Inflammation and stories on Democratic Republic of the Congo

congochildrenfree
Fifteen-year-old Kalami is one of the thousands of children that have been forcibly recruited by militias in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Snatched from his family by a rebel group to fight in a war that has torn the country since 1998, Kalami has been forced to commit all kinds of atrocities since he began fighting at the age of nine.

“We had to bury people alive… One day I was forced to kill a family, to cut up their bodies and eat them,” he confessed to Amnesty International delegates. After several scarring incidents, he attempted to escape from the group, but he was later recaptured and beaten. Near death, he was sent to a nearby hospital where UN staff found him and demobilized him.

“My life is lost. I have nothing to live for. At night I can no longer sleep. I keep thinking of those horrible things I have seen and done as a soldier,” he continued.

Kalami, like other child soldiers with his past, fear for their future. He is one of 33,000 children that have been demobilized in the past eight years in DRC. Of these, 550 children have left armed groups in the past five months, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Although some 444 children are in temporary centers in Kalemie, Lubumbashi, and Manono, and 113 others have been reunited with their parents, many of them return to their homes traumatized and uneducated, only to be shunned by their communities and even their own families. Often, they are seen as enemies in their old neighborhoods where they were forced to commit crimes before being recruited by militias.

The boys are regarded as potentially violent while the girls, having been used as sex slaves, are seen as “damaged goods”. Too old to go to school, some may be lucky enough to get vocational training and find a job, but for most, work is scarce. Just to keep from being hungry, some children even choose to rejoin the militias.

UNICEF estimates that approximately 4,500 more children are still working for armed militias, 1,500 of them in the province of Katanga alone. Although the DRC has signed Action Plans to end the recruitment of children, as well as sexual violence against them, these have been regarded as no more than public relations exercises by Amnesty International.

The DRC conflict is considered one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The country’s mineral-rich eastern coast continues to be the epicenter of a political and ethnic conflict that has involved its neighbors, Uganda and Rwanda. Since the war began in 1998, 5.4 million people have died as a result of the conflict, while 2.6 million remain displaced by the fighting.

– Nayomi Chibana
Feature Writer

Sources: UN News Centre, Amnesty International, Thomson Reuters Foundation, The Washington Times
Photo: Smart Magna

congo war facts

Syrian civil war. North Korean nuclear reactor. Miley Cyrus. Everything Putin. Congo War. Which in this list is unlike the others? Keeping up with current affairs requires vigilance, especially as the world navigates through a rapidly changing era. Even so, there are some topics that most of us know about as they happen – i.e. Miley Cyrus. Other topics are swept under the rug. Though the tide is slowly changing, the public knows little about the war often labeled the most neglected humanitarian crisis on earth. Here are some answers to questions you may have about the Congo war, known as the deadliest in modern African history:

1. What is the Congo?

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, also known as the Congo or the DRC, is the second largest country in Africa by area and the eleventh largest in the world. Located in west-central Africa, the Congo is a country with great ethnic diversity and vast natural resources, especially immensely mineral-rich land. After gaining independence from Belgium in 1960, the Congo has faced systemic corruption, instability and conflict that have severely hindered the country’s growth and development.

2. How did this war come about?

The origins of the current Congo War are rooted in the country’s two civil wars, beginning in 1996 and 1998, respectively. The first civil war was sparked by the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which led around two million Rwandan refugees to flee to eastern Congo. The refugee camps in this area soon served as an army base for the Rwandan Tutu tribe, who terrorized the local population until 1996, when Congolese forces pushed the Rwandans out of the Congo. In response, the Ugandan and Rwandan armies invaded the Congo and overthrew the country’s decades-long dictator Mobutu Sésé Seko. He was replaced by the rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who changed the country’s name from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Soon after seizing power, Kabila turned on his Rwandan and Ugandan allies and expelled them from the Congo. This led to the second civil war in 1998, when Rwandan and Ugandan forces invaded the Congo once again. This five-year conflict drew in nine African nations and killed around three million people, making it the deadliest conflict since World War II. Despite a formal end to the war in 2003, there has still been persistent violence for control over the country, including its abundant natural resources. This struggle has dragged all of the bordering countries into a regional conflict and has developed into a major humanitarian crisis.

3. How has this affected the people of Congo?

Since the outbreak of fighting in 1998, around 5.4 million people have died in the Congo. The vast majority have died from indirect consequences of the war, such as malaria, malnutrition and diarrhea. These diseases would be preventable under stable conditions, but wartime has caused widespread instability. In addition, the U.N. has called the Congo the “rape capital of the world” for its use of rape as a weapon of war. Women have been systematically targeted and attacked on an unprecedented scale. Beyond the boundaries of conflict, this sexual violence has morphed into a larger social problem, marked by increasing brutality.

4. What’s going on in the Congo now?

Fighting has continued in eastern Congo at the hands of more than forty armed rebel groups. A new wave of violence exploded in March 2012, when a group of rebel Tutsi soldiers formed the militia group M23 and mutinied against the Congo government. In November 2012, M23 took control of the city of Goma, displacing 140,000 people. Ten days later, M23 withdrew due to international pressure. In February 2013, leaders of eleven African nations signed the “Framework for Peace, Security and Cooperation for the DRC and the Region” to bring stability to the war-torn eastern Congo. This peace deal called for cooperation among the nations and no interference in the Congo’s internal affairs. The countries that signed this agreement include the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Angola, Uganda, South Sudan, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Congo-Brazzaville.

5. What has the world done to help?

In 1999, the United Nations authorized a 19,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force, now called MONUSCO, to help create stability in eastern Congo. This was the U.N.’s largest peacekeeping mission in the organization’s history. Currently, there are 113,000 peacekeeping troops in the Congo with this mission. The signing of the U.N.-brokered peace deal in February 2013 provided the support for the passage of Resolution 2098 in March by the U.N. Security Council. This Resolution authorized the use of an “intervention brigade” in the Congo. The brigade is composed of 3,000 troops that will conduct targeted operations against rebel groups in the country. Its mission is to “prevent the expansion of all armed groups, neutralize these groups, and disarm them.” In addition to U.N. intervention, many humanitarian organizations have risen to provide aid and relief, including Oxfam International, Refugees International, UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International and the Red Cross, among many others.

Tara Young

Sources: Human Rights Watch, Enough, BBC, PolicyMic, The Guardian Photo: PressTV

Fiscal Discord Chaos Congo Rebel M23 Rwanda Proxy
Civil unrest in the developing world is not new.  In fact, it can be seen as one of a handful of constants uniting the plights of most “third-world” countries across the globe.  As such, the violent turmoil which has engulfed the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is sadly not surprising, it is almost expected.  What distinguishes this conflict is not that it exists, but why.

Though most people would expect political dissent or religious struggle to be at the root of the Congolese civil war, it is in fact a war being waged over fiscal discord. The conflict in the Congo has resulted in the rape, murder, and relocation of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children.

Consisting primarily of ethnic Tutsi deserters of the Congolese army, the M23 rebel faction is fighting with their government in Eastern DRC over the supposed denial of their integration into the national military.  Their integration had been guaranteed in a 2009 treaty that ended a prior civil conflict.  Unlike similar wars fought over assumedly incompatible political or religious beliefs, the war in the Congo is one that would seem to be centered upon financial disputes and as such could conceivably be ended through an economic concession.

Though long-standing animosity between the DRC’s Tutsi and Hutu populations, along with the devastation which has followed the M23 rebellion, may preclude a simple monetary solution, the fact that countless people have been terrorized over such an inane clash of fiscal interests should in itself be enough to spur the international community to pursue negotiations between M23 and the Congolese government, before the DRC civil war spills over into neighboring Rwanda.

Gynecologist Dr. Denis Mukwege has worked in the DRC for over a decade, helping rape victims receive both medical and psychiatric treatment.  Dr. Mukwege explains, “The conflict in DR Congo is not between groups of religious fanatics. Nor is it a conflict between states. This is a conflict caused by economic interests – and it is being waged by destroying Congolese women.”

Today, fighting in the DRC city of Goma has ignited conflict along its border with Rwanda.  The DRC government claims innocence in a rash of violent incidents involving Rwandan civilians.  It also accuses many Hutu Rwandans sympathetic with M23 of collusion with the supposed terrorist faction.  The tension between the two countries over this issue has forced UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to send a military contingent to the besieged area.  International intercession is definitely necessary in the issue.  However, it remains to be seen if this costly conflict calls for a resolution made in blood or bullion.

– Shaun Franco

Sources: BBC News, ABC News, BBC News Magazine
Photo: Al Jazeera

Number_Slaves_Work_Products_I_Use_Children
Think about the last time uou made a call from your smartphone, or ate chocolate. Have you used any beauty products or worn cotton clothing lately? These seemingly harmless activities, may be contributing to human trafficking.

The likelihood that your smartphone has not been touched by a slave is low; it contains the mineral Coltan, and 64% of Coltan reserves are found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,  are mined by enslaved children. Nearly 40% of the world’s cocoa beans are harvested by more than 200,000 children on the Ivory Coast alone. Every day, tens of thousands of Indian children mine mica, a mineral found in makeup. And, 1.4 million children, more than the entire New York City public school system, are forced to pick cotton in Uzbekistan fields; cotton that may have been used to make the shirts many of us wear every day.

There are at least 27 million slaves worldwide; roughly the population of Australia and New Zealand combined. And, although trafficking often brings to mind images of women or girls forced to participate in sexual acts against their will, there are other ways human beings are sold. A staggering amount of men, women and children are forced into long hours of hard labor for little to no pay. This type of trafficking is often supported by unsuspecting citizens who would never deliberately contribute to slavery. Nevertheless, an alarming number of otherwise upstanding citizens unknowingly do just that every day: help human trafficking; the fastest growing criminal industry in the world.

Human trafficking often uses legitimate businesses to conduct their operations. As a result, certain businesses, such as hotels, taxi services, airlines, rail companies, and advertisers like Craigslist may facilitate trafficking. Some businesses are aware of their involvement in these crimes, but are persuaded to turn the other cheek due to high profit potential. There are, however, cases where businesses are unaware of what is happening, or are unable to identify clients who may be participating in these illegal activities.

So what can you do to help? It’s simple: just be aware of the origin of your purchases, and avoid products from regions particularly affected by human trafficking or forced labor. Reducing the demand for cheap merchandise manufactured in sweatshops will deliver a significant blow to the human trafficking industry.

Find out how many slaves work for you by taking the slavery footprint survey at slaveryfootprint.org; the number will surprise you.

Dana Johnson

Sources: Pukaar Magazine, Polaris, CARITAS.org, Slavery Footprint
Photo: Photopin

Defection_flyers_LRA_weakened
The Lord’s Resistance Army is steadily weakening due to the growing weariness and disillusionment of its combatants, many of whom want to defect, according to a new report by The Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative, a US-based advocacy group.

The factions are scattered across an area of central Africa about the size of California, and, despite LRA leader Joseph Kony’s integration of high-frequency radios, communication between factions is difficult. Morale is at a new low; at least 31 Ugandan LRA combatants, which is at least 15 percent of the LRA’s core Ugandan fighting force, have defected since the beginning of 2012.

Months spent in remote rainforest villages have left the soldiers with little energy and enthusiasm, and the army’s new venture into new forms of crime, such as harvesting elephant ivory, have left many disenchanted and guilt-ridden. Recently, the army has also almost entirely failed to end conflicts with decisive victories leading to further weariness.

“The large majority of people in the LRA were forcibly conscripted, and most, including many Ugandans, want to defect,” the report says.

Pressure from the Ugandan, the US military in Uganda, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are all contributing to the weakening of the LRA. Campaigns such as the “Come Home” campaign, a collaboration between the Ugandan and US militaries that uses helicopters to canvas sensitive areas with dropped leaflets and loudspeaker messages encouraging soldiers to defect, have been particularly effective. The authors suggest, however, that these campaigns should be more widespread and better able to target areas where the LRA are actually operating.

While the report admits that the rebel group will not be dismantled any time soon, it outlines the steps that can be taken by the Ugandan government, Congolese government, US government, African Union, and all involved peacekeepers and donors to best ensure the LRA’s ultimate demise. It is assumed by the initiative that the most effective way to weaken and ultimately wipeout the LRA is to encourage as many soldiers as possible to defect.

One of the suggestions listed in the report is for the Ugandan government to implement a “re-integration program” for defected soldiers to assimilate back into their communities. Often, it is extremely difficult for former members of the LRA to integrate themselves back into their old lives while facing the challenges of “rebuilding their livelihoods, overcoming trauma and community stigmatization with little support.” Often, the Ugandan government will force the returned soldiers to join the UPDF, which they had spent so many months fighting against. For obvious reasons, the report encourages the government to halt this activity.

“There is a need to continue to encourage and persuade the LRA members to defect. Let them abandon the rebellion and come back home. They are victims of circumstances,” retired bishop Baker Ochola, a member of Acholi Religious Peace Initiative (ALPI), told IRIN. “Let them leave LRA to Kony and his people who started it… Kony will remain alone and will not have support.”

– Kathryn Cassibry
Sources: IRIN, Red Pepper, The Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative

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In a traditionally volatile region, violence has once again broken out. In the province of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, two rebel groups have been engaging in fighting with the Congolese armed forces. M23, the most active of the rebel groups operating in the DRC, launched an assault on the army stationed around the city of Goma on July 14th. Prior to that though, the Allied Democratic Forces engaged the armed forces on July 11th. Caught in the crossfire of these separate engagements are tens of thousands of civilians, forced to flee as fighting erupted.

Many of these refugees fled across the border into Uganda where transit centers are quickly filling. In the first few days of the conflict 66,000 Congolese refugees crossed the border. And that was before violence erupted between M23 and the national forces. The situation is even more difficult in Uganda as the country is already playing host to more than 200,000 refugees – 60% of whom originate from the DRC – before this latest round of violence.

The UN Refugee Agency has an annual operating budget of $93.8 million for Uganda, but less than half of this has so far been funded. With the sudden influx of refugees from both Ugandan conflicts, a large portion of the extra burden is falling on Uganda. With transit centers near the borders rapidly filling, the Ugandan Office of the Prime Minister pledged to begin registering refugees and relocating them to longer term refugee camps, where they will be supplied with plots of land to farm. This process, however, is time-consuming, and over-congestion in the transit camps, and the subsequent risk of disease as livestock and people live together in close quarters, has become a primary concern.

With the rebels, particularly M23 around Goma, refusing to back down, UN intervention may soon be seen. UN peacekeepers in the DRC, MONUSCO, had set a deadline of August 1st for rebel troops to hand in their weapons and demobilize. Leaders of the rebel group however dismissed the ultimatum as irrelevant. As a result, a UN intervention brigade, comprised of 3000 troops from Malawi, South Africa, and Tanzania – part of the 20,000 strong peacekeeping force – may soon engage rebel troops in an attempt to establish a “security zone” around the city of Goma.

– David M. Wilson
Sources: UNHCR, Times Live, IRIN News
Sources: Alissa Everett

Eastern_Congo_Conflict_Poverty
In spite of its massive natural resource endowments, the Democratic Republic of the Congo remains one of the poorest countries on earth, with a GDP per capita of just $194. This is in no small part due to a conflict that has been raging – at various levels of intensity – since the early 1990s. As a result, more than 5.4 million Congolese have died and over 2 million have been displaced. Widespread sexual violence and the use of child soldiers have deeply scarred communities and left them with little to no economic development. The ongoing instability and poverty in the eastern part of the country poses a threat not only to Congo’s development and stability, but also to that of its Central African neighbors.

Intercommunal hatred based on years of conflict, competition among armed groups over natural resources, and regional power struggles have fueled the instability in the region. The largest armed groups include the Rwandan Hutu militia FDLR, the M23 militia backed by Rwanda and Uganda, collections of “Mai Mai” militias, and the Congolese Army. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has also been known to operate in eastern Congo.

In addition, conflict minerals, notably gold, tin, tungsten, and tantalum, utilized in most consumer electronic products, are mined in eastern Congo. Due to worldwide demand for such products, the minerals offer massive spoils to any armed group able to control the mines. This has led to greater violence as groups fight one another over access to minerals.

The weak institutions and lack of government in the region have only encouraged conflict by allowing war criminals to act with impunity. And without a strict hierarchy or accountability measures, the Congolese military effectively acts as a large gang. Corrupt police forces and judiciaries also partake in violence or turn a blind eye to war crimes and human rights abuses.

Human and economic development in eastern Congo has been entirely derailed by the conflict. Sexual violence has both physically and psychologically harmed women and left them unable to care for themselves or their families. Similarly, the use of child soldiers has devastated communities by raising death tolls and making parents unable to protect their children from harm. A lack of trust between neighboring villages and communities has also eroded development and entrenched poverty by promoting isolation and discouraging trade.

In response to the ongoing crisis, the UN has provided the largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation in the world, MONUSCO, with 20,000 personnel and an annual budget of $1.4 billion. Celebrities such as Ben Affleck have called attention to the dire situation, and USAID has begun a Community Recovery and Livelihoods Project to address victims of sexual violence and the conflict minerals industry.

– David E Wilson

Sources: Enough Project, Eastern Congo Initiative, International Crisis Group 
Photo: World Vision Australia