Africa’s Bleeding Heart


Published November 06, 2008, issue of November 14, 2008.
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Two Jews meet at a depot on their way out of Europe. This is not the set-up for a joke — far from it. The travelers are the foreign ministers of France and Great Britain, Bernard Kouchner and David Miliband, and they were journeying to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, hoping to stop a lingering genocide.

Congo, a sprawling nation the size of Europe, has been wracked for the past decade by horrific, chaotic fighting. Seven neighboring nations and countless local militias have been battling in a remote Congolese region over ethnic rivalries and rich local mineral resources. The world’s deadliest conflict since World War II, it has left an estimated 5.5 million dead, mostly innocent civilians, from warfare and resulting disease and starvation. The tragic numbers dwarf the better-known tolls in Darfur, Iraq, Chechnya and the other killing fields. The international response has ranged from ineffectual to apathetic.

The British and French ministers are pressing for a major European intervention to stop the madness. Miliband, a son of Holocaust survivors, and Kouchner, a grandson of Holocaust victims, want to convince a hesitant European Union to send a serious military force, big enough to rein in the killers and enforce an agreement.

The initiative is welcome and urgent. But it’s important that the right pressure be applied in the right places. The war is a spin-off of the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, where radicals of the majority Hutu tribe managed in six weeks to massacre 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Afterward, masses of Hutus fled across the border to makeshift refugee camps in Congo. From there, Hutu radicals have staged continuing raids into Rwanda and against native Congolese Tutsis.

In 1998, Rwandan troops entered Congo to stop the marauders. Other neighbors intervened, and a seven-nation bloodbath ensued. A peace of sorts was reached in 2003, putting 17,000 United Nations troops on the ground, but low-level fighting continued among no fewer than 22 armed groups and the Congolese army, itself little more than an unruly militia. Another agreement was signed last January, yet looting, murder and rape still go on. According to the United Nations, more than 1 million people are homeless refugees.

The current crisis erupted in August, when the largest militia launched a new offensive. Its leader, Laurent Nkunda, is a Congolese Tutsi who fought with the Rwandan army against the Hutu genocidaires before forming his own force in 2004. He claims he’s fighting to stop the Hutu marauding, protect Tutsis — and, lately, to challenge the brutal, corrupt Congolese government. Most outsiders see him as just another power-hungry warlord.

Diplomatic efforts focus mainly on restraining the warlords, beginning with Nkunda, and restoring sovereignty to government forces. While curbing the power of the warlords would be an important step toward ending the slaughter, it is not by itself sufficient. Government troops are as abusive as the others; worse, they’re known to cooperate with the Hutu gangs. As long as the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide continue their reign of terror from sanctuaries in Congo, the country is not likely to find peace. Negotiators should keep that in mind as they try to bring an end to the current chaos.

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