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Congo Crisis Deepens As Rebels Make Gains

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Congo Crisis Deepens As Rebels Make Gains

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Congo Crisis Deepens As Rebels Make Gains

Congo Crisis Deepens As Rebels Make Gains

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Congo's army has retreated from a rebel advance. The U.N., which has been blamed for not doing enough, has evacuated most of its civilian staff from its regional headquarters in Goma. Jeffrey Gettleman, East Africa Bureau chief for The New York Times, offers his insight.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel. And now, to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it's with some embarrassment that I say because we say it so seldom, and yet, the wars in that country have claimed perhaps five million lives. Millions more have been displaced to neighboring countries. Countless women have been raped, and those who measure such things say that the fighting in the Congo could be the deadliest conflict in the world since the Second World War.

In the Eastern Congo, hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the fighting between rebel forces and the Congolese army. There's now a tentative ceasefire, but rebel forces are now camped just outside the city of Goma, which is a base for the United Nations' largest and most expensive peacekeeping mission. Jeffrey Gettleman, the East Africa bureau chief of The New York Times, is in Goma, and he writes today of a calm in that city but also of scenes of terrible violence. So, Jeffrey Gettleman, what have seen there today?

Mr. JEFFREY GETTLEMAN (East Africa Bureau Chief, The New York Times): Well, the situation is a lot better than it was yesterday. But it's still very uneasy and very dangerous out there. We've seen a lot of the government troops who had hastily fled last night as the rebels encircled Goma. They're back now, and they're back in force. I've seen truckloads of soldiers carrying rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns storming back into town. And the civilians are not really reassured by this because last night, a lot of these soldiers went on a rampage and ransacked homes and looted stores, raped women and even killed civilians.

SIEGEL: Now, the Congolese rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, threatened today to send fighters into Goma unless U.N. peacekeepers guarantee the ceasefire because of the very violence that you described. Would his forces be any more welcome in Goma than the Congolese army?

Mr. GETTLEMAN: I don't think so. The last time his forces took over a major population center was in 2004. It was a city south of Goma called Bukavu. And at that point, his soldiers did basically what I just described the Congolese government soldiers are doing. So the people here are really at a loss. They feel incredibly helpless, powerless, frustrated, angry, frightened about what's happening around them. And I don't think people believe that Laurent Nkunda or anybody else is going to treat them any better than they've been treated in the last few years.

SIEGEL: When we speak of this rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, we dutifully identify him as a Tutsi. To what extent is this about ethnicity of this fighting, and to what extent is it about other factors, such as mineral resources in the region, say?

Mr. GETTLEMAN: I think a lot of it has to do with what happened in Rwanda in 1994. When Rwanda went through its genocide and afterward, a lot of the Hutu perpetrators who had been responsible for these horrific massacres escaped into eastern Congo. They then set up base in the eastern Congo and began to terrorize civilians here. And Laurent Nkunda uses this as a justification for his actions. He says that he's here to protect the Tutsi people from being victimized again like they were in Rwanda.

SIEGEL: I just want to ask you about the images that we can see of crowds of refugees leaving the city of Goma alongside U.N. tanks. Where are they going? Where could one go at this point away from Goma to find some refuge?

Mr. GETTLEMAN: Well, it's a pretty miserable existence. A lot of them are constantly on the move. Some are crossing the border from Congo into Rwanda. Goma sits right on the border of the Congo-Rwandan border, so people can literally walk through Goma and end up in Rwanda.

Another thing is, people are just trying to flee the violence. It's a temporary movement. They are not congregating in enormous camps like Darfur. You don't see that here. You see these temporary concentrations of people who are just trying to stay safe. The problem is, it's the rainy season now. It's muddy. It's wet. It's cold at night. A lot of these people are sick.

And because of the fluidity of the combat and how confusing it is with these three different sides, the U.N. on one side, the Congolese government on another side, Nkunda on another side, it's very difficult for aid workers to access these internally displaced people. So as a result, (unintelligible) right now, tonight have hundreds of thousands of people who are sleeping outside on the wet ground with no food and no shelter, and there's very little that the aid community here can do for them.

SIEGEL: That's Jeffrey Gettlman, East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times, speaking to us from Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Jeffrey Gettleman, thank you very much.

Mr. GETTLEMAN: Thank you.

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