The Congo - the heart of darkness?

The fatal error of the Democratic Republic of the Congo was to be potentially the richest country in Africa. If it were poor it would certainly not have suffered the exploitation and wars that have beset it ever since the explorer H M Stanley claimed it for the private possession of the Belgian King Leopold II in 1885. The situation today is deceptively calm in most of the country, including the capital, Kinshasa, whilst armed militias terrorise the population in the north east and commit all manner of atrocities, including well-documented episodes of cannibalism.

Ruled and plundered for over thirty years by President Mobutu, its diamonds and other minerals diverted into overseas bank accounts while the Congolese people were kept in poverty, rebel forces backed mainly by Rwanda and Uganda country were increasingly active. Eventually, in May 1997 Mobutu was driven from office by these forces, led by Laurent Desire Kabila who declared himself president. Even then there was no peaceful settlement and in January 2001 Kabila was killed by one of his own bodyguards. To everyone's surprise his son and successor as president, Joseph Kabila, although barely thirty, immediately took the initiative towards multi-party democracy. In June 2003 a transitional government was sworn in with four leaders of the main rebel groups as joint vice-presidents.

The two year transitional period is due to end on 30 June this year. Meanwhile the ethnic conflicts near the Rwandan and Ugandan borders have broken out again and are becoming increasingly serious. In the past three months almost 90,000 Congolese have been driven from their homes - joining an estimated four million "displaced persons" in the rest of the country. All this is despite the UN's biggest peace-keeping force, MONUC, being based in the area - 16,700 troops, currently costing the international community $750 million dollars a year. The African Union is also planning to deploy 6,000 soldiers in the area.

The country is vast - ten times the size of Britain - with borders with nine countries, and with virtually no communications infrastructure. From the capital, Kinshasa, to the Rwanda border is the same distance as from Leeds to Rome! All this means that it is possible to live and work in Kinshasa mentally aware of what is happening in the east of the country, the news of which is in every newspaper and on every television and radio channel, but physically oblivious of the appalling events there.

It is estimated that between three and five million Congolese have died as a consequence of the civil war and that some 30,000 continue to die from war-related deaths every month. The UN's top humanitarian official, Jan Egeland, recently stated that the situation in the east of the Congo is now the world's worst humanitarian crisis, even worse than Darfur in Sudan.

Congo's land border - over 10,000 kilometres of it - is inevitably very porous as well as often being artificial and it is this that enables groups of militia to cross, particularly from Rwanda, many of whom are suspected of being gangs of the Interehamwe which were responsible for the Rwandan genocide in 1994. There are many living on the Congo side of the border - known as Banyamulenge - who speak the same dialect as their neighbours in Rwanda, but many Congolese refuse to accept that these individuals - disparagingly referred to as "Rwandaphones" - can be regarded as Congolese citizens.

It is the district of Ituri, in Oriental province, that has suffered the worst of the ethnic atrocities. Pictures from Ituri have appeared in the Kinshasa newspapers of militia soldiers showing off severed heads and limbs. Another long article describes the horrendous experience of, Zainabo Alfani, a mother raped and mutilated and then forced to watch two of her three children thrown into boiling fat, whilst other human corpses were being roasted over a spit. She was left for dead by the side of the road, alongside her surviving child. Amazingly she survived and wasoperated on at a local hospital. She eventually came to Kinshasa but died earlier this month - just 42 years old.

Are there any positive signs within this tale of woe? There are indications that some of the militias are beginning to take advantage of the amnesty announced by MONUC. On 7 March the first few of some 4,000 militia in the Ituri area surrendered their arms, followed by 550 on 22 March. Also a militia chief suspected of being involved in the killing of nine Bangladeshi soldiers serving with MONUC has been arrested.

And, of course, looming over everything is the prospect of the first democratic elections in the Congo for forty years. The Congolese have a touching faith in the magical powers of the electoral process to bring peace and prosperity. These elections are seen as the culmination of the two year transitional period and were therefore supposed to take place by the end of June 2005. Inevitably the whole process is way behind schedule, not least because the - appointed - parliament has not yet passed crucial acts, including the electoral law itself. The electoral commission is preparing to call on the "escape clause" in the interim constitution which allows for up to a year's postponement "on technical grounds".

The additional months thus gained will also give time to accelerate the process of bringing the various armed forces into a single national army. My great fear is that the elections will not fulfil the hopes of the long suffering Congolese people, and, worse still, the defeated candidates will take their personal militia forces off into the bush to continue the armed struggle. Meanwhile, in the midst of death and poverty, the diamond merchants happily continue to extract the precious stones from the rich soil of central Africa. Joseph Conrad's novel, The Heart of Darkness, based in the Congo, tells of the exploitation of almost a century ago. For many ordinary Congolese men and women, suffering the paradox of being penalised for living in a rich country, little has changed.

23 March 2005