A few faint rays of hope may be on the horizon for the situation in the Ituri District of northeastern Congo and the fate of the Mbuti people living—and dying—there. Hope, that is, if the events reported this week lead to effective actions that will curb the violence.
The week opened with a New York Times report on April 10 that soldiers of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), assisted by United Nations troops, were able to arrest the leader of one of the key militia groups in eastern Congo. Various militias and invading armies have been fighting, looting, raping, murdering, and plundering eastern Congo, and especially the Ituri District, for a decade. Chris Aberi, the DRC government prosecutor in Bunia, the chief town of the Ituri District, reported that he had been able to apprehend Kahwa Mandro, the leader of a group called the Pusic militia. The Times indicates that more than 60,000 people have been killed in Ituri District alone since 1999.
News about the Ituri District continued on April 11 with a report on the U.S. National Public Radio’s program “Morning Edition.” The NPR reporter interviewed General Patrick Camerte, a division commander with the United Nations forces trying to bring stability to the region, who says that the Ituri “is one of the richest provinces in the world on minerals—gold, diamonds, cobalt, coltan,” a mineral used in the manufacture of cell phones and other tech equipment. General Camerte believes that the wealth of the district leads to the “gang rape, killings, abductions, child soldiers, you name them. It’s all in the province of Ituri.”
Also on April 11, the South African news service the Mail & Guardian Online reported that the law suit filed by the DRC against Uganda, one of the countries that invaded in the recent past, has finally gotten underway at the International Court of Justice. The DRC complaint had been first filed in 1999 against the three major invaders, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda, but the suit was delayed pending attempts to resolve the situation diplomatically. But the trial just opened with the DRC representative stating that the invading Ugandan army occupied the DRC land, stole Congo’s resources, and killed its people. “ Uganda continues … giving arms to our ethnic groups fighting in the Ituri province,” he said, adding that “ Uganda is behind a network of warlords who Uganda continues to supply with arms.”
Another international actor, looking on from the sidelines, the Pan-African Parliament, resolved on April 11 to send a fact-finding mission to the Congo in May, to assess the situation first hand and report back to the PAP, according to a report from Africast.com. The President of the PAP, Gertrude Mongella, indicated at a press conference, “we can not just sit and watch. We also support African leaders to facilitate peace process on the continent.”
Finally the Pretoria News reported on April 11 the substance of a press conference held by the American diplomat Bill Swing, head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, or MONUC as it is usually called. Swing, discussing the prospect of elections in Congo, which the UN is trying to organize along with the government of South Africa, said an election will be very difficult to organize—the DRC may have over 25 million voters, so about 9,000 voter registration centers would be needed and about 40,000 voting places. His commitment to elections was not clear from the report.
While these news reports may be nothing more than hopeful signs, the question remains, how is all of this affecting the Mbuti, the generally peaceful society living mostly in the forests of the Ituri District? The news reporters interview generals, commanders, and politicians but they do not risk their lives to go into the local villages. A report by Minority Rights Group International published in mid-2004 (and reviewed here December 26, 2004) did describe the tragic pattern of human rights abuses against the Mbuti, based on extensive local interviews.
Unfortunately, newer information about their situation is not available—news reports focus on the Ituri District that they live in. Z Magazine, however, did carry in its February 2005 issue a lengthy, analytical article on the DRC violence by journalist Keith Harmon Snow, which is available on the Web. Snow’s article updates and broadens the scope of the Minority Rights Group International report.
Another recent report by the same journalist, dated March 30, 2005, but apparently first released in July of 2004, provides even broader coverage of the complexities of the Congo violence. Snow describes briefly but graphically, the horrors of the marauding forces, such as the rape by DRC soldiers of a seven year old girl, whom he names with the village she lives in. But he focuses most of his two articles on the various governmental and corporate actors that are operating behind the scenes.
Snow reports that Rwanda is apparently intending to set up a Republic of the Volcans in eastern Congo, with Rwandan sympathizers as the basis for the new country. Rwanda used the excuse of threats from Hutu rebel forces operating in Congo for its most recent invasion of DRC beginning on November 26, 2004. The DRC Orientale Province, and especially the Ituri District of that province, he says, “is arguably the bloodiest corner of the world…. All parties committed summary executions, abductions, disappearance, forced labor, extortion, mass rape, sexual slavery and routine conscription of child soldiers.”
He says the same things General Camerte told NPR, that the reason for the interest in Ituri is that it has rich resources of gold, diamonds, petroleum, timber, and coltan. Various human rights groups have reported that the armies of Uganda and Rwanda, and their proxy militias, have been rapidly stripping the natural wealth out of the DRC, using the conscripted labor of Congolese prisoners. Snow cites his own interviews with representatives of several different international human rights agencies as he builds his case against the foreign despoliation and destruction of Congo.
Unfortunately he sometimes fails to give sources for his information, or simply cites un-named parties. His sources for numerous allegations about the involvement of major international corporations in the theft of resources are often not indicated, so the reader is left wondering about the innuendo. He alleges that Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, is a tool of the U.S., but as evidence he only cites Kagame’s contacts with official Washington. Thus, Snow’s arguments, and extensive details, about government (including the U.S.) and corporate involvement in the Congo violence are fascinating, but they are weakened by his frequent failure to provide convincing evidence.
But there can be no quibbling about his information on the Ituri District and the Mbuti. Quoting from a report from the human rights group Survivor’s Rights International, he concludes, “The situation … remains unstable, with recurring acts of genocide and crimes against humanity….The indigenous Mbuti pygmies continue to suffer the brunt of abuses from all sides.”
All reports indicate that the violence continues unabated. But perhaps the news this week shows slight signs of progress, that international involvement and condemnation of the Congo tragedy may help stop the relentless fighting and allow peace and stability to return to the Ituri forests and the Mbuti people.