Growing DRC Tensions Threaten Regional Stability

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is struggling to deal with rebels operating in the eastern part of the country. It's alleged that some rebels are being backed by the Rwandan government. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks to Reuter's Kinshasa correspondent, Jonny Hogg, about tensions that can threaten regional stability and renew an old rivalry.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

I'm Jacki Lyden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Just ahead, as musicians in their homeland of Iran, the underground band, Kiosk, had to perform out of sight and review their lyrics with the government. Then they moved to the U.S. Now they can say what they want in their music.

But first, we turn to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The African country is huge, the size of Western Europe with vast mineral resources, and it's still dealing with the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.

Now soldiers who mutinied from the Congolese Army in April have started a rebellion in the east, which has displaced nearly a half million people. We wanted to understand more about this, so we've called on Jonny Hogg. He's Reuter's correspondent in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, or Congo.

Welcome to the program.

JONNY HOGG: Thank you very much.

LYDEN: So tell me about this rebellion in the eastern part of the country. Who are the rebels and what do they want?

HOGG: I think it's important when you start looking at the history of this region to know that over the last 20 years it's had seemingly endless rebellions, so they are an old rebel group who came into the army and then, over a series of problems, they blame the government for not respecting a peace deal in 2009, for poor conditions in the army. They've now rebelled again and are now controlling sizeable amounts of territory in the east of the country.

LYDEN: So you spent time touring with these people, if you will. What was that like? What went on while you were with them?

HOGG: Essentially the most important thing is that some of them have been soldiers since they were children, quite literally, because throughout the conflicts that eastern democratic Republic of Congo have seen, there's been this tendency to recruit very young people, sometimes as young as sort of 13, 14, 15, into the armed forces or into these rebel groups.

Now, one of the soldiers I was speaking to - he said that he really couldn't remember anything else other than being a soldier, so much so that he couldn't sleep in a real bed.

LYDEN: But you would call them a disciplined fighting force?

HOGG: I think in the context of Congo, a relatively disciplined fighting force. Yes. I mean, it has to be taken into account that the Congolese Army probably has as poor a reputation for doing its job than almost any other army in the world. I mean, the stories that have come out of Congo - Eastern Congo in recent years of rape and of pillage and of murder carried out by the Congolese armed forces has given a sense of a chaotic army.

These soldiers in the rebellion represent perhaps some of the better trained and that shows, to a degree, in the success that they've had, although a lot of people put this down to the fact that they appear to be getting cross-border support.

LYDEN: Well, let me talk to you about that. The UN has said that neighboring Rwanda is helping these rebels and that is something that Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, denies. What is the UN's evidence here?

HOGG: What this UN report does is it documents large numbers of sources, both inside the Congolese military, inside the rebel movement itself, and those who claim to be Rwandans who've crossed the border to fight for the rebels, and they've used that to construct - with other, more material evidence - a case that they say proves definitively that very high ranking Rwandan officers are involved, including the Ministry of Defense.

Now, Rwanda's take on this, of course, is that this is just a great big fabrication to make them look bad, to try and lay the blame of Congo's problems on Rwanda's doorstep.

LYDEN: Remind us briefly, if you would, why Rwanda could conceivably be interested in helping these rebels.

HOGG: To understand that, you have to look back at the history of the region, which has been marked by several or one or two really very key events. Perhaps the most significant of those was the Rwandan genocide in 1994, which you mentioned. Now, then around about 800,000 Tutsis were brutally slaughtered by Hutu extremists in that country.

And then after the genocide was stopped, the perpetrators of the genocide then fled into neighboring Congo, but also with them a huge number, well over a million refugees. Now, that was enormously destabilizing for Eastern Congo, but it also meant that Rwanda then had a serious security threat on its doorstep. Essentially those people who'd carried out the genocide, who perhaps wanted to finish the job, set up base in Congo and then launched attacks against Rwanda. So that's been one reason that they backed numerous armed groups and indeed sent soldiers into Congo, was to stamp out these rebel fighters.

Those who are more cynical of Rwanda's motives in all of this would look quite simply at Congo's enormous wealth, mineral resources, rich farmland, huge grazing pastures, which just don't exist in Rwanda. And they say that over a period of nearly 20 years, Rwanda has gained a huge amount of wealth from this, and now, with the possibility of the Congolese government trying to squeeze its way back into control in its own country, that that was threatened. And that could explain why they've decided to back these rebels to maintain their interests.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. We're learning more about a growing crisis between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo with Reuters correspondent in Kinshasa, Jonny Hogg.

Jonny, we've just mentioned that a half a million people in the Eastern Congo, where you traveled with the rebels, have been displaced. What are they facing?

HOGG: Well, I mean I think this is one of the most visible and shocking aspects of this crisis at the moment, is the conditions which the populations who fled these areas of fighting are living in. I mean, they really are absolutely appalling.

I was in North Kivu and there people were living really with almost no shelter whatsoever, with zero access to food, and only just were we seeing the start of a humanitarian response with aid agencies coming out and handing out high energy biscuits, really, to just everybody. And these huge crowds gathering around as people desperately tried to get some food.

Now, this is the most visible sign of the impact that this fighting has had on a region that has already suffered so much, and whilst there's deeply political powers and forces at play here, in between there is a population, most of whom simply say we don't want any more war, we just want to be able to live in peace. But they're not being given that option.

LYDEN: What does the UN report say and what do you think the international community can do to respond?

HOGG: Well, the UN report is very clear. It says that without this support, this rebellion would not have the same strength and could be something that the Congolese authorities could manage.

Now, the international community seems to believe this report. Rwanda, as we've said, denies it, but various countries - most recently Sweden, but including the U.S. - have cut support to Rwanda. So I think the real question is for the international community, how far do they push Rwanda? And for Rwanda, assuming that we believe these allegations that they're behind this rebel group, how far are they prepared to push their involvement, given the potential political risks of worsening relationships with their Western allies, but also in terms of the potential of destabilizing the region once more and finding themselves sucked back into another protracted and very bloody conflict?

LYDEN: As they had about a decade ago. Jonny Hogg is the Reuter's correspondent in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jonny Hogg, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

HOGG: Thank you very much.

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