You Need to Hear
focuses on the conflict after 1997. But it has its roots in 1992.
This is the story you need to hear. Zawadi
Some people have
called the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo “Africa’s World War.” Indeed,
it is the deadliest international conflict since World War II. An
estimated 5.4 million
have died as a result of the conflict either through direct violence
or the indirect consequences of war (disease, poverty, malnutrition).
Yet few people understand the nature, breadth, or history of the conflict
in the eastern DRC, in part because reporters and journalists have
been highly restricted and threatened in their movements. For the most
part, however, the world tends to focus on the development of the conflict
since 1997, even though the roots of the conflict go back as far as
the Berlin Conference of 1885. It is only through the currents of history
that you can begin to understand the conflict in North Kivu today.
The DRC is a massive
territory stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to eastern Central Africa,
sharing borders with Angola, the Republic
of Congo, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi,
Tanzania, and Zambia. Its land mass is approximately equivalent to
that of all of the U.S. east of the Mississippi. Yet the recent conflict
in the DRC has predominantly been isolated to only the DRC’s
most eastern provinces—North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri (the
map to the right highlights key areas of conflict)—an area just
smaller than Pennsylvania.
The scramble for Africa could be labeled as the starting point for
the ethnic conflict in eastern DRC today. At the Berlin Conference
of 1885, European nations arbitrarily placed lines across the continent
of Africa and gave power over the new nation states of Rwanda, Burundi,
and what was then known as the Congo Free State to Belgium.
Today, Rwanda claims that the region of the DRC encompassing the Masisi
territory, Rutshuru, all the way down to South Kivu (an area extending
down to Bukavu) is historically part of the Rwandan kingdoms. Rwanda
also claims portions of Uganda and Burundi. This is one dynamic at
play in the conflict today.
A second dynamic
at play is that throughout the early colonial period, the eastern
DRC became a predominantly Hunde area due to the Belgians’ division
and categorization of ethnic groups. Then, in the late 1950s, the Belgians
forcefully imported Hutus from Rwanda to exploit the fertile land of
the Masisi territory (the Belgians believed that the Hutus were stronger
workers than the Hunde) and Tutsis to oversee the Hutus labor.
Nyamitaba in Central Masisi was the first area of forced migration
by the Belgians. While it was the center of the seven surrounding villages,
the importation of Hutus and Tutsis was so large that it was not long
before they were the majority in the area. Because the Belgians had
made a deal with the Hunde leadership prior to the forced migrations,
Hutus and Tutsis were excluded from the leadership of the area.
When the Congo Free State gained independence in 1960, the new Constitution
recognized all people brought over from Rwanda before 1960 as Congolese.
Later, after Mubuto Sese Seko took power, they were also recognized
as Zairois. However, the Hunde leadership continued to deny Hutus and
Tutsis entrance into local power structures.
War broke out in
1964. It was called the “War of Kinyarwanda,” meaning
that Hutus and Tutsis were fighting for their right to leadership in
the Masisi Territory. Hutus eventually took power and declared that
there would be no more fighting. So, as a local pastor described it, “People
kept quiet. They lived together, but like cats and dogs. They lived
together because the master wanted them to, they were obligated. But
by their own will, the Hutu and the Hunde would not live together” and
tensions continued to grow.
In 1977, Hutus
and Tutsis were elected to the Parliament for the first time. The
term was 5 years long. Upon completion of this first term,
a national mandate was issued denying Hutu and Tutsi candidates’ participation
in national elections; it was not until 2006 that they were again allowed
From 1982, people
in the Masisi territory began to divide even more. Militias started
forming and in 1992 war broke out again. In our interviews,
locals called this the “second phase of the war,” a continuation
from 1964. The Hutu land holders formed one militia, the Pareco. The
Hunde formed another militia, the Mai-Mai. After the genocide in Rwanda
in 1994, the Interahamwe, or Hutu génocidaires, who fled (still
armed) to Congo formed their own militia, the FDLR. The Congolese Tutsis
fled to Rwanda after Paul Kagame, the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic
Front, gained victory in Rwanda and welcomed back all Tutsi refugees
and people. In this way, the war and conflict just kept on expanding.
In 1996, although the international community often claims that this
is when the war started, the third phase of the war began. First,
militias backed by Rwanda and Uganda ousted 30-year ruler Mubutu
Sese Seko in what became commonly known as the “Liberation
War.” Then, after newly installed former-rebel President Laurent
Kabila broke his alliance with his former backers, the Rwandan and
Ugandan militaries invaded eastern DRC claiming they were looking
for members of the Interahamwe, or the Rwandan génocidaires,
in the “Re-Vindication War.” The people we spoke with
in Nyamitaba stated that at this point “organized and systemic
rapes and massacres began, houses were set on fire, and there was
massive displacement.” The ethnic war had become an international
war: Rwanda and Uganda against the Congolese army backed by Angola,
Zimbabwe, and Namibia. However, according to one of our HROC participants,
it was actually “an open, ‘legitimized’ war between
three ethnic groups. It was all about revenge.”
A peace agreement
was signed in 2002 which supposedly brought an end to the war and
the integration of militias and rebels into the national
army. However, the military integration process fell apart when one
rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, refused the offer to be a general in
the national army and began organizing a new, predominantly Tutsi,
rebel group, the CNDP. Despite the “official” end to the
war, the worst abuses of the conflict in the eastern DRC were still
The first multi-party elections in over 40 years were held in the
DRC in 2006. Joseph Kabila, the son of the former President, won the
election based on a campaign to end the violence in eastern DRC. But
only months after President Kabila took office, the CNDP attacked the
national army, leading to a period of even worse displacement, lootings,
recruitment of child soldiers, and sexual violence.
In 2007, an attempt
to “mix” the CNDP with the national
army was tried again and then abandoned, the only result being a quadrupling
of the CNDP’s brigade size. In 2009, in a shift in former political
alliances brought about by international pressure to end the conflict
in North Kivu, the DRC and Rwandan militaries launched a joint offensive
against the FDLR (former Rwandan génocidaires).
Today, North Kivu
remains politically divided. The national government, CNDP, and FDLR
all maintain political control over particular sectors
of the province, especially in the Masisi territory. Six years after
the war “ended,” people still live in fear. When we spoke
with HROC participants in Nyamitaba, they told us that people in the
surrounding villages still sleep in the bush at night, only returning
to their houses during the day, for fear of the militias and army which
patrol the area.
As Zawadi says, the conflict in the DRC cannot be simplified to the
invasion of eastern Congo by Rwanda and Uganda. It is a long and complex
history of building mistrust and hatred between ethnic groups. To walk
the road of peace, this is the story that needs to be understood.
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