Britain spends £250,000 a day supporting the UN peacekeeping force charged with ending the war in Congo. So why is there no conclusion in sight to a conflict that has already claimed more lives than any since WWII? GQ reports from the shifting front line of a human rights catastrophe
The shoeless headmaster said it was an ordinary sort of massacre. The FDLR rebels came to the mud and brick village of Kinyandonyi on a Sunday afternoon, as they often do, when the pupils at his Adventist school were in lessons after their Saturday Sabbath, and the bi-weekly market was in full swing. The gunmen shot in the air at first, to scatter the villagers. Then, they lowered their sights.
Before this attack, the FDLR (or Democratic Forces For The Liberation Of Rwanda) had raided the village three times in the past two months. So the children knew what to do when they heard shots – run. As they fled, the rebels sprayed the crowd with automatic fire. Their twin aims were, as ever, to sow panic and fleece the local population, and on that Sunday, they achieved both with vulpine ease.
The rebels knew their supposed adversaries, the Congolese Army, were housed in canvas barracks just down the road, but they did not expect resistance. They judged correctly. The only Congolese soldier to die in Sunday’s attack was one apparently stranded in the village on an errand. The rest of the army stayed in their camp and waited for the storm to pass.
The raid lasted the whole afternoon and into the night. Houses were upturned for food, money and clothes. Meanwhile, civilians unfortunate enough to find themselves in the path of the FDLR were attacked. When I visited Kinyandonyi in the days that followed, Jerome, the headmaster – a graduate who speaks several languages, including fluent English and French, but who has no shoes – explained the precariousness of his existence. He told me that his village and the surrounding area had lost "many, maybe 50, maybe a hundred" people to attacks in a year.
"We are on the front line here," he said, looking down at the dirt road on which we stood. "The FDLR live" – he thrust his hand towards the forest on the western side of the track, as if directing traffic – "just there. One kilometre away, two kilometres away. If you are lucky with the rebels, they take everything you have. If you are unlucky, they take everything you have and then they kill you."
The children had nothing to give except their lives. Jerome said three of his pupils, all less than ten years old, died in the attack. When I interviewed a dozen other witnesses, the headmaster’s statistic could not be corroborated. One man said fewer had died; many said more. At the local hospital in Rutshuru, the authorities confirmed they had treated two young children and one teenager who had been gravely injured by gunfire, and that two of those children had lost their mothers in the same incident. Again, definitive numbers proved elusive. The only concrete facts about that Sunday’s events in Kinyandonyi, said the hospital director, were that the FDLR had opened fire on children, and fatally.
"Il y a eu des morts," she said. There were deaths.
Welcome to the war in eastern Congo. It is a war fought, in the main, not between opposing armies, but between the armed and the defenceless: a war fought on, and through, civilians. Nominally, the battle is between the combined Congolese Army (the FARDC, who are supported by the UN) and the Hutu rebels of the FDLR, some of whose commanders led the Rwandan genocide of 1994. But, in this festering conflict – where allegiances, political imperatives and potential solutions have fluctuated with the wind, and where motivations include ethnic rivalry, border security, short-term economic gain, and long-term access to the region’s bountiful mineral wealth – little functions as it should. Indeed, in more than a decade of conflict, only one fact has remained incontrovertible: il y a eu des morts.
The International Rescue Committee estimated, in 2007, that 5.4 million people had perished as a result of Congo’s wars since 1998, making it the deadliest conflict anywhere since WWII. It continues to kill 45,000 people a month, almost half of them children. Most die from disease. Around 980,000 people in North Kivu province alone remain "internally displaced" by the insecurity, and live in squalid camps under straw and tarpaulin. Meanwhile, a disturbing number of Congolese women (and, as I discovered on my recent visit to the warzone, an increasing number of men) are subjected to extreme and baroque methods of violent rape and sexual torture by gunmen.
What makes this conflict so distressing to witness is that eastern Congo should be a paradise. Its people are, by and large, gregarious, resourceful and eager to make a fast buck. Indeed, they confront their grotesque situation with a phlegmatic humour that can be quite disarming. I met a man in a refugee camp near Mushake – about 40km from Goma – a doctor who wore a battered suit. He told me that since his village was burnt by rebel forces two years ago he had been displaced three times. He had no money, and nowhere to call home. I asked him what his plans were for the future. He emitted a long, high giggle – the best answer to a stupid question.
The territory, likewise, is rich and memorable. Around Goma, for instance, the marble-top Lake Kivu reflects a Ravello hillscape, while further north the mountains wear their clouds like marabou shrugs. The ground is good for coffee, maize, bananas and sugar cane. Meanwhile, in the remote corners of North and South Kivu lie vast reserves of coltan, gold, cassiterite and tin. In Goma, you can hear the roar from the airport as the rusting Soviet Antonovs spirit the minerals away to eager international recipients (and, ultimately, to our mobile phones and fighter jets), but any wealth that remains in Congo resides in the pockets of army fatigues, and a few well-lined suits. Indeed, it is the continuing ability of the army and rival militias to raise "taxes" on the mines that gives the conflict oxygen.
At another time, in another place, Congo’s passion would never leave our front pages. But when was the last time you read about the crisis? In 2007, Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, claimed that the war had been allocated "fewer column inches per million deaths than any other recent war". He was speaking for America, but the plangent silence is also true for Britain’s media, where Congo resides, at present, in the basement of our foreign news priorities.
In Britain, in particular, this reticence to report seems surprising. We may only have seven troops stationed in Congo – compared to thousands from Uruguay, South Africa and India – but we are the country’s largest bilateral aid donor. Indeed, we spend £250,000 a day supporting MONUC, the 17,000, soon to be 20,000, strong UN peacekeeping force in Congo. Even if our hearts remained stony at the sight of raped and dying Africans, you might have thought our wallets would twitch at the thought of so much public money being spent on a seemingly endless foreign war.
Perhaps the country, and the conflict, is simply too much trouble to understand. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), formerly Zaire, formerly the Belgian Congo, is a territory the size of Western Europe, and has been – even by central African standards – a basket case for years. After gaining independence from Belgium, the country was dominated between 1965-1997 by the charismatic, kleptocratic, American-backed dictator, known as "Jeff" to his friends, and as Mobutu Sésé Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga, or "the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake" to his people.
Mobutu and his coterie bled the country dry. The Belgians had been cruel and rapacious colonial overlords, but they had at least left a passably efficient infrastructure. There were functioning hospitals. There was a train network. The roads worked. During his presidency, Mobutu maintained the cruelty, and abandoned any pretence at meaningful government, because his serious interests lay in maintaining prestige, and his European property empire. Indeed, he had quite a taste for the high life. He liked his champagne pink, and flown in by Concorde from Paris. Meanwhile, his starving subjects became acquainted with the only law that made any sense in Congo – se débrouiller: help yourself.
It was the 1994 genocide in the tiny, neighbouring country of Rwanda that pushed Congo from dysfunction to despair. In 100 days, between 800,000 and one million Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by the majority Hutu population in a state-organised bloodbath. The genocide was effectively ignored by the UN, and by the most capable of its member states. Instead, it fell to an army of exiled Rwandan Tutsis, led by the current president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, to fight back. They did so swiftly and efficiently, prompting a mass exodus of Rwandans into Goma, the fetid Congolese border town.
The international community, which had so criminally failed to act during the genocide, saw a crisis. Two million refugees had sought shelter in neighbouring countries, and dozens of charities came to their aid. What was rarely spoken about was the presence, among the innocent, of thousands of Rwandans who had been complicit in the genocide. Indeed, the Hutu political hierarchy and key members of the interahamwe – the genocidal death-squads – were recognised as community leaders by the UN High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR) and given control over food distribution. The camps became towns; the interahamwe recharged its battery; the cancer that became the FDLR was allowed to grow.
The presence of the FDLR in the east of Congo has been at the heart of the conflict ever since. Rwanda is uneasy about having a genocidal force on its border – one official likened the FDLR to al-Qaeda – and has fought, overtly and through proxies, to keep the threat at bay. Certainly, Rwanda prefers to fight its battles on foreign soil. In 1996, Rwanda invaded Zaire, and, with a Zairean rebel group, fought their way across half a continent to Kinshasa, and installed their man, Laurent Kabila, as president. But, within two years, he had turned against his old backers.
In 1998, Rwanda invaded Congo again, this time using an army, in a war that became known as Africa’s world war. The conflict attracted the armies of eight countries, including Angola and Zimbabwe on Congo’s side, and Uganda and Burundi on Rwanda’s. Kagame’s stated aim was to create a buffer zone between his country and his potential attackers from the Hutu militia, but a notable feature of the bloody exchange was the willingness of every national army to trade in Congo’s mineral reserves.
In 2003, a shaky peace deal was established between Congo and Rwanda. Foreign armies went home, but local militias tied to both the Congolese and Rwandan governments continued to hold sway in the east. The war spluttered on, largely unnoticed by the world, for five more deadly years. Indeed, it was only in 2008, with the arrival to prominence of Laurent Nkunda, a rakish, media-friendly Tutsi warlord wearing a cowboy hat and a badge reading "Rebels for Christ", that the West woke up again to Congo. For once, in this bewildering, dangerous conflict, the press had an easy story, with great cheekbones.
Nkunda’s militia, the CNDP (which is tacitly backed by Rwanda, although, incredibly, they deny this) aimed to defeat the FDLR and "protect ethnic Tutsis". They also took control of a number of lucrative mines. But their war crimes were egregious, and their leader’s ambitions stretched too far, and when the CNDP reached the outskirts of Goma early last year, Rwanda was urged to call off its dog. Nkunda was arrested in a deal that incorporated his former troops into the Congolese army. Now, the FARDC is attempting to rout or demilitarise the FDLR with support from the UN, in an operation called Kimia II.
But Kimia II has been a disaster. Despite the arrest, in November, of two exiled commanders accused of managing and financing the FDLR from safe havens in Germany, the rebels are proving difficult to shift. Moreover, they are furious at the government’s decision to attack them. Their anger is being meted out on villagers. Meanwhile, the FARDC – whom the UN, and, by extension, Britain, is backing with transport, food and training – is proving equally villainous. Reports of mass rape and murders by the army abound. When I visited Congo in November, the CNDP were also threatening to disband from the FARDC over a pay dispute. Throw into this mess an increasing number of independent Mai Mai militias, as well as the Ugandan Joseph Kony’s barbarous Lord’s Resistance Army ravaging the north of the country, and you don’t have a war any more, you have a Cormac McCarthy novel.
In North Kivu’s militarised interior, you see the FARDC everywhere – trucks of dead-eyed boys resting their backs on rocket-launchers, rifles between their knees, daring you to look at them. Often, they travel not as groups, but as the only soldier on a civilian truck, piled high with goods, and carrying 40 or 50 brave souls on their roof. Every time I saw a Congolese soldier, a little shiver went through me. It was not that I thought they would do me any harm – the whelps could normally be appeased with a few cigarettes or some small Congolese notes – it was the stories I had heard. Every soldier was a reminder. And then, always, came a sobering thought: these are our guys. This is the army the UN expects to solve the crisis.
MONUC’s support for the Congolese army should keep them awake at night. The UN charter says the organisation has a "responsibility to protect", and where their troops can help to keep the peace, they do so. Certainly, I had cause to thank the Indian army when we smashed our 4x4 in the badlands north of Rwindi and were rescued from the wilderness – and the sound of distant Mai Mai gunfire – by three armoured vehicles’ worth of tooled-up Gurkhas. But if MONUC feeds, transports and ships weapons to FARDC units who commit war crimes, then they protect no one.
In the remote area between the towns of Pinga and Nyabiondo, for example, there has been, in the past months, heavy fighting between the FDLR and the FARDC. Last October, Human Rights Watch sent a fact-finding mission to the region and discovered a series of war crimes. In a number of attacks on villages in the region, at least 270 civilians had been killed by the Congolese army in the previous seven months, some within 15km of the nearest UN base at Nyabiondo. Most were women, children and the elderly. There were rapes and decapitations. The victims had been targeted because members of the FDLR lived among them, but the FARDC reportedly made no distinction between soldiers and civilians. This is a pattern repeating itself across the region, as soldiers punish villagers for their "support" of an opposing force.
The Nyabiondo massacres form one part of a long rap sheet of FARDC atrocities. On 17 October, for instance, the FARDC used seven Médicins Sans Frontières vaccination stations in the remote region of Kimua as bait – and then opened fire on thousands of civilians, many of them children. The number of fatalities from this attack is still unknown. At another refugee camp in the Shalio area of North Kivu, there was a similar attack in April, according to the UN’s own special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Philip Alston. Around 50 people were killed, and around 40 women were abducted and raped. Some had chunks cut from their breasts with machetes.
"From a human rights perspective, the operation [Kimia II] has been catastrophic," said Alston. "Hundreds of thousands have been displaced, hundreds of villages burnt to the ground, and at least 1,000 civilians have been killed. Women and girls have literally been raped to death in the most gruesome attacks imaginable."
Why is the army committing these crimes? The simple answer is, they are a hotchpotch, undertrained rabble which is rarely paid. Therefore, they loot. The Congolese government has enlisted MONUC to deliver pay to the FARDC, and they do so – but only at high levels in the rank structure. In true Congolese fashion, the generals and colonels help themselves to the majority of the cash, leaving the ratings with next to nothing. During my visit, some soldiers complained of being unpaid for five months. This same problem explains why MONUC cannot, as it has promised to do, refuse to pay abusive regiments of the FARDC. Much of the time, they have no idea which units actually receive the money.
At any rate, the army’s impoverishment only explains so much. Talk to UN staff on the record, and they will tell you that everything is going "in the right direction" with the Congolese army – that they are being trained into a decent force. Olusegun Obasanjo, the UN envoy to the region, talks of "reasonable success". But off the record, the highly professional soldiers who form MONUC’s command structure will tell you they are horrified at what they have witnessed.
"If you want to know why they loot and steal, then the pay issue is crucial," said one officer. "We can only ensure that it gets to a certain rank, and beyond that... it’s hard. But if you want to know why they rape and torture, the pay doesn’t explain that. These are not trained men. Often, their only qualification is that they have inherited a uniform and a weapon. As soldiers, they are shit, worse than shit. If they rape, it’s because they are sick bastards who need their testicles crushed."
In fact, raping and looting by Congolese armies is something of a tradition. In the late 19th century, when Congo was the personal fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium, and the army consisted of black conscripts under white officers, the rape of villagers was habitual and violent. Mobutu, likewise, ordered his soldiers to live off the land. Is it any surprise that today, seizure by force is seen by the army not so much as a transgression as the fulfilment of a basic right?
Over eight days, I met women from all parts of North Kivu who had been raped and tortured by soldiers and militiamen. The youngest victim I talked to was a 13-year-old girl – who had been held hostage for seven months in the forest by the FDLR and forced to have sex "at least five times a day" during that period. I also heard stories of infants and grandmothers being attacked. One rape, on its own, is evil enough, but there is a hyper-imaginative, Boschian quality to the sexual violence in Congo that is nearly impossible to process. To understand it better, I visited a woman who had seen everything.
Lyn Lusi is an amiable, wild-haired Brit who has lived in the country since 1971. Together with her husband, she runs HEAL Africa, an organisation that specialises in treating raped women, and which consists of a hospital in Goma and several care stations in the field. I wanted to know whether she had noticed an increase in the number of rapes since March, when the joint FARDC operations against the FDLR began, or whether what I had seen and heard was normal – or normal for this war.
She turned her computer screen to face me. On it was a picture of a patient who had come into the hospital the day before. The photograph showed the woman’s head, with blood surrounding her eye sockets and holes where her eyes should have been. Lyn told me the FDLR had raped her, and then taken the trouble to gouge out her eyes with a knife.
"Yes, there has been a horrendous increase in the level of violence since March," she said. "This operation has, I fear, stirred up a hornet’s nest. The cruelty..."
And there, she paused. I had a small understanding of what she meant. In Minova, an hour's drive southwest of Goma, along the lake, I had met a beaming woman with machete scars across her face. Her name was Masika, and she had made it her life’s work to care for femmes violées and their babies. She was a poor woman, and I asked her why she did it.
Masika said she had been raped several times herself. Once, in 1994, she watched soldiers murder her husband, cut him into bits "like a butcher", and throw his limbs around the room. Then, she was asked to rearrange him, as if he were an anatomical puzzle, before she was told to lie on her dead husband while the soldiers took turns to rape her. After the assault, they asked her if she was hungry, and forced her to eat her dead husband’s penis.
"The reason I help these women," she said, "is because I know about the pain."
I told Masika that I had heard an increasing number of Congolese men were being raped by the militias. Had she seen the same thing? Yes, she said. Five men came to her this year. One of them died, because the level of violence to which he had been subjected had caused him to bleed to death. "It is new, attacking men," she said, as if observing a change in the weather.
Lyn Lusi has witnessed the same trend. "They will do anything they can to inflict pain," she said. "We’ve seen several cases of male rape in the past year. Mostly, it involves inserting foreign bodies and sexual torture. In general, they will kill the men in front of the women, but I think they now see humiliating the men is just as powerful a weapon."
What is to be done? The situation in eastern Congo is, as Alston says, a human rights catastrophe. But it is much more than that. Congo, in general, is a profound civic disaster – a place where everyone wants a bribe and nothing works. Drive around the lava-blackened roads of Goma and the state of the failure, and the failure of the state, strikes you pungently. It is a town propped up by aid, where the rubbish mounts in the street, where every second car is a 4x4 belonging to a Western charity, where the only brightly coloured buildings are shops bearing mobile phone logos – a town where electricity fails, but where, if you know the right man, you can buy high-grade uranium on the street.
Amid this chaos, what chance of a resolution? MONUC talks of small victories against the FDLR, of demilitarising a significant number of moderate fighters and sending them back to Rwanda. And, no doubt, the rebels have been weakened – but not enough. They may only be a force of six or seven thousand, but they continue to wreak havoc and, more importantly, they continue to recruit. Indeed, they may soon have fresh allies. On my last day in Congo, a local journalist told me he had been contacted by a new warlord called Checka, who claimed to have 4,000 armed men at his disposal, a friendly relationship with the FDLR and a list of grievances against the government. Meanwhile, the FARDC (the UN’s boys, our boys, shamefully) have proved themselves a cowardly, criminal outfit. If there is a military solution to the FDLR, they are not it.
Wiser heads can conjure alternative strategies. As I prepared to drive into Rwanda – which 15 years ago was a sea of corpses, and today is a safe, functioning, if unashamedly authoritarian state – I took a look at the volcano that looms over Goma. Its name is Nyiragongo. Every decade or so – most recently in 2002 – it erupts. When the mountain blows, the smoke and lava smothers the town and its residents, forces evacuations, and adds to the collective misery. I knew about the volcano before I arrived in Congo. What I didn’t know until a Congolese friend told me, was this: Nyiragongo stands between Goma and another volcano called Nyamuragira, the most active in Africa. If Nyiragongo was not in Nyamuragira’s path, Goma would be endangered much more frequently. So goes the war in Congo. Get rid of one volcano, and there’s another right behind.