Since 1996, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC; Congo) has been embroiled in violence that has killed as many as 5.4 million people. The conflict has been the world’s bloodiest since World War II. The First and Second Congo Wars, which sparked the violence, involved multiple foreign armies and investors from Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad, Libya and Sudan, among others, and has been so devastating that it is sometimes called the “African World War.”
Fighting continues in the eastern parts of the country, destroying infrastructure, causing physical and psychological damage to civilians, and creating human rights violations on a mass scale. Rape is being used as a weapon of war, and large-scale plunder and murder are also occurring as part of efforts to displace people on resource-rich land.
Today, most of the fighting is taking place in North and South Kivu, on the DRC/Rwanda border. Some fighting is political, resulting from unrest caused by Hutu refugees from the Rwandan genocide now living in DRC, while other fighting results from an international demand for natural resources. DRC has large quantities of gold, copper, diamonds, and coltan (a mineral used in cell phones), which many parties desire to control for monetary reasons. However, money from the sales of these resources has not reached average citizens. Currently the education, healthcare, legal, and road systems are in shambles.
The DRC, formerly known as Zaire, is located in Central Africa. To the north, it is bordered by the Central African Republic and Sudan; to the east, by Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania; and to the south by Zambia and Angola. The capital city, Kinshasa, is located in the far western area of the country. DRC covers about 905,000 square miles and has a population of 63 million people.
Although citizens of the DRC are among the poorest in the world, having the second lowest GDP per capita globally, the country is widely considered to be the richest country in the world regarding natural resources, with untapped deposits of raw minerals estimated to be worth in excess of US$ 24 trillion.
The violence in DRC is closely related to the genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994. In this genocide, groups of hard-line, militant Hutus, known as the Interahamwe, slaughtered ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus. The RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front), a Tutsi-led militia, defeated the Hutu movement and came to power in July 1994. Immediately following the RPF takeover, nearly 2 million Hutus fled into neighboring countries to avoid potential Tutsi retribution. Their refugee presence in Zaire (DRC), among other factors, led to the first Congo War in 1996.
The Second Congo War, or African World War, began in 1998. Although the war was declared over in 2003, eastern Congo continues to be extremely unstable. A proxy war between Rwanda and the Kinshasa government continued in the east until the end of 2008. Congolese Tutsi warlord General Laurent Nkunda waged a campaign to destroy Hutu rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). He accused the Congolese government of backing the FDLR. A change in the conflict came about in late 2008 when Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo joined forces to combat the FDLR in North and South Kivu provinces. But the bitter conflict has continued unabated and Congolese government troops, backed by thousands of UN peacekeepers, have failed to defeat the FDLR rebels.
Tensions are still high on the Rwandan border, where Rwanda’s Tutsis still feel threatened by Hutu rebels. Since the majority of the forces in the DRC sconflict were non-governmental militias, disarming or controlling them since the ceasefires were signed has proved difficult. Conflict continues over the plentiful natural resources in the DRC. Violence is especially prevalent in the East, which is rich in minerals, diamonds and timber.
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The Lord’s Resistance Army has expanded its operations from northern Uganda into the DRC. The LRA is notorious for kidnapping children, forcing them to kill and maim innocent victims, and enslaving young girls as concubines. Attacks by the LRA are currently spreading fear and the threat of famine through northeast DRC as the LRA extends its abduction and terror raids across the region. New conflicts between the LRA and FARDC have left thousands of civilians dead.
It is estimated that 5,400,000 have died as a result of the conflict, and an estimated 45,000 more die each month. The death toll is due to widespread disease and famine; reports indicate that almost half of the individuals who have died are children under the age of 5.
The long and brutal conflict in the DRC has caused massive suffering for civilians, with estimates of millions dead either directly or indirectly as a result of the fighting. There have been frequent reports of weapon bearers killing civilians, and destroying property.
Those who are not subject to violence must contend with poverty, famine, and disease. Hundreds of thousands of people have been impoverished by the violence. Infant and child mortality rates are extremely high as a result of famine and malnutrition. An estimated 3.4 million people have been displaced within the DRC and 2 million have become refugees in neighboring Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.
The prevalence of rape and other forms of sexual violence is considered the worst in the world. In May 2011 the New York Times reported that a woman is raped every minute in the Congo. Aside from the severe physical and psychological trauma experienced by rape victims, sexual violence has contributed to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV/AIDS.
In 2003, Sinafasi Makelo, a representative of Mbuti pygmies, told the UN’s Indigenous People’s Forum that during the war his people were hunted down and eaten as though they were game animals. In neighboring North Kivu province there has been cannibalism by a group known as Les Effaceurs (“the erasers”), who wanted to clear the land of people to open it up for mineral exploitation. Both sides of the war regarded the Mbuti as “subhuman” and expendable.
The UN’s current mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, called MONUC, is entering its thirteenth year. MONUC is the UN’s largest and longest-lasting mission to date.
It is mandated to protect civilians and also help in the reconstruction of the country. With 18,000 people, MONUC is spread thinly across northeastern Congo and is largely unable to halt attacks. Rebels continue to kill and plunder natural resources with impunity. Some claim the rebels are supported by an international crime network stretching through Africa to Western Europe and North America.
The international community’s support for political and diplomatic efforts to end the war has been relatively consistent, but no effective steps have been taken to abide by repeated pledges to demand accountability for the war crimes and crimes against humanity that are routinely committed in Congo. United Nations Security Council and the U.N. Secretary-General have frequently denounced human rights abuses and the humanitarian disaster that the war unleashed on the local population. But they have shown little will to tackle the responsibility of occupying powers for the atrocities taking place in areas under their control, areas where the worst violence in the country took place.
On March 14, 2012, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a ‘guilty’ verdict against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo on charges of rape, murder, and the use of child soldiers, the first verdict for the ICC.