Congo at the crossroads. The rebel triumph leaves the country contemplating further upheaval and even possible disintegration.(click to read more)

(The guardian Friday 23 November)

President Joseph Kabila is blamed for Congo’s disgrace, having surrendered Goma with hardly a fight to a group widely seen as a proxy of neighboring Rwanda, a thorn in Congo’s eastern side for nearly two decades. Next, the rebels could threaten Bukavu in South Kivu, expanding their control over a vast swath of lush territory rich in coltan (used in mobile phones), gold and diamonds. They have even vowed to march almost 1,000 miles west to the capital, Kinshasa, and send Kabila the way of Muammar Gaddafi.

A crowd gathers around four bodies strewn over hardened volcanic rock. Children pull T-shirts to their noses and mouths so they don’t retch but cannot resist peering at the slain young men. Two are sealed inside green body bags but the job was left half-done, exposing a face and uniformed arm bearing the Congolese national flag.

Even in death these soldiers were neglected, their corpses uncollected two days after they fell defending the frontline, despite it being a short walk to the UN peacekeeping mission in Goma, the most prized city in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Most of their comrades ran for the surrounding hills or defected to the invading rebels, known as M23, instantly gaining higher pay, more food and crisper uniforms.

“All the soldiers here didn’t get support and had to fight alone,” said Sifa Mirindi, an unemployed 20-year-old drawn to the macabre visitor attraction beneath the Nyiragongo volcano. “The president didn’t help them. We can help M23 go to Kinshasa and remove the president because he does nothing.”

Fury at the feeble showing – and at the impotence of the UN – has led to riots and the burning of cars and buildings in Kinshasa, Kisangani and other cities. The loss of Goma was a massive shock and a symbolic fracture. Not for the first time, sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest and most blood-drenched nation is facing an existential crisis. This unwieldy, failing state could begin to fragment.

The nightmare began more than a century ago when Belgian colonisers effectively set up a mass slave labour camp to plunder rubber and ivory, killing millions of people and chopping off the hands of adults and children. Congo was effectively King Leopold’s personal fiefdom and has arguably never recovered. Then, after a fraught struggle for independence in 1960, it nearly broke apart as regions turned on each other.

The holding centre of gravity was Mobutu Sese Seko, who seized power in 1965 and plundered about £3bn while Zaire, as he named it, collapsed into a series of city states with railways, roads and mail falling into ruin. Amid the rutted roads of Goma, which he seldom visited, Mobutu maintained a palace with six black Mercedes and the city’s sole ambulance.

The vicious kleptomaniac was eventually overthrown after losing his cold war sponsors in the west. Then, as now, the threat came from the east and Rwanda, where 800,000 people had been butchered by Hutus in the 1994 genocide. When Mobutu sided with the Hutus, Rwanda’s new government backed Tutsi militias which fought their way to Kinshasa and installed Laurent Kabila as president in 1997.

Kabila, who swiftly renamed the country, soon fell out with Rwanda and found himself under threat in turn. He begged neighbouring countries for help, triggering the deadliest war in African history. Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and replaced by his son Joseph, who is increasingly perceived as weak, ineffective and not up to the job.

Hutu extremists in eastern Congo launched an armed group and pledged to “liberate” Rwanda; Kigali has responded by sponsoring a series of militias of which M23 is seen as the latest.

The Congolese government has said: “We consider Congo as a country that is under foreign occupation.” It is humiliating for many Congolese, who occupy a mineral-rich land a hundred times bigger than Rwanda, yet now lag militarily and developmentally.

“We are in shame,” said Dr Simplice Vuhaka, a trauma surgeon at the Heal Africa hospital in Goma, which is receiving victims of the fighting. “Everyone knows how the national army was treated: no food, no salary. My brother is a soldier. I advised him to withdraw and join M23 and he did. The M23 people are proud now and they see Kinshasa. They’re very able to reach it because people are tired. I don’t know the future of Congo.”

The government, riven with corruption and ineptitude, is deeply unpopular with all but the small elite who milk it. Possible scenarios include M23 overthrowing Kabila or a coup by military officers incensed by his weakness, similar to that in Mali earlier this year. There are fears of wider instability and that anti-government sentiment could tear this nation of 450 tribes apart.

For Vuhaka, Balkanisation is unthinkable. “I see things in a demographic way. In a big country, people are swallowed. If you try to divide the country, someone will be in a minority somewhere. We will be like Europe when it was at war for three centuries. Having M23 in Kinshasa would be better.”

Despite the suffering and hurt pride, many Congolese loathe the idea of giving up on the state. Bolingo Kambere, 35, a hospital chaplain, said: “The important thing is a government which can show whether something is big or small. There is only one house and it depends on the administration.”

Kambere threw himself to the floor of his home when an M23 bomb destroyed the roof of a nearby house, costing one resident a limb. He has seen Goma endure biblical suffering, for instance when tens of thousands of Hutu refugees died from cholera as volcanic ash blotted out the sun. “I think as a servant of God, we can question why,” he said. “The response is that people forsake the law of God. That’s why we have widows, orphans, women who are raped.”  Amid the chaos, some are even nostalgic for Mobutu who, like strongmen before and since, presided over relative peace and unity. The current government retained power last year in an ostensibly democratic but flawed election in which its troops opened fire on the opposition.

A source at the UN, who has lived in Goma for years, said: “The country is too big for the current elite and the capacity of the Congolese today. It is rotten. The problem in eastern Congo is not Rwandan strength but Congolese weakness. The people are hopeless, hopeless.”

The source dismissed the notion that Rwanda was still protecting its border from Hutu extremists as “something only people in Britain still believe”. He added: “It’s about power and controlling all sorts of resources. A Tutsi minority rules Rwanda and they know it’s not going to be forever. They have to fight every day it lasts.”

Even by Congolese standards, Goma has endured much in its history, from mass looting by the army to the arrival of a million Rwandan Hutu refugees, years of cross-border wars and, in 2002, a volcanic eruption that poured a tide of lava through its heart. The bodies of the soldiers who died on the frontline this week were eventually collected by the Red Cross, whose staff were dealing with a power cut. “In Goma we are living under a volcano,” said one staff member, Joseph Matumaini. “One day, there could be another eruption.”

 

The Soldiers who marched into Goma this week are led by the world’s worst violators of human rights. They must be held responsible. We must end the impunity of Congo;s War Criminals (click to read more)

Last Monday, when the eastern Congolese city of Goma once again fell into the hands of an armed group – this time the M23 movement – I, Navi Palli Guardian reporter, had a clear sense of history repeating itself. The name may have changed, but the play and many of its leading characters remain the same – arguably the most brutal and tragic situation anywhere in the world during the last 20 years.    Reports suggest that the fall of Goma has been accompanied by the killing and wounding of scores of civilians – many of them children – during the fighting over the past few days. Tens of thousands of civilians have fled, and many journalists, human rights defenders, and local officials have received death threats from M23 elements.

The fall of Goma is the latest episode in a longstanding cycle of conflict centred on the huge mineral wealth and fertile land of this part of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Over the years, ruthless leaders from within and outside Congo have employed local militias, rebel movements and members of the Congolese army itself, as well as several generations of child soldiers, to gain control of the most lucrative areas. They have consistently used terror, rape and extreme sexual violence as their primary weapons, resulting in untold misery and massive violations of basic human rights for millions.

In 2010, my office published a 550-page report that outlined 617 violent incidents in the DRC from 1993 to 2003, each one involving possible gross violations of international human rights or humanitarian law. One of the most notable of the myriad groups committing grave crimes during that decade of constant conflict was the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaire (AFDL), which – among other crimes – violently dismantled refugee camps in the eastern Kivu provinces in October 1996, culminating in several large-scale massacres.

The report also notes how, from 1998 to 2003, members of another Goma-based rebel movement, known as the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD), also subjected civilians to numerous murderous attacks.

A few years later, following the 2006 national elections, many fighters who had fought with these groups started yet another rebel movement, the Congrès Nations pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP), which carried out mass killings in 2008 in the villages of Kalonge and Kiwanja under the command of Bosco Ntaganda, who has been indicted by the international criminal court.

Today, Ntaganda is still at large, and is one of the M23 movement’s top leaders. The group, which includes many other suspected CNDP and RCD war criminals, is led by some of the worst violators of human rights in the world, with appalling track records including responsibility for massacres and involvement in mass rapes. Not surprisingly, since M23 first emerged in April, the UN human rights teams in DRC have documented numerous killings of civilians and other violations, including the forced recruitment of children, which may amount to international crimes.

As demonstrated in the UN expert panel report, published on Wednesday, and in earlier UN reports, the M23 and the other groups named above have all received some degree of support from neighbouring countries, including Rwanda, with devastating and widespread consequences for the human rights situation in DRC.

External state support to a group led by war criminals is totally unacceptable, and clearly contravenes UN Security Council resolutions. Given the appalling criminal record of many M23 leaders, alarm bells should be ringing loud and clear, but once again international attention has been tepid.

The Congolese army has itself been responsible for many grave human rights violations. Earlier this week, soldiers fleeing Goma took time off to loot the homes of the civilians they were supposed to be protecting. One of the main reasons behind its poor record is the repeated integration, in the lulls after various rebellions, of the leaders of the AFDL, RCD and CNDP rebel movements.

Peace will only take root if the leaders of DRC and neighbouring countries jointly decide to make it happen and, in particular, show genuine resolve to end the devastating impunity of serial human rights violators, whether they belong to rebel groups or the Congolese army. In their summit, scheduled for Saturday in Kampala, those heads of state and international parties who support the talks must work jointly to ensure M23 commanders responsible for war crimes find themselves behind bars, not reintegrated once again into the Congolese army, running gold mines, or enjoying the looted spoils of long-suffering Goma.

Tens of thousands flee ‘extreme violence’ in Congo

(An extract from the Guardian 31st May – for the full article please click on the      RSS logo  icon on the left)

The number of displaced people in DRC is believed to be 2 million – its highest level in three years.

Aid workers say more than 100,000 people in North Kivu have fled mass executions, mutilations and rapes by armed militias

Villagers and townspeople in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are facing “extreme violence” with atrocities including mass executions, abductions, mutilations and rapes being committed almost daily, according to aid workers in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.

Fighting between the government army, the FARDC, and a group of mutineers led by a fugitive UN war crimes indictee, Bosco Ntaganda, has escalated since April. Armed militias including the notorious FDLR, a Rwandan rebel group based in Congo, have joined the fray in a multi-fronted battle for territory, money and power. But the violence has received relatively little international attention so far.

“The crisis in Congo is the worst it has been for years. The activity of armed groups has exploded, with militias making the most of the chaos to prey on the local population,” Samuel Dixon, Oxfam’s policy adviser in Goma, said on Wednesday. “Large areas of [North and South] Kivu are under the control of different armed groups – some villages are being terrorised from all sides, with up to five groups battling for power.

“Local people are bearing the brunt of extreme violence, facing the risk of massacre, rape, retaliation, abduction, mutilation, forced labour or extortion … In less than two months, more than 100,000 people in North Kivu have been forced to flee,” Dixon said.

Expressing alarm at the deteriorating situation, the UN refugee agency said the violence had sent tens of thousands of refugees spilling over the border into Rwanda and Uganda, while many more people were internally displaced.

“The mutiny in North Kivu is part of a broader picture of insecurity caused by multiple armed groups and by elements of the Congolese forces. Since the FARDC has been fighting the mutiny, other armed groups active in eastern Congo have opportunistically moved into areas left vacant by the army,” an internal NGO field report seen by the Guardian stated.

Overall, the total number of internally displaced people in Congo is believed to be at its highest level in three years: up from 1.7 million to 2 million.

Congo Child Army Leader Thomas Lubanga Found Guilty

(An extract from the Guardian 15th March – for the full article please click on the RSS logo  icon on the left)

A Congolese warlord who forced child soldiers to fight for his militia has become the first person convicted by the international criminal court since it launched almost 10 years ago. The guilty judgment against Thomas Lubanga was hailed as a legal landmark in the fight against perpetrators of war crimes and genocide around the world.  The international criminal court’s first verdict in its 10-year history finds that children as young as nine were forced to fight in the DR Congo.

Human rights groups said it was also a “pivotal victory” for the protection of children in conflict, but noted that questions remain over the court’s reach and effectiveness.

Lubanga, 51, was found to have snatched children off the street and turned them into fighters as well as using them as his personal bodyguards. They were so prevalent in his Union of Congolese Patriots force that it was known as “an army of children”. Children as young as nine took part in a ferocious ethnic conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2002-03 that left an estimated 60,000 people dead.  Competition for the region’s lucrative gold mines and trade routes was a major factor in the fighting.

It took six years from the time he was handed over by DR Congo for Lubanga to be convicted, but ultimately the three-judge panel in The Hague, Netherlands, was unanimous in finding him guilty on three counts of war crimes.

“The prosecution has proved beyond reasonable doubt that Mr Thomas Lubanga is guilty of the crimes of conscripting and enlisting children under the age of 15 years and using them to participate actively in hostilities,” said presiding judge Adrian Fulford, who took half an hour to deliver the verdict. Lubanga “was essential to a common plan to conscript and enlist girls and boys below the age of 15,” he added.

The judges said children were forced into camps in the Ituri region, where they were placed under harsh training regimes and brutally punished. Soldiers and army commanders under Lubanga’s authority used girls as domestic workers and subjected them to rape and sexual violence.

Lubanga will be sentenced later this year and faces a maximum of life imprisonment. The court cannot impose the death penalty.

But the successful prosecution is not likely to end the debate over the international criminal court’s merits any time soon. Since its creation in July 2002, the court has struggled to shake off a reputation as being slow and ineffective. Even in its apparent coming of age on Wednesday, there were attacks on the way the case against Lubanga had been handled.

Commentators also note that Lubanga is a “small fish” and that one of his co-accused; Bosco Ntaganda – remains a serving army general in eastern Congo. Mattioli-Zeltner said: “With Lubanga found guilty, Ntaganda’s continued freedom from arrest is an all the more shameful betrayal of the victims. The Congolese authorities should immediately arrest Ntaganda and turn him over to the ICC.”

The highest profile suspects among five in custody are former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo and ex-Congo vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir has been indicted for genocide in Darfur but refuses to surrender to the court. Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, whose use of child soldiers is the subject of a viral internet campaign is also wanted.