Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Blessed and cursed with enormous mineral wealth, the Democratic Republic of Congo has experienced a long and brutal civil war that has left over four million people dead and forced some two and a half million to flee their homes.

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By Kirthi Jayakumar

The persistent fighting in the Congo is easily among the worst and most lethal conflicts since the Second World War. The International Committee of the Red Cross has put a number on the figure – noting that as many as 5.4 million people have died in the conflict. A cursory glance at the trajectory of DR Congo’s political history reveals that land, language, ethnicity, migration, access to natural resources and national security are the most prominent of a host of factors that have helped protract the conflict. In the chaotic aftermath of the Rwandan civil war, refugees fled to the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Some Interahamwe – a militia partially responsible for the Rwandan genocide – crossed the border to avoid prosecution for their crimes against humanity.

The Rwandan genocide was the catalyst to the conflict. In 1994 approximately 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis were killed in the genocide perpetrated by the key Rwandan power brokers, members of the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR), the Interahamwe, and other ad hoc militias. In 1994, somewhere in June-July, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), comprising Tutsi exiles who operated out of Uganda, usurped Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, plugging killings by the Hutu. In fear of prosecution for the crimes committed by them, over a million Hutus fled into DR Congo – which at that point was known as Zaire – seeking refuge from possible reprisals from the civilians, the government and the Justice system. The DR Congo became space for them to regroup and retaliate with reprisals across the border, against the surviving Rwandan Tutsis. The region where the Rwandan Tutsis were present, was by itself, a hotbed of conflict. Long standing ethnic tensions blew up into violence between Congolese people, ethnic groups and speakers of Kinyarwanda, under the notion that the latter were not true Congolese. The Hutus entered the battle, augmenting existing tensions and conflicts, culminating in the exodus of as many as 38,000 Congolese Tutsis to seek refuge in Rwanda in 1995. Rwanda relied on national security and stability concerns owing to Hutu extremism in 1996, as a basis to fuel a rebellion in DR Congo, with Laurent Kabila at the helm. This rebellion overthrew erstwhile president Mobutu, and culminated in the First Congo War. Rwanda armed and trained the Kinyarwanda-speaking fighters in Kabila’s troupe, called the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, which joined regular armed forces from Rwanda and Burundi. Refugee camps in Eastern DR Congo were the targets. The groups advanced in on Kinshasa, targeting refugees all the while, ultimately ousting Mobutu and installing Laurent Kabila as the President. The First Congo War had ended.

The fighting, however, was still not over. In 1998, new tensions and frictions between the Kabila Government, Rwanda and Uganda began, lasting until 2002. The rebel groups – with backing from the Rwandan and Ugandan governments – began launching attacks in the east, with the goal of overthrowing Kabila. Renewed conflicts brought Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe into the picture, in assistance of Kabila. Twenty five separate armed groups fought each other. Despite the interim 1999 ceasefire signed in Zambia and the UN’s deployment of UNMONUC (the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 2000, fighting thrived on a massive scale. In 2001, President Kabila was assassinated. With the incumbent’s office having fallen empty, his son, Joseph Kabila, assumed the presidency.

The conflict ran its course in 2002, when the Second Congo War ended following the signing of another peace agreement between the Congolese government and the rebel groups in 2002. The compromise was that Rwanda would withdraw its troops from the region, in exchange for a promise from the Congolese government that it would disarm and arrest all the Rwandan Hutus who committed genocide. Despite this, the fighting still continued.

Elections in pursuit of a mandate for the Lusaka Agreement were held in 2006. Joseph Kabila was formally elected, and several agreements were forged with rebel groups. One such group, the Mai Mai, were set to be integrated into the regular Congolese armed forces, although not much has been done on this front. The fighting continued in an attempt to win control over the country’s lucrative mineral wealth.

Peace agreements were brokered in all sincerity – with the 2007 Nairobi Communique between Rwanda and the DR Congo, the 2008 Goma Agreement between the DR Congo and Laurent Nkunda, a rebel leader. Nevertheless, the fighting has not ceased. By February 2008, there was an estimated toll of 6,000-7,000 foreign, non-state armed groups who were active in Eastern DR Congo. Coupled with the fighting were a host of other factors – including the lack of sufficient food, frugal water resources, the collapse of healthcare systems and disease – which added to the death toll. Children have been conscripted into the army, torture has been a choice weapon.

A Congolese woman from Aru, Ituri, knitting in front of her house with a baby on her back, in Ituri, Democratic Republic of the Congo (UN Photo/Martine Perret).

Sexual Violence in the Congo

Amidst death, displacement, disease and squalor, thousands of women were raped and mutilated in the DRC. Many can attest that the momentum to kill and maim is still in full swing despite a peace agreement signed in 2003. Sexual violence in Congo goes back to the beginnings of the conflict itself. The regular armed forces of all nations involved in the two wars, plus the numerous rebel groups, have widely used rape as a weapon of war. The Congolese regular army (FARDC) and the Congolese National Police Force (PNC) account for close to 20 percent of all sexual violence. The integration of former militia members into regular armed forces, with no mechanism for excluding human rights violators, has contributed to the problem. Those in positions of government authority are also among the perpetrators, and even UN peacekeepers have committed acts of sexual violence. As rape was adopted as the preferred weapon of control, so women have had to suffer the horrors of gang rapes, torture, sexual slavery, sexual abuse and harassment.

Armed groups began functioning like organized crime cartels, employing force to win control of mineral deposits in Congo. The outside world boycott the trade in these “conflict minerals” as they came to be known. This, however, was of little use to the women who suffered, and those who continue to suffer. These offences themselves went largely unchecked and unnoticed. The war provided an easy climate for such offences to take place. Congolese men have been killed because they refused to indulge in raping their sisters, daughters and mothers.

Nestled in the hills along the Rwandan border, the Panzi Hospital stands as the last hope for many of Congo’s victims of sexual violence. As mentioned by the American Journal of Public Health, 48 women are raped per hour in Congo on average, and the toll of women who were victims of sexual violence in 2007 was some 4,000,000. Women are afraid to speak up, to speak out and to be heard. Elections are held from time-to-time, but women are afraid to participate for fear of being subjected to violence for their campaigns denouncing sexual violence. A thriving culture of impunity and complacent acceptance of violence has culminated in rape being indiscriminately perpetrated by civilians and militia against women of every age and background.

The civil war has been one of Africa’s most destructive conflicts of all time. The widespread and systematic use of rape and sexual violence as a tool of war has become the face of the conflict. Thousands of cases of physical and psychological trauma have ensued, which is further compounded by the social stigma faced by victims. Forced to bear the brunt of the physical and psychological damage of the sexual violence itself, these women are also forced to labour under the burden of rejection by their own spouses, parents and children. To be related to a victim of sexual violence is the equivalent of tarnishing the honour of the family. In the few families where the woman is accepted, she is either a subservient entity or forced to accept that her husband will remarry. Unmarried girls as victims of sexual violence suffer greater indignities. From being forced to marry her rapist to being thrown out of the house for the loss of her virginity, to being considered the very reason for the violence she faced and being spurned because of being impregnated, their plight is fraught with ill-treatment at every turn.

The physical burden of being a victim of sexual violence is a very, very difficult prospect. Women find themselves suffering fistulas from the repetitive instances of sexual harassment, often incurable or at the very least requiring multiple surgeries. Pregnancy complications, incontinence and internal bleeding are only the tip of the iceberg. Women sometimes keep away from speaking out in fear – of either stigmatisation or of incurring the wrath of the perpetrator. Poor health care offers only so little to remedy their condition.

Kirthi Jayakumar is a Lawyer, specialized in public international law and human rights. A graduate of the School of Excellence in Law, Chennai, Kirthi has diversified into research and writing on public international law and human rights. She has worked as a UN Volunteer, specializing in human rights research in Africa, India and Central Asia and the Middle East. She also runs a journal and consultancy that focuses on international law, called A38.

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