Violence Erupts in Eastern Congo In a recent surge of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been caught in the crossfire as government troops and rebel fighters fight over land and natural resources. Ethnic tensions have worsened the conflict.
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Violence Erupts in Eastern Congo

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

A sequence of wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo caused the lives of an estimated four million people following the overthrow of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko a decade ago. Then, in 2003, a transitional government came to power, and, for a while, peace looked possible. Now, those hopes are fading.

Again, a confusing array of armed groups battle each other in the eastern part of the country; again, most of the victims are civilians; and, again, starvation and disease are the principle causes of death.

The fighting continues even though the Congo is home to the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world. There are 18,000 peacekeepers there under a Security Council mandate. And aid groups find themselves hard-pressed to provide a new tide of refugees with food, water, medical care, and shelter. Why is this happening again?

Later in the hour, the confessions of a carbon big foot on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. Do green guilt trips help the cause or hurt?

But first, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

If you're from Central Africa or if you've been there, we'd love to hear from you. Why has the fighting resumed in Eastern Congo? What might resolve the crisis? 800-989-8255 is the phone number; our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog; that's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is NPR's West Africa correspondent - just back from a reporting assignment in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She joins us by phone from her base in Dakar Senegal. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, it's nice to have you on the program.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Seasons greetings.

CONAN: Thank you very much. The Congolese government led by President Joseph Kabila has asked one of the large rebel factions to lay down their arms. This is a faction led by a dissident general.

QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed. He is called Laurent Nkunda, and he was part of the Congolese Army. And he says he will not rejoin the army until the Congolese government disarms a rival Rwandan Hutu militia from across the border. Eastern Congo and it's North Kivu Province, where there are most of the problems about Rwanda. Rwanda is very concerned about insecurity in the border area. General Laurent Nkunda is a Tutsi, the same ethnic group as the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan government. He says the Hutu militia men, from the rival ethnic group that has been fighting alongside the Congolese Army for, oh, years now, threatens, terrorizes, and persecutes his Tutsi minority, so he will not disarm until the government disarms them.

CONAN: And what are the U.N. peacekeepers doing? Ofeibea?

QUIST-ARCTON: You vanished.

CONAN: I apologize for that. What are the U.N. peacekeepers doing?

QUIST-ARCTON: They're getting more and more involved, dragged into this conflict, because they have said that their mandate is to support the duly elected government of Congo in Kinshasa, the capital. And, of course, that means the government's army, so they are helping with logistics, they're helping with helicopters, and they helped to transport reinforcements - troop reinforcements to Eastern Congo. And it seized the very soldiers who are fighting against the dissident force of Laurent Nkunda. But Nkunda has accused the United Nations of being a party to the conflict and has warned it that it must stop aiding the government. The United Nations turns around and says, that is our mandate; you must disarm; we will continue to support the government.

CONAN: But they're not taking an active role in combat?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, in the past week or so, they almost have. They're - at least they're up in their helicopters overlooking where the government forces were fighting Nkunda forces. And now, because the army, which had actually made military gains in the past 10 days or so until we're told the soldiers started celebrating and drinking and losing the strategic towns, villages and hillsides that they had taken from the rebels, it seems that it's now down to U.N. peacekeepers to protect civilians and to actually protect some towns and villages. So the peacekeepers are getting drawn into this conflict, and that always means trouble.

CONAN: And you mentioned the drinking by some of the government troops, but drinking is hardly the only concern of forces on both sides here.

QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed. And let me just say here, as you said, in your introduction that there is fighting between these two rival camps, but it's the civilians who are being caught in the crossfires again and again and again.

When I was in Congo - and that was just as this latest outbreak of fighting began, you saw women, children, toddlers, old men, old women running whenever there was gunfire, running when every - looked as if the conflict would break out again. And, you know, fleeing these positions where they were caught with bundles on their head going to huge displaced people's camps where water is a problem, where health is a problem, where sanitation is a problem, where tens of thousands of people are hoping for refuge, but where there are even problems in the camps when armed groups from all sides come and try and recruit young men and women to make them fight their battle, so it's an appalling situation. It's a pitiful situation especially for the ordinary man and woman in North Kivu.

CONAN: You've mentioned the Tutsis and Hutu groups from Rwanda. Is this - how much of this is a spillover from the Tutsi-Hutu conflict in Rwanda where everybody remembers the genocide there in the '90s?

QUIST-ARCTON: Absolutely. It's a continuing problem that started before the genocide and that continues long after, because you have the Rwandan government - Tutsi-dominated - which managed to drive out these Hutu militia men who cross the border into then Zaire of the late Mobuto Sese Seko's era as dictator and who have stayed.

So now, they have made roots. I mean, they are imparted there, they've got families, they've married into Congolese life, and, as I say, they are a proxy militia fighting with the Congolese army. So this has become a huge problem that even the United States has now got involved in. It sent a special envoy, Tim Shortly, to the area to try and talk both with the government and with the Rwandans and with Laurent Nkunda.

But, of course, the Rwandans are saying, until you disarm those Hutu forces -and now there is an agreement to disarm them, but the reality is, will it happen - until that happens, everything is almost on hold, except for the fighting. You have the dissident general who's saying, my people are threatened; I cannot put my arms down until those Hutu militia men are disarmed. So we're going round and round in circles, and it's the civilians suffering.

CONAN: Our guest is Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR's West Africa correspondent.

We're talking about the dire situation in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa.

If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 800-989-8255; e-mail is talk@npr.org.

And let's start with Randy(ph). Randy is with us from Chicago.

UTANDI(ph) (CALLER): Yes. Thank you. Correction. My name is Utandi.

CONAN: oh, I - excuse me, please, I apologize.

UTANDI: Quite all right. I want to thank, one, the show and the correspondent for the compassion shown in the reporting. However, I am deeply disappointed by the ethnic references especially in description of the current administration of Rwanda being too dominated. I think it would be - it's an unsophisticated understanding of, one, societal relationships to continue to use those categories, especially when you have a current administration in Rwanda that is trying to develop of what is a highly problematic, ethnicized society influenced by eugenics of what later took an extreme form in Nazi Europe and saying, okay, let us build a society, a national of - a national citizenship and not on ethnic bias. So to draw the comparison between General Laurent Nkunda, who self-declared himself as a Tutsi leader, in contrast to President Kagame, who has not declared himself as such, but rather as a leader of Rwanda and sees all odds up on Rwanda, I think it's highly problematic, and furthers the international community's misunderstanding of ethnic issues in the Great Lakes region. Thank you.

CONAN: Oh, well, thank you for that, Utandi.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton?

QUIST-ARCTON: I think it's an unavoidable to talk about Tutsis and Hutus when you're talking about the conflict in eastern Congo because we have a renegade general, who is a Tutsi, who says - and, by the way, Nkunda said Rwanda - the Rwandan leader Paul Kagame considers himself a leader of Rwanda, but the fact is he is a Tutsi. And the fact is that he is worried about the conflict right at his border, which is, really, the gates of Goma where I was, leads directly into Rwanda, so you cannot not talk about ethnic groups because the problem seen in the eyes of Laurent Nkunda and the government in Rwanda is the Hutu Interahamwe, former genocide-linked fighters, who are just right across the border.

So I know that in this day and age, it's not politically correct to talk about ethnic groups, but we have to here because that is one of the main problems in eastern Congo. It is partly ethnic.

UTANDI: It is more than the issue.

QUIST-ARCTON: It has to do, of course, with the resources in the area. It has to do with land. But it's very difficult not to make that point.

UTANDI: My only suggestion is that if, of course, we have to talk about ethnic issues especially as it relates to other Tutsi, other Hutu, and, possibly, other tribes in the Great Lakes region, however, if we are going to do so, I would simply suggest that we do it in a more sophisticated manner and we do not cast any generalizations without recognizing the innate problems of those descriptions. So we can say, yes, President Paul Kagame is the president of Rwanda and you cannot, and as you say, you cannot speak with - of him and not recognize his ethnicity. But in saying that, we misunderstand the fundamental problem of Rwanda, Burundi, and that part of the Congo's history the way in which ethnicity was is, in a sense, a false category.

So we persist in describing ourselves in these terms, we will somehow be subject to possibly the same discriminations, and - I think you understand what I'm saying. I am not suggesting that there is not an ethnic dimension to the conflict in eastern Congo. In fact, I commend you for the reporting on it. However, my one suggestion is, if and when we do report on it, that our descriptions of leaders, especially as it relates to Rwanda who is trying to remove itself or rid itself of that ethnic differences.

CONAN: Utandi, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

We're going to continue talking with Ofeibea Quist-Arcton and talk about how colonialism contributed to the problem.

Adam Hochschild joins us in just a moment.

If you'd like to, 800-989-8255; e-mail - talk@npr.org.

This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The Congo is embroiled in factional fighting yet again. This bloody war in Central Africa continues, and a large U.N. peacekeeping force is being increasingly drawn into the conflict.

Our guest is NPR's West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She is just back from a reporting assignment in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

If you are from Central Africa, if you've been there, we'd love to hear from you - 800-989-8255. E-mail us - talk@npr.org.

Joining us now is Adam Hochschild who wrote "King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa." In it, Hochschild tells the story of King Leopold II of Belgium; how he plundered Central Africa more than a century ago. Adam Hochschild is with us from the studios of KQED, our member station in San Francisco. And it's good to have you with us today.

Mr. ADAM HOCHSCHILD (Author, "King Leopold's Ghost: Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa"): Hi, Neal. Good to be with you.

CONAN: And I wonder, can you tell people who had been in this place that's very far away and very distant from most of us, why is this important?

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, I think it's important because it shows a problem that exists in many other places in the world today. But in a way, it's at its most extreme form in Congo today. Indeed, the four million people who've died there in the last 10 years - the greatest number of war-related deaths anywhere in the world since the end of World War II.

And I think the problem that it shows is that the international community, as a whole, has not come up with a way of dealing with the situation where you have the combination of things that they have now in Congo, which is, incidentally, very similar to what was there hundred years ago - vast natural wealth and a lot of greedy outsiders who want it, no rule of law, no real functioning central government, and a lot of weaponry floating around. Those three things together are a recipe for enormous trouble. And what we're seeing now is a new face of that trouble, but it's basically been those three things that have been causing these deaths over the last eight or nine years now.

CONAN: I wanted to ask you - and I wanted to ask Ofeibea Quist-Arcton as well to join in this point - and that is this all seemed to have been resolved by the Lusaka Peace Agreement four years ago. What happened or what didn't happen?

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Well, my answer would be that, yes, there was a peace agreement, the various parties to the war, the different factions in it, who were basically Congolese warlords who are struggling to get a piece of that huge natural wealth - gold, uranium, coltan, this mineral that's used in computer chips and cell phones, timber, much, much more - they did sign an agreement. They did form a coalition government, but that coalition government really does not govern effectively vast areas of the country especially in the northeast where Ofeibea has just come from, where so much of the natural wealth is concentrated.

And when you have that much wealth there for the taking, no government controlling the area, then you see these warlords who are trying to get a share of the loot for themselves, one thing, I think, the peace treaty did accomplish was that the armies of the various surrounding states who had been actually fighting in the Congo in the earlier phase of the war tended, for the most part, to withdraw over their own boundaries, but they still have alliances with the different warlords. And the United Nations force that's there, even though it is the largest such force in the world, is not large enough to really have an effect on this nor is it charged with the mission of governing the territory, which would be, indeed, very, very hard to do.

CONAN: Ofeibea?

QUIST-ARCTON: And exactly what Adam says. This is country that is hugely difficult to govern. I mean, Kinshasha is as far away from Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu in the east as, you know, Nairobi or Kampala in the neighboring countries. So for central government and for President Kabila, although eastern Congo was, in fact, his biggest and most popular constituency -during the elections last year, for him to think that he can control the whole country is almost a joke.

And, as Adam said, it's not only outsiders who are after Congo's wealth. It's insiders as well. So you have a government that was formed of former warlords, including President Kabila himself, and others. And trying now to put on civilian clothes and behave like elected civilian leaders, yes, they're trying to do it, but when there are whole sways of the country that you don't have full control over, you have these marauding militia groups from across the border, from inside the country, and everybody ultimately wanting to get rich quickly and the civilians suffering. I mean, Congo is a huge country, difficult to govern at the best of times, but with all that wealth, people call it a geological scandal, everybody is going to be trying to get a piece of the pie. If Congo was poor and huge, this wouldn't be happening.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Allan(ph). Allan is with us from Vancouver in Washington.

ALLAN (Caller): Hello, yes. I worked in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Congo, in eastern Congo based in Bukavu for three years, 2000 to 2003. And I think one thing - an important issue in here that has just been skirted on is continuing marauding(ph) involvement in backing the - this General Nkunda and the Tutsi force in eastern Congo. He was once a soldier in the Rwandan armed Forces. And, certainly, we saw lots of evidence in the time that I was there. Even after the official Rwandan pullout from eastern Congo, continuing involvement with militias in eastern Congo, and continuing aspiration to control resources and control the territory. And even at one point, some movement (unintelligible) giving eastern Congo to split off from the rest of Congo and be a separate state that Rwanda could control. So that aspect hasn't been touched on so much, but I'm sure this General Nkunda could not continue to fight on without substantial support from Rwanda.

CONAN: Ofeibea, is that an accurate description?

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, I think so, absolutely. And one of the reasons why the Congolese army decided to go on a major offensive was to try and cut off the supply lines between Rwanda and General Nkunda's forces. Although Rwanda has publicly denied that it supports him, I don't think anyone is in any doubt at all.

CONAN: Thanks very much for that point, Allan.

ALLAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask Adam Hochschild to what degree is what we've seen -I guess in the years since the overthrow of Mobutu - to what degree is this an echo of colonialism?

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: You know, I think there are a lot of echoes to it because if we roll the clock back about a hundred and twenty years and look at the vast carnage that took place in this huge area at that time, it had a lot of the same ingredients - vast natural wealth, outsiders who wanted it, no functioning central government, and lots of arms.

Basically, here is what happened during that period: At that point, they hadn't discovered the gold, the uranium, the other minerals people are after today, and the natural wealth from the Congo that Europeans wanted was ivory and rubber. The territory was taken over by King Leopold II of Belgium. It was his private, personally owned colony for 23 years before it became a Belgium colony. And first, he veraciously went after ivory, and if anyone has read Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," you know the picture of the quest for ivory that so dominates that book.

Then they discovered that the Congo was enormously rich in wild rubber, and gathering wild rubber is difficult to do because it's scattered throughout the rainforest. Leopold created a private army - 19,000 officers and men, black conscript soldiers under white officers. They sent them into village after village, held the women of the village hostage in order to make the men of the village go out into the rainforest for days and eventually weeks out of each month and gather wild rubber.

A lot of the women hostages starved. A lot of these men, forced laborers were, in effect, worked to death. A hundreds of thousands of people fled just as they're fleeing today, in those days to avoid being made into part of this forced labor economy, and then when a population is greatly weakened by famine, by flight as refugees, disease takes a terrible toll among people who, Otherwise, would have survived. And that, too, is something that is happening today.

So I think colonialism established the pattern that government, to the extent that it exists, is an organized system of plunder. It's not something that's set up for the welfare of its citizens. And on that basis, it has been very hard to build functioning, effective democratic governments in Central Africa, or, indeed, in much of the rest of the continent as well.

CONAN: Let's get Kamba(ph) on the line. Kamba is calling us from Portland, Oregon.

KAMBA (Caller): Yes. My opinion was - I'm from eastern Congo. I was born and raised there. Before there was Congo as a Serbia state - your correspondent was in Africa. According to me, everything Ofeibea is saying a - she's taking, like, taking Nkunda side, you know, because we have over 400 sides in Congo. We had over 13 rebellions.

And most of them has - the army it summed in 20 army, you know? We've lost four million people in Congo since this thing started. I've lost also my family members in this conflict, you know? Why is Nkunda fighting? Nkunda is fighting for only one reason. It's not - because the one that army will occupy The Congo for seven years, they were unable to disarm the Hutus, but all the while, Nkunda(ph) was stealing our resources, stealing the minerals, and that's why they came to Congo for, and they used the Hutus as pretext to cut and steal our minerals.

And Nkunda is there not to disarm because Nkunda knows there's never been any evidence of those Hutu militias attacking the Tutsis inside Congo intent of killing them. What Nkunda is doing is stealing Congolese minerals, give them to Rwanda and sell them to the West; that's all that is happening.

Why have the West not be able to ask the Gwandan government to try to include the Hutus or try to democratize or include the Hutus without - because the Hutus make up over 80 percent of the Rwandan population?

CONAN: Let's see if we can get an answer to your question, Kamba. Ofeibea?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, that's very much the opinion of the people in Goma where I stayed around that area. There was a real hatred and hostility of the Tutsi community because they do feel that Nkunda is in this business, more to make money than to protect his Tutsi community.

I'm sorry, sir, that you feel that I'm taking sides. I was trying to explain the situation.

KAMBA: (Unintelligible).

QUIST-ARCTON: But although you say that the Rwandan Hutu militiamen are not a threat to the Tutsi population, I'm not sure that I can agree with that either.

KAMBA: (Unintelligible).

QUIST-ARCTON: And it's certainly a reason that those sides are using to continue fighting.

But the fact of pillaging and plundering Congo's wealth is not just something that's put at the door of Rwanda. Uganda, Zimbabwe, neighboring countries, faraway countries, including the United States, everybody is set to want to be in Congo for that reason.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call and Kamba, we are terribly sorry you lost your son and other members of your family.

We're talking about the situation in eastern Congo with NPR's West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, just back from a reporting trip there and with Adam Hochschild who's the author of "King Leopold's Ghost."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, again, I want to ask you both. The United Nations force there - the Security Council has to renew its mandate, I think, in the next month, in January, the first of the year. What is being discussed, Ofeibea, in terms of making that - is the talk of making this a larger, more effective force?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, the U.N. (unintelligible) called the force there, 17,000 to 18,000, the biggest in the world, is just about to get a new head. He has been the head the U.N. peacekeeping force in Liberia, and so we'll see what will happen when he starts and whether its mandate will be stopped.

But let me just come back to one point if I may, the fact that with this huge U.N. force and a lot of it in eastern Congo, civilians are not being protected. As I mentioned, the legacy of colonialism, perhaps in those days, sexual violence didn't get the reporting it does these days. But that is an added dimension to this conflict. And it's not just men in uniform who are violating women sexually, not just raping women, but using things like a corn cob to rape a 6-year-old girl that had to be removed from her vagina. And they're saying that because of the breakdown in law and order and the fact that impunity reigns in this part of Congo, that even civilian men have, more and more, decided that they're free to rape, to pillage, and to sexually abuse women and children, so the conflict in eastern Congo has got to be resolved soon. Otherwise, the fact of the breakdown of law means that the whole society risks being broken down, not just civilians in displaced people's camps, but not even safe once they seek refuge.

So these are the sorts of issues that the government is going to have to deal with, along with the military issues. And everybody says there's military solution to the conflicts in eastern Congo. It has to be resolved around the table and that everybody involved in the conflict - those from outside, those from within must sit at the table and must put the people first.

CONAN: And let me ask you, Adam Hochschild, well, not too many years ago, a lot of this went on and four million people died and the world did not seem to notice much. Do you think that's going to change now?

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: You know, I wish I could say it was going to change, but I'm not too optimistic. And the source of my pessimism has to do with how much wealth is there for the taking. Congolese friends have always said to me, we wouldn't have so many troubles if we weren't so rich because everybody wants the gold, the coltan, the uranium, the timber and much more.

I do think, though, that there are things that the outside world could do. I'd love to see that U.N. force be larger and with a stronger mandate to especially to protect the civilian population and especially, as Ofeibea said, to protect some of these women who are being raped in enormous, appalling numbers.

I also think there's some other things that could be done. These conflicts are fueled, in part, by the fact that outside powers, including the United States, have been quite profligate in sending arms to Africa over the last decade or so, pouring them into the surrounding countries without really many conditions on how they are to be used.

There's also an interesting, positive model that one could point to, which I would love to see applied much more robustly and more wildly in Congo, which is this: More than 60 countries have signed an agreement to avoid trade in conflict diamonds; even the United States sign, amazingly. If no trade in conflict diamonds, why not an agreement for no trade in conflict gold, conflict coltan? There are things that the international community could do, and that's one of them.

CONAN: Adam Hochschild, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. HOCHSCHILD: Good to be with you.

CONAN: Our thanks as well to Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR's West Africa correspondent who joined us by phone from Dakar in Senegal.

Coming up, even the new guilt trip is green, confessions of a carbon big foot.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION after the news.

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