Confused about what’s going on in the northern Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Many people who follow African issues closely were surprised to see fighting in the eastern DRC become so fierce so quickly. I suspect I’m not the only person tearing myself away from US elections coverage and trying to catch up on an extremely complex situation.
The very basic rundown: DRC has been nominally “at peace” since a ceasefire was signed in 2003 between most of the parties involved with the Second Congo War, often referred to as “Africa’s World War”. It’s a conflict that has cost the lives of over 5 million people, largely due to disease and poverty exacerbated by the fighting, rather than to direct violence. And the conflict has never really ended, despite reasonably successful elections in 2006.
The conflict, in part, is an outgrowth of the Rwandan genocide. When Paul Kagame’s forces chased Hutu militias out of Rwanda in 1994, they fled across the border into eastern DRC. This created one of the world’s most morally complicated humanitarian situations. People who’d fled Rwanda were refugees, and many legitimately feared for their lives, so humanitarian organizations felt compelled to care for them. But it became clear that these camps were housing and feeding militias, who were making raids across the border and continuing to kill Tutsis, which made some humanitarian organizations wonder whether they were helping perpetuate the conflict. (This is why we don’t set up refugee camps in war zones… but it’s very hard to figure out where those zones actually are.)
There are still Hutu militias in eastern DRC. And there’s a Tutsi militia as well, the CNDP, led by Laurent Nkunda. This group is nominally a self-defense miliia to protect Tutsi populations against the Hutu groups… but things are a little complicated in eastern DRC. This part of the country has amazing natural resources – a wealth of minerals as well as valuable timber – and anyone who’s fighting in eastern DRC is probably also attempting to gain a share of some of this wealth. When the Second Congo War ranged, it drew in Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia, all of whom wanted a share of the booty.
So the current conflict is nominally between Nkunda’s forces, the CNDP, who are trying to root out a Hutu group called the FDLR. The FDLR is probably supported by the Congolese government, and so much of the conflict has been between the CNDP and the Congolese army. But the Congolese army is badly trained, miserably supplied and extremely ineffectual, and lots of army members have simply been running away. So the conflict has ended up being between the CNDP, who are marching into cities in eastern DRC and the UN’s forces – MONUC – who are in those cities trying to protect civilians.
This ends up being a deeply odd situation. Since the Congolese army won’t fight, CNDP – which many believe to be backed by Rwanda – is fighting the UN, which consists mostly of Indian soldiers. Oh, and because MONUC hasn’t been very effective at protecting civilians (in part because they’ve got the mandate of keeping a peace that doesn’t exist), they’re getting attacked by the civilians they’re supposed to protect.
Video from the fall of Rumangbo Station, the headquarters for Virunga National Park
If you’re an average Congolese living in north Kivu, the situation is very, very scary. Roughly 250,000 people have fled their homes, and many are seeking safety in the thick jungles of Virunga National Forest. The video above is from the official website of the forest, which does an amazing job of using digital media to share what’s going on in eastern DRC… and to raise money for the work rangers are doing in protecting natural resources in a very unstable war zone. Nkunda’s rebels have now seized the headquarters of the park – the team is now trying to find 50 rangers who’ve fled into the jungle, and are looking for places to make phonecalls and let their families know they’re alive.
Most of the 250,000 people who’ve fled don’t have a resourceful team of bloggers and videographers looking out for them, but it’s worth paying close attentions to the accounts from Virunda, because they give a sense for how desperate and precarious the situation is.
For more on the situation, which is fluid and changing:
The Economist has a pretty good overview, as does the Guardian, focusing primarily on international mediation efforts. Global Voices is covering the situation from the perspective of bloggers, mostly the Virunga crew. Sokari’s got a strong piece about western mineral interests in DRC that’s worth reading.