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By Mara Tshibaka
The current conflict in the DRC (dating back to August 1998) has already claimed over 5.4 million lives. To put that in perspective, imagine the entirepopulation of Denmark disappearing in less than fifteen years. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) estimates another 45,000 lives are lost every month, making this the deadliest conflict since WWII. Yet, the international community has remained quiescent, begging the question: how many Congolese have to die before the world takes notice?
There were recently an estimated 2,500 M23 rebels in Goma, with the stated mission to “liberate” all of Congo, a frightening prospect, as their idea of “liberation” was that of pillaging and subjugation. According to reports from IRIN news, the “liberation” process began with a systematic rounding up Congolese men—specifically police and government soldiers—who were asked to assemble at the stadium in Goma to present their identification cards. Men who were not able to produce ID’s were taken away while the rest were given new identification cards. Given that M23 is comprised mostly of ethnic Tutsis, as is the majority of the Rwandan government, many of us who are following the situation came to the same conclusion: that anyone caught without a valid ID could be presumed a Hutu and therefore have been part of the Interahamwe and their génocidaire movement. The Hutus’ particular brand of brutality perpetrated on the Tutsi population leaves little doubt as to why hostilities towards Hutus still exist. There is no news yet as to what has happened to the men without ID’s that were led away.
Meanwhile, as the events in Goma unfolded, the outnumbered UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) troops did nothing—arguing that their mandate was to protect civilians if they are threatened by violence. And according to a senior UN officer, there was no intervention because, “so far there is no violence.” Yet, MONUSCO’s claim was directly contradicted by my sources on the ground, who shared stories of gunshots and explosions in and around people’s homes. They also recounted stories of innocent men, women and children who were murdered as their homes were looted. News agencies reported that half a million people fled the city and are now displaced—a number that includes tens of thousands of refugees. Forced to flee their camps, they are once again running for their lives.
In order to discuss the problems facing the DRC adequately, it is imperative we address the allegations that members of the international community, in particular Rwanda, have perpetuated the current conflict. In October a leaked UN Security Council report alleged that Rwanda has been supporting rebel groups in the DRC. Specifically, the report points to the organizational capabilities of the M23 and its use of advanced weaponry as signs of Rwandan involvement, implicating Rwanda’s defense minister as the man in command of the rebels. The production of new identification cards seems in line with these claims. These allegations are not surprising to students of the region, as Rwandan involvement in DRC has been a point of contention since the Rwandan genocide.
Rwanda’s history of involvement in the DRC, coupled with the recently leaked Security Council report begs the question: how was Rwanda able to win a seat on the UN Security Council? It is especially disturbing given that the invasion of Goma occurred only a month after Rwanda won its seat. There is no denying that Rwanda is doing extremely well—it is a far cry from the Rwanda that strove to recover in the aftermath of the devastation from the genocide. The country has been touted as a shining beacon of economic prosperity and social welfare in Africa. According to a recent Economist article titled Africa’s Singapore?, Rwanda has done more to curb corruption and uphold the rule of law than any other African country. Even the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron, (despite his reservations regarding Rwanda’s involvement in Congo) has described Rwanda as a “success story.” This sentiment has been echoed in countless articles and by other statesmen. However, as far back as 2001, there have been claims that Rwanda’s economic success has, in part, resulted from the DRC’s troubles. A report requested by former UN General-Secretary Kofi Annan referred to the actions of several countries, including Rwanda, as mass-scale looting. The report also claimed that Rwanda, as well as other surrounding countries, benefited from the re-exportation of illicitly gained Congolese resources. Today, this phenomenon continues while the DRC struggles to recover and its economy continues to stagnate.
Many have speculated as to why Rwanda and Uganda, who is also accused of involvement in DRC, are given such ample leeway to operate as they deem fit. Some say it is the Clinton–Rice guilt over allowing the genocide to occur without adequate intervention. Others point to Rwanda and Uganda as two of the few African countries willing, and able, to commit their own soldiers to peacekeeping initiatives in Africa, providing Europe and the US with an alternative to sending their own troops. Whatever the reasons, it is clear that the international community’s lack of active involvement has allowed the crisis in the DRC to drag on for almost 20 years.
To me, the international community’s treatment of Rwanda is like that of Helen Keller’s family in the first scene of the film “The Miracle Worker.” Because of her disabilities, Helen Keller’s family allows her to go around the table digging her hands into the food, and grabbing food from their plates as she stuffs her face. No one at the table reacts, or attempts to stop her appalling behavior. Instead they carry on their conversation as if nothing were amiss, while Helen’s teacher looks on horrified. Because of Rwanda’s history, and their guilt over the failure to intervene, the international community is now overcompensating, allowing Rwanda to reach at will into the resources of its neighbor. As a result, hundreds of thousands are once again displaced and the DRC continues to hemorrhage lives and resources.
Although the M23 has ostensibly pulled out of Goma, they can, as one M23 fighter stated, return at any time. MONUSCO’s lack of resistance and overall complacency in response to the occupation could also fuel other armed groups to follow M23’s example. This culture of impunity has bred a rampant disregard for basic human rights and, sadly, there seems to be no finite end in sight. Yet, as a dear friend wrote to me last week, “Now, we are not only facing war, but also its consequences: since rebels took the city all the banks are closed, people cannot go to Bukavu/South Kivu or to Kinshasa. Almost 10 days since this situation started. But we know we will survive no matter the conditions.”
The people of the DRC have always held onto the hope that one day things will get better. They are resilient survivors that have been forced to stumble through ordeal after ordeal. But the question remains: when will the international community finally have mercy on the DRC and the suffering of its people? It is all well and good for us to “call for” withdrawals and “urge” the rebels to leave, but I believe the time has come for the international community to go beyond idle directives and to act. It is time we respond to the Congolese people with hope and give them the opportunity to live their lives, give them back their right to liberty as well as the pursuit of happiness they so richly deserve.
Mara Tshibaka is co-producer of the documentary “The Shadow Effect: Congo."
[Photo courtesy of EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection]
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