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The Congo: A Generation of Lost Voices

The Great War of Africa (1998-2003) was responsible for the greatest loss of human life since the conclusion of the Second World War. In late June of 2012, a UN report was released declaring Rwanda’s continued backing of hostilities in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In a conflict that has lasted 18 years and witnessed genocide, exploitation and anarchy – costing the lives of over 5 million people – evil begins to take the shape of banality. 

The recently issued report by the United Nations stated that there existed “overwhelming evidence demonstrating that senior RDF (Rwandan Defence Forces) officers have been backstopping the rebels through providing weapons, military supplies, and new recruits.” The publication of such a controversial report suggests a reassessment by the international community in its policy towards Rwanda, with implications for the region of central African. The United States has cut its military aid to Rwanda, while Britain, Rwanda’s single largest bilateral donor, delayed payment of its latest batch of £16 million. Meanwhile Germany and the Netherlands suspended their aid to Rwanda altogether.

The rebel faction that has recently received considerable attention calls itself M23, and is composed of renegade soldiers that mutinied from the DRC’s army in April. They are led my Bosco Ntaganda (the Terminator), a man wanted by the International Criminal Court. Kinshasa described Rwanda’s support for the rebels as “an open secret.” Though, in explaining this seemingly inherent predicament of lawlessness, an understanding of the region’s recent history is necessary.

The Great War of Africa

Rwanda’s involvement in the DRC, formerly known as Zaire, began with the mass exodus of Hutus following the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which over 800,000 Tutsi’s and moderate Hutu’s were killed. The continuing attacks on the Tutsis both in Rwanda and in Zaire (today the DRC), by the exiled genocidaires, resulted in a joint Rwandan, Ugandan, and Angolan offensive to topple Mobutu Sese Seko’s rotting regime. The First Congo War marked the beginning of a conceptual mess: it fostered no overarching narrative or ideology to explain it, nor an easy tribal conflict or socialist revolution to use as a peg in a news piece.

The Second Congo War included a total of eight African nations and over two dozen armed movements. Laurent Kabila, the former rebel leader who had been installed as Zaire’s president following Mobutu’s toppling, quickly fell out of favor with his Rwandan and Ugandan allies. Just as Mobutu had done previously, Kabila used ethnic profiling to consolidate his power, often targeting the Tutsis in the country as scapegoats.

A curious basket of nations came to Laurent Kabila’s assistance: Angola, Namibia, Chad, and Zimbabwe. By 1999 the DRC was partitioned between Uganda’s MLC rebel organization in the north, Rwanda’s RCD in the east, and the DRC government in the west. Much of the country was plundered for natural resources such as cobalt, copper, diamonds, coltan and forestry. According to the International Relief Agency, by the time peace talks were concluded in July 2003, somewhere between 3 million and 7.6 million people died as a result of the conflict.

Bellum Se Ipsum Alet – the war feeds itself  

Historians have used the Latin saying bellum se Ipsum alet to describe the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). This can also accurately describe the Congo wars. Yet the failure of the international community to act can just as well be blamed for the persistence of the conflict.

Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, underlined the debacle by saying: “We all went through that awful searing experience and the sense of guilt that President Clinton expressed many times about the international community’s failure to help Rwanda in that moment of need. Unfortunately Kagame has played on that guilt over the years to mask additional crimes that frankly we should also feel a little bit guilty about not having confronted.”

Rwanda has been an ‘aid darling’ for the past decade and a half, and justifiably so since the international community did nothing to prevent the genocide of 1994. The United States had just retreated from a failed intervention in Somalia, and a troubling situation was unfolding in Yugoslavia. Consequently, Rwanda’s wars in the DRC were rarely publicly criticized – essentially a blind eye was turned to the region. For instance, the New York Times gave Darfur nearly four times the coverage it gave the Congo in 2006, when Congolese were dying at nearly ten times the rate of those in Darfur due to the continuing conflict. It can be said that the ‘greatness’ of this episode (i.e. the Great War of Africa) lies solely in the realization that a war of such gross proportions has been so grossly overlooked.

But how does one put a human face on a figure like ‘5 million’, when most of the casualties perished unsensationally, as a result of disease, far away from television cameras? The Congo has always eluded spectators of the West as a “place of profound darkness,” quoting Joseph Conrad’s epic novel, Heart of Darkness. In his novel Conrad challenges the search for fixed meaning, and thereby conveys a sense of unknowability that surrounds Western civilization. But while the conflict escapes simple definition, it nonetheless deserves the attention of the international community.

The second largest UN peacekeeping force is stationed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (at last count 17,000 blue helmets), yet this is not sufficient to solve a predicament that has plagued the region for 18 years. In order for peace to exist, Rwanda must stop its support of rebel groups in the DRC. Moreover, the African Union and those nations providing aid to Kagame’s government should encourage cooperation between Kinshasa and Kigali. The scars of genocide and war are still painfully visible, but stability is in the best interest of all belligerents in the region – a reality Rwanda has yet to acknowledge.


– Elias Kühn von Burgsdorff


(Photos: Featured: PaternitéUnited Nations Photo, Flickr, Creative Commons. Photo 1: LicencePaternité Official U.S. Air Force, Flickr, Creative Commons. Photo 2:Adam Huggins, Flickr, Creative Commons)

About Elias Kühn von Burgsdorff

Student of History and Economics at McGill University. Elias has a passion for journalism and travel. Although he is German, Elias was born in South Africa and has lived in several countries including Mozambique, Slovakia, Belgium, Cuba, and now Canada.

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