is based largely on women’s work (particularly in the fields), the violence was also meant to undermine the subsistence of families. A detailed report by Muhindo Mwamini showed that widespread impunity was a key factor in the perpetuation of such practices. Even today. Indeed, because at the Parma conference not only the past was spoken of, but the tragic present also. In fact the eastern region of Democratic Republic of Congo is far from pacified. Terror continues to rage even after the end of the war. On various occasions militias led by adventurers, with the support of the Rwandan regime (and others), have risen up against the Kinshasa government. The last major rebellion was that of Laurent Nkunda, leader of the CNDP (National Congress for the Defense of the People), who, after putting the region to fire and the sword, was arrested in January 2009 and imprisoned in Rwanda. Currently those who are spreading terror are armed groups known under various acronyms: the anti-Rwandan Hutu armed forces, former militiamen of the CNDP still in active service (a recent UN report states that Nkunda had not broken his ties with his old buddies and that he is pulling the strings from prison in Rwanda) and many others. The various warlords are vying for pieces of territory, roads, mines, rivers, leading to continued violence against the civilian population. While the international community remains silent. Marco Deriu, a sociologist and lecturer in the Department of Political and Social Studies at the University of Parma, explained the enormous interests at stake in this war in eastern DRC, one of the richest areas in the world: there are huge reserves of gold, diamonds, oil, cobalt, uranium, cassiterite, wolframite, copper, coffee and hard woods... In detail there is: 17% of the world’s production of rough diamonds, 34% of the world’s cobalt, 10% of world production of copper, 4-5% of world production of tin and 60-80% of coltan resources. This latter mineral is used for electronic components, particularly for telecommunications and computers, but also for play stations, as Deriu remarked with tragic irony. The chaos of this continuous war still allows the looting of natural resources. More or less everybody is exploiting the situation: the warlords, the various dealers (local and international) in resources and weapons, up to the big multinational corporations that are buying precious minerals at bargain prices. It is a conflict that feeds off itself, given that the profits are partially reinvested in fomenting warfare so as to increase business, in a crescendo of chaos organized by subtle minds. At the expense of the local populations who are driven out of mining areas or used as forced labor for the mines or to reinforce the ranks of the militias. The fate of women and girls , however, is that of sex slaves. It is difficult to break this network of concentric interests in a war that is both local and global. “But this UN report is a window of opportunity”, said Muhindo Mwamini in concluding her speech, “and at the same time, a testimony to the fact that, sooner or later, the truth comes to light”. There were many Congolese at the conference, mostly young students. Some of them were there thanks to the Xaverians, with whom they have close and affectionate relations. They spoke out, asked questions, told of their experiences. They asked for justice and peace. And there was an amazing lack of bitterness in their words, despite everything that has happened and is happening in their country. They had smiling faces, bright eyes. And that is more than a window of opportunity.


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