By Michail Rassool
Only an internationally brokered dialogue with all protagonists involved in the current conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo will ensure lasting peace in the country and, for that matter, its fellow central African country Rwanda, said the director of a leading South African-based Church peacebuilding organization.
Father Sean O'Leary, an Irish-born Missionary of Africa and director of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute in Pretoria, South Africa, said the ethnic tensions and regional social contestations the region has come to be associated with - -- which, at best, have never been fully resolved (leading to constant mutually destructive flare-ups) - -- need to be negotiated and worked through.
"In the absence of dialogue, all that remains is war," Father O'Leary said.
The cleric was spoke after a visit with representatives of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, another nongovernmental organization, to Bukavu, capital of South Kivu Province in Congo's war-torn east, at the invitation of its Catholic Aarchbishop, Xavier Maroy.
The archbishop asked the group to provide "democracy training" to recently elected parliamentary representatives. The program is a joint project with the South Kivu parliament.
The visit to South Kivu took place at a time when fighting between Tutsi-led government forces and rebel militias - -- mainly Rwandan exile Hutu forces - -- had broken out again after a five-year uneasy peace following several years of conflict. The latest fighting has left eastern Congo devastated and in the grip of a humanitarian crisis. Fighting intensified early last month when rebels under General Laurent Nkunda, an ethnic Congolese Tutsi and former commander of the Rwanda-backed Rally for Congolese Democracy, advanced on Goma, displacing up to 300, 000 people.
In the same period, reports alleged, the Congolese army itself went on a spree of looting, raping and killing in the town. A double massacre also took place in nearby Kiwanja, first by the local pro-government Mayi-Mayi militia, then by Nkunda's rebels against suspected Mayi-Mayi loyalists.
Father O'Leary said the Mayi-Mayi, also are waging their own war of terror on a defenseless and vulnerable population. They are Hutu Congolese militia that regrouped in 1996, to fight the Rwandan rebels on Congolese soil. Today, they act as a backup to the Congolese army.
The response to the present situation from the international community has been lukewarm. The European Union has adopted a diplomatic approach to the crisis, although it has not completely discounted the possibility of military assistance.
An ill-equipped, small French UN peacekeeping force, Monuc, with some of 17, 000 soldiers, was entrusted with defending the people and stopping Nkunda's advance, an impossible mission that prompted its leader to resign in protest.
In his account and analysis of the Congo situation, Father O'Leary said at the heart of the current conflict is Nkunda himself. His force of some 10, 000 are known as the "banyamulenge," who claim to be defending themselves against the "interamwe," the Hutu people who left Rwanda for the Kivu region after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In 100 days then, as many as 800,000 people, mostly of the Tutsi minority, were murdered. Accounts of the genocide say the killing was planned and executed by extremist leaders of Rwanda's Hutu majority.
Observers say the genocide had an impact far beyond Rwanda's borders. A Tutsi-led rebel group, the Rwanda Patriotic Front, defeated the "genocidaires" and took control of the country. It led to a million or so Hutu refugees, including tens of thousands of Tutsi killers, fleeing across the border into Congo out of fear of reprisals.
Their presence in the Congo, and the new Rwandan government's cross-border incursions to root out the "genocidaires" among them, led to a decade of war in Congo that left more than 5 million people dead through killings, preventable disease and malnutrition, observers said.
Moreover, hundreds of thousands were displaced, leading to a campaign of brutal sexual violence against women unmatched anywhere in the world.
In the current situation, Nkunda's militia, which calls itself the Democratic Force for the Liberation of Rwanda, has ignored calls by the Congolese government to go home and assurances from the Rwandans that they'd be welcomed back. "They are clearly there in the Kivu region to stay, and integration into the local population is one of the few peaceful ways forward," Father O'Leary said. "However, this is unlikely to happen in the near future. The ethnic divide is simply too wide and the memories of the genocide too vivid."
He said Nkunda has been fighting on and off since 2004. There were some signs of hope when a peace agreement was signed by the Congolese army and Nkunda's forces in 2007. The agreement was supposed to precede integration of Nkunda's troops into the Congolese army, and they were allowed to receive equipment, uniforms and salaries.
However, Father O'Leary said, it soon became clear they had no intention of either giving up their territorial claims nor of adhering to a central military command, and by the end of 2007 fighting escalated yet again.
He explained: "The Congolese army is weak, demoralizsed and badly paid, to the point the people in Bukavu fear their own soldiers as much as they fear the advancing Nkunda army. They are in no doubt that as the city falls their own soldiers will pillage and plunder the little the people have before deserting en masse ."
But the true causes of the various conflicts in the region are to be found further afield, Father O'Leary pointed out, particularly in the tense relationship between Rwanda and the Congo.
In November last year, Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame signed an agreement which stipulated that Rwanda, for its part, may not provide support to Congolese rebels - -- that is, Nkunda and his troops - -- and that Congo should disarm a Hutu militia composed of individuals allegedly responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Despite the agreement, Father O'Leary said, there has been little progress and it is well-known that Nkunda is a frequent visitor in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. He said sources there have told the organization there is no doubt about Rwanda arming Nkunda, probably with South African arms
Rwanda's ultimate aim appears to be to eventually annex the Kivu region. While Rwanda is a relatively poor country, the Kivu region is rich in minerals, particularly gold and columbite-tantalite, the latter much sought after by technology industries overseas.
Father O'Leary believes the mining treasures are the main cause of continuous warfare in the region, further fueled by Rwanda's belief that it is in its interests for war to continue if it is to remain the principal beneficiary of Kivu's lucrative mining activities.
Michail Rassool writes from South Africa.
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