Mary Elizabeth Grant submitted the following article on the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We thank her for her diligent work.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been the theatre for Africa’s world war and is the continent’s most underreported and arguably worst humanitarian crisis. Unlike Darfur, the international spotlight on Congo has been dim, presumably because there are very few Western interests in Congo, despite the fact that the country is rich in mineral resources such as diamonds, gold, copper, and coltan (used for chips in cell phones and laptops).
After Belgium gave Congo its independence in the 1960s, civil war raged until 1965 when Joseph Mobutu gained control with the help of the United States. The U.S. supported Mobutu because of his stance against the Soviet-supported Angola.
Violence continued in parts of Congo (then known as Zaire), and for the most part, Mobutu controlled the country. However, when the Cold War ended, the U.S. withdrew its support.
Civil war erupted again in 1997 when Laurent Kambila became president. While opponents of Kambila rebelled with support from Uganda and Rwanda, Kambila succeeded in receiving support from Angola, Nambia, and Zimbabwe.
Peace negotiations in 2002 led to the replacement of Zimbabwean, Rwandan, Ugandan, Nambian, and Angolan troops with United Nations troops. In fact, Congo currently has the largest UN force—17,000 troops—on hand with the goal of maintaining peace. However, the UN troops are largely ineffectual as they are intimidated not only by the brutality demonstrated by rebel militias but also by the fact that they are outnumbered in the eastern region of the country.
Much of the warfare in eastern Congo is a continuation of an ethnic conflict originating in Rwanda. Hutu leaders and soldiers, who participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, fled to Congo after the Rwandan Tutsis regained control of the government. Rwanda then invaded Congo’s eastern front on several occasions in order to track down the former Hutu leaders.
Battles continue between the FDLR (former Hutu soldiers) and a Congolese army led by General Laurent Nkunda, who claims that he wants to defend the Rwandan Tutsis. For instance, Nkunda has formally petitioned the government to protect the Tutsis so that those who have fled the country may return to Rwanda and live in safety.
Many hoped that the 2006 election of the first democratically-elected president in the DRC, Joseph Kabila, would bring peace. However, conflict and extreme violations of human rights nevertheless persist.
The last seven years of warfare have amounted to some staggering statistics: 4 million people have died from war-related starvation, disease, and injury; 72% of the population is undernourished; death comes to 20% of children under the age of 5; the average life expectancy is age 43; the average annual income per person is less than $250; over 800,000 people have fled their homes; 30,000 children have been forced to fight in the militia (those who refuse have been killed on the spot); girls are commonly kidnapped as sex slaves for the militia; and according to the BBC, 1,200 individuals die daily as a result of the conflict. Also, according to Kevin Watkins and the Human Development Report 2006, the Democratic Republic of Congo is ranked 167th out of 177 countries on the Human Poverty Index.
Rape is widely used as a weapon of war in order to humiliate, degrade, and control not only the victims but also those associated with them. While the exact numbers are not yet known, estimates on the number of rapes in Congo far exceed the ballpark figure of the 50,000 rapes that occurred in Rwanda as a sort of genocide through “ethnic cleansing.” Children as young as age 2 have been raped and brutalized in Congo. Forty percent of rape victims have been held as sex slaves for at least several months on end. Thirty percent of rape victims, including men and boys, have been sexually tortured and mutilated. Their injuries are usually permanent, the least of which include constant incontinence. Another 30% of rape victims are infected with HIV/AIDS.
Moreover, violence and torture associated with rape in Congo is escalating to the point where victims are forcibly blinded, and their ears and lips are cut off so that they can not identify their attackers.
Justice is non existent. Rape, forced child labor, sex trading, sexual slavery, torture, dismemberment, murder, and cannibalism prevail so that citizens live in pervasive terror, and these victims have very little recourse. The Congo militia members are often perpetrators along with rogue and rebel militias roaming the countryside.
Corruption runs the judiciary, and perpetrators often escape punishment. Due to the fact that judges are paid on average only $100 a year, they are highly susceptible to bribery. According to the BBC’s Joseph Winter, in one incident, after bribing a judge, a client asked why he should pay his lawyer. The attorney responded, “… because the other party may have bribed the judge as well and so the case may just be decided on the law.”
So what are the solutions? How will Congo achieve peace when such a rampant and atrocious lack of respect for human life dominates the consciousness? For some ideas, check out the Enough Campaign. Here, you can sign a letter to the President, requesting that he take more decisive action.