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Forgotten War in the Demcratic Republic of Congo?

June 24, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: The numbers are hard to fathom: A five-year civil war, with more than three million people killed, most by disease and famine, and hundreds of thousands displaced.

This is the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa. Horrifying scenes play out on a daily basis. Rival militias kill, rape, and loot at will. Child soldiers as young as 12 roam abandoned streets carrying automatic weapons. Amid such visible carnage, some Americans have asked, is the United States doing enough? Bill Fletcher is president of TransAfrica Forum.

BILL FLETCHER: Anywhere else, or at least in Europe, would be defined in catastrophic terms. And so I think that part of what we have to do is make people aware that this is, in fact, a global catastrophe.

KWAME HOLMAN: Congo, Africa’s third largest country, is bordered by nine others, several of which have joined in the fighting. It’s become Africa’s first continent-wide war. Northeastern Congo is where most of the atrocities have occurred. Fighting erupted there in 1998 when neighboring Uganda and Rwanda sent troops to support rebels seeking to oust Congo’s president, Laurent Kabila. Kabila was assassinated in 2001, and his son, Joseph, has proven unable to govern the country.

Today, most of the invading troops have withdrawn, but fighting continues between rebel and ethnic factions. 500 civilians have been massacred in the last month alone. Recently, the United Nations authorized the dispatch of a European Union force. Led by France, it includes German, British, and Belgian troops.

But State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher says there are no plans to send American personnel to the Congo.

RICHARD BOUCHER: At this point, I don’t have any details on possible U.S. support. We would certainly consider requests for logistical or financial assistance from states that are part of the multinational force, but we’re not planning any U.S. personnel at this point to take part.

KWAME HOLMAN: According to Congressman Ed Royce, the United States is playing a role, albeit indirectly, including financial support for peacekeeping activity. The California Republican chairs the House International Relations Subcommittee on Africa.

REP. ED ROYCE: Well, we are helping the people of the Congo. I mean, we’re funding $250 million as part of this. We have U.S. AID workers all over the Congo. We have a diplomatic program right now where we’ve reversed three of the principal actors in this that helped cause it. I’m talking about the neighboring states, Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe. Their forces are now out of the region. We are supporting the European Union, and the French, German, British peacekeepers, Belgian peacekeepers, that are coming into this region.

KWAME HOLMAN: But New Jersey’s Donald Payne, Ed Royce’s Democratic counterpart on the Africa subcommittee, points to a seminal event that changed the United States’ relationship with all of Africa.

REP. DONALD PAYNE: I want to make it crystal clear: We’ve stepped out. You see, the intervention in Somalia was what I believe certainly changed everything.

KWAME HOLMAN: In 1993, a U.S. humanitarian relief mission to the East African nation of Somalia went awry. While chasing local warlords, two U.S. helicopters were shot down, and 18 Americans ultimately were killed.

REP. DONALD PAYNE: When that situation occurred, I think that Africa, as a place to get involved, was somehow simply taken off the map. So our intentions up until that point were starting to move in the right direction. I think that setback was so dramatic that it’s been difficult for the administration to overcome it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Just a year after the tragedy in Somalia, 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda during a civil war, most of them members of the minority Tutsi population. TransAfrica’s Bill Fletcher says U.S. involvement abroad now is determined by the color of the victim’s skin.

BILL FLETCHER: When it comes to Africa, both Democratic and Republican administrations have shown a callousness towards the actual concerns of the continent, and at best, throw us a bone. You have a bias at all levels in this society– in the political realm, in the media, in education– a bias against the lives of brown people, of people that are nonwhite. There’s a bias that basically accepts that black death is somehow less important.

KWAME HOLMAN: Congressman Royce agrees that equal attention is not given to all conflicts. But in the case of the Congo, Royce argues a poorly run government and the sheer size of the country have proven to be obstacles.

REP. ED BOYCE: We have a real difficulty in terms of getting the Congolese government to assist in a resolution to this, and up until now, we’ve had a great deal of trouble with three neighboring countries. It’s a daunting task, and part of it, as I’ve explained, is the vastness of this country.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Congressman Payne points to some successes in Africa policy.

REP. DONALD PAYNE: We have less… less problems in Africa, politically today, than we’ve had for decades, ever. Elections are being held, transitional governments are going into place. We’ve supported a number of the initiatives. Many Africans say, “Well, these are African problems and we will solve them. Simply give us the resources.” And so we did that in the Congo situation.

KWAME HOLMAN: Payne’s subcommittee held a fact-finding hearing on the trouble in the Congo in April. That same month, Congress passed a bill banning the importation of illegal diamonds that help finance civil wars on the continent.

But as turmoil in the MidEast and concerns about terrorism absorb the bulk of diplomatic, legislative, and media attention, some worry the United States will give even less focus to helping end Africa’s conflict. Congressmen Payne and Royce are hopeful.

REP. DONALD PAYNE: I think now the opportunity for the Congress and the administration to step up to the plate to assist these African organizations that have answers but lack support financially.

REP. ED BOYCE: There is real interest in trying to stabilize the area. That is why President Bush is traveling there next month. That is why, you know, we have had countless missions to this region. That is why we are engaging leaders from this region up here on the Hill in meetings. There is that desire to bring a resolution to the conflict in Congo.

SPOKESPERSON: Mr. President?

KWAME HOLMAN: One recent example was the Washington visit of Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. In his meetings with members of Congress, the Congo was discussed. But in his meeting with president bush, the AIDS epidemic was a higher priority. When asked if the two men would discuss the Congo in their private session, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer gave this answer.

ARI FLEISCHER: As I said, regional matters do come up.

KWAME HOLMAN: Bill Fletcher says scant attention given to the Congo by the administration reinforces his worries.

BILL FLETCHER: I think that when you look at the pattern of the relationship of the United States to Africa, when you look at the politics that are represented by this administration, you shouldn’t be holding your breath with great expectations.

KWAME HOLMAN: Though the White House has yet to confirm the trip, President Bush is widely expected to travel to Africa next month.