Congo Feeling Aftershocks of Civil War
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
We've been following the election impasse in Zimbabwe, as well as the ongoing efforts to resolve an earlier impasse in Kenya. But those are not the only crises points on the continent. The Democratic Republic of Congo, the nation that used to be called Zaire, has not truly regained stability since the end of its civil war five years ago. Battles between government forces, armed rebels and militias have kept the eastern region of that country in chaos. The United Nations has been working to quell the unrest and to bring peace to the Congo. Joining us now is Alan Doss. He's the United Stations special representative for The Democratic Republic of Congo. He's here in Washington for meetings with officials, and he was kind enough to stop by our Washington studio. Welcome. Thank you for speaking with us. Mr. ALAN DOSS (United Nations Special Representative for The Democratic Republic of Congo): Thank you.
MARTIN: The U.N. has peacekeepers stationed in the eastern region of Congo. It's actually the largest deployment of Blue Helmets. Is that correct?
Mr. DOSS: Yes. Right now it is. We are the largest in the world. We have got about 17,000 troops and about 1,000 police officers there.
MARTIN: What's the scope of that mission?
Mr. DOSS: Well, it covers the whole country, but we're focusing very much in the east. But it's such a huge country. I think people don't know that Congo is the size of Western Europe. So while we have a lot of people, it's not too many people on the ground. It's just a vast country with a lot of problems. They've made a lot of progress, but there is still a lot to be done.
MARTIN: What progress have they made?
Mr. DOSS: Well, four, five years ago, as you just mentioned, the country was still in chaos, in civil war with millions and millions of people displaced, huge number of people died. Four, five million people died, it's estimated. Today, most of the country is at peace. But it's in the eastern area, the areas bordering particularly with Rwanda and Uganda, where there are still troubles, and that's why we're there in good measure.
MARTIN: I think people remember - people who follow events in the region probably remember the civil war that started in '98. There was a peace agreement. The civil war ended in 2002. Why is there this degree of ongoing hostility in the region? Why are there continuing tensions even though a peace agreement has been signed?
Mr. DOSS: Well, there are different armed groups, different rebellions, if you will, that have occurred. And there isn't a single answer to all of that. But the principal one is that in some ways, we're still suffering the consequences of what happened in the '90s, and in particular, the genocide in Rwanda which caused a huge displacement of populations, including Rwandans who came over, including those who've been involved in the genocide. And then ongoing tensions between the different groups in eastern Congo that have never been totally resolved, and from time to time this has erupted into civil war.
Plus, remember, the Congo is a potentially very rich country. It has huge mineral resources. Some of them are very precious. For example, a metal called colton. That's what we use in mobile phones. It's being smuggled. It's being mined and smuggled out of the Congo. Armed groups control that in some areas. They use that to protect themselves, to buy weapons, to bribe officials. So all of these elements have come together to perpetuate the war. We've heard of conflict diamonds. We should be hearing now about conflict colton.
MARTIN: Is the U.N. taking any steps to persuade these groups to disarm? Are there any ongoing negotiations with them?
Mr. DOSS: Yes, indeed. In November last year and in January this year, two agreements were signed. One is called the Nairobi Communique, and the other, the Goma Acts of Engagement. The first one involves Rwanda, as well as the Congo itself, because we are trying to deal with the forces that fled from Rwanda after the genocide and which have installed themselves in eastern Congo and which prey on the population of eastern Congo. We want to get them to disarm, disband, and as much as possible, just go home in peace. Go back to Rwanda.
MARTIN: Is there any ongoing redevelopment efforts? I guess I'm just trying to picture, how do people live every day in an area that has been at war for so long?
Mr. DOSS: Well, the answer is that they live, but barely. They survive. They survive. People are amazingly resilient in Africa. But it's not what we want to see. This is a country that has huge potential. It doesn't have to be to be a desperately poor country. Right now, most people in the Congo live on less than $2 a day. Not even $1 a day. So they survive, but barely. And where this shows up is in the, as I say, in things like infant mortality. It's among the highest on earth, in the Congo.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Alan Doss. He's the special representative of the United Nations secretary general to the Democratic Republic of Congo. He's here with me in our studios in Washington. Many Americans, to the degree that they're aware of the Congo, will be familiar with the rape epidemic. It's an issue that has received a lot of attention in the Western media. I'm wondering how widespread you think this problem is. And is the U.N. in any position to help these women recover from sometimes awful, truly awful violence?
Mr. DOSS: Well, it is a huge problem. Just to cite one figure, it's estimated, I believe, that in South Kivu alone, which is one of the provinces in Eastern Congo, it's a pretty big area. But there alone it is estimated that more than 20,000 rapes took place. And those are the ones that are reported. We suspect that a large number of rapes are not reported because women are fearful of either being ostracized from their own communities or be threatened by reprisals. ..TEXT: Now, the problem is two-fold in my view. One, the armed groups, the ones that I've been talking about. We will not make a profound impact on this problem if we can't get rid of the armed groups. These armed groups obey only themselves. They cannot be brought to justice. The court system has collapsed. There are no officials to administrator justice. The police are very thin on the ground. And we have to deal with the armed groups. We also have to try to end impunity, which means taking people to court, trying them and punishing them. And that applies, by the way, also to the security forces. The Congolese security forces. Sadly and unfortunately, they're also sometimes implicated.
So every month now, I send a letter to the Minister of Defense and I detail all the abuses that have taken place and I ask him to take action. And I think that is beginning to happen. But it's a massive problem. It's not going to be solved quickly or easily. But we just have to keep after it.
MARTIN: Is your role mainly to document the conduct? The U.N. has no ability to insist that people be held accountable?
Mr. DOSS: Well, we insist. We're documenting. In fact, the problem has, I think, drawn international attention in good part because we have consistently documented. We have taken it to the Security Council and the Security Council, in turn, has urged us to do whatever we can. For example, one thing we found is we - when we put mobile operating bases into an area, it does not completely end violence but it does reduce violence, and it also reduces violence against women.
MARTIN: How does it work?
Mr. DOSS: Well, because presence, mobility, that there's a sense that there is somebody there who's watching. It doesn't stop it by any means. And I wouldn't like to claim that this is the answer. But having that presence does help. We see a reduction in violence in those areas where we are able to go. But do remember our limits. I have to say this because it's - we look big, and we're a lot of people, it's true, 17,000. We spend a lot of money. But if I take what the equivalent is in the South Kivu, the number of people we have there, would be like having one policeman for the whole of Manhattan, and a good bit of Brooklyn.
MARTIN: By point of comparison, New York City has 40,000 police officers.
Mr. DOSS: It does, indeed. Through all five boroughs, it's true. But New York City is maybe eight million people, the population of North and South Kivu, where we're operating, is 10 million people.
MARTIN: With a U.N. force of about 17,000. Speaking of which, the peacekeeping force that's now concentrated in eastern Congo used to be distributed more widely throughout the country, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has suggested that the redeployment of those troops has created a power vacuum elsewhere, and perhaps put other parts of the country at risk. Do you share that concern?
Mr. DOSS: Well, I don't think he spoke about a power vacuum. What he did say was we were stretched pretty thinly, which is true, and that if problems occur in other parts of the country, our capacity to help the Congolese deal with it is very limited. And we've seen this of late in another area called Bia(ph) Congo. There were problems there. There was violence. We could put 250 people in there. But at the end of the day, obviously, it's a Congolese responsibility. So we have to work with the Congolese to rebuild their justice system, to rebuild their armed forces, to make those armed forces efficient but accountable.
MARTIN: If we could just talk for a minute about you. You've been in this post for just a few months, but you have a lot of experience across the continent, particularly in countries that are trying to recover from war. Prior to this post you served in U.N. efforts in Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone. Is there something that you learned from those posts that you can apply to this work in the Congo?
Mr. DOSS: Yeah, I mean, first of all, that peace agreements don't make peace. It's what follows, and it requires time and perseverance. You can't always count on good faith. There has to be in place measures to back up what you're planning and what you say. I think that we've found that it's important to not just have an election, declare victory and head for the door. That a democracy, a functioning democracy, is much more than just one election, important as that is. I think that's an important lesson.
I think, also, we see the absolute necessity of showing people that peace can make a difference. What's a democracy if it doesn't deliver anything for people? If they're still in the same situation, year after year, after they've had democratic elections, it's discouraging. It also, I think, undermines everything we're trying to do. So showing that there can be a difference. Just giving people some hope, some progress, is vital.
MARTIN: But why should - and forgive me, this sounds like such a selfish question given the task that you face, but why should Americans take note of this and continue to support these efforts? Which they do, through their tax dollars and their support for the United Nations.
Mr. DOSS: They do, indeed, and we're very grateful for that. Two reasons, I think. First, humanity. I mean, if we believe in a better world then we cannot allow one part of it to persist in a state of abject poverty and despair and destruction. Two, I think it's in our collective interest. You will never have peace and prosperity in Africa if the Congo is not at peace. It's the center. Physically, metaphorically, at the heart of Africa. It has nine frontiers. And I think increasingly, Africa, well, is coming back into international focus.
So I say, it's in our interest, as well as Africa's interest, to work together. It won't be easy. It will take time. It will take commitment. It will take resources, and you know, what concerns us isn't always necessarily what concerns them. But I think through, I hope, a concerted effort together, we can make progress.
MARTIN: Alan Doss is the special representative of the United Nation's secretary general to the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. DOSS: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: I hope you'll come back and keep us up to date.
Mr. DOSS: I certainly shall.
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