Heart of Sadness: Congo

by Adam Hochschild

Amnesty International Amnesty - Now, Fall 2003


News from the misnamed Democratic Republic of Congo in recent months has been so grim as to make one want to turn the page or flip the TV channel in despair: mass rapes by HlV-infected troops, arms hacked off with machetes, schools and hospitals ravaged, killers jubilantIy draping themselves in the entrails of their victims, 10-year-old soldiers bearing AK-47s and hand grenades. The death toll in this bewilderingly complex civil war has reached at least 3.3 million in less than five years, according to the International Rescue Committee. Another 3 million or more people are refugees, inside the country and out. Few of the dead are soldiers. Most are ordinary men, women, and children. They were deliberately targeted, caught in crossfire, or unlucky enough to have stumbled onto land mines. Many-forced to flee their homes for forests and crowded refugee camps that turn into fields of mud in the rainy season-died of illness and malnutrition. This is the greatest concentration of war-related deaths anywhere on earth since World War II.

Africa is seldom popular with the U.S. media, and the Congo's civil war has largely dropped out of the news in recent weeks. But the departure of journalists for other stories does not mean that the bloodshed has stopped. Despite a shaky coalition government at the national level, raids by rival warlords and the killing of civilians continue, particularly in the provinces of North and South Kivu, and in the Ituri district, all in the northeastern corner of the country. The recent, temporary reinforcement of the small United Nations military force in Bunia, capital of Ituri, has not been substantial enough to stop the fighting that has claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people in Ituri alone in the last four years.

The country has a long and unhappy history. A hundred years ago, it was the privately owned colony of King Leopold 11 of Belgium. Joseph Conrad explores that regime's rapacious lust for ivory in Heart of Darkness. Leopold went on to make an even larger fortune by turning much of the Congo's adult male population into a slave labor force to gather wild rubber. His private army worked large numbers of men to death, raped and starved their wives (held hostage to make the men work), shot down 20 years of uprisings, and terrified hundreds of thousands of people into flight to avoid rubber slavery. Just as today, disease took the greatest toll, ravaging a traumatized, half-starving people, many of whom hid unsheltered in the rain forest. The birth rate dropped dramatically. Using official Belgian statistics, demographers estimate a loss of population of some 10 million during Leopold's rule and its immediate aftermath.

In 1908, the Belgian government took over the colony from Leopold. Gradually the carnage slowed and stopped. But, as in much of colonial Africa, forced labor remained, and the chicotte (a hippopotamus-hide whip) was a principal, legal tool of governing. The Belgians built schools and hospitals, as well as road, rail, and steamboat networks, but mining profits flowed to Europe and the United States. The Belgians controlled Congolese political activity and made virtually no preparation for independence. This came abruptly, after popular protests, in 1960.

The Congo's first-and last-territory-wide free election that year brought the brilliant, mercurial Patrice Lumumba to power as prime minister. His demands that Africa be economically as well as politically independent of Europe set off alarm bells in Washington and Brussels. The Eisenhower administration swiftly developed plans for his assassination. With strong U.S. and Belgian support, anti-Lumumba factions killed him in early 1961. The murder has been the subject of two recent notable works of art: Raoul Peck's film Lumumba and The Catastrophist, a novel by the Irish writer Ronan Bennett.

For most of the years since Lumumba's death, the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko ruled the Congo. He came to power with U.S. support, renamed his country Zaire, and was given more than $1 billion in U.S. aid, all told, under both Democratic and Republican presidents. With his marble palace in the remote northern jungle; his love of pink champagne and chartered Concordes; his luxury homes dotted around Paris, Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain and the Riviera (where, 20 minutes' drive away, Leopold had spent much of his Congo fortune building villas), Mobutu and an entourage of members of his small Ngbandi ethnic group plundered the country's treasury of an estimated $4 billion. In health, nutrition, life expectancy, schooling, and income, the Congolese people were far worse off at the end of his reign than they had been after 80 years of colonialism. Soldiers supported themselves by collecting tolls at roadblocks, generals sold off jet fighters for profit, and during the Tokyo real estate boom, the country's ambassador to Japan sold the embassy and apparently pocketed the money. Mobutu was overthrown by Laurent Kabila in 1997 and died a few months later.

Since then, Congo (which lost its article when it regained its old name) has progressed quickly from anarchy to civil war. One early trigger for the war came in 1994, when the United States and its allies blocked any possibility of United Nations intervention to stop the slaughter of some 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu in Rwanda. When the Hutu regime that carried out this genocide was deposed, its leaders and roughly a million other Hutu fled next door to Congo. Angry at continuing attacks mounted from there, the army of the new Rwandan government eventually occupied part of northeastern Congo and carried out something of a counter-genocide in revenge.

Seeing a huge, resource-rich country whose sclerotic Mobutu regime had collapsed, other nearby African nations quickly joined in dividing the spoils. (Like Rwanda, several others were also being attacked by rebels using Congo's vast and lawless territory as a base.) At various points, the armies of seven of them-most importantly Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe- have had troops on Congo's soil. The Rwandan army stole natural resources worth $250 million in 1999 and 2000 alone, according to a U.N. report cited by Newsweek. For the moment the foreign troops have supposedly gone home, but many of their commanders have lucrative mineral concessions and an ever-changing web of alliances: with the forces controlling the country's nominal national government, with three main rebel groups in the east, with local warlords and ethnically based militias, and with a wide variety of foreign corporations. These corporations have been eagerly buying Congo's diamonds, gold, timber, copper, cobalt, and coltan. Eastern Congo has more than half the world's supply of coltan, which is used in computer chips and cellphones, and has occasionally sold for as much, per ounce, as gold. The multi-sided war is driven by greed, not ideology; the worst fighting sometimes shifts location with the rise and fall of commodity prices.

Among the many companies involved are America Mineral Fields, Inc., formerly headquartered in President Clinton's hometown of Hope, Arkansas, and the Barrick Gold Corporation of Canada, which until recently listed former President George H.W. Bush on its international advisory board. Few of these companies, the rebel militias, or Congo's African neighbors have much interest in ending the country's Balkanization. They benefit far more from a cash-in-suitcases economy than they would from a highly taxed and regulated one that would tightly control natural resources.

For Congo, the combination of a vast mineral treasure house and no functioning central government has been catastrophic. When there is little money in the public treasury, armies become self-financing networks of miners and smugglers. When there are few schools or jobs, they can easily recruit children. When the millions of small arms circulating in Africa can be bought in street bazaars or from unpaid police, there are guns for all.

For people who care about human rights, Congo presents a new kind of challenge. The problem is not a harsh and authoritarian state; it's no working state at all. Furthermore, the traditional villains-globalization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, colonialism, neocolonialism-cannot be blamed for everything. Yes, colonialism left Congo a terrible heritage of violence and plunder. But to look around the world today is to see striking examples, from Ireland to Vietnam, of countries that have successfully thrown off colonialism's legacy.

Beyond colonialism, Africa has other historical burdens. One is the heritage of widespread indigenous slavery, which, like the long centuries of serfdom in Russia, is deeply and disastrously woven into the social fabric. Another is the abysmal position of women: Women and girls are routinely kidnapped to serve as "wives" of soldiers who use rape and, reportedly, HIV transmission as weapons of war; many women are also subjected to female genital mutilation. And a third burden, shared with such places as Afghanistan and parts of the Caucasus, is a tradition of loyalty to the ruler of an extended clan or ethnic group, rather than to a nation-state marked by boundaries on the map. Furthermore, in Africa those boundaries were arbitrarily drawn by the colonial powers for their own convenience; Congo's people speak more than 200 languages and dialects.

Peace won't come easily in Congo, and a stable, democratic government will come harder still. Don't expect any dramatic moments of transformation, like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the election of Nelson Mandela. Yet there are ways the outside world can help: First of all, the minuscule United Nations peacekeeping force now in the country needs to be greatly expanded. Enough troops to provide security for the entire nation, which is as big as the United States east of the Mississippi, is too much to hope for. It has, after all, taken more than 28,000 soldiers to keep the peace in Kosovo, whose population is 1/25 of Congo's. But a U.N. force at least that big could begin to halt the terrible bloodshed in the northeastern corner of the country, where the most carnage has taken place, and the United States should be shamed into at least helping to pay for it. The force's length of service should be seen as a matter of years, and its mission drastically toughened.

We should have no illusions, however, that enough U.N. troops could restore the economy, stop all plunder, or build a sound government. Intervening in Congo is a bit like asking security guards to patrol a huge bank in mid-robbery. There is a risk that the guards may end up robbing, or running, the bank-whether at the level of a sergeant dealing diamonds or a major power contributing troops but demanding favored treatment for a particular mining company. But the alternatives are worse. Such a force could save lives-millions of them.

Besides its tiny present size, however, two things threaten to sap the effectiveness of that U.N. force. One is that it is currently led by France. President Bush is still enraged over French opposition to the war on Iraq, and the two countries have long been quiet rivals for neocolonial influence in central Africa. (Neither power has clean hands: Both long supported the odious Mobutu. France continued to back him to the last moment, while the United States switched horses to train the Rwandan army that helped to overthrow him and then remained to loot eastern Congo.)

The other problem is that Congo's immense blood-letting does not seriously threaten Western interests because it is unlikely to spill over into other parts of the world or to stop the export of strategic minerals. Without vested economic interests at stake, countries contributing peacekeeping troops may not tolerate the casualties. If they won't, no force of any size will work.. . :;

Another way the world could help is by dealing squarely with the fact that anarchic civil wars like those in Congo are fueled by valuable minerals. Recognizing how diamonds have helped drive the conflicts in Angola, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, more than 50 nations recently agreed to cease trading in "conflict diamonds." Startlingly, given its scorn for most international agreements, the United States is among the signatories. It remains to be seen whether the agreement is followed and violators punished. But, a recent World Bank study suggested, if conflict diamonds can be outlawed, why not conflict gold and conflict coltan? Agreements like this could begin to slash the funding for Congo warlords. Such a pact would be difficult to enforce, but for many years, so was the ultimately successful ban on the Atlantic slave trade.

Finally, the world must stop arming Africa. The United States and France have been among the worst offenders, along with Israel, Britain and Russia. During the 1990S, for example, Washington alone gave more than $200 million worth of equipment and military training to African armies, including six of the seven with troops in Congo's civil war. This arms traffic has continued under both Democratic and Republican administrations; it took a particularly shocking turn at a U.N. conference in 2001, when the Bush administration, closely adhering to positions of the National Rifle Association, single-handedly blocked a series of measures to restrict trade in small arms. The arms traffic to Africa is the modern version of what happened hundreds of years ago, when American and European ship captains used muskets and ammunition as a currency for purchasing slaves from African dealers. It has been disastrous for Africa, then and now.

Is there hope that any of these | changes will happen? As Samantha Power points out in her Pulitzer I prize-winning book A Problem | from Hell: America and the Age of I Genocide, the United States has a _ long tradition of speaking piously while ignoring mass murder. In 1978, some 120 million U.S. TV viewers watched the mini-series Holocaust while Pol Pot, with no interference, carried out the genocide of some 2 million Cambodians. In 1993, President Clinton helped dedicate the United States Holocaust Museum, where Elie Weisel pleaded with him in vain to halt the long Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo. In the next year or two, President Bush may officiate at the ground-breaking ceremony for another museum, the one of African-American life planned for the Mall in Washington, D.C. Doubtless on that occasion he will decry the terrible crime of slavery. But will he be able to say that either the U.S. government or the larger community of nations did anything meaningful to stop the slaughter in Congo, a slaughter now already more than half the size of the Holocaust? The answer depends on how forcefully people who care, here and around the world, speak out.


Adam Hochschild's most recent books are King Leopold's Ghost and Finding the Trapdoor.

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