Conflict in the eastern Congo rooted in the Rwandan genocide

The eastern Congo has been ravaged by foreign invasions and homegrown rebellions that have killed and displaced millions. A fragile peace process seeks to bring stability to central Africa, but its hard-won gains remain at risk.

VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A Rwandan boy covers his face from the stench of dead bodies in this July 19, 1994 file photo. April 7, 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide which killed 800,000 people. The three-month killing spree in 1994 by Hutu extremists targeted ethnic Tutsis, but moderate Hutus were also caught in the wave of violence that followed the fatal downing of a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana. REUTERS/Corinne

For nearly two decades, the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have been the epicenter of the deadliest conflict since World War II. Part of a vast country straddling the heart of central Africa, the eastern Congo continues to defy efforts at pacification. As the conflict has morphed from a regional war to a series of tenacious local insurgencies, the civilians caught in the middle have paid the steepest price.  In addition to the ongoing humanitarian crisis, continued instability in sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country by area has strategic implications for the entire region. The DRC’s vast natural resources hold great potential but also complicate efforts at peace. 

The eastern Congo’s minerals power the world’s consumer electronics, and the country’s largely untapped farmlands have the potential to feed the rest of Africa. Yet disputes over these resources also drive the conflict, and rebel groups seek to control them to fund their own campaigns.  Subject to foreign interference since the colonial era, the eastern Congo poses difficult questions about the role of international intervention.

The UN mission, the largest peacekeeping deployment in the world, has provided crucial support for the DRC’s peace process, but many observers argue that it lacks a clear strategy for sustaining the peace and eradicating the plethora of armed groups that remain. As the country seeks to consolidate its democratic progress with presidential elections in 2016, the Congolese government, Western policymakers, and regional leaders all face pivotal decisions.

 Death, Displacement, and Deprivation

The wars that have raged in and around the eastern Congo since 1994 have heaped by far the greatest suffering on the civilian populations caught in the crosshairs. The death toll in the country has topped 5.4 million, the vast majority of these in the east, while nearly three million people remain displaced and more than one million women and girls have been victims of rape.

Soldiers killed in direct combat have, by many estimates, totaled less than 10 percent of the conflict’s overall deaths.  Nor have civilian casualties been simply an unfortunate byproduct of fighting. Rather, civilians have been targeted for supporting opposing rebel groups or for their ethnic identity. They have been robbed, displaced from their homes and villages, and pressed into service as slaves. Women have borne the brunt of sexual violence, wielded as a weapon of war.

Driven from their homes, many have died from hunger and disease.  

The Congo crisis has from the start been defined by mass displacement, which has strained the resources and organizational capacity of UN relief agencies, the Congolese government, and humanitarian NGOs. The conflict began when nearly two million Rwandans crossed into the eastern Congo in the wake of the 1994 genocide. The region has since become home to semipermanent tent cities housing more than 2.7 million internally displaced Congolese as well as hundreds of thousands of foreign refugees.

For civilians, the choice has often been between languishing in overcrowded camps, fleeing into the region’s dense jungles to be exposed to roving militias, or, for refugees, returning to their country of origin and risking persecution.

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