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Wading Through the Remnants of a War-Torn Country

By Paul Miller

There we were in a bobbing quandary, broken and almost out of steam, lacking any apparent forward movement, a rudderless metaphor for the people of the Congo. We were on the "Chinese" boat, one of a handful of crafts that shuttle passengers between the northern and southern reaches of Lake Kivu, more reliable than the roads which connect these cities of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lake Kivu is part of the great Rift Valley that cuts through central and east Africa like a scar of lakes, valleys and volcanic mountains. The passengers and crew were motley: an elderly Churchman (Monseigneur), a well-dressed businessman (Monsieur le directeur), a young mother with a baby, a man on crutches, two unkempt eastern Europeans (Ukrainian smugglers?), a few local aid workers -- the normally unsung heroes of any relief effort - and me, the aid guy from headquarters, in my case that would be Baltimore where Catholic Relief Services has its home base.

In an effort to explain the tangled and shifting set of militias and alliances among the parties to the long running conflict in this part of Africa, a long-time resident once told me, "Paul, in eastern Congo, the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy". The current war raging in the region represents either embers of a dying fire or fresh sparks in a dangerous new conflagration. But one can trace the broad arc of violence from the 30 years of the Mobutu dictatorship supported by western countries. The legacy of this predatory state -decay of the little existing infra-structure, few if not nonexistent services, and endemic corruption -- provided fertile ground for the toxic overflow of the Rwanda genocide. A war called Africa's first world war took place in the Congo between 1998 and 2003. More than half a dozen African countries sent troops, occupied and plundered while millions died, some in combat, most from exposure to disease after multiple displacements. Brutal, unspeakable violence against women in particular reached epidemic proportions and continues now in each successive paroxysm of clashes.

Despite a peace deal, the integration of rebels and militias into the Congolese army, a constitutional referendum and elections throughout the country in 2006-7, the east has continued to boil in a pot filled with acronyms. There are rebels claiming to represent ethnic interests (CNDP), remnants of the genocidaires of 1994 Rwanda (FDLR), and various other local defense forces (Mai- Mai, PARECO). They all signed an agreement in January 2008: the Goma accords. But the promised peace has not held. The UN peacekeeping effort - the largest in the world -- is hobbled by capacity, mandate and leadership issues, so the people, and sometimes the humanitarians, are not always protected. Innocents continue to suffer. While political, land and other interests might motivate the violence, the war hums along fueled by the same vast mineral wealth which attracted foreign armies to these parts in the last decade. The Congolese bishops in a delegation that visited the U.S., Canada and Belgium -- sponsored in part by CRS -- warned that each Western "cell phone may have a drop of Congolese blood", a reference to coltan, a mineral found in such electronic devices and in relative abundance in the DRC. It is one of the riches whose Midas touch has destroyed so many communities by violence and displacement. The bishops asked for more attention and muscular U.S. and international diplomacy that would evenhandedly pressure all sides, Congolese and Rwandan governments, proxies, rebels, and militias, to respect the accords they had signed.

The latest news is an unexpected partnership between once-sworn enemies, the governments of Rwanda and Congo. The deal is this: Rwanda has a gripe against the remnants of those that led the 1994 genocide who roam eastern Congo with their army, the FDLR. Rwanda has backed various militia to fight them, most recently Laurent Nkunda's CNDP whose fighting last summer and fall brought more misery, death and displacement. Now Rwanda has broken with the CNDP, taken Nkunda into custody, and joined with the Congolese army, such as it is, to fight the FDLR. This may mean that Rwanda and the DRC will quit backing these various warlords who have kept this region in chaos, especially if the FDLR is actually defanged. Or it may be yet another trip on the merry-go-round of violence that too often defines life in the eastern Congo.

Signs of hope:

Even in the penumbra of all this gloom, the people I met during my trip to the region -- the Congolese on the boat, the ordinary and extraordinary figures of coping and dignity in the displaced persons camps, and those reaching out to help others - were not down but, on the contrary, up, hopeful and uplifting. Father Justin heads the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission in Bukavu on the southern end of Lake Kivu. He paused for tea after a long day and explained a little bit about the Bukavu peri-urban community where he lives, full of people who had arrived recently from the countryside fleeing war. When he arrived he was greeted by a spate of killings -- homicides linked to the region's conflicts and the despair of the new urban refugees. His first sermons preached a simple gospel: "Know and help your neighbor. Say hello to the next person you see. Ask him what he needs, how you can help." To this he added an early warning reconciliation system-- a few dollars worth of whistles to signal help. Sounding them became a call to defuse tensions and avoid a fight. Within a year, Justin said the murder rate had dropped 90%. Justin introduced me to the rector of the Catholic University - a former aide to local archbishop murdered in 1996 -- who beamed with pride describing his new Master's course in human rights, thinking about producing a cohort of leaders for a new dawn of peace.

In the United States, many who learned about African issues like Darfur and conflict diamonds became advocates for justice on the continent. Bolstered by a growing grassroots movement of church and school groups, they are now working to design ways of preventing the importation into the U.S. of conflict minerals from eastern Congo. They are figuring out how to approach the electronics industry to partner in the effort

Back on the boat the Chinese owner was apologizing through an interpreter about the mechanical failure. He announced an 'on-lake' transfer of baggage and passengers to a substitute boat which was now approaching. We, the people -- newly gregarious and connected by this mishap -- would have none of it. We quickly organized and made clear our objection to this dangerous maneuver ("We have women and children; sick people aboard..."). The boat was able to limp back into the nearby Goma port and effect the transfer there. Newly outfitted with a surer vessel, we continued our journey on the placid waters of Lake Kivu-- admiring the outrigger fishing canoes. And in the sparkling spray we laughed at our new-found influence, a little more confident that if we all worked hard together, maybe we could get somewhere after all.