Michael J. Kavanagh of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting returned to eastern Congo last month to understand the conflicting news coming out of the region. Below he explains what he saw in some of the most remote areas of Congo. Along the way, he reconnects with Pascal and Vestine Bumbari. He reported on the signature story: Pascal and Vestine are alive in Congo, but still not home.
“Michel, we are suffering so much.” Those were the first words Pascal said to me over the phone in February, when he called out of the blue.
Pascal and his wife Vestine live on non-arable lava rocks in their new camp; his clothes are all torn; they don’t have enough food; the rain seeps through the tarp that covers their hut. Until the day we arrived, Pascal had done nothing – nothing – with his days for four months. Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps are not really the place you’d go to look for work.
There is a misconception right now that peace is spreading throughout eastern Congo. Tutsi rebel-leader Laurent Nkunda is under house arrest in Rwanda. There’s a new peace agreement between his rebel group (the CNDP) and the government. Joint-military operations between erstwhile enemies Congo and Rwanda continue against the Rwandan Hutu rebel group hiding in eastern Congo (the FDLR). It all seems like hopeful stuff.
But this new development, this surprising volte-face, is only a beginning. The main issues that caused the war in the first place – land, resources, tribalism, refugees and the continued presence of the FDLR in Congo – have not gone away.
To use the example of our own story: Pascal is Hutu, and he still doesn’t feel safe enough to return to his home, which is still – for the most part – under control of soldiers once loyal to Nkunda. And while 350,000 Congolese in North Kivu have returned home in the last few months (mainly to land formerly occupied by Nkunda’s troops), another 160,000 have been displaced since January as the FDLR takes its revenge on the villages where (they allege) people collaborated with the Rwando-Congolese joint operation. It makes your head spin.
This new fighting is taking place in very remote regions – I spent days on the back of a motorbike to get there – and what I found was just as devastating as anything I’ve seen in my previous five years of reporting in Congo: Massacres, executions by gun and machete, kidnappings, sex slaves, torture victims.
So while the conflict in some parts of eastern Congo is settling down, there are other corners where the war rages on. This seemingly-endless string of local battles is often what makes people give up on the region – new place names to learn, new rebel groups to figure out.
But don’t give up just yet.
The new collaboration between Rwanda and Congo is the most important development in the conflict in years, and one of the main reasons the countries are now working together is because of pressure from the international community that intensified after last fall’s humanitarian disaster. Sustaining that pressure is the only way to make sure this conflict truly turns a corner towards peace, so that good, hardworking people like Pascal and Vestine can finally return home.
– Michael J. Kavanagh