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Congo Kinshasa RPCV Learned Dees gives a breifing on Democratic Republic of Congo
Congo Kinshasa RPCV Learned Dees gives a breifing on Democratic Republic of Congo
Just as some background I will give you a sense of where I went on my trip and limit the discussion basically to one part of the country.
I went on a trip and visited Bunia, Kisingani, Kindu, Bukavu, and Goma. And I did that over a three- week period, focusing on looking at the changing political situation, first and foremost, and looking at what people saw their roles as members of civil society in a changing political situation.
The first thing that I noticed, and it surprised me, was how much progress has been made in the course of one year. I made the same trip exactly one year ago and came away ultimately almost without hope that the situation was so bad, that there was no remedy for the situation, that the international community really didn't care, and that things would continue to go on and only get worse.
One year later when I arrived I'm surprised at how that analysis was starting with, I think, the international community's role. MONUC is a representative view of the international community's will in Congo and if it's a strong mandate that means there's a strong interest.
When I was there a year ago it was a passive mandate and I assumed it was a passive interest but that's changed incredibly in the last year pretty much because the situation got so bad that the international community was shamed into doing something.
Regardless of that motivation it has made a real difference. The difference is that MONUC is there to enforce the will of the international community and it's clear that the will of the international community is to end the conflict. So everybody out there is reading the political leaves. Which direction are we going? Is the war going to continue or is the war going to stop?
And I think almost universally whether people accept what they'll get out of it the writing's on the wall. The war is going to end as long as the international community continues to provide the resources necessary.
So that has affected the whole situation over the course of the year. I'll give you three or four examples of how that aggressive involvement by the international community has had subsidiary impact.
Number one, on communication never before have I been able to pick up a phone in Kisingani and call anybody at any point in time. Now you can buy a telephone, a cell phone, that's actually quite cheap and quite effective.
The South Africans are quite aggressive in what they see is a virgin market and they've set up their cell phone company all over the east but in particular in places where it's difficult, like Kisingani. So you can imagine the ability to use a telephone to communicate not only within Kisingani but among people within the Congo and within the east in particular has had a big impact on just the circulation of information. If something happens in Kisingani you'll hear about it within an hour or two just because there are telephones and that changes the dynamic.
I think the situation that happened maybe two or three weeks before I arrived was the whole alleged what was it, RCD split or whatever it was, I'm not sure how to characterize it but there was a faction with the RCD that wanted to restart the war. Well, that information was out, the reports were out, and they were forced to beat a retreat in part because of the communication facilities now at the disposal.
Related to that is the travel. I mean, now you have flights connecting you to Kinshasa and other points to the west frequently. So that means not only are ideas coming in but people are coming in. The ministers are coming in and it's changing the political discourse, which is the third thing.
The idea that reunification is a train on the tracks moving forward is reinforced by the ability of people to actually come and visit and to say these things publicly. I was in Bukavu about a week ago and I saw that members of the President Kabila's party were holding a rally in Bukavu and they were going through the streets in trucks with the flags. I think it's blue and yellow, the political colors of his party, surely in defiance of the local leaders there who weren't happy about that, but the fact is that they were having a representative from the party come to the airport in Bukavu. They were going to greet them and they were going to have a public rally. I also saw political activity in Goma. These things were not just possible last year so you see the political discourse has changed.
And people are reading the writing on the wall. Let's face it. Politicians are opportunistic. They're looking to see where they can go and what's in it for them. So people are saying hmm, reunification. Ministers are coming. Military attaches are changing. Maybe I want to get on that train. So it's changing from the top down, the dynamic about where the country's moving, and that's very important and very different from last year.
And the last thing is, of course, just the aggressive stance of MONUC. One of the contingents you didn't mention, Cliff, but I think has an important role to play are the South Africans. They are the ones who have a lot of the equipment, the attack helicopters, and, quite frankly, from private discussions are anxious to use those things and that makes a difference because up until now people have not been afraid of MONUC.
In fact when I arrived in Bunia three days before some unknown rebel or militia folks actually attacked the MONUC camp to basically loot it. So that shows you how much respect they had that they were going to loot an armed camp of soldiers. So until those soldiers fired back and killed six or seven their belief was that they're just toy soldiers. So that has changed and that will continue to change as long as the soldiers in MONUC actually are willing to do those things and the international community has said absolutely if you need to kill people who are not cooperating then that's what you'll do. And so that changes the political dynamic because before they were a joke, quite frankly, from the perspective of those who had guns and were willing to use them.
The human rights situation is still catastrophic, a war of cruelty for five years. A lot of it's happened in areas where there are no reporters, there are no cameras, no communications, and, as the story suggested in the Washington Post Friday, I believe, we're just discovering what actually happened.
The National Endowment for Democracy is a grant making organization. We've worked with a number of organizations that have focused for several years already on rehabilitating either victims of torture, victims of rape, and those centers have been full for two or three years. It's only now that reporters are coming in and interviewing people that they realize this has been going on for two or three years, and so that situation hasn't changed as rapidly as the political situation.
So there's a connection certainly between the human rights situation and the political situation. One expects to see improvement in the human rights situation but currently with things moving in the political framework you have a lot of armed regular and irregular soldiers still causing havoc.
And on top of that the reading is that there are going to be some losers in this peace, and those losers are going to be among the people with guns. You have the folks who are from Burundi, you have the folks who are from Rwanda, you have the Mai-Mai, and you have the RCD soldiers.
So among those four groups there are going to be a lot of losers. There are really no incentives for them in victory, in peace. Peace is not victory for them. So as a result while I was there we saw a spike in violence against civilians, primarily by the Burundian forces, at least in South Kivu. As a result they're going to be forced out of the country. What their fate is in Burundi no one knows but they are a destabilizing force and they continue to systematically rape women and attack civilians like they have for the last five years.
And this feeds into something Cliff said about the demobilization process. It's a very difficult area because you have people who have a lot to lose and you have people who actually want to get out of the bush and give up being soldiers and those who are willing to give up the guns now really need programs which will allow them to be reintegrated into their communities.
Because the political situation has moved so rapidly one gets a sense that the UN, which is a large bureaucracy, isn't ahead of the game. It's a little behind the game. So you have a lot of people who would voluntarily if you had a camp today come and give up their arms. But you can't just take their arms and call it a demobilization program because, number one, the experience in places like Kindu has been they're rerecruited, sometimes forcibly, by others.
And, two, if they don't have proper financial support then they're stranded. They're in a city, they have no means to survive on, and so what do they do? Eventually they go back to raping and pillaging.
So in order to have an effective program you have to have the resources and you have to have a program which calculates how much are you going to give them, where are you going to place them, and what sort of effective incentives do you have to keep them from being reintegrated back into any armed militia at any point in the future.
So one of the things happening is that MONUC is moving forward. It's doing what it's supposed to do but it's behind the curve, and that has a big impact on whether you're able to demobilize those first soldiers who were willing to give up their weapons.
One of the negative things that I did see throughout the east in almost all these cities that I mentioned that I visited was because of the five years of conflict, because of the possibility of political competition, particularly looking at election, there has been an increase in ethnic mobilization. In other words at some point you want to be the leader in a particular area. One of the natural ways is to rely on ethnicity.
So in Kisingani, for example, they have gone to the extreme where they have people who are known as how do I say it in English, people who are originally from an area and the distant people who are also originally from the area. In other words they're dividing up we're really from this physical place and you're really from this general place so we should control Kisingani, for example.
And so this tendency for ethnic mobilization is a worrying problem because it's only going to increase as elections become a real possibility. People are going to mobilize on a ethnic basis and whether that ethnic mobilization will be responsible has a lot to do with whether there's ethnic conflict in a peaceful transition, and that's a very worrying trend but a reality everywhere in the east as a result of five years of conflict.
The final point I would like to make and would like to get a lot of questions -- I've just thrown out a lot of issues -- is that clearly MONUC can't be everywhere. There will never be enough MONUC soldiers to enforce peace even with an aggressive Chapter 7.
And I think Congolese are aware of that fact but coming to grips with what it means is difficult because a lot of the violence is happening in the places where MONUC is least likely to ever be. And so those zones of instability I don't want to say could be permanent but that's pretty close to the reality, that MONUC will never reach out everywhere. And so as a result if you're motivated to do such you could have a little fiefdom of instability somewhere beyond the reach of MONUC.
I think that the point that I'll end on is to go back to the original point, which is the political situation has progressed more than I ever imagined possible in 12 months and I'm someone who lived in the Congo from '88 to '91 and have been going to the Congo since then every year.
And the human rights situation in the Congo since that period of time has never been great, never been good, actually, but the political situation has improved in a manner that I just didn't think possible. And so it leads me to believe that if the same level of international interest and attention is focused on Congo in the next year a similar leap in progress politically, and eventually for the human rights situation is possible.
So it does pay dividends and the last year is proof that international attention is critical to solving the crisis in the Congo.
When this story was prepared, here was the front page of PCOL magazine:
This Month's Issue: August 2004
Teresa Heinz Kerry celebrates the Peace Corps Volunteer as one of the best faces America has ever projected in a speech to the Democratic Convention. The National Review disagreed and said that Heinz's celebration of the PCV was "truly offensive." What's your opinion and who can come up with the funniest caption for our Current Events Funny?
Exclusive: Director Vasquez speaks out in an op-ed published exclusively on the web by Peace Corps Online saying the Dayton Daily News' portrayal of Peace Corps "doesn't jibe with facts."
In other news, the NPCA makes the case for improving governance and explains the challenges facing the organization, RPCV Bob Shaconis says Peace Corps has been a "sacred cow", RPCV Shaun McNally picks up support for his Aug 10 primary and has a plan to win in Connecticut, and the movie "Open Water" based on the negligent deaths of two RPCVs in Australia opens August 6. Op-ed's by RPCVs: Cops of the World is not a good goal and Peace Corps must emphasize community development.
Read the stories and leave your comments.