THE BLOG

Listening to Congo or A war with many faces

02/25/2013 04:38 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2013

It's painful to be wrong, especially about a war. My book, Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa's Deadliest War ($15.95, Oneworld, published March 15th), was the product of a journey through eastern DRC during 2007, at a time when most of the region's myriad conflicts appeared to be coming to a fitful end. Mai Mai militias were laying down their arms, foreign forces had withdrawn, elections had passed peacefully less than a year before. The rebellion of Laurent Nkunda's CNDP, backed by Rwanda, was the major remaining active conflict. A year later, there was hope that a peace agreement with the CNDP would hold.

Five years and thousands of dead later, we are back there again. With the signing of another 'framework agreement' this week, more a statement of principles than a peace deal, Congo's neighbors have once again promised not to interfere and the government has once again promised reform. But already Congolese civil society is up in arms about a peace deal in which they were not consulted. And the main focus of the international attention, indeed the proximate cause of the recent diplomacy, has been the Rwandan-backed rebel force, the M23.

Some outsiders have argued that Congo is too big to be governed effectively, but, it seems to me, it is simply too big to easily understand. Writing about Hollywood, in his book, The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "...it can be understood too, but only dimly and in flashes. Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in the their heads."

On my journey I visited rarely-reported on areas of South Kivu and Katanga province. In the area known as the 'triangle of death' between Mitwaba, Moba, and Pweto, residents spoke of horrendous atrocities at the hands of the Mai Mai warlord Gedeon and of relief that he was now in prison in Lubumbashi. I met Gedeon's father who told me that he remained proud of him, even though he didn't understand what had made his son do all those awful things. Then, in 2011, Gedeon and 966 other inmates escaped from Lubumbashi prison when masked gunmen attacked. Little was heard of him until last year when residents began fleeing from his old stomping ground with familiar stories of killings and forced recruitment. Since the middle of 2012 Radio Okapi has reported 300,000 displaced and over 60 killed in Katanga province.

While much ink is spilled about what the international community should do to help, other armed groups have been appearing and re-appearing in parts of the country that had been apparently stable for some time. In January, in the far North east, on the border with Uganda and South Sudan, a new armed group has sprung up near the gold mining town of Duruba.

The PARECO Mai Mai have become more active against the Congolese army, with 8 killed in February. Journalists report other new formations, the R11 (the 11 regions) which has declared itself against all foreigners in North Kivu and the Unions des Forces Revolutionaries de Congo, whose leader was arrested in Uvira last week. There are many others.

Although the M23 rebellion catalyzed renewed regional and international attention on a peace deal, its other main consequence appears to have been to fully lift the veil on the weakness of President Kabila and the inability of the Congolese army, and its UN partners in MONUCSO, to protect its citizens. The mirage of the state's monopoly on violence has evaporated and the market for protection is open for business.

The shifting alliances and arming of groups in response to this display of weakness is a complicated dynamic of inherited tensions, economics, and short-term politics. There are many levels to the conflict, from the international meddling to the national politicking and local peace-building and they all must be understood and addressed at once, not just the M23. This tightly woven and hotly contested landscape of fear, local politics and mafia economics is the stony territory on which the seeds of international agreements and brokered peace deals must germinate, in a land where everything from cheese to petrol to gold is part of the conflict economy.

It pains me greatly to see that hopeful moment captured in my book squandered and violence threatening again. But in one respect the message I carried away from that journey remains true: Understanding the whole of Congo's equation, expressed as it is, in often remote places and in many languages, is perhaps impossible. But the task of those that would write and advocate and make policy in a helpful direction is to start by going to the ground and listening carefully to the broadcasts from the people themselves.