Congo's Quiet Descent

Vortex of human disaster attracts greed and no real help

Quietly behind a curtain of international indifference, an African tragedy is unfolding in Congo. This beautiful and immensely rich country has been invaded by its neighbors, not for the high-minded purposes pretended in their rhetoric but out of greed and fear.

Forget the idea of, on the one hand, helping President Laurent Kabila restore democracy, or, on the other, removing his regime only in self-defense against the enemies he harbors. In fact, forget Mr. Kabila, who figures in this drama not as a mover or even a player, but as a pretext or target, little more than a figure of speech. The main objective of those for or against him seems to be to loot what they can of the nation's wealth right now and to gain control of Congo to plunder it further.

The story began with a double convulsion in the heart of Africa. In 1994, a genocidal civil war was launched in Rwanda by ethnic Hutu extremists. That triggered a response by their old antagonists, the Tutsis, which drove a million Hutu fleeing across the western border into Zaire. At the same time, the rotten system of Zaire's dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, was unravelling. For two years, the suffering Hutu refugees in the jungles of eastern Zaire were kept alive by massive international feeding programs while Hutu guerrillas used the camps as military bases against Rwanda. By 1996, repatriating many refugees, Rwanda struck back. Together with Uganda, it armed and helped Kabila, then a nondescript Congolese rebel leader, at last drive Mobuto into exile.

Any hope that this enormous land, renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo, would move to freedom and independence was soon dashed. Kabila had neither the intention, nor a political base, nor an army of his own to assert a new course. People yearning for democracy saw corruption and repression continue under new management. Kabila, welcomed at first for getting rid of Mobutu, was soon reviled as a creature of Rwanda and Uganda.

These two allies, however, then moved to get rid of him, fostering a rebellion now in progress. The goal is not only to clean out Hutu guerrillas still attacking from Congo bases, but also to gain a monopoly on Congo's wealth for themselves. African sources report that truckloads of looted gold, diamonds, and coffee have already made the political and military leaders of Rwanda and Uganda immensely rich. There is much more where that came from.

Rushing to help Kabila and assure themselves a piece of the pie are some southern neighbors. Zimbabwe is the most active, having already sent thousands of troops to Congo, clashing with Rwandan forces there in open war. Angola is engaged, mainly defensively, fearing Rwandan-Ugandan help for the rebels in its own ongoing civil war. Distant Chad is sending troops to help Kabila for no known reason.

Efforts to bring about a cease-fire and a start toward political solution have met no success. President Nelson Mandela of South Africa tried personally and failed, burning his fingers as his term in office draws to an end.

He at first opposed the southern invasion, then endorsed it and then suffered the embarrassment of having South African arms found on captured Rwandan rebels. The Western powers, after centuries in Africa, have no colonialist or cold-war reasons to become involved in what they label an African responsibility. Congo, the center of Africa, has become a political vacuum. There is no telling what the forces trying to fill it will do to the land and its long-abused people.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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