In commemoration of the third annual Congo Week October 17-23, I am posting the following article with a plea to all to visit www.congoweek.org and www.afjn.org for updates on how to express solidarity with the people of Congo in their struggle for peace with justice.
A Season of Hope
Wrinkled and hard, the woman looked 70; I did not know her age, only that she was a native of Bunia, the beleaguered city in the eastern Congo terrorized by rebels and its own nation’s army in recent years. I met her in Mbandaka, a thousand miles from her first home After returning to Bunia and finding none of her family had survived and nothing else to hold her there, she had fled a second time to Mbandaka.
I met her the last night of my two months stay this summer in Mbandaka, the provincial capital of Equateur Province and for me she represented the truth I would have to contend with and describe on my return to the States. Countless times prior to the trip I had been asked about the risk of revisiting the place I lived for two years from 1969 to 1971. My response had become something like a tape replayed again and again: Mbandaka was far from the troubles in the eastern Congo and relatively unaffected.
Over the last fifty years since independence as a new nation free of Belgian colonial rule, most of the violent conflict has occurred in the mineral producing areas of the country. In 1969 there were reports of combat in the Eastern Congo with its array of rare minerals as well as gold. And the rebel armies in Katanga battled the national army over control of the Province’s copper mines. But Equateur Province lacks mineral reserves and its relative poverty seemed to create a safe haven from the conflicts bedeviling other areas of the country, the East particularly.
The Hutu refugees who had made it all the way from the East to Mbandaka following Tutsi Paul Kagame’s rise to power in the mid’90’s in Rwanda had sought refuge in Equateur Province.. They managed to live off the fertile land of the Province and survive until the march of the Rwandan troops supporting Laurent Desire Kabila’s persistent ambition to rule Congo. These Tutsi soldiers made it to Mbandaka and executed every Hutu they could find in the area.
Referring to their prey as “cockroaches”, Kabila’s Tutsi backers stayed three days before descending the River on their way to Kinshasa in the final days of the Mobutu dicatatorship. A prominent church leader told me the soldiers ordered all residents to stay in their homes while they searched for provisions and wreaked revenge. Hutu men, women and children were found, lined up and shot with a single bullet. “They weren’t worth wasting ammunition on” my informant reported they had told their captives.
The man’s account confirmed journalist Howard French’s reports at the time (see his A Continent for the Taking) of Tutsi forces massacring Hutus in the Mbandaka area. And it convinced me to no longer speak of Mbandaka as insulated from the incessant violence of the eastern Congo. Surrounded by the Church’s abundant hospitality, I learned first hand of other occasions when Congo’s conflicts had shaken this city.of over a million.
On Easter Sunday this year, a rogue rebel group had attacked Mbandaka and worshippers remained in their churches until they could return home under the cover of night. The rapid routing of the rebels by the U.N. troops and the death of a U.N. Ghanaian soldier did not win over the public’s favor. Security troops of any description appeared to be met with distrust if not disdain by local Congolese
Twice in the last five years local troops of the Congolese Army have gone on the rampage when they had not been paid. My cook and housekeeper “Papa Jean” lost all of his flock of 50 plus chickens in the latest pillaging. He is not optimistic enough about the current regime to have restocked his coop with even a pair of chickens. Although Kabila’s son’s administration has made payments to the army a priority, resulting in long delays for salary payment of teachers, medical workers and civil servants, the uncertainty over the elections scheduled for next year prevails.
A jolting revelation during my stay came with Congolese referring to the Mobutu era as the “good ol days” compared to the current Kabila regime. Many question the legitimacy of the current ruler and even the legitimacy of the President’s claim to be a citizen of Congo. There is frequent reference to the young President Kabila having served in the security forces of both Rwanda and Uganda.
Will President Kabila allow elections to be held next November as called for by the country’s constitution and as announced the week of my departure? While many educated Congolese are introduced as candidates for Deputy to the National Assembly, few of them speak with certainty about the rules and procedures for running this time.
The question of whether the election will in fact take place is now giving way to whether President Kabila will be forced by the U.N. presence to relinquish control of the process to impartial overseers. Although the U.N. troops in Congo represent the largest peacekeeping force in the world today, their record of guaranteeing a fair election in the country is not encouraging. But Congolese are talking politics more openly and there is unrestrained opposition to the current rule, a notable change from 1971 during the height of Mobutu’s power.
The truth represented by the woman from Bunia had become undeniable by the time I met her the last night in Mbandaka. I had come to the realization that the entire nation has been gripped and held in check by the foreign exploitation of this richest store house of natural resources in Africa and perhaps anywhere else on the earth. That the Congo holds such incomparable wealth seems to be another fact which some people would like to remain in the darkness.
Perhaps an even more important and relevant truth about the country as one seeks to influence the march of justice in Congo is that the incessant and unrestrained exploitation of Congo by foreigners did not begin with King Leopold’s creation of the Congo Free State in 1885. We have to go back to the Portuguese slavers trading at the mouth of the Congo River early in the 1500’s as setting the pattern for the horrors visited today on the people of the Congo.
And the more important and relevant truth about the woman from Bunia is that she has taken another name for herself as a displaced person living in Mbandaka today. She has replaced the name given her by her family and given herself a name which suggests what has kept her going through all her losses and the brutality she has suffered. She is now introduced as Marie Catherine Sauve Vie or Marie Catherine “who saves life”. Strange to say, she may be the clearest sign I received during my stay that God has certainly not finished with Congo yet.