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1. Media reports from Bunia, Ituri Province, DR Congo, May 2003:
Dead bodies litter Bunia’s empty streets. From some the blood still drips from machete slashes, spear thrusts and bullets. Others are two weeks old, half-eaten by packs of dogs. Women’s bodies are scattered in the market place; a baby’s body on the main road; priests’ bodies in a church. Last week a burning corpse was tossed into the main UN compound.

The fighting was between rival ethnic militias, the Hema and the Lendu, both wanting control of the town. Many of the Congo’s fighters are children. 14-year-old Singoma said, ‘The Lendus murdered my parents, so how else could I survive?’ 15-year old Baraka, an AK-47 slung on his shoulder, said he didn’t know how many Lendus he’d killed. ‘Some of them I shot, others I killed by hand with a knife. They are not good people. They are the enemy.’

The militias moved in when forces from neighbouring Uganda, which had taken control of Bunia in March, pulled out after international pressure to honour a peace deal. 700 UN peacekeeping troops, mostly from Uruguay, were obliged to watch the Bunia massacres from behind the razor-wire circling their compound. ‘Does the world care what happens to Congo? No,’ said their French commander. ‘We’ve been saying again and again that this would happen, but nothing was done.’

The Uruguayans have been praised for the way they’ve helped 12,000 citizens trying to escape the slaughter. But, said a sergeant, ‘there are lots of problems. The main one is we just don’t understand the people. I’ll be glad to go home.’

Conflict and atrocities in Ituri have been going on for over 4 years. The belligerents have been manipulated by powerful people, both local and foreign, aiming to exploit its rich resources of coltan, gold, diamonds and timber. The UN has warned of slaughter similar to the 1994 Rwandan genocide if nothing is done to prevent it.

‘Congo’s war is the tragedy of modern times, and one which the world has consistently found reasons to overlook,’ said the director of the International Rescue Committee in the region. IRC estimates suggest that this war had claimed well over 4 million lives, more than any other since the second World War.

A Bunia man slipped back from the refugee camp to check out his home, and found the corpses of his neighbours. ‘Why are we killing our brothers?’ he asked, as he buried them among the smashed and looted huts. ‘When will it end?’

2. ‘The vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience’ (Joseph Conrad, 1890)
In Berlin in 1885 an agreement was signed. It was for the partition of Africa by European states, which was already under way. No Africans took part. The signatories agreed to treat indigenous peoples decently and ‘care for the improvement of the conditions of their moral and material well-being’. The stated aim: ‘instructing the natives and bringing home to them the blessings of civilisation’.

Between 1880 and 1900, 10,000 African tribal kingdoms were divided into a mere 40 states, 36 of them under European control. This was largely done by armed force. When Hiram Maxim invented the machine gun (with the British market in mind, he said), it went into use at once. ‘The white man came with guns,’ said an African warrior, ‘that spat bullets as the heavens sometimes spit hail.’

King Leopold II of Belgium had promoted the Congo Free State (which he never visited) as a humanitarian project, intended to undo some of the evils the white man had brought there with the slave trade – still going on in the east, run by Arab traders. His agents took over a region bigger than 75 Belgiums, hastily built a railway, and organised the mass harvesting of natural resources for trade that would make him rich: ivory, and later rubber, lots of rubber. The Congolese rapidly became slave labourers, terrorised, raped, mutilated and murdered by the armed police.

This ‘Force Publique’ was run by Belgian officers, first with mercenaries brought in from other African countries, later, more cheaply, with Congolese press-ganged by fellow Africans who knew how slaves were rounded up. At its peak, the FP had 19,000 African conscripts under a mere 420 white officers. Violence, African on African, was institutional on a scale which grew with every local rebellion. It’s estimated that over 7 million Congolese died as a result of this administration.

By the turn of the century news of the atrocities had reached the western world. There was a public outcry. In 1908 the Belgian government annexed the Congo Free State, re-named it the Belgian Congo, and set about trying to turn it into a well-run business.

3. ‘We endured ironies, insults and blows, morning, noon and night, because we are Negroes.’ (Patrice Lumumba, 1960)
The people of the Congo were now both hostile and cowed. The Belgian view was that Africans should be treated rather like children in an institution, strictly trained to be submissive, sober and industrious. Their basic physical welfare was supplied. Care of their souls was left to the many Christian missionaries.

But the real function of the Congolese was to work for the manager’s profit. Soon they were as regimented, restricted and exploited as before, with brutal policing, curfews, compulsory relocations and, of course, compulsory labour in the mines and on the land. African culture and customs were ignored. There was no political education. Even when some reforms were at last introduced, real control stayed with Belgium. By the 1950s there were 10,000 Belgian bureaucrats running the vast Congo infrastructure.

But change came with the second World War. Colonies sought, and gained, independence – and recognition from the United Nations. By 1952 Congolese who could show that they’d reached a proper ‘state of civilisation’ were allowed legal status; a year later they could own land. Elected town and rural councils were introduced. Congolese who chose to could now learn how to be political. But because the colonial administration had rigidly identified the population by ethnic groups, it was into ethnic, rather than political groups that the Congolese now gathered. The seeds of future ethnic conflict in Africa had been sown – by the West.

Gradualist Belgium published a ‘30-year plan for the political emancipation of Belgian Africa’, but Congolese manifestos demanded ‘self-government now’. Nationalist groups sprang up. Rioting began. Soon the situation was beyond the Belgian authorities’ control. In 1960 immediate independence was abruptly granted and the bureaucrats went home, leaving the administrative system to collapse.

To protect Western interests, however, Belgian troops remained in the mineral-rich (and pro-West) south. Newly-elected prime minister Patrice Lumumba asked for UN help to deal with them. UN peacekeepers came, but couldn’t handle Belgian military resistance. Within a year Lumumba was assassinated (engineered by Western powers to halt his ‘communist’ plans for the country’s natural riches). The UN forces weren’t able to stop that, either. They hung about until 1964, and then they too went home.

4. ‘If we want to get Congo out of its current crisis, together we will make it work’ (Joseph Kabila, 2002)
Civilian government in Congo was short-lived. A military coup in 1965 put Joseph Mobutu in power, the start of an oppressive dictatorship ‘legendary for corruption and greed’ and horribly reminiscent of the old Free State regime. Over 30 years his self-serving rule reduced the country’s standard of living to one of the lowest in the world.

To America, however, Mobutu was ‘our best friend in Africa’. Congo (now named Zaire) provided a base for US activities against Soviet-backed neighbouring countries during the Cold War. Mobutu was rewarded with cash, weapons and occasional military support. This meant that armed conflicts repeatedly spilled over the borders into Congo, setting a precedent for future incursions and semi-occupations, a problem to this day.

When communism collapsed, so did US interest in Congo, which no longer had strategic value. But the chaos of conflict remained. Under its cover rebels, resistance fighters, invaders and rival ethnic militias have looted and murdered as they help themselves to the produce of Congo’s rich mines and covertly offer it for sale. Multinational companies based in the US and Europe are known to have benefited from this illegal trading.

Without his western allies, who now cancelled development programmes and introduced sanctions, Mobutu had to make concessions. He agreed to a coalition government, though he wouldn’t let go of his security forces. In 1997 he was overthrown by rebels (backed by Rwanda, also once run by Belgium), who installed Laurent Kabila as president. Kabila also turned out to be corrupt. He was killed in 2001. His son is now president.

Joseph Kabila is keen to have Western involvement in Congo. But, increasingly, expert commentators are saying that outside intervention isn’t the answer. The problem is one of under-development: a collapsed economy, unfunded education, a warlord culture denying social justice. If Western money is spent, they say, it should be on the many associations in Congo which are working – with few resources – for peace and reconstruction, by the people for the people.

5. ‘It’s our job to help cleanse their minds of their war experiences’ (Jean-Louis Kombi of ‘Let’s Protect Children’, 2002)
Ituri province, is now, says an Africa specialist, ‘the worst area of the worst war in the world’. Much of the civil war has been taking place there. It also has access to one of the world’s biggest gold fields; there are oil reserves too. Peace agreements have been signed, some invaders have withdrawn. But it’s easy for lawless militias, Congolese or not, to get guns and use them.

Meanwhile Congo’s 52 million people suffer. Less than half have access to clean water; the rest face imminent shortage of it. Life expectancy is under 50. The birth rate is high, but so is infant mortality. Disease is everywhere, health care hardly anywhere. For women, abduction, sexual slavery, torture, trauma and death are commonplace. ‘In such a situation of poverty and helplessness,’ says an Africa specialist, ‘sex is the only currency women have.... Repairing the social fabric in Ituri and elsewhere will be a long slow process, taking generations, and it can only be done by the Congolese.’

Philemon is 14. He was forced by a rebel group to start killing when he was 10. He was rescued last year by the Let’s Protect Children Centre, the first in Congo to rehabilitate child soldiers. Lack of resources means that the one teacher has no pay and too few children have been helped. D R Congo has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, but that’s pretty meaningless for traumatised children like Philemon, who don’t even know why they’ve been fighting.

6. ‘There is no military solution to the war, only a political one.’ (France’s ambassador to the UN, June 2003)
So what is happening in Ituri? Troops are being sent in, of course.

100 French troops were the first to arrive, early in June, to secure Bunia’s battered little airport for later arrivals. Refugees left the shelter of the UN compound to greet them (in French, one of Congo’s official languages) with enthusiasm. Later the soldiers piled into four jeeps and drove ostentatiously through the town centre, followed by a crowd of Western journalists. ‘If civilians are being massacred, we have to stop it. But if there are just a few civilians killed in fighting between armed groups, that’s not our job,’ said the French colonel; a troubling brief whichever way you look at it.

What’s new about this force (1,400 men in all) is the flag it flies: this is the first EU contingent to deploy outside Europe. The UN had seized on news that the EU rapid reaction force now had 60,000 soldiers available at short notice for peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, ‘though it still lacked some equipment’. By mid-June the personnel were still mostly French, and based across the border in Uganda (whose troops have invaded, occupied and fought in Congo).

Belgium also sent 40 ground crew for the Uganda air base. After their troops’ disastrous spell in Rwanda during the genocide, the Belgian parliament advised against any military involvement in former colonies.

7. ‘Interpretations of the past should not lie or mislead’ (Bernard Williams, moral philosopher, 2002)
In front of shocked and angry Belgians on Congo’s Independence Day in 1960, Patrice Lumumba described the colonial era as ‘80 years of humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force.’ He went on: ‘We will never forget the massacres where so many perished, the cells into which those who refused to submit to a regime of oppression and exploitation were thrown.’ Independence was supposed to be a new dawn for this troubled, tragic country, but the price of Western intervention was still being paid.

People in peace education often point out that it isn’t enough to identify the short term causes of war alone. Yes, Congo’s civil war began in 1998 after Rwandan troops invaded, in pursuit of Hutus who had committed genocide in 1994 and crossed into Congo to avoid capture; Congolese forces had failed to round them all up. But that’s only a short-term reason for this conflict.

Earlier, there was the power vacuum after the fall of Mobutu. And before that, his reign of terror after the 1965 coup. Before that, the effects of unprepared-for independence, when the country was left without an administration network its people knew how to run. And so on, back through history.

Short-termism makes the world’s governments turn immediately to men-and-matériel when there’s a conflict to deal with. Shallow thinking makes the world believe you can ‘stop the killing’ by sending in forces trained and equipped to kill. Identifying the deeper, longer-term causes of conflict is essential to understand what’s really going on – and makes it easier to spot potential causes in the here and now.

History is a subjective affair. Its truths are partial, its facts sometimes obscured or misread. The same story can be told from a myriad points of view, dismissed as unimportant, or given too much weight. Working out what happened, and why, is a task without closure. But it’s the wise thing to do, a positive action that can hold hope for the future.

It means asking questions, all along the line. Can a particular history be trusted? Who is telling it? Is it accurate? Authentic? Sincere? How much of the story is observation and chronicle? How much is inference and interpretation? Description means selection, selection means order: is there something to learn from what is selected and how it’s arranged? (Try it out on this article! Are there any reminders here of the recent conflict in Iraq?)

So: when did the Congo conflict begin? Maybe it was when the first slave trader carried off its wretched cargo of shackled Africans. And when the first African chose to commit his fellow men to the next slave ship for European pay. In the end, the answers are always to do with people. People start wars. People can take steps that lead to lasting peace. Or at least give a warning that other people hear.

Margaret Melicharova






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