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November 15, 2008

Understanding the situation in Congo today

The current crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the recruitment of children, the killing of civilians and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people is but the latest in an unbroken chain of human suffering. The UN peacekeeping force in Congo, the largest in the world, has proved incapable of protecting ordinary Congolese from the region's political and military leaders.

This latest surge of violence is the result of the ambitions of Tutsi rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, to seize power in North Kivu, a province in eastern Congo. Nkunda is partly supported by neighboring Rwanda, which has twice invaded Congo since 1996. He is opposed by Congo's President, Joseph Kabila, whose undisciplined, incompetent and by current reports from the region, drunken army is allied to Rwandan Hutu rebels linked to the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Congo's history is rooted in suffering and exploitation, first by Belgium in the 19th century, under the greedy and brutal King Leopold II. For a detailed look at Congo's colonial history read the brilliant, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Houghton-Mifflin, 1998), by Adam Hochschild. Rubber was then the Congo's most desired resource. Today it is gold, diamonds and other minerals, but the link between the plundering of natural resources and massive human suffering remains the same.

An interesting piece by Anneke Van Woudenberg (a senior researcher on the Democratic Republic of Congo at Human Rights Watch in England ) points out that "there's an inspiring message, too, in Hochschild's book: the power of individuals to bring change by naming and shaming those responsible for perpetuating a corrupt and brutal system. Long before the emergence of professional human rights organizations, dedicated individuals such as Edmund Morel and Roger Casement helped to bring an end to the worst of King Leopold's abuses through tireless documentation and campaigning".

Ms Van Woudenberg also recommends Michela Wrong's In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, which she describes as a riviting account of one of Africas most extraordinary dictators, Mobutu Sese Seko, who came to power after the Belgians withdrew from Congo in 1960. The dictator's manipulation of ethnic conflicts and his encouragement of massive corruption kept the majority of Congolese in dire poverty and set the stage for the implosion of the country in the 1990s. He was ousted by Rwandan backed rebel militia. Wrong's book helps to explain the regional politics that made the 1994 Rwandan genocide the trigger for the regional war that swept Mobutu from power and unleashed a maelstrom of conflict that continues to this day.

Of course anyone interested in Africa has almost certainly read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which Ms Wrongs references in her title.

By the way, Michela Wrong also wrote I Didn't Do it For You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation, a gripping story of colonialism itself, told through the abuses against Eritrea.

Another book which helps us to understand today's Congo is, The Rebels' Hour, a work of meticulously researched fiction by Dutch writer Lieve Joris. We see a young man forced to chose between becoming a victim or predator in a sea of ethnic violence.

For anyone wanting to read about recent events, there is Bryan Mealer's excellent All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo which focuses on events in the Congo from 2003 to 2006 .

The Congolese people have been victim to violence for too long.
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