Saturday 18 December 2004 a day after declaring victory over the regular Congolese army in battles for the flash- Patrick Lavand'Homme would like nothing more than to report some good news from his district. Reports of refugees returning home, of food shipments reaching their intended destinations or of warring tribes signing a peace treaty. Any such report would be a welcome relief for Lavand'Homme, who heads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in North Kivu province of the war-torn African country Congo.
But good news is not likely any time soon. On the contrary. Lavand'Homme makes a rather dejected impression as he stands in front a map of the jungle-covered country and, like a general in a military campaign, uses his finger to trace the country's many areas of conflict. Militias are on the rampage, plundering armies march through regions where anarchy reigns and seemingly endless columns of refugees wander aimlessly from one part of Congo to the next. There was a brief period a few months ago when a small glimmer of hope for peace existed, but these days, once again, everyone is a target. Even harmless volcanologists have been attacked; Dutch volunteers working for Doctors Without Borders have even been assaulted twice.
A brutal warlord from the Maji-Maji tribe, who goes by the name of Jackson, controls the main artery between Congo and Uganda along with his cronies. Anarchy has prevailed in an area north of the town of Kanyabayonga near the Rwanda border ever since two warring militias spent a week battling one another before withdrawing from the killing fields, neither group having made any significant gains. Within the past month, 150,000 people from this region alone have been driven from their homes.
Shocking statistics of violence
Other numbers coming out of Congo these days are likewise staggering. There are currently 2.5 million refugees in the entire country, including 500,000 in the North Kivu province alone. Lavand'Homme, who arrived in the Kivu provincial capital of Goma seven months ago, calls it "the biggest humanitarian catastrophe today." But no one seems to be interested in what he has to say. He says that only rarely does anyone visit his office and ask about the situation.
According to conservative estimates, more than three million people have died in the region in the past few years. The US-based International Rescue Committee (IRC) recently reported that thousands of people die in the country each day from malnutrition or any one of a myriad of diseases. Or they are simply slaughtered by countless warlords.
"The number of people the world has lost in Congo in the past six years is about equal to the population of Ireland," says IRC official Richard Brennan. When asked how many more innocent Congolese will have to die before the international community finally pays attention to what he calls "the deadliest crisis of the present day," Brennan simply shrugs his shoulders.
The despair evident in the voices of relief workers seems justified. It's becoming increasingly apparent that the millions who have already died could be the harbingers of a new wave of killings that could plunge the region into yet another catastrophe of massive proportions. Congo, Africa's third-largest county in terms of land area, is scheduled to hold elections this summer. But as the date approaches, the situation is becoming increasingly unstable. Armed combatants from neighboring Rwanda have been gradually trickling across the border and melting into the local population.
"Rapes, skirmishes, displaced peoples -- these things have become commonplace," says Lavand'Homme, who lives in Goma on the eastern border of Congo. In 1994, a cholera epidemic drove thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees into the city on the banks of picturesque Lake Kivu, and eight years later a third of Goma was inundated with lava from the eruption of nearby Mt. Nyiragongo. Goma is now the logistical center for many international aid organizations.
Relief projects stalled
But it's eerily quiet in Goma these days. SUVs rarely rumble across the black lava that pushed its way between the buildings in this former Belgian colonial city. Dagobert Holtwick, 55, who works for German World Hunger Aid, looks forlorn and out of place as he stands among his impressive fleet of vehicles: Twenty-nine stately trucks and 24 construction vehicles. In the past four years, he and his men have built 140 kilometers of roads through the jungle, roads leading to Kisangani, the legendary city on a bend in the great Congo River and one of the last outposts of civilization in the region.
The road through the jungle is intended to link the eastern portion of this giant country with the capital, Kinshasa, far to the west. Part of the development plan even called for the construction of hospitals and schools along the route. Things were going well for a while, and there was even a time when the air was filled with something approaching optimism. But Holtwick's vehicles have been sitting idle for the past four weeks. Retreating troops plundered his construction site, destroyed machinery and stole 50,000 liters of diesel fuel and 12,500 pickaxes intended for the local population. The damage is estimated at about 300,000, and work on the project has been suspended until the security situation becomes reasonably acceptable. The story is much the same in many other places in eastern Congo these days.
Holtwick has been living in Africa for the past 35 years, including 19 years in Congo. He has survived five coups and many a civil war. He's a down-to-earth kind of guy and certainly not afraid of much. But ever since Rwandan President Paul Kagame announced last November that he plans to send Rwandan troops into Congo once again, an announcement that was promptly followed by skirmishes between Congolese troops and invaders from Congo's unpopular neighbor, even Holtwick has his doubts. "It stinks of war," he says.
A rich country
There are certainly plenty of excuses for war. Congo is blessed with natural resources, and could in fact be a wealthy country. It has diamond and gold mines, rich deposits of the natural resources coltan (a mineral useful for cell phone power-storing units), cassiterite (tin ore) and copper, as well as vast forests of valuable tropical hardwoods. There is a lot of money to be made in Congo. Many countries have vested interests here, and many are conducting their own shameful proxy wars in Congo, wars often fought by child soldiers pumped full of drugs and trained to commit murder.
The war has many facets, and it's difficult to make out the responsible parties. But the most obvious trail of blood leads to Rwanda, a tiny mountainous state dwarfed by its giant neighbor to the west. Rwanda is heavily overpopulated, almost devoid of raw materials, and blessed with only moderately productive soil. The massacres in the region surrounding Africa's great lakes have their roots in Rwanda's age-old, Cain-and-Abel-like conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi tribes, a clash between traditional farmers, the Hutu, and nomadic goatherds, the Tutsi.
The Tutsi dominated the tiny kingdom for centuries. They saw themselves as a master race -- not just as goatherds. And even though the Tutsi only made up 14 percent of the country's population, they behaved like feudal lords, dominating the Hutu, about 85 percent of the population, and the much smaller Twa pigmy minority.
When Europe's colonial powers battled over this bit of earth, they took a liking to the theory of a master race in the heart of darkness. The Belgians, who took over the country from the Germans during World War I, used the Tutsi minority as puppets to rule the country for many years. But in the 1950s, when independence movements began storming through Europe's colonies, it was the upper-class Tutsi who rebelled against their former patrons. The Belgians allied themselves with the masses of impoverished Hutu farmers, and major massacres ensued. 50,000 Tutsi were murdered, and hundreds of thousands fled to neighboring countries -- to Uganda, to the region that is now Tanzania, to Burundi, and to eastern Congo.
There they lived in refugee camps for decades, hoping to return to their country one day. Aside from occasional clashes with the government of former Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, the situation remained relatively peaceful in eastern Congo for many years.
The apocalypse of the 1990s
Things changed in the 1990s, when previously minor conflicts began escalating into an apocalypse. On two occasions, French troops were able to stop advancing Tutsi rebels from neighboring Uganda shortly before they reached the Rwandan capital of Kigali, forcing the rebels to sign a peace treaty with the Hutu leadership. But in 1994, all negotiations were off when a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down as it approached Kigali's airport. Who shot down the plane remains unclear to this day. In the ensuing genocide, youth gangs who called themselves Interahamwe ("Those who attack together") brutally slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu. Later, following the victory of a Tutsi rebel movement in Rwanda led by Paul Kagame, thousands of Hutu who had fled to Congo were massacred.
But these victims are hardly even mentioned today. Rwanda is now ruled by a Tutsi junta that manipulates elections, persecutes human rights workers, imprisons journalists and disseminates its own version of the truth about what happened in the war.
After the Rwandan massacres, Congo was flooded with a wave of refugees from Rwanda -- hundreds of thousands of Hutu who were afraid to return home. While most of the refugees were innocent civilians, their numbers also included many with blood on their hands. Since then, Rwandan dictator Paul Kagame has attacked Congo, with its rich natural resources, on two occasions: once, in 1996, to topple Mobutu, and then, in 1998, with the intention of hunting down the Interahamwe. As Congo descended into agony, Rwanda suddenly began to prosper, and has since taken to flaunting what it calls its successful economic policies.
But the Kagame regime derives its wealth from mineral resources it has stolen from Congo. At times, Rwanda was exporting up to $20 million worth of coltan each month, while the tiny nation's diamond exports miraculously jumped from 166 carats in 1998 to 30,500 in 2000. Given this history, no one in the region would be particularly surprised to see Kagame attempt to split off and take over Congo's large eastern section.
"The Rwandans are everywhere here," confirms Georg Doerken of World Hunger Aid, "they wear Congolese uniforms, and they will do everything within their power to thwart democratic elections." The rebels, whose representatives even hold seats in the transitional government in Kinshasa, are despised by Congolese population and wouldn't stand a chance in fair elections.
Kagame prefers chaos in Congo
"If he wants to hold onto his power, Kagame will almost be forced to plunge Congo into another chaos," Doerken believes. Otherwise Kagame's vassals would almost certainly lose control over the country's mineral resources after Congo's elections. At the same time, there is growing resentment in Congo against the Tutsi, who are now beginning to fear that they themselves could become the targets of violence. Kagame has repeatedly justified his military campaigns by claiming that his true purpose is to protect Rwandan refugees in Congo against further genocide. In doing so, however, he is simply triggering a horrific spiral of violence. As Kagame's intruders wreak havoc in Congo, dislike for the Tutsi will quickly turn into outright hatred.
And what about the United Nations? UN peacekeepers in Congo have been stumbling impotently from one crisis to the next. They did nothing to stop uninhibited child soldiers from committing massacres in Bunia in 2003, and in Bukavu, just south of Lake Kivu, they looked on indifferently as Tutsi militias murdered and raped innocent civilians.
To make matters worse, the behavior of UN peacekeepers has also come under fire. Dozens of peacekeepers are accused of having sexually abused refugee girls. Nevertheless, Albrecht Conze, Germany's representative at the UN mission in Congo, hopes that his 12,000 troops will be able to prevent the bloodbath feared by many. Conze claims that UN forces are now "in better shape militarily." In fact, he says, his peacekeepers now even have a mandate to save lives -- a mandate they didn't have in the 1994 genocidal slaughter in Rwanda and Burundi.
Doerken, the man from World Hunger Aid, doesn't share Conze's confidence in the abilities of his UN peacekeepers. "The best thing would be for the French to take over again," he says. After all, it was the French who managed to bring things under control in the northern Congolese Ituri region a year and a half ago. And, unlike the UN peacekeepers, the French actually intervened to put an end to the murders that were plaguing the region. "If you're pointing a gun at someone," says Doerken referring to the UN troops, "you have to be prepared to shoot."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan