Congo war's pains linger

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GOMA, Congo -- For Didier Abonge, a telephone link between this city on the border with Rwanda and the capital, Kinshasa, means that the Democratic Republic of Congo's civil war is over.

A marketing manager for a mobile telephone company, Abonge has arrived in Goma with blue-and-orange billboards, T-shirts and leaflets to sell service in the town where rebels began a war five years ago against the government. The conflict has taken 3.3 million lives, according to the aid group International Rescue Committee.

But now those rebels, the Rally for Congolese Democracy, have joined a new government under President Joseph Kabila. For the first time since that war broke out, talking to Kinshasa from Goma on a cell phone is a local call.

"It was always my dream to link Kinshasa with this part of the country," said Abonge, 35, who arrived in Goma from the capital a month ago.

The rebels have raised the starry blue national flag over Goma, telephone calls are zipping across the country and old Russian cargo planes are ferrying cargo and passengers to and from Kinshasa, which lies almost 1,000 miles to the west in this nation formerly known as Zaire.

"It is certainly a sign that the war is over," said Adolphe Onusumba, who recently stepped down as a rebel leader, told journalists in Goma late last month.

But, despite such hopeful signs, for millions of Congolese, war and human rights abuses continue to make Africa's third-largest country one of the most miserable places on Earth.

This version of Congo's civil war erupted in 1998, a year after the exit of longtime dictator -- and Cold War ally of the United States -- Mobutu Sese Seko and his replacement by rebel leader Laurent Kabila. The fighting eventually became a conflagration involving the armies of a half-dozen nations. Congo was the scene of what has been called Africa's First World War. (Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and replaced by his son, Joseph.)

As important as the commercial unification of Congo through cell phones and airplanes is, it remains a small step for many Congolese.

"I believe there will be a measure of unification in Congo, but I'm not sure about peace," said Mikolo Sofia, a scholar at the Pole Institute, a small think tank in Goma.

Human rights abuses, which escalated to monstrous proportions in the past five years, remain the order of the day. And in the far northeastern province of Ituri, a bevy of rival militias continue to massacre civilians with impunity, making talk of the war's end premature, say those working in the country.

"It would be a triumph of vain hope over bitter, daily experience for the Congolese people of eastern Congo to believe that peace has genuinely returned to their communities," Amnesty International wrote in a report issued Aug. 2.

Moreover, elite networks of Congolese and foreigners continue to make a financial killing off the nation's abundant natural resources, United Nations officials believe. The plunder of Congo's gold, diamonds, timber, and precious ores will be the subject of a U.N. report in the fall.

Sofia, who came to Goma from Kinshasa more than a decade ago, pointed out that Congo's unity is without substance in one crucial respect: There is no national army.

Officially, when they joined the unity government, the rebels and the Kabila government agreed to unite their soldiers. In practice, they continue to maintain control over their own territories, and even issue their own visas to foreigners. Soldiers from the Kinshasa government keep an uneasy watch on rebel RCD fighters near the town of Lubero in the far east. And the RCD, mistrustful of Kabila's intentions, continues to raise recruits around Goma.

"If there's no solution to the army problem, there will be no peace," Sofia said, aware that on this continent power often comes directly from the end of a gun barrel. "In Africa, the army is what matters."

Vividly demonstrating how distant the prospect of a national army is, soldiers from the RCD became mired in firefights with a pro-Kabila militia only days after RCD rebels took an oath of allegiance in Kinshasa on July 24. Because the militia is also represented in the new regime, the clashes amounted to a mini-war within the unity government.

Western diplomats suspect privately that Rwanda, which backed the RCD when it invaded Congo in 1998, is forcing the group to stall the creation of a strong government in Kinshasa. But that case is hard to prove. Rwandan government spokesman Joseph Bideri said that Rwandan backing for the RCD is limited to "moral support."

U.N. reports have implicated Rwanda in the continuing plunder of Congo's vast natural resources, but Rwanda insists that its main goal in Congo was to destroy the armed groups that fled there after perpetrating the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. It says it withdrew all its troops from Congo last fall.

More than anything else, the situation in Ituri, half a continent away from Kinshasa and where no armed group holds firm sway, brutally flouts talk of peace. For the past two years, rival ethnic militias -- the minority Hema and the majority Lendu tribes -- have marauded through the region, killing at least 50,000 people, according to aid groups.

Sensing that the killing was about to descend into genocide, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan persuaded the French government to lead a European mission to relieve beleaguered U.N. peacekeepers in Ituri's main town of Bunia. Arriving in early June, the French have clamped down on violence and expelled the drunk and stoned militiamen from the town, making it a reasonably calm, if desperately poor, place to live.

But the deployment has done little to relieve the suffering in the area around Bunia, where most of Ituri's 2.4 million people live. In stark contrast to the hopeful story of cell phone entrepreneur Abonge in Goma is the tale of Lotsove Veneranda. She fled her village 10 miles north of Bunia when ethnic fighters stormed in after midnight.

"As soon as we heard the first shot, we left because we knew they would kill everyone," said Veneranda, 53, who now stays in Bunia with her son.

Others who witnessed the attack, which took place in late June, said that the fighters from the majority Lendu burned houses and with machetes hacked to death sick people who were too weak to flee. Though this occurred months after the U.N. peacekeepers had arrived, and three weeks after the French-led force began its work, witnesses said they never saw any international troops.

The United Nations, which has had a huge contingent of political officers, human rights monitors and blue-helmeted peacekeeping troops in Congo since 1999, will soon face its biggest test yet in Ituri. On Sept. 1, the French-led force is scheduled to leave Bunia and be replaced by 3,400 U.N. troops from Bangladesh whose orders are to bring the rest of the region under control as well.

U.N. officials concede privately that the operation is a huge, if calculated, gamble. But weary civilians, even those now living in relative peace, are keeping their fingers crossed.

"Why doesn't Ituri follow our example?" Abonge said in Goma. "We've had enough of this war."

Carter Dougherty is a free-lance journalist based in Kigali, Rwanda.

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