Ground zero for Congo peace

Repeatedly overrun by warring factions, the Kivu province is the sorest point in Congo's conflicts.

If peace is to come to this vast country at the heart of Africa, it will have to start here in the region known as the Kivus, a place as beautiful as it is tortured.

North and South Kivu provinces are nestled against Lake Kivu, a body of water about half the size of Rhode Island. Blessed by plentiful rain, mild temperatures, and rich volcanic soil, this is one of the greenest, most fertile places on the planet.

Yet in the past few years, the Kivus have been the Poland of Africa, repeatedly overrun by a variety of armies.

In 1994, when 1.2 million refugees fled into the provinces from neighboring Rwanda, thousands of extremists who led the Rwandan genocide hid among them and made the Kivus their base. Early in 1997, a rebellion against the despot Mobutu Sese Seko began in the Kivus and brought to power Laurent Kabila, who renamed Zaire as Congo.

Then in turn, the Kivus became the starting point for a rebellion against Mr. Kabila in August 1998. A restive atmosphere continues to this day, despite Kabila's recent assassination and his son's subsequent elevation to president.

Immediately after the assassination, the people of eastern Congo worried that life might get worse. Now they're afraid that things will simply stay the same.

"When the first war was over, people thought their lives could begin again, that they could have roads and electricity and health centers," says Leon Baruani, secretary of the South Kivu Civil Society Coordination Bureau. "The second war stopped everything. Everything people had started to build has been systematically destroyed."

This second war is ostensibly a civil war, but in reality it is much more than that.

Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi are the real strength behind the rebel groups, while the national armies of Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia have come to the aid of the Congolese government.

A flood of refugees

Although the war has spread halfway across the country, the Kivus remain the worst affected. Of the estimated 2 million displaced persons in Congo, more than half are in the Kivus alone.

It will be impossible to bring peace to Congo without a solution to the complex web of conflicts in the Kivus, according to Tharcisse Kayira of Action for Development and Interethnic Peace here. "Peace in Kivu will influence peace in the other parts of the country," says Mr. Kayira, whose south Kivu group represents the minority Banyamulenge tribe. They are among the civilians who have suffered at the hands of armed groups: roving bands of local militia called Mai Mai; the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide known here as Interahamwe; and the Rwandan-backed rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy, known by its French acronym RCD.

The RCD runs what passes for civil administration here, but is becoming increasingly unpopular with the local population. Although it is, on the face of things, Congolese, the RCD is seen by many as an occupying army because of its strong backing from the Rwandan military.

"The RCD has imported war from Rwanda to here," says the Rev. Joseph Gwamuhanyia, administrator of Bukuvu Roman Catholic Diocese.

The Rwandan government's official position is that its Army is in eastern Congo and supports the RCD to end attacks inside its borders from the Interahamwe.

"We know very well there are many genocidal forces in our country who threaten the security of Rwanda and the security of the ethnic group in power in Rwanda," says Jean Pierre Lola Kisanga, spokesman for the RCD in Goma, where they have their headquarters. "Rwanda has the right to pursue the people who threaten the security in their country from our country."

Yet the justification is wearing thin for many Congolese, some of whom accuse their tiny neighbor of expansionist motives.

"The war that is happening is just for the pillage, not for the Interahamwe," says Fr. Gwamuhanyia. He goes so far as to suggest that Rwanda is simply using the specter of the Interahamwe to justify its continued presence in eastern Congo so as to obtain funding from the US and cash in on the area's gold, diamonds, and tantalite.

"The people don't understand why they have come here," adds Mr. Baruani.

An offshoot of all this is growing anti-American sentiment because of US support for Rwanda. Many Congolese believe Western leaders feel guilty for their inaction in the Rwandan genocide and therefore turn a blind eye to abuses by Rwanda and its rebel allies.

"RCD-Goma and its Rwandese allies have regularly slaughtered civilians in massacres and extrajudicial executions," said New York-based Human Rights Watch in a report last year. "In cases where the RCD or its allies admit that the killings took place, they often seek to justify them as unintended consequences of combat with armed groups, but they seem in many cases to have committed the abuses deliberately to punish civilians for their supposed support of enemies of the RCD."

Human Rights Watch also implicates the RCD's opponents in violations: "These armed groups have targeted civilians in massacres and extrajudicial executions and have engaged in widespread pillage and rape."

Facing violence from both sides in the conflict, ordinary villagers often find themselves in untenable situations.

"If the Mai Mai stop and force you to give them something to drink, the RCD will arrest you because you helped the Mai Mai. If you refuse, you risk losing your life," says Raphael Wakinge of Heirs of Justice, a Bukavu human rights group. "At any moment, people are being killed in Kivu province."

Heirs of Justice has in recent months seen a disturbing increase in rape by soldiers. "It's being used for humiliation and as a weapon," says Mr. Wakinge.

Earlier this month, soldiers, believed to be Rwandan attacked a school and raped a 10-year-old girl, according to witnesses. The perpetrators are not deterred by the presence of the tiny UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, which has barely 200 unarmed military staff to cover a country the size of Western Europe. Citing the Geneva Convention, the witnesses said in French, "The parties to a conflict must at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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