The red oval represents the amount of territory in eastern Congo which is threatened should Goma fall to the CNDP, being directly in the line of the current CNDP rebel advance. Traditionally, Goma, Bukavu, and Uvira (boldface) have been linked together in that when one city falls, so follows the others. Map courtesy of MONUC, the UN Peace-Keeping force in eastern Congo.
If you want to better understand some of the serious difficulties for Congolese civilians getting caught up in the current fighting and rebel advance here, take a look at these two articles, the first from Agence France Presse and the second from the Associated Press (both released earlier today). Of course, a written article read at a distance can never provide any real “understanding” so to speak, but the recent reality of the situation in eastern Congo is well-described and worth reading.
The Agence France Presse article highlights the rising tension in Goma, which, despite the calling of an official cease-fire, seems to be heading towards a confrontation between the MONUC soldiers and the rebels loyal to Laurent Nkunda (CNDP). Experts on the region have said that if MONUC begins taking causalities, as would almost certainly happen in a fight against the well-trained and equipped CNDP soldiers, they might be forced to withdraw or retreat into a “protective shell” until their mandate is up. This would really spell disaster for eastern Congo, as these last few days have shown that when pressured, the Congolese soldiers (FARDC) flee, leaving MONUC as the last defense against rebel advance. If MONUC is absent or ineffective (as is often asserted by the Congolese civilians), that leaves just the FARDC forces to protect the population here, which the second article shows is just too much to ask for.
The Associated Press article demonstrates clearly the FARDC protocol during a retreat. When I talk to my friends here in Uvira and Bukavu, everyone says they fear the FARDC retreat almost as much as the rebel advance, in that the FARDC are famous for their tendency to rape and pillage during their retreat, seemingly unconcerned with the well-being of the Congolese who stand in the way of their quick retreat. Witnesses fleeing Goma towards South Kivu reported that FARDC soldiers fled while firing the guns into the air and nearly running those fleeing on foot (a.k.a. Congolese civilians) off the road. So, who or what are these FARDC soldiers actually protecting? Asking around, most people in Uvira have a simple response: The FARDC is there to protect the Kinshasa government’s stake to eastern Congo’s minerals (coltan, cassiterite, gold) and views the population as mere bystanders to the plunder.
Many in eastern Congo claim that the coltan found in abundance throughout North and South Kivu (pictured here) is and always has been the root of Congo’s conflict.
Bearing the current situation in mind, the popular theory does seem to hold water. If the FARDC is able to maintain a hold on eastern Congo, and stave off Nkunda’s advance, then they also are entitled to continue controlling the North and South Kivu mining territories, which are obviously directly beneficial to current president Joseph Kabila. If negotiations were made with Nkunda in some “power-sharing” arrangement, this of course divides the stakes, and makes the eastern Congo mineral fields a lot less profitable for Kinshasa and Joseph Kabila’s closest allies. It’s a reasonable theory, and I really start to believe it after reading articles like the Associated Press one linked-to above, which show the utter contempt the national army here has for the population. Not only do they (the FARDC) retreat, but they also victimize civilians along the way who have been similarly violated over and over again for the last decade. As the article summarized, last night, during the retreat to South Kivu, FARDC soldiers killed 9 civilians, raped and unknown amount of civilians, and participated in widespread looting and armed robbery.
So, either way you look at it, things just keep getting more and more confusing. Not only are Congolese in the East beginning to face FARDC soldiers retreating back to South Kivu and the atrocities they bring, but they might also have to bear the rebels who seem intent on chasing the fleeing FARDC soldiers down. Thus, consider the position Congolese civilians are placed in given the increase of hostilities. Literally no one to rely on, constantly on the move from place to place, and often ignored by the international community until serious crises are well developed (i.e. the current situation in Goma), there is just no time for so many Congolese to catch their breath and try to keep their families and communities together. These last two months, there have been at least 250,000 Congolese added to the list of those “on the run” from insecurity, and that number, especially considering that Goma is a huge population center, is growing by the minute. These last weeks of conflict have the potential to set eastern Congo back significantly in terms of the difficult work that has been done to build peace and re-establish torn communities, and the situation just seems to be getting further from resolution.
Posted By Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)
Posted Oct 31st, 2008