Goma falls to Rwanda

Rebels, called the M23, have taken Goma, the main city of North Kivu, one of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s eastern provinces. Their plan is to march to Bukavu, the main city of South Kivu, and from there, they say, across the massive country to Kinshasa, the Congo’s capital.

A geographical note is in order. The DRC’s principal cities are part of greater urban areas that cross international borders. Look at the capital, Kinshasa, on a map, and you will see Brazzaville, the capital of the other Congo, right next to it.

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Ultraviolent conflicts

Between economic austerity and riot stories, my reading is out of sync with the headlines. I’ve been reading more about African conflicts, especially very recent and ongoing ones. Specifically:

-Allen and Vlassenroot’s book on the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.

-Jason Stearns’s book on the Congo war, “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters”.

-My friend Lansana Gberie’s “A Dirty War in West Africa” on Sierra Leone, and a book he critiques, Paul Richards’s “Fighting for the Rainforest”.

-Assis Malaquias’s “Rebels and Robbers” on Angola’s civil war.

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The Rwandan Election

Paul Kagame is headed for a landslide victory at the Rwandan polls. Exit polls indicate 93% of the electorate voted for him. If some Western media commentators could vote in Rwandan elections, the number would likely be even higher.

Take Stephen Kinzer, who wrote a biography of Kagame subtitled “Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed it”. Earlier this year, Kinzer wrote in the UK Guardian about the stakes of Rwanda’s election:

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Congo Briefing at Tinto in Toronto on July 29/09

Report Back: Congo Briefing
A report from the Eastern DRC by Justin Podur

Wednesday July 29, 2009, 7pm Tinto Coffee House
89 Roncesvalles Ave, Toronto
(416) 530-5885

Writer Justin Podur visited Bukavu in South Kivu in the eastern DRC in June/July 2009 and interviewed human rights defenders, mining researchers, and medical and legal experts on sexual violence.

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Back in Toronto, via Kigali

I returned from Bukavu yesterday. A sign of a country not having full sovereignty is the fact that you have to get there through another country. Those who have business in Rwanda can go through Rwanda, flying into Kigali and going overland into Bukavu via Cyangugu, which is Rwanda’s sister city to Bukavu (and the place that the Rwandan army and militias have invaded Bukavu from numerous times during the war). An alternative is to fly into Kenya, from Kenya to Bujumbura in Burundi, and overland from Bujumbura. If you take that route, you can see a wide stretch of territory that Mobutu apparently gifted to Burundi decades ago, giving away a community of people and the national territory as if it was a knicknack of his to be disposed of.

In the days before I left, I spoke to a number of people from Congo’s “civil society”, journalists, researchers, and so on, about the conflict, the various economic and environmental aspects, and sexual violence. Sexual violence in the Congo is an important topic and it’s a central concern of a group called SAFER to which my friend Brad Macintosh, who basically arranged the entire DRC trip for me, belongs. The acronym stands for Social Aid for the Elimination of Rape, and its principal activity is to raise funds for the exemplary Panzi hospital, which I visited several times while in Bukavu. Panzi hospital is one of the places that treats the survivors of rape from this war.

I was hoping to learn about the use of rape as a weapon or a strategy of war, which was a phrase I had heard back in November 2008 when Dr. Denis Mukwege of Panzi hospital visited Toronto, sharing the stage of the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall with Stephen Lewis and Eve Ensler.

No one mentioned it at that time, but the Rwandan connection, again, seems important. I came back to Toronto via Kigali, and a one-day visit to Kigali means a visit to the Kigali Memorial Centre, where evidence, photos, physical evidence, and testimonies of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 are gathered. One of the aspects of that genocide was the systematic use of rape. A 1996 UN report on rapes during the genocide said: “rape was the rule and its absence the exception”, and estimated that 250-500,000 women and girls had been raped. Rapes were systematic: on the one hand, every single woman was raped, on the other, the rapes were almost all gang rapes. Part of the purpose was to maximize the chances of sexually transmitted infections. Rapes were done in public. They were used to terrorize, to destroy social and cultural cohesion and organization, and to physically destroy women’s bodies and reproductive capacity.

Rape occurs in all places where patriarchy exists, and the wealthy countries are no exception. In the DRC as in other countries, powerful men, including men of armed groups, force women into marriages and into sexual slavery. These crimes are rape, but they are crimes of a different character than systematic, genocidal rape.

But these patterns of rape that were seen during the genocide (systematic public gang rapes of all women in a community) have been practiced against the women of the Congo for the past 15 years, and those practicing it are mostly the Rwandan armed groups and militias, whether of the FDLR, the CNDP, or the Rwandan army directly. I have mentioned some of the effects: the emptying of the countryside, the flight to the cities, the destruction of hinterlands around the cities, the control of mining territories by armed groups (and the production of these territories largely by Rwandan interests), terror, the collapse of society and social organization, and, ultimately, millions of people dead.

As for Rwanda itself, its capital, Kigali, is a testament to what can be done with Congo’s mineral wealth. Kigali is a boom town, and contrasts in every way with Bukavu, which is just a few hundred kilometers away. Skyscrapers are being thrown up faster than you would think possible. Electricity is available all day long – you can get truly cold drinks if you want them, and hot showers. Lots of new cars on the well-maintained roads. Signs of wealth and of a rapid transformation are all over Kigali, and announced throughout the media, of which there is lots.

There are several daily newspapers in Kinyarwanda and several in English. I picked up one called “New Times”, with a cover picture of Danny Glover shaking hands with Paul Kagame (July 2/09). I also picked up a magazine called “Rwanda Dispatch” (for June/09), which includes a commentary by Kagame, first published in the Financial Times, that argues that Africa shouldn’t get any more aid. Aid doesn’t help, and African countries should find their own way. His example of how aid doesn’t help? The DRC, of course, which, is a demonstration of aid’s ineffectiveness with its 17,000 peacekeepers who “treat the symptoms rather than addressing the issues”.

What issues? Perhaps issues like the Rwandan militias who, with Rwandan military support, rape and pillage their way back and forth across the DRC, whose wealth has made Kigali a boomtown? No. Not those issues. Rather, the issues cited by Kagame are those of “capacity, self-determination and dignity”. Kagame contrasts the DRC, with its dependence on ineffective aid, with Rwanda, which has cut “aid as a percentage of total GDP by half over the past decade, and last year… grew at more than 11 per cent even as the world entered a recession.” And in previous years (a fact that didn’t make it into Kagame’s column) Rwanda also managed to export hundreds of millions in minerals that are nowhere to be found on Rwandan territory, as is documented by various UN reports. An interesting recession-busting technique, if it’s available. The message for developing countries would seem to be: don’t get aid, find a neighbour to plunder.

Rwanda has also changed from a francophone country to an anglophone country, seemingly overnight. Rwanda is now joining the East African community, where English is the common language. People seemed afraid to speak French, in fact, even when they obviously knew French better than English. I can imagine why French-speakers would be afraid to be suspected. Given how omnipresent the genocide is in Rwandan culture, and how all Hutus are suspected by the regime of being involved or complicit in the genocide, French could be associated with the genocide by the following logic. The francophone Tutsis who lived in pre-1994, pre-genocide Rwanda are dead. Those who took over Rwanda and came back post-1994 are anglophones. Those who grew up post-1994 grew up speaking English. So those who speak French would be Hutus who were around pre-1994. So if you’re speaking French now, you might have to answer for where you were in 1994. Better to not speak French. I’m not sure if that’s why, but I definitely saw fear when I tried speaking to people in French.

I can see how someone like Danny Glover, who I respect a lot, would be impressed at a country lifting out of poverty as a national project to get beyond a horrific historical event like the 1994 genocide. But the invisible price of this development project has been paid in Congolese blood.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer, just back from the DRC.

Scarcities and plunders: some economic thoughts from Bukavu

BUKAVU, DRC – Like everything else, reading material is scarce and expensive here. There isn’t a daily newspaper in Bukavu, and after visiting several libraries and bookstores in different parts of the city, I didn’t see one even from another region. The media that people rely on seems to be the radio, but I’ve met a few radio journalists and they have the same scarcities, which makes it very difficult for them to cover issues and stories (not to mention the fact that journalists who cover controversial topics get assassinated every so often – more on that later).

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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.