The war in eastern Congo: Ethnic tensions and the legacy of Rwanda

10 February 2014 | Natasha Pearce

Natasha Pearce is a graduate from Queen Mary, University of London, living in London and working as a researcher at the ‘Centre for Armed Violence Reduction’, studying current international conflicts and the peace & security debates of the Post 2015 Agenda. Natasha has travelled to 4 sub-Saharan African countries, including Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and Togo volunteering in orphanages as she goes. Looking to work in Human Rights, she has studied sexual violence as a weapon of war, the roots of European slavery and the continuations of racism in the West.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, situated in the heart of the African continent, has made headlines repeatedly in the last year with news of displacement, bloodshed, instability and appalling human rights abuses. Stories of child recruitment within militias, as well as a war waged on women and their bodies has ripped across the Eastern provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu, and the city of Goma. The country has been at war since 1998 when longstanding dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was overthrown and replaced by Rwandan supported Laurent Kabila. The majority of the country came to peace in 2008, yet the Eastern province, wracked by rebel groups has existed in continuous turmoil and conflict.

I plan to look at the history of this conflict in this eastern region, arguing that it is deep rooted ethnic tensions that cause the region to suffer continuous instability and violence.

In April 1994, neighbouring Rwanda suffered the most brutal genocide of the 20th century, with Hutu extremists massacring an estimated 1,000,000 ethnic Tutsi’s and moderate Hutu’s. It is believed that approximately 20% of the country’s population perished across the 100 day period of April to July. Considered to be one of the greatest failures of the UN to date, little was done by the international community to stem the violence, with peace keeping troops expected to do little more than watch the bloodshed as victims were dismembered across the country; at road blocks, in schools and churches, in the streets and pulled from their own homes. As the violence unfolded, the UN remained reluctant to use the word ‘genocide’ in any of their publications relating to the situation, instead referring to the massacres as ‘ethnic violence’ and ‘civil war.’ The word genocide did not come into use in reference to Rwanda until the end of the 100 days of violence.

Rwanda’s genocide was based entirely on ethnic tensions tracing back to Belgian colonial rule. In a country made up predominately of two major Ethnic groups, the Belgians openly favoured the Tutsi’s who were considered to look more ‘European’. Tutsis were believed to be physically taller, with a longer nose and a longer neck. Traditionally cattle herders, throughout the colonial period, the Tutsis were given positions of greater stature and importance within the Belgian regime. The largest ethnic group in Rwanda, the Hutus; were considered to be smaller, squatter, with rounder heads and to look more ‘traditionally Bantu’ by the Belgians, and suffered continuous discrimination throughout the colonial period. Yet, when the Belgians granted independence to Rwanda in 1962, they handed the government to the majority Hutu, realising that Hutu power was inevitable as they made up over 80% of the country’s population. By promptly switching their support in favour of the new Hutu political party, the Belgians reversed all praises formally given to the Tutsis and fuelled decades of tension between the two groups as they battled for power. This was a battle that would eventually result in decades of persecution for Tutsis at the hands of the Hutu government, and eventually lead to genocide.

In the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide, as Tutsi rebel soldier Paul Kagame, took control of the government and ended the violence in July, hundreds of thousands of Hutu extremists and murderers fled the country, crossing the border into the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, supported by the country’s ruler and dictator Mobutu. Making their homes in refugee camps along the border, Hutu extremists began to regroup and plan a new attack on the Tutsis of Rwanda. Simultaneously, Mobutu began a process of persecution and violence against the native Tutsis of eastern Congo. Named the Banyamulenge, these Tutsis had first arrived in the Congo in the mid 1920’s, expanding in the 1950’s and 60’s as they fled persecution from the newly independent Hutu government. As the position of Tutsis became increasingly unstable in the region, the Banyamulenge people claimed to be citizens of the Congo (or Zaire as it was known at the time), whilst Mobutu and the Hutu extremists of the refugee camps persecuted them as Rwandan Tutsis, giving them an ambiguous citizenship and setting them up for massacre.

It was a move that would lead to Rwandan interference within Zaire at the notion of Paul Kagame, and the ultimate overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko, causing him to flee his beloved Zaire for the protection of Morocco. In his place, the Rwandan supported Laurent Kabila was installed, sparking a new wave of civil war that would last officially until 2003 as well as, a new name for the country (1998 saw the birth of the Democratic Republic of Congo), and the birth of multiple militias across the country which would cause continuous instability across the country until 2008.

Whilst the majority of the country has now been at peace since 2008, today, over 60 militias still function in the eastern Congo, creating a reign of terror for the native people. The two predominate militias in the area are the Tutsi led M23 Movement (standing for the March 23rd Movement.) This is the group who, in the March of 2013 were able to capture the city of Goma. They have since retreated due to pressure from the Congolese National Army and Goma has come back under government control. Recently there have been reports of M23’s disbarment and a rehabilitation programme beginning, as they enter peace talks in Uganda alongside the president, Joseph Kabila. But whilst M23 may be weakening, the militia led by the Hutu extremists behind the 1994 Genocide the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) remain at large in the eastern Congo, with rumours surfacing that they are supported by the notorious Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who also remain at large in the jungles of North Eastern Congo, along the border of the conflict stricken Central African Republic.

Congolese soldiers guard suspected M23 rebel fighters who surrendered in Chanzu after a counteroffensive by DR Congo government troops (Reuters)

Congolese soldiers guard suspected M23 rebel fighters who surrendered in Chanzu after a counteroffensive by DR Congo government troops (Reuters)

As of November 2013, the M23 had reluctantly surrendered to both the UN (whose forces in the DRC are known as MUNESCO) and the Congolese army, after crossing the border into Uganda and giving themselves up to authorities. After an 18 month insurgency by these rebels alone, as well as the 15 year civil war, hopes were raised across eastern Congo for a restoration of peace. Earlier this year however, there have been reports of M23 regrouping and preparing for fresh conflict, as well as old rumours of Rwanda’s support for M23 reviving themselves. Sporadic attacks in Eastern Congo left a prominent colonel of the Congolese army dead and a threat of new violence on the brink, as a smaller group, the Mai Mai, wreck a fresh wave of violence on the South Eastern city of Lumbumbashi.

M23’s brief ‘defeat’ gave rise to the Hutu Power movement and the FDLR have risen in prominence again, as well as a small militia of Ugandan rebels opposing the rule of Museveni. In the midst of all this, as M23 regroups, Rwanda continues its pursuit of the FDLR and the FARDC are perpetually accused of sexual torture against the women of the Kivu region, the ever present LRA remains hidden in the depths of the bush, recruiting children, violating women and vandalising villages. Peace remains a distant dream it would seem for the people of Eastern Congo.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of Rwanda’s ethnic genocide, Rwanda’s programme of reconciliation seems to have helped to unite a population, putting ethnicity aside. Yet, this genocide, that took the lives of so many, has left a lasting legacy, not only on the soil of Rwanda, but in its neighbouring countries. 20 years on, daily reports of similar ethnic and sectarian violence emerge from the Central African Republic, with the UN fearing a situation not dissimilar to Rwanda two decades ago. Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s ‘saviour’ and President, has repeatedly made headlines recently as he is accused of recruiting child soldiers, supplying and supporting M23, maintaining his persecution of Hutu extremists, and recently, thought to have sanctioned a revenge killing against a minister he had named an ‘enemy of the state.’

But 20 years on, it is the Democratic Republic of Congo who still suffers from Rwanda’s ethnic violence. The defeat of M23 brought hope of peace, but new rumours of regrouping and Rwandan support suggest that peace is still a distant hope for the residents of this border. It is now up to the governments of Rwanda and the Congo to repair and cleanse tensions between these ethnicities and ultimately give the people of the east a future.

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