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In Congo, 'peace comes dropping slow'

Like the Yeats poem, calm proves elusive even with a new accord to end years of war.

By Nicole ItanoSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 17, 2003



JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA

Last week, Joseph Kabila, Congo's dapper young leader, stood before the country's Supreme Court with one hand on the new Constitution and the other holding aloft Congo's sky-blue flag. After 14 months of peace talks, Mr. Kabila, son of the assassinated military leader Laurent Kabila, officially became interim president of a unity government, paving the way for elections in two years and an end to years of violence.

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The moment was supposed to be a victory for African diplomacy and a success for the fledgling African Union. But in Congo, peace on paper doesn't easily translate into peace on the ground. Already, there are signs that this agreement, the latest among many since the war began in 1998, may not hold.

Only days before Joseph Kabila's inauguration, with the ink on the peace agreement barely dry, hundreds were killed in an ethnic massacre in the northeast province of Ituri. And one main rebel group has questioned the legitimacy of the new president.

The shaky footing of this fresh peace deal only highlights the complexity of Congo's war, and stems from entrenched tribal hatreds and shifting alliances that are immune to governmental agreements.

Observers say that unless the peace process begins to address these splintered factions at the country's lowest levels, there is little hope that the accord will have a lasting effect.

"One would like to hope that these recent negotiations and agreements would culminate in an end to the armed conflict and, by extension, an end to the mass human extermination," says Godfrey Byaruhanga, central Africa researcher for Amnesty International. "But ... the failures of the past do not augur well for what is likely to happen in the future."

Initial United Nations figures, based on names provided by village leaders, estimated that nearly 1,000 ethnic Hema were killed, probably by militia composed of rival ethnic Lendu. The UN now estimates the number of dead at between 150 and 300. Whatever the true total, the situation in Ituri illustrates the shortcomings of the Sun City Accord, named after the South African resort where negotiations took place.

More than 3 million people are believed to have died in the 4-1/2-year civil war that involves at least six African countries, Rwanda and Uganda being two of the biggest players. The International Rescue Committee says the conflict is the world's deadliest since World War II.

But Congo's war is actually dozens of smaller conflicts where factions, loyalties, and alliances shift by the week. Much of the fighting has occurred not between the two main rebel groups and the government, but through third parties armed by the main combatants.

"The proxy wars have been going on for many years," says Mr. Byaruhanga, who recently authored a report on escalating violence in the Ituri area. "Each side has supported various factions, and there have been accusations and counteraccusations between Uganda and Rwanda about who is supporting whom."

The situation in Ituri is perhaps the most complex and multifaceted of these miniwars. There, the larger Ugandan-Rwandan rivalry has been imposed on an area already fraught with longstanding tribal and ethnic fighting.

Between last August and March, Ituri's capital, Bunia, was held by the Patriotic Union of Congolese (UPC), a Hema-dominated movement. The UPC had gained control of the town with the support of the Ugandan People's Defense Force (UPDF). The UPDF had fallen out with the town's previous leaders, the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC), one of the country's two main rebel groups.

But by last month, the UPC had allegedly switched allegiances and was receiving support from the Rwandan Army and the Rwandan-backed Rally for Congolese Democracy Goma (RCD-Goma).

The UPDF, in turn, reportedly began supporting the Congolese Rally for Democracy Liberation Movement , a breakaway faction of the main RCD-Goma rebel group, and militia composed of the Lendu ethnic group. The ousting of the UPC, say human rights groups, set the stage for the recent massacre of Hema in the Ituri town of Drodro.

Although some of the parties involved in this conflict - including the two RCD factions, the UPDF, and the MLC - are signatories to the Sun City Accord, other important players like the UPC and the Lendu militia are not.

Some observers fear that the main combatants, barred now from direct fighting, will simply continue their power struggle through nonsignatory third parties. Nor is there much to stop these many small armed factions from continuing their own little wars.

In order to address the deepening crisis in Ituri, which was recognized as a potential stumbling block to Congolese peace even before the most recent massacre, a smaller Ituri Pacification Commission was attempting to negotiate a local peace. So far, however, these efforts have had little success. The commission's first meetings, held a few days ago in Bunia, were disrupted by mortars and gunfire.

Henry Boschoff, a military analyst for the South African Institute of Security Studies, which has been following the Congolese conflict closely, says that in order for the Sun City Accord to be successful, smaller peace efforts as well as the larger peace agreement must be fully supported by the international community. The UN peacekeeping force in Congo must be enlarged and empowered so that a power vacuum is not created, he adds.

"The international community support is very important," Mr. Boschoff says. "The political will must be nourished, must be enhanced."

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