NEW YORK — Since achieving independence in 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been ravaged by internecine ethnic strife that has claimed millions of lives. In spite of that, the conflict has been largely neglected by the world’s industrialized governments. The United Nations Security Council’s decision to authorize the deployment of a 1,400-strong interim force to keep peace in the region is an important — but not a sufficient — step to end the country’s humanitarian emergency. What is happening now in Congo could easily expand beyond its borders and have serious repercussions for the entire region.
An International Rescue Committee report released in April states that at least 3.3 million people (almost 7 percent of the country’s population) have died in the past four years of civil war — either because of fighting or as a result of widespread disease and famine. Magnifying this tragedy is the estimate that 2.8 million Congolese are HIV-infected or already suffer from the onset of AIDS.
Congo is plagued by a deadly combination of warring ethnic factions, a weak central government, and greedy political and military leaders from neighboring countries and corporations who want to exploit the country’s resources. Congo is rich in diamonds, tin, copper and coltan (columbite-tantalite), an essential component of many electronic devices, particularly cell phones and computers. Illegal exploitation of these resources has been taking place at a rapid pace.
In 1997, Mobutu Sese Seko, the leader of an autocratic and corrupt regime for 32 years, was removed from office by Laurent Kabila, who then proceeded to rule despotically himself. In 1998, Rwanda and Uganda backed a rebellion against Kabila, who was supported by Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad and Sudan. A massive seven-country war took place. In 2001, Kabila was assassinated and replaced by his son, Joseph Kabila. That year, the U.N. Security Council approved a plan for the withdrawal of all foreign troops, to be replaced by U.N. peacekeepers.
The situation, however, continues to be unstable. In the past year some progress has been made in Congo. The main warring factions have signed a series of agreements, and most foreign troops have left Congo. A timetable has been drawn up for the installation of a transitional government that also contemplates holding elections. However, the northeastern part of the country has become chaotic since the departure of Ugandan forces left a power vacuum in the region. Lendu and Hema tribal groups — acting as proxy armies for foreign forces — are fighting for control of the northeastern town of Bunia, the capital of Ituri province.
Rapes and massacres of the civilian populace are commonplace. A U.N. investigation has evidence of cannibalism by the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, many of whose members are children under the age of 18. At a girls’ school in Bukavu, 36 of the 150 students have been raped by soldiers.
According to Salih Booker, executive director of Africa Action, almost 50 percent of the soldiers in the area are below the age of 18. A small U.N. force made up mainly of Uruguayan soldiers has been unable to curb the violence. The Security Council has now authorized the deployment of an emergency force of 1,400 soldiers. Although most are French, there are also soldiers from African countries and other nations.
As things stand now, progress will be possible only by the creation of a larger force, since the one to be deployed now will be stationed in Bunia even though much of the population has fled to the countryside and has a limited mandate. This should be accompanied by the permanent withdrawal of all foreign armies, the institution of new border security arrangements and the ending of party support for surrogate fighters who have been terrorizing the people of Congo. Congo need not be forever condemned to misery by its riches.