Congo as I know it

During my first assignment as a journalist in Africa, I remember sifting through a mortality report (pdf) of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where violence is erupting again this week. The statistic is still shocking: More people have been killed in the Congo than in any world conflict since WWII. More ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
591769_081031_congo2.jpg
591769_081031_congo2.jpg

During my first assignment as a journalist in Africa, I remember sifting through a mortality report (pdf) of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where violence is erupting again this week. The statistic is still shocking: More people have been killed in the Congo than in any world conflict since WWII. More than Kosovo, Colombia, Darfur, Iraq -- anywhere. Today, many of the deaths are not from fighting at all, but from cholera, malnutrition, and abominable living conditions.

The DRC sounds like a basket case -- a mess of groups and interests fighting over land, pushing civilians back and forth in an endless humanitarian trap. This week's violence is part of a long story that even most historians struggle to recount, one that began with the end of colonization, erupted after the Rwandan genocide, accelerated with the fall of President Mobutu Sese-Seko in 1997, and has seen the world's largest United Nations peacekeeping force on the ground for the last 10 years. The International Criminal Court opened its first case against a warlord from the Congo conflict.

There is just one reason this war keeps going: Congo is one of the best-endowed countries in the world, with rich reserves of gold, cobalt, zinc, uranium, copper, and yes, oil. The former Belgian colonizers, the current Congolese government, the Rwandan government, the Ugandan government, and all the rebel groups that each party supports are funded and motivated by that wealth

During my first assignment as a journalist in Africa, I remember sifting through a mortality report (pdf) of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where violence is erupting again this week. The statistic is still shocking: More people have been killed in the Congo than in any world conflict since WWII. More than Kosovo, Colombia, Darfur, Iraq — anywhere. Today, many of the deaths are not from fighting at all, but from cholera, malnutrition, and abominable living conditions.

The DRC sounds like a basket case — a mess of groups and interests fighting over land, pushing civilians back and forth in an endless humanitarian trap. This week’s violence is part of a long story that even most historians struggle to recount, one that began with the end of colonization, erupted after the Rwandan genocide, accelerated with the fall of President Mobutu Sese-Seko in 1997, and has seen the world’s largest United Nations peacekeeping force on the ground for the last 10 years. The International Criminal Court opened its first case against a warlord from the Congo conflict.

There is just one reason this war keeps going: Congo is one of the best-endowed countries in the world, with rich reserves of gold, cobalt, zinc, uranium, copper, and yes, oil. The former Belgian colonizers, the current Congolese government, the Rwandan government, the Ugandan government, and all the rebel groups that each party supports are funded and motivated by that wealth

This is not a war of the innocent and the evil. It is a conflict of buyers and sellers in which the world is intimately involved.

If it makes you shudder, then shudder you should. I do — because I can tell you what it’s like to see a resource curse in real life. Reporting from Chad, I saw fleeing women carrying their belongings on their heads, their hands, their backs, their legs. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, I stayed in houses where children of 7 and 8 years take care of younger siblings who were born during a seemingly endless war. There is nothing beautiful about the brightly colored fabric refugees wear as they march on miles of dirt road out of troubled cities. There is nothing poetic about the silence in which it happens.

Much of the diplomacy in the DRC this week has focused on stopping fleeing and feeding mouths, and understandably so. Everyone would like to end the humanitarian crisis. But that crisis is merely a symptom, not the root problem — a country flush with resources, pursued with weapons and blood. Discussions and promises of peace can only stop the hemmorhaging for a short while. Until economics are part of the mix, Congo will continue to steadily bleed to death.

Photo: WALTER ASTRADA/AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

Tag: Africa

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