Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Blood of the Earth

"We have the obligation to stand up when other human beings suffer" - Dr. Denis Mukwege

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the second largest nation in Africa with a population of 75 million. Today it is home to one of the deadliest conflicts of all time, with over 5.4 million people dead. More than 90% of the deaths have come about not in combat but from preventable causes like malaria, malnutrition, pneumonia and diarrhea, a direct result of communities displaced and forced to live in overcrowded conditions without access to water, food or medicine. 47% of the deaths are children under five years old, despite them making up only 19% of the overall population.

As is so often the case with tragedies like this, colonial factors and interference by the major Western powers have played an enormous role. A summary from a 2003 Amnesty International report explains:

From the time of Belgian colonial rule, the inhabitants of the region have derived little if any benefit from its natural wealth. Instead, they have suffered an unbroken succession of abusive political administrations, military authorities and armed political groups that have looted the region and committed human rights abuses with impunity. King Leopold II accrued vast personal wealth without ever setting foot on Congolese soil. The Belgian rulers of the then Belgian Congo, from 1905 to 1960 used slave labour to plunder its rubber, ivory and timber.

A detailed summary of the conflict (including the above excerpt) can be found at the website.

From the summary:

[]...there have been many internal conflicts where all sides have been supported from various neighbors. The conflict has also been fueled by weapons sales and by military training. The weapons have come from the former Soviet bloc countries as well as the United States, who have also provided military training.

The United States military has been covertly involved in the wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a US parliamentary subcommittee has been told. Intelligence specialist Wayne Madsen, appearing before the US House subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, also said American companies, including one linked to former President George Bush Snr., [] are stoking the Congo conflict for monetary gains.

When Congolese President Laurent Kabila came to power in May 1997, toppling Marshall Mobutu, with the aid of Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Burundi and Eritrea, it was hoped that a revival would be seen in the region. Instead, the situation deteriorated. Kabila, also backed by the US, had been accused by rebels (made up of Congolese soldiers, Congolese Tutsi Banyamulenge, Rwandan, Ugandan and some Burundian government troops) of turning into a dictator, of mismanagement, corruption and supporting various paramilitary groups who oppose his former allies. As the conflict had raged on, rebels controlled about a third of the entire country (the eastern parts). Laurent Kabila had received support from Angolan, Zimbabwean and Namibian troops.

Up to the assassination of Laurent Kabila in January 2001, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia supported the Congolese government, while the rebels were backed by the governments of Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi.

The reasons for different regions getting involved are all murky. Rwanda is one example, summarizing a Daily Telegraph news report (31 August 2002): The role of Rwanda, though small, has had a number of forces in large areas of the country. This has been in the backdrop of the genocide when more than 800,000 mainly Tutsi Rwandans were slaughtered. Hutu interahamwe militia carried out most of the massacres and fled to neighboring Congo in the eastern region of the DRC after the genocide. From there, they often launched attacks into their home country, prompting a Rwandan invasion. As a result, Rwanda has justified its role in the four-year war by saying it wanted to secure its border, while critics accused it of using the interahamwe attacks as an excuse to deploy 20,000 troops to take control of Congolese diamond mines and other mineral resources.

As stated, the conflict is indeed in large part a battle for control of the DRC's vast mineral wealth, with both external and internal groups taking part in a bloody free-for-all for treasure, which includes diamonds and coltan. Coltan in particular is in huge demand as it is used for the production of tantalum capacitors, which are found in almost every kind of electronic device; not only smartphones as is commonly cited. With the massive surge in global demand for such products over the last decade, coltan is now much sought after. A very high percentage of young men in the DRC now work mining this material, even for just $1 a day, as a means of steady and quick income far preferable to farming.

The human cost of this conflict is obviously harrowing, but perhaps the most devastating element is the strategic use of rape as a weapon of war. In this 15-minute video, Dr. Denis Mukwege details atrocities of mind-numbing cruelty and savagery.

An estimated 2 million women are victims of rape and many are raped again, sometimes more than once, after returning home from what little treatment is available. 48 Congolese women are raped every hour (almost one every minute). Dr. Mukwege explains in his speech that women are raped, enslaved and tortured by soldiers of both rebel groups and government forces. Children born of rape often become victims of rape themselves, while victims are in many cases infected with HIV, as are any babies that are conceived.

In explaining why rape is used as a strategic weapon, Dr. Mukwege explains that as rapes are often committed publicly, in many cases in front of husbands and family members (who are then killed in front of the rape victim), unimaginably deep psychological trauma results which terrorizes communities and undermines traditional authority structures, which are proven ineffective as they cannot protect the women of the community. Rape is an 'inexpensive and efficient weapon', in that it can be used to drive communities out of certain areas, and dominate those who remain.

As if there was not enough horror in this nation, the more than 600,000 Mbuti pygmies living in the forests of the DRC have faced a campaign of extermination. A representative of the pygmies told the UN's Indigenous People's Forum in 2003 that his people were 'hunted down and eaten as though they were game animals'. In North Kivu province there have been reports of cannibalism by a group known as Les Effaceurs (the Erasers) who wanted to clear the land of people to open it up for mineral exploitation.

There was once a brief ray of hope for this stricken nation: Patrice Lumumba was a Congolese independence leader and the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the then Republic of the Congo after he helped win independence from Belgium in 1960. He was deposed after twelve weeks in a coup during the Congo Crisis, imprisoned and later executed by firing squad, becoming a key martyr in the African independence struggle. Lumumba had opposed the secession (backed by Belgium) of mineral-rich Katanga province.

Declassified documents have implicated the Belgian government (which has since apologized), MI6 and the CIA via a plan known as Project Wizard, authorized personally by President Dwight Eisenhower. It is an object lesson for all those who reflexively trust in the honesty of government officials that all parties for decades steadfastly denied any involvement.

It is tempting for many commentators to appeal to a sense of guilt on the part of Western consumers, whose voracious demand for the latest electronic gadgets fuels this tragedy, perhaps in the hope that some will boycott such devices and hence in some manner aid the people of the DRC (while helping to assuage any residual feelings of guilt). This misses the point. The true causes of this conflict, like so many around the world, lie in colonialism and the unquenchable greed of multinational corporations, acting under cover of the professed interests of powerful nations; usually the need to confront communism or terrorism or whatever the enemy du jour happens to be.

The issue is systemic, meaning it can never be resolved by piecemeal measures or gradual reform from within, and at the root, the nations and corporations responsible are led by human beings, a very special subset of our species motivated only by profit and power, helpfully equipped with utter disregard for the gargantuan trail of human carnage they leave behind; in psychological terms: 'sociopaths'.

Written by Simon Wood