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RAY SUAREZ: Violence flared again in the northeastern part of Congo earlier this month. More than 300 people died in fighting between rival tribal militias, some of them brutally massacred. The latest crisis comes as Congo tries to implement a peace accord bringing an end to nearly five years of a war that killed more than three million people.
United Nations officials have warned of possible genocide in Congo. Today, delegates to the Security Council said a new multinational force could be sent there as early as next week to restore peace. The additional troops– better armed than those already in place — would be stationed in the town of Bunia near the Ugandan border.
Tim Ewart of Independent Television News was in eastern Congo last week, and filed these two reports.
TIM EWART: Reporter: It is a war in which children are victims and combatants. In Bunia, we met these conscripted boy soldiers. How old were they?
YOUNG CONGOLESE BOY: 13 years old.
TIM EWART: The youngest was just 13. Had they killed people? Many, their leader boasted, “they have killed many.” Bunia is Congo’s latest hell hole, the latest battlefield in a seemingly endless war.
WOMAN: There is no security. People are floundering. They are doing… what they call, pillage. They are pillaging.
TIM EWART: It’s out of the control?
TIM EWART: Bunia’s makeshift hospitals are crammed with the wounded and increasingly with malnourished children, who are weighed and measured. Hunger here is a weapon of mass destruction. (Baby crying)
Thousands of Bunia’s residents have become refugees on their own doorsteps, most camped around the airport perimeter. This has been one of Africa’s ugliest wars and these refugees in Bunia are just a handful of the millions of people who have been made homeless by rival armies which have ravaged huge areas of Congo. Most of the civilian population have little understanding of what the fighting has been all about. Do you know why people are fighting and killing?
MAN: It’s up to the politicians to explain to the people.
TIM EWART: But the people, the people don’t understand?
MAN: They don’t understand right now.
TIM EWART: A contingent of U.N. troops from Uruguay has been powerless to intervene. They are here to protect United Nations property. Two U.N. observers have been brutally killed. At the airport, there are more Uruguayan soldiers, and more refugees praying for a way out. The departure lounge is heavy with despair.
ROBERT DEKKER, World Food Program: They can’t live in a normal life like we are living. Their people are displaced three, four, five times in the period of two or three years, and they can’t build up a social life, they can’t build up social structure.
TIM EWART: One small group was finally taken out to safety. Those left behind may only be saved by foreign intervention. At this hospital, 50 of the patients are survivors of violent sexual attacks by soldiers. They wanted to tell their stories, they said, because they had already been raped in public. 17-year-old Maria was dragged away by seven men who first killed her father in front of her. Mamie has been in hospital for nine months; she was raped, beaten, and shot in the legs. Aid workers say it’s a deliberate strategy encouraged by the commanders of rival militias.
GERTRUDE MODEKEREZA, Women’s Rights Activist: In ways to fight, they want to frustrate the person, to make them fear so they can continue doing what they want.
TIM EWART: They’re spreading terror?
GERTRUDE MODEKEREZA: Yeah. Spreading terror, yes.
TIM EWART: It is a terror that has no respect for age. The horrors of rape as a weapon of war seem to know no limits here. At this girl school in Bukavu, 36 of the 150 pupils have been raped by soldiers. Some are as young as eight. Staff at the school encourage open discussion of a brutality they believe must be made public. Patrice is one of the children who volunteered to tell her story. She is 12, her experience almost unbearably shocking.
HYUN-SUNG KHANG, World Food Program: There were six of them. They raped her, and after the rape was finished, four of them wanted to kill her. But the others took pity on her, and so they eventually released her. But she’s still very traumatized by the event. She has a little brother and she told me, “even though I love my little brother, sometimes, I don’t know why, I just hit him.”
TIM EWART: For most of the women in hospital, the physical wounds will heal, but the injuries now being inflicted in this war go far beyond the physical. Patrice and children like her have been left a lifetime of torment.
RAY SUAREZ: For more on what is behind the killing and violence in the Congo, we turn to Salih Booker, executive director of Africa Action, an organization that works for political, economic and social change in Africa. Horrifying levels of death and suffering. Historians are calling it Africa’s first world war. What was the fighting all about? What were the combatant hoping to achieve?
SALIH BOOKER: This violence that’s been taking place in eastern Congo, in the Ituri district in the last several weeks, has indeed been horrific. But it’s a consequence of a much larger war. And the irony is that larger war, in fact, was coming to an end. There had been a successful peace process under way.
Now that larger war started five years ago, in 1998. It was when rebels mutinied within the army of the Congo, supported by Rwanda and Uganda, two eastern neighbors, and the government of Laurent Kabila, who had himself just overthrown the previous government of Mobutu Sese Seko the year before, called on the support of Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Angola. And the country was essentially divided in two in 1998, this fighting broke out and it was called Africa’s first world war, because at different moments it involved up to nine different national armies in the conflict.
And the country divided in two, then you had over the next year a very serious effort by African governments to create a peace plan, and that resulted in the Lusaka Accords in 1999. So you had a very ambitious peace plan that called for the withdrawal of foreign forces from all sides. It called for the disarming and demobilization of paramilitary outfits such as the Genocidaire, the people responsible for the genocide in Rwanda who had fled to Congo and other rebel groups who had come to Congo from neighboring areas.
So there was a plan to address that problem, which had invited the external forces. And then you had a plan for a political settlement in Congo, to involve the government, the rebel armies, the unarmed political opposition and civil society. It was ambitious, it didn’t receive the support it needed, particularly from the West, but the United Nations hung in there and provided a mediator and over the following four years or so, they finally did successfully negotiate a peace agreement.
Last year, we finally had an agreement between Uganda and Rwanda regarding the withdrawal of their forces on the one hand, and the government of Congo meeting with all the opposition figures, and agreeing to a transitional government. So finally you have actually a success story, the possible end of Africa’s first world war.
But it was precisely when the Ugandans pulled out of eastern Congo, it created a power vacuum. And this violence that we were just looking at that’s been occurring is a result of that power vacuum. All these external actors, their political and commercial ambitions in the region, have fueled this conflict between two ethnic communities, the Hema and the Lindu, that is now currently what’s escalating and what many fear could result in genocide.
RAY SUAREZ: The UNICEF head for Bunia said there are almost no military casualties, either among the thousand dead who were found in April or the 300 dead found just this week. Why are civilians bearing the brunt of this fighting?
SALIH BOOKER: Well, they’re really the targets. And that’s often why it is sometimes referred to as possibly reaching proportions of genocide, a direct targeting by one ethnic group of another. As was explained, rape is being used as an instrument of war. Some 50 percent of all the armed forces in the area of the various militias and rebel armies are children under the age of 18. And that’s another reason why civilians are targeted and victimized. It’s not a conflict where you have military bodies actually focusing on their military adversaries. It is, in fact, the civilians that are targeted in this fighting.
RAY SUAREZ: Are these two sides in eastern Congo actually proxies for armies that have already left for countries that are still interested in what happens in eastern Congo?
SALIH BOOKER: They are very much proxies. I mean obviously they have their own interests, and their interests in gaining access to resources, whether it’s land or whether it’s political power in the new dispensation that’s emerging in the Congo. But they’re very much proxies, for Rwanda and Uganda in particular, although the government also has its proxies fighting in the region.
And what are they fighting over very often is access to the gold resources that are nearby. Congo is such a rich country that all these participating armies were also pillaging its diamonds, its gold, its coltan, a metal used in cell phones. And this has complicated everything.
So as Rwanda and Uganda withdrew their troops, they want to maintain that kind of link that allows them to exploit these economic resources, and they do that by training and arming militias that are Congolese that remain in the country and that they hope will continue to provide their access to the exploitation of resources and that continues to fuel the fighting.
RAY SUAREZ: But that armies that come and go over the border this way must mean that the government of the Congo is a weak one, not in control of its borders, not in control of the territory of the country?
SALIH BOOKER: That’s right. It is a weak national government. And that won’t change until this peace process is implemented fully. The government, the capital is in Kinshasa, in the far west of the country, and as I indicated during the war, they only control the western part of the country.
Now under this new agreement, a transitional government, they have yet to extend a national army presence or a national police presence, to provide security for the towns and villages in the eastern Congo. And the eastern Congo has always been a volatile region because of the mix of interests and because of the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, where you had a great exodus of those responsible for the genocide who are become fighting forces throughout the region.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, it was highly conditional; when they made the announcement today– it didn’t sound very nailed down– but the Security Council did say it was preparing, was ready to send a more beefed-up force than the one that’s been there during the past several months. Can this stop the killing in a place like the Ituri Province?
SALIH BOOKER: Well, an intervention such as that can stop the killing, but it’s not necessarily a solution to the larger problem. It first has to be pointed out that these massacres, this escalation of violence was predicted by humanitarian workers in the region, by analysts who were trying to get the United Nations to increase its presence and to begin working on the security mechanisms that would be in place when the combating, the fighting forces withdrew.
The French have agreed to lead and increase this new contingent. Other countries, South Africa and Nigeria among them, have agreed to contribute troops. They’ll consider a resolution and likely adopt it later this week. But they’ve been very slow to act and I’d have to say they’ve been distracted by priorities in Iraq or in Afghanistan.
And this raises the question of is there an international double standard? Are critical crises such as those faced in Africa, humanitarian crises of a huge scale, are they receiving the attention they deserve, and the resources from the international community necessary to solve them? 1,200 additional troops can help stop the fighting in Ituri, but it’s not going to be adequate to implement a successful peace plan in a country that’s the size of the United States east of the Mississippi.
RAY SUAREZ: But should Americans be worried about an unstable fragile Congo? What does it mean for people watching from other parts of the world?
SALIH BOOKER: Right, well, I think Americans should care, I think four critical reasons. One, the United States has a huge historical role in the collapse of Congo, if you will. The United States was responsible for the earliest regime change in that country shortly after independence.
But the United States has an interest in preventing another genocide. It can’t allow what happened in Rwanda, in large part because of U.S. Inaction, to happen again. The United States also has a strong interest in the success of the United Nations, in the success of a collective international effort to address a humanitarian crisis like this, and there are things the U.S. should and must do, such as financing its appropriate share of the cost of this mission, and getting much more involved in the political settlement that must follow.
RAY SUAREZ: Today at the U.N. they did make it clear they were going to provide some of the transportation, some of the equipment, and some of the logistical support. Salih Booker, thanks a lot for being with us.
SALIH BOOKER: Thank you, Ray.