Between the hills and the lake: hello from Bukavu

I’m in Bukavu, in South Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s a big city! About a million people, in the uplands, on the coast of a strange and geologically fascinating volcanic origin Lake Kivu. The city, and the province (which has about 4-5 million people according to estimates I’ve heard and read), have seen too much of too many kinds of violence over the past 15 years. I have wanted to come here for a long time, for various reasons. The main reason is something I’ve felt rather intensely since I got here: communication between this part of the world and the rest of the world is very difficult (as it turns out, communication within this part of the world is also very difficult), and it is hard to tell what is going on from far away. Since being here I’ve had a closer look at the IRC Lancet mortality study from 2006 (Coghlan 2006) but not the one from 2008, which I don’t have with me and don’t really want to try to download with the internet connection that I’m able to muster here every few days. I’m not here for too many more days: I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can to write and follow up when I get home, but I wanted to at least write from here once (which involves typing this up on my laptop at a place that’s using a generator so I can keep my battery charged, saving it to a USB, taking that to a internet cafe in town – which implies finding a way to get to town – that is also using a generator and hopefully has a satellite connection, and upload it there).

Back to the mortality study: after doing the well-established cluster sampling technique (to radically oversimplify asking 19,500 families randomly who they lost and how they died) the International Rescue Committee researchers estimated 3.9 million excess (preventable, conflict-related) deaths that can be attributed to the conflict from 1998-2004. The more recent study found a figure more like 5 million. A fraction of that was direct violence, in smaller or bigger massacres. A bigger fraction is preventable diseases, a lack of potable water, and malnutrition, all of which go untreated because people are unable to move (because of the insecurity along the roads).

A little more about the roads, which are driving me nuts – and which make Congolese life far more difficult, even though people on the roads are unbelievably patient by any human standard. Hardly any roads are paved, but the stones jutting up from the dirt on the roads are in a constant process of destroying people’s cars. They are also evidence that the roads were once in better condition than they are today, which surprised me when I heard it from numerous people now. Infrastructure has actually deteriorated here, largely because of the conflict, and the lack of communication and access, I think, is a major factor exacerbating the deadliness of the conflict (small distances to medical facilities become big distances, carrying massive amounts of supplies on your back on one meal a day means your health will eventually crash, some things become impossible to transport at all, any other infrastructure, like power lines, becomes far more difficult to build, etc).

The cars (and motorbikes) don’t stay on one lane or the other, but meander around on the road trying to find the least destructive path. They share the roads with many many more people trying to walk where they’re going, including women (usually women) carrying very heavy bags of things (stone, sugar cane, flour, bananas, or any number of other things). There are constant traffic jams, mechanical failures, people running out of gas. But here’s where the patience comes in: if you’re driving, people will push your car for you, run and get you a (plastic used water) bottle of gasoline to tide you over, and get out of the way of the car. If you’re walking, you’re expected to get out of the way even though the cars are centimetres from running you over. Each minute on the road generates a hundred incidents that would cause violence among North Americans, who are incomparably less generous to strangers, especially on their roads.

So, what’s going on here now? This region is currently hosting an military operation called “Kimya II”. “Kimya” is Swahili for “silence”, and to understand the politics of this situation it’s necessary to go back over a decade, to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, which is ground zero for the current conflict here in Congo.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees (mostly Hutu) fled Rwanda and ended up in South Kivu (and North Kivu) after the genocide, and among them were the armed groups that had carried it out, one group of whom was called the Interahamwe. Even though the vast majority of the refugees were not involved in the genocide, the Rwandan regime of Paul Kagame that took power in Rwanda after the genocide in 1994 labeled all of the refugees as ‘genocidaires’. In 1996, Kagame’s army invaded the Rwandan refugee camps and hunted the refugees down. Some estimates (cited by Prunier 2008) are that the Rwandan regime and allies killed over 200,000 refugees in that 1996-7 war. But since the war had now reached the Congo, itself weak and unstable (it was the Zaire of the dictator Mobutu) it unleashed hell in Congo itself too. Armed groups of Congolese, including a group called the Mayi Mayi, organized themselves against the invaders. Another group of Congolese, called the AFDL, under Laurent Kabila joined with the Rwandans and Laurent Kabila ended up replacing Mobutu in power (and renaming Zaire to the DRC).

In 1998, Rwanda (and Uganda) invaded the DRC again. The DRC appealed to other neighbours for help, and Angola and Zimbabwe responded. The result was “Africa’s first world war” and the conflict that caused all the mortality documented in the IRC studies.

The 1998 war has continued, in hotter and cooler phases, until the present. There were elections in 2006 that were won by Joseph Kabila, the son of Laurent Kabila. There are currently about 16,000 UN troops here (MONUC is the mission’s name), mostly Pakistanis and Uruguayans, but like other UN missions, there are many countries represented. It feels like a semi-post conflict situation.

Who are the actors in the current, “Kimya II” operation? The Congolese Army, or the FARDC, are fighting alongside the Rwandan, and Ugandan armies, that are back on Congolese soil. Their aim is to destroy the bases and military capacity of the FDLR (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda), who some people still refer to as the “Interahamwe” and who the Rwandan regime refers to as the “genocidaires”. The FDLR have tens of thousands under arms and are deep in the jungle (cities like Bukavu are relatively safe and are where people run to from the rural areas). I’ve heard a lot of angry comments at the Congolese government for inviting the former invaders back in, especially when (terrible) atrocities were committed by every armed group in the conflict.

“Kimya I”, and another operation, “Umoja Wetu” (which means “our unity”, the unity between the Rwandans and Ugandans and Congolese armies) was the North Kivu version of the operation. Its principal effect seems to have been to push the FDLR cadres into South Kivu, hence the need for “Kimya II” here.

As I said, here in Bukavu it is pretty safe: This is where people come when their villages are attacked, for security and for medical care (I visited the exemplary Panzi hospital the other day, where thousands of women have come for treatment after sexual violence). This whole war has had the effect of emptying the countryside and concentrating people in the cities and their hinterlands. The result is intense urban problems here and agricultural and environmental problems in the countryside, as the communities that are left become still more isolated and vulnerable to conflict.

Although everyone talks about the war, certain topics seem to be taboo. Some actors can be criticized relatively freely (the FDLR, the Mayi Mayi), while others are virtually never mentioned openly (mainly Rwanda’s government). The difference probably provides a clue about the relative power of the actors and about who people are most afraid of, although, as I said, every armed group has committed atrocities here (and the majority of atrocities have remained in impunity).

When I’ve asked people what the way out of this conflict is, the most interesting answer I’ve gotten is this: a political opening in Rwanda that allows the FDLR to return and allows power-sharing there, an end to the politics of exclusion. Peace in the Congo isn’t possible without political change in Rwanda: a tall order for both, given how traumatized both societies are. As it stands though, the Rwandan regime seems to want it both ways: on the one hand, it claims its political process is fine and it is not Rwanda that has to change. On the other hand, it claims the right to interfere militarily in the DRC because it faces an existential threat from other Rwandans in the form of the FDLR. It’s a fragile period that threatens to get worse fast, but nor is it without hope: people are struggling mightily for peace, justice, and development here, despite all odds.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.