Michael J. Kavanagh reporting from The Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: Taylor Krauss
Michael J. Kavanagh is a journalist with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. He returned from The Democratic Republic of Congo last week and answers questions from Worldfocus viewers on the crisis in eastern Congo.
A lot of really interesting questions, I have to say — thank you. It makes me feel really hopeful that people are starting to understand DR Congo more and more.
I’m going to group questions into three themes: History of the conflict, rebel fighting in Congo and the humanitarian crisis.
HISTORY OF THE CONFLICT
Q. Is this a Hutu/Tutsi conflict spilling over from Rwanda?
Michael J. Kavanagh: Let me start by talking about group identity in eastern Congo, which is incredibly difficult to wrap one’s head around.
This is not a Hutu/Tutsi conflict, per se. This is a political and economic conflict in which group identity is manipulated by opportunistic politicians and military leaders for their own political/military/economic ends.
There are at least a dozen tribal groups in eastern Congo, and even among those groups, there are local/regional differences that cause people of the same group to support different sides in the conflict (or none at all).
In Congo – like anywhere in the world, including Rwanda – identity is a fluid thing and at any one time a person might choose to ally himself/herself to any group that is part of his/her identity. This includes church, party, family, clan, tribe, village, profession and any other number of things that have a purchase on how we conceive of who we are.
For the last 15 years, Congolese Tutsis, the Tutsi-led government of Rwanda, and a group of other Congolese allied with these two groups – mostly Congolese Hutu but also supporters from other tribes – have had an enormous amount of power in eastern Congo. They own vast amounts of land, they own mines and cattle and hotels and are captains of industry. Some of this wealth came legally over decades, some of it came extra-legally during the wars that started in 1996 when Rwanda invaded Congo.
For many years, these men (they’re mostly men) were backed by the significant military might of Rwanda and their allied army in eastern Congo, the RCD (don’t worry about the name – it doesn’t exist anymore). But in spite of their enormous military and economic power, they make up a very small part of the Congolese population. So when the war ended and elections took place in 2006, Congolese Tutsi and their allies essentially lost all their electoral power.
There was legitimate fear that much of their economic power might be at risk, both because of the corruption of the Congolese government and lingering animosity towards Rwanda and its Congolese supporters in the east after years of war between the two countries. Seeing no political avenues to ensure their power, these men instead chose to exploit legitimate grievances – the continued presence of Rwandan Hutu génocidaires in Congo (FDLR), 40,000 Congolese Tutsi refugees in exile in Rwanda and anti-Tutsi sentiment – as a justification to taking up arms and force their way into politics to protect their interests.
This is a thumbnail sketch of why war continues in the Kivus.
Q. Who’s supplying weapons?
Rebel leader, General Laurent Nkunda. Photo: Michael J. Kavanagh
Michael J. Kavanagh: The Congolese government has typically supplied FDLR (the Rwandan Hutus), though it’s no longer overt (the FDLR are considered a terrorist group by the U.S.). The government of Congo also works openly with many local militia groups.
Interestingly, General Laurent Nkunda also gets most of his weapons from the government of Congo – by stealing them. There’s some evidence that some supplies come from Rwanda as well (or at least Rwandan sympathizers.)
Q. Most often in Africa, extractive resources are being fought over. Is that a factor here?
Michael J. Kavanagh: You can never reduce any conflict to one variable but you’re right that many conflicts in Africa (and elsewhere: e.g., Iraq) have a component that is related to fighting over an extractive industry or other natural resources. In this case, Congo is full of minerals and fertile land and economics plays a huge role in the perpetuation of this conflict, even if we’re not always talking about an extractive industry.
Q. Why would the Congolese government support Hutu militias?
Michael J. Kavanagh: The best way to answer this question is to begin by clarifying it: Why is the Congolese government supporting Rwandan Hutus? Because the FDLR are primarily Rwandan Hutus who came to Congo as refugees after the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
The alliance is more political than tribal – the FDLR were important allies of Congo in the second Congolese war (1998-2003), which pitted Tutsi-led Rwanda against the Congolese government led by current President Joseph Kabila’s father, Laurent Kabila.
For the time being, Congo’s government and the FDLR have similar interests: Certain economic ventures and diminishment of Rwanda’s power in the region. If their interests diverge, the alliance between Congo and the FDLR attenuates quite quickly.
But to expand, there are many Hutus in eastern Congo who are not Rwandan – they are, in fact, the largest single identity group in the conflict zone in North Kivu. Some have joined the FDLR or sympathize with them. Many, if not most, have/do not.
Congolese Hutu identity is complicated by several factors – on the one hand, they’ve been historically discriminated against by the Congolese state as foreigners who speak Kinyarwanda (the language of Rwanda), just like Congolese Tutsis. As a result, there have been important ties between Congolese Hutus and Tutsis and there are many Hutus who are fervent supporters of Nkunda.
On the other hand, many Congolese Hutu were killed by the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan army in the Congo wars starting in 1996 in reprisal for the genocide. It’s a part of the Rwandan genocide story that has yet to fully be documented, but it’s part of the historical memory of many Congolese and Rwandan Hutus.
In part because of their alliance during those wars, many eastern Congolese feel affinity for Hutus and vice versa as their tribal brothers, and they say Tutsis are from a different tribal lineage. This is genetically and historically very dubious, but many Congolese believe it.
My most interesting conversations in eastern Congo are often with Hutus explaining why they support whatever group they support, because it’s often a decision grounded in a very personal – not group – history.
REBEL FIGHTING IN CONGO
UN vehicles patrol the streets of Rutshuru. Photo: Michael J. Kavanagh
Q. Who are the rebels? Are they primarily educated members of the middle class, like the mujahideen in Afghanistan? Or are they victims of economic devastation?
Michael J. Kavanagh: The CNDP rebels are a mix of dairy farmers/cattle herders, hardcore believers in combating Tutsi oppression, demobilized Rwandan professional soldiers, and forcibly recruited cadres from Congolese Hutu communities and from Rwanda’s working class. They primarily speak Kinyarwanda and the leaders are generally Tutsi (who fought with the Rwandan Patriotic Army in the 1990s).
Many of the leaders are relatively well educated – like RPA, CNDP has always stressed education, training, discipline. Are they middle class? It’s hard to say if there is such a thing as a middle class in Congo – even those who aren’t subsistence farmers aren’t particularly well off. However, many of the CNDPs most fervent supporters are extremely well-off Tutsis who own a lot of land and cows and see the CNDP as their protectors.
Q. What is the involvement of Muslims in this conflict? Which of the protagonists are primarily Muslim?
Michael J. Kavanagh: Very little/none. Congolese are mostly Catholic and Christian. Nkunda himself is Christian. When I was last with him in late February he was wearing a pin that said “Rebels for Christ.”
Q. I’ve read that one of the big issues being contended is a big deal to give China mineral access in return for transportation systems. Is this cause related to those of groups like MEND?
Michael J. Kavanagh: Yes – Congo’s president Kabila has sold off huge mineral contracts to China in exchange for infrastructure construction. This is one of the topics that Nkunda wants to discuss with the president directly, if he ever gets that chance (I’m not sure what he wants to say, however). There’s an impressive Fast Company article, China Invades Africa, that talks about China’s influence in Congo if you’re interested.
As far as I know, there are no links between CNDP and MEND. CNDP and MEND come from slightly different places politically and economically – some Tutsis already have a lot of economic power and they’re protecting it; MEND is trying to get Nigeria and the oil companies to redistribute economic power more equitably.
Q. Who benefits from the situation over there, and are the mobs being manipulated to anyone’s advantage?
Michael J.Kavanagh: A lot of people. Some Congolese and FDLR rebel commanders and some Congolese army commanders have stakes in mines. Anyone who trades on the black market in minerals benefits. Businessmen who are exploiting the national park that CNDP controls benefit. Rwanda benefits to some extent though less so than in the past – they have proxies in eastern Congo in the mines and many Rwandans keep cows in eastern Congo.
Finally, yes – the mobs are manipulated by the government against the UN, against the CNDP, and against Tutsis. It’s a dangerous game, since MONUC is supposed to protect the population and genuinely tries to, and one of the main justifications for CNDP’s continued existence and Rwanda’s interest in the region is exactly this anti-Tutsi sentiment.
A medical center in Kashuga, which was ransacked a month ago. Photo: Michael Kavanagh
Q. What are the conditions of the hospitals/medical centers like? Are they being ransacked as well? I imagine with the current health condition, it would be important for medical help to reach into the villages/homes. Is any of that going on?
Michael J. Kavanagh: I’ve traveled throughout the region with doctors from Heal Africa and Doctors Without Borders. Health centers in North Kivu are horribly equipped – they’re located in remote areas that are hard to access and supply. They often don’t have electricity or running water. When you hear about 5 million people dying in the Congolese wars, most of those deaths are a result of inadequate medical care.
Armed groups often ransack medical centers immediately – they need the supplies for their troops. There are a few decent hospitals in Goma, and a few others staffed by Doctors without Borders in North Kivu. There’s also one in the heart of Nkunda’s territory run by a doctor and his wife, who is also a doctor – both are extremely influential in Nkunda’s movement. Nkunda’s soldiers also get medical care in Rwanda.
Q. Is sufficient food still available to families in South Kivu? And, please estimate how much basic food costs have increased in South Kivu in recent months.
Michael J. Kavanagh: I’m less familiar with the situation in South Kivu – I haven’t been there for an extended trip since 2006. The leaders of the peace process are much more optimistic about peace holding in South Kivu. In terms of food availability and pricing: food prices have gone up in Congo as they have everywhere in the world, and that’s been very difficult for Congolese families. A lot of food for the region comes from North Kivu, and the fighting there has made prices rises more than normal.
I can’t give an estimate on costs — sorry!
Q. What can ordinary people here in the U.S. do to give support? I read recently that the UN was likely to send 17,000 additional peacekeepers. I also read a conflicting report which seemed to indicate that the UN was not decisive. Will you be going back there soon?
Michael J. Kavanagh: There are already 17,000 peacekeepers throughout Congo, so the UN mission in Congo is asking for more.
As for what you can do…keep reading – forward stories around to your friends. Write two lines to your congresspeople saying you care. Donate to organizations that do good work there – in North Kivu there are the Congolese organizations Heal Africa, SOPROP, Synergy des Femmes – these all deal with human rights and health. Internationally, International Rescue Committee and Doctors without Borders (MSF) do fantastic, brave work in Congo.
Finally, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, click on every single Congo story you see and email it to friends. Editors notice how many hits different stories get, and that’s what will let me go back there –- if editors realize people actually care, they’ll shell out the money to let journalists like me cover this disaster with the depth it deserves.
– Michael J. Kavanagh