In Congo, fighting brings fear that chaos will return
GOMA, Congo: When Congo shakes, Africa trembles.
This vast linchpin of a country at the green heart of the continent, covering 905,000 square miles and bordering nine nations, never goes down alone.
When the Congolese state began to collapse in 1996, it set off a regional war. When it imploded again in 1998, it dragged in armies from a half-dozen other African countries. The two wars and the mayhem since have killed possibly five million people, a death toll that human rights groups say is the worst related to any conflict since World War II.
The worry now is that Congo is on the brink again, with neighbors poised to jump in, which is why the relatively small-scale bush fighting last week attracted some of the most intense diplomatic activity Congo has seen in years. The French foreign minister, the British foreign minister, top United Nations diplomats and the State Department's highest official for Africa all jetted in to the decrepit but important lakeside city of Goma.
The hills around Goma are now firmly in rebel hands after rebel fighters routed the Congolese army late last month, and had the rebels not declared an 11th-hour cease-fire, Goma itself would now be theirs.
"The political damage this has caused is enormous," said Koen Vlassenroot, a professor at Ghent University in Belgium who specializes in the eastern Congo.
The rebel victory laid bare the fecklessness of the Congolese government, two years after the most expensive, foreign-financed election in African history, despite the muscle of the largest United Nations peacekeeping mission, with 17,000 troops in the country.
Perhaps even more alarming was the performance of that mission. Not only were the peacekeepers unable to stop the rebels' advance - the rebels have already turned a captured United Nations base into an impromptu bush gym - but they were unable to protect civilians, which is their mandate.
On Wednesday night, as the rebels encircled Goma, rogue government soldiers plundered, raped and killed in their retreat from the town.
This same predatory behavior happened in the 1990s, when Congo was in a similar state of simmering dysfunction.
On Thursday, a family in Goma sat in a small, bare room, staring at the body of a 17-year-old boy, Merci. He was forced at gunpoint to load everything from their home into an army truck, family members and neighbors said. As a parting gesture, before they raced out of town, the government soldiers shot Merci in the back.
There were no peacekeepers around, even though a large United Nations base is located a mile or two from Merci's home.
"We were abandoned," said Safi Dayoo, a mother of six, who decided to leave Goma that night. Hundreds of thousands of people like her have become refugees, and many desperately need food.
John Prendergast, a founder of the Washington-based Enough Project, which campaigns against genocide, said: "It is remarkable that 14 years after the genocide in Rwanda, UN peacekeeping remains as ineffectual at protecting civilians as it was then. This, despite all the rhetoric about the responsibility to protect and never again. Empty slogans for the people of Central Africa."
Alan Doss, the head of the United Nations mission in Congo, said it had been very difficult to defend the perimeter of Goma and at the same time police the streets with a relatively small force of 900 Goma-based peacekeepers.
"We're certainly stretched," he said. "There's only so much we can do."
The European Union is mulling over the idea of sending more troops. But right now, the emphasis seems to be on forging a durable political settlement with the rebels.
The trick is that eastern Congo has always been a headache to rule. And the rebels based in the thickly forested hills around here seem stronger than ever.
They are led by a charismatic troublemaker, Laurent Nkunda, who commands a well-trained, well-equipped guerrilla army from an abandoned Belgian farmhouse in the jungle. He is an ethnic Tutsi, and Congolese officials have painted Nkunda, a renegade general, as a pawn of Tutsi-led Rwanda next door.
Though it is unclear how actively Rwanda might be supporting Nkunda, Rwandan meddling here would be far from unprecedented. Congo has suffered a long history of exploitation, going back to the Belgian colonial times. Rebel groups and foreign forces have annexed large swaths of the country to extract gold, diamonds, tin and timber.
At times, too, the Congolese government has invited its neighbors in, trying to find defenders at critical moments.
Just a few days ago, for example, the government urged its old friend Angola to send troops back into Congo, as Angola did in 1998, to counter Nkunda's rebellion and a perceived Rwandan menace. Villagers near Goma said last week that they had seen uniformed Rwandan soldiers fighting alongside Nkunda's men and that the Rwandans had burned homes and killed children.
"I saw them come over the border with my own eyes," said Jackson Busisi, a farmer.
Rwanda denies all this.
Congo analysts say that Nkunda may have some legitimate political goals - and Congolese ones at that. For starters, he seems determined to eliminate the Hutu death squads who participated in the massacre of 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994 and then fled into Congo, where they continue to brutalize with impunity. The Congolese government has promised to disarm the squads. But the rebels - and many Western diplomats - say the government is actually giving the Hutu death squads guns.
"The Congolese Army is working hand in hand with these killers," said Babu Amani, a spokesman for the rebels.
The rebels want to play a bigger role in governing eastern Congo and even possibly to carve the territory into ethnic fiefs.
Nkunda has recently been reaching out to Hutus, and it seems that he is trying to refashion himself into a leader for all Rwandan-speaking people in the eastern Congo province of North Kivu, where Rwandan speakers make up about 40 percent of the population and dominate many of the important businesses.
But Nkunda's ambitions may go beyond even that. Across the country, Congolese are getting fed up with their president, Joseph Kabila, who has little to show after winning a historic election in 2006, Congo's first nationwide democratic vote since independence in 1960.
The top opposition leader, Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice president, has been in jail in The Hague in recent months, facing international war crimes charges in connection with bloodshed and mass rapes in the Central African Republic five years ago.
This may be an irresistible opportunity for Nkunda's rebel outfit, the National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, to forge opportunistic alliances with other dissident groups and possibly try to push Kabila out.
"CNDP has the brains, the money, the muscle and the determination to achieve it," said a Western analyst who works on Congo issues and said he would speak only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his job. "The other side has none of the above."
This may explain why Nkunda paused last week right at the doorstep of Goma, without walking in. He showed that he was powerful and that the government was weak. He avoided dealing with the mess of occupying a major city, especially when the United Nations had urged him to stay out. In the end, he got the leverage he needed for future negotiations, without sustained fighting or damage to his reputation.
A summit meeting has now been called between Rwanda and Congo. Aid organizations are urging the United States to put more pressure on Rwanda, its ally, to rein in Nkunda. Diplomats are shuttling between Congo and Rwanda, trying to get the two sides to focus on peace treaties they have already signed, so another regional war does not break out.
"There will be a summit," Professor Vlassenroot said. "And there will be a nice document coming out of it. But it won't change anything."
What Congo needs, he said, is a true change of culture that would end the long tradition of corruption and criminally inept government and the attendant rebellions.
Given the decades of unending crisis here, no one sees that happening anytime soon.