Emily Cavan Lynch, Global South Development Magazine’s country correspondent for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, also works for an international relief organization as a public health consultant. In this article Emily shares her everyday experience in the DR Congo and presents a holistic picture of a war trodden society that is struggling to overcome decades long trauma of bloodshed and killings, yet finds it caught up in new forms of unrest and conflict everyday.
Since 2009 Eastern Congo has gained a certain reputation. Through the well-intentioned efforts of caring individuals, the relief of organizations searching for a convenient way to define the muddle of armed groups and ongoing conflict, and the perpetual funder’s need to be able to measure progress, Congo is these days known to most in the developed world as the “rape capital of the world.” Last spring the American Journal of Public Health dropped the media bomb that the number of rapes per day in Congo had been grossly underestimated and was 26 times higher than a previous UN report had estimated, with at least 1,152 women raped every day (equal to 48 per hour).
This phrase and associated imagery has been the inspiration behind international advocacy and fund-raising efforts, documentaries and news features, the allocation of monies for bi-lateral donors, and the program strategies thus dictated to any number of NGOs funded by them.
Yet it is an identity neither chosen (nor in most cases even known) by the majority of people implicated in its reach. It has also become something that certain organizations have grown to detest, watching it grow from one important voice in the dialogue to an overfed red herring of the system, distracting, in their view, the conversation from one that ought to be focused on a much broader scope of needs and causing, in some cases,far more harm than good (offer a woman who lives on less than $1 a day $60, or a $100 sewing machine, to testify that she was raped and see what you do for the perceived credibility of anyone else who has been raped).
The history and instability of Eastern Congo is generally framed as impossibly complicated; and in the need to address it, international actors are caught unprepared.
The donors of the current system of international aid are not think-tanks, philosophers or academics. They are program managers, lobbyists, bureaucrats and politicians with constituencies. They need a hat stand. They need a hook. They need it to be a sound clip, for goodness sake.
Stretched taught between the last civil war and something currently resembling stability, Eastern Congo is a funder’s dilemma.
In the system of international aid, implementors usually specialize in one of two categories: humanitarian organizations are called for when tsunamis wipe out an entire coastline, when 1 20,000 people flow into a refugee camp built for 40,000, when hospitals overflow with people starving or wounded, and when cholera floods into an already devastated country after a 50 year absence. Development organizations, on the other hand, come in when people are no longer fleeing for their lives, when schools are again open and kids can be given uniforms and books, when there is some sort of government or civil society framework to enable foreign organizations to do their work, and when their teams are not being hijacked, their bases are not being stormed by armed men, and there are no longer deadly skirmishes between armed groups.
These two categories of organizations have entirely different cultures, rules, capacities, funding limitations and paradigms. They may partner with each other, and though they are often indistinguishable by those not working in the sector, they are in no way interchangeable, without inviting disastrous implications (see: Haiti after the earthquake or Indonesia after the tsunami).
Following the political end to the most recent large-scale conflict in DRC in 2009, the world of international aid (e.g. the funders) decided that it was time to transition from an emergency intervention to a framework of long-term development, feeling that Congo was close enough to a kind of peace that the priority could change from flying in food rations and UN helicopters to supporting school fees, funding economic development programs and sorting out whatever residual trauma remained through piece-meal psychosocial programs.
Unfortunately, political resolutions do not always filter down to daily reality, and in this changeable world a resolution today does not dictate peace tomorrow. Eastern Congo is no longer considered to be in a state of full-out war. Rather, it has been in a state of low-to-moderate level conflict and instability , with a handful of villages pillaged every month, consistent waves of hundreds to thousands of people fleeing into ‘the bush’ out of fear of attack, regular targeted killings or skirmishes between armed groups, and one or two incidents of mass rapes (and yes, ongoing and pervasive sexual violence) every half-year or so.
With informed analysis and an ear to the ground, there is a certain amount of predictability. Where there are schools, most are still open. Some branches of the government function a bit. Most of the time you are not hijacked on the road. Outbreaks of preventable epidemics remain inexcusably frequent but people are used to their cyclical nature and take them in some amount of stride, keening for and burying their dead out of sight of most who can help, and out of mind of most who should be held accountable.
Who suffers the most?
The other day I conducted a focus group with representatives from various ethnic groups in North Kivu. We started off with an exercise about perceptions called “quick thinking,” where I asked them to tell me the first words that popped into their head when I mentioned several phrases beginning with “general population.” People said: beneficiary, displaced, sick or ill, vulnerable, victim. Then I asked for their associations with the word ‘in civique,’ which means something like “criminal” or “civil disturber”. They responded quickly: immoral, delinquent, rapist, assassin, bandit.Thefirstgroupofwordsare those with which we associate sympathy and empathy; we usually want to help the vulnerable. The second group of words are about actions and are framed in terms of blame and contradiction to a norm, encouraging the feeling that whereas the first group deserves our sympathy and help, the second group can be ostracized and blamed. After the exercise I raised these points and asked the group, but does this mean that the “inciviques” are not part of the population? Because of the diversified nature of the conflict in this region they most definitely are, and everyone immediately pointed that out, laughing as they did so at the obvious contradiction.
However it was a good reminder (and intended as such) that what we call someone influences how we feel towards them, and how we feel towards someone influences how we act, how far we go to help them and how much we do to hurt them.
In the Kivu region of Congo – where the majority of the conflict and instability is concentrated – it is in these names and underlying associations that we get lost. There are so many armed groups and their alliances, histories and loyalties so complicated that in general conversation we just call them this, “armed groups,” rather than trying to name them all. What we actually mean can range from members of the official Congolese army to a successful shopkeeper in some village who gives guns to a group of 1 9 year olds and tells them to rob a truck on its way to market.
One of the hindrances of the traditional vocabulary of war is that we talk about civilians and soldiers or armed actors as if they are clearly separated groups. The distinction is important (and considered a very useful thing) in terms of international humanitarian law; it allows the international community to agree on (and, more importantly, have a basis for prosecution based on) principles such as that of limiting collateral damage, meaning that a military strategy should avoid implicating civilians (e.g. if you must attack a village as part of an offensive strategy, you should not rape, pillage and murder civilians as well, but rather concentrate on the destruction of military targets or armed actors).
As a humanitarian it is hard for me to accept that even this kind of dialogue is ultimately encouraging broad-scale respect of human rights but of course I can acknowledge that, within a limited viewpoint, the intention is there.
And yet, even with this benefit of the doubt, how do you apply such a precise framework to the definition of conflict in much of the modern world? In Eastern DRC, in addition to formal armies, you have a grassroots patchwork of what started as well-organized community militias who are not separate from the communities in which they live. They are not just “integrated,” in the common parlance; they are from the community. And perhaps they originally organized themselves according to ethnicity or place of origin or mother tongue, so now all who share that definition (whether bearing arms or not) are implicated by the consequences of their actions.
A community who “hosts” (whether or not they have ever been asked for their consent or opinion to do so) an opposition group is thus often considered a collaborator and may be free game for an attack. So in this way the armed groups ping-pong over the net of the population,moving in to and out of a community and then taking turns attacking the community for hosting the opposition group.
Of course it is true that in some places in the region people are living in relative stability. I do not say comfort or health, though this is of course also true in some areas, but stability. This means, first of all, that they can get to their fields when they need to in order to plant and to cultivate crops, and that they are able to stay in one place long enough to harvest them.
Much of Congo is covered with lush, fertile, productive land; there is no reason that anyone should go without food in this country, no reason that there should be stunting and micronutrient deficiencies and malnutrition common enough that you can walk through a village and point out all the children suffering from it.
This is not a given condition of life; this is a direct result of the choices made by those in power. Why should there be food insecurity in this region of Congo? For the same reason that people are dying from diseases like measles, malaria and upper respiratory infections. For the same reason that maternal and infant mortality in DRC is among the highest in the world: lack of access, lack of basic healthcare, lack of investment in things that benefit the population, like infrastructure.
The instability in Eastern Congo affects everyone. Access to crops ensures the link to a fundamental level of caloric intake and nutrition that is snapped like sugarcane the moment people feel forced to flee their villages. Even for places stable enough to harvest, the presence and passage of armed groups often means ongoing forced labor, unjust detention or bribery, frequent violence, and pillaging of goods and food. It may be that the armed conflict involves the participation of much of the general population (when there is no clear leader, how can there be confidence in the scattered leaders around?), but it also demands the suffering of nearly the entire population.
So who suffers the most? It is easy to say that it is children, women and the elderly. Yet in a landscape where fear is endemic, suffering is also endemic; trying to live with a mentality where violence, hatred and domination are the only understood forms of survival is no way to live at all.
Ongoing conflicts and future prospects Around the time of the presidential elections in November, rumors of cracklinginstabilityinDRCflewaround the world. The end of all hesitant peace was predicted; civil war said to be right around the corner.
At that time I was part of a rural vaccination campaign in the southern province of the country and during the week leading up to the vote itself a small team of us were progressing slowly up the lower Congo river in boats, vaccinating hundreds of children during the day in churches and shaded courtyards and camping each night in the mud yards of tiny health centers.
That week we also shared the river with puttering boats transporting voting boxes, election officials and the same gentian violet dye that we used to mark the pinkie fingers of all of the children who had been vaccinated already. Exhausted in my tent at night I had multiple confused dreams about putting used needles into the ballot boxes instead of election papers, and of accusations of fraud by election observers accusing us of marking the fingers of babies who were not even eligible for school, let alone for voting.
In the end, the elections passed by with a sort of peace truce, if not actually a set of comprehensive results. Since that time the international community has mumbled and grumbled and even published various official objections to dissociate themselves from what everyone generally now agrees was, at best, an inadequate electoral process.
But for a time afterwards it felt that if Congo did not have the 100% democracy that the Western observers were looking for, it might at least have avoided disintegrating again into civil chaos. And for those who live here, that was not an inconsequential result.
Unfortunately, in Eastern Congo at least, that feeling has now been replaced with a sense of apprehension. The elections provided a possibility that things might change; the disputes of the results maintained that sense of hope, leading some to think that perhaps, with all the international criticism the old political status quo might change; perhaps the politicians would put on new hats, and step up to the plates of their promises.
But, in truth, none of these hopes have materialized.
Traveling throughout North and South Kivu these days you get the most profound sense – not that it is being used as a proxy battlefield for competing interests (as might be presumed from the press) but rather that it has been largely abandoned. Controlled, oppressed, stifled and forgotten. In the North, baboons play on the roofs of the abandoned buildings at what used to be the entrance and stopover to Virunga National Park. Guards still lift the gate for vehicles to pass through but now, as you drive past them and wave, it is not with the expectation of seeing mountain gorillas; it is instead with worry about seeing armed guerillas.
But these sentiments have all been negative. What else of Congo these days? One surprising benefit to a country with such high levels of instability and under-development is that you do see, in precarious measure, a slight protective effect on the ecosystem. Of course you also see total destruction of ecosystems but at least where there no roads, the accompanying human chaos is also limited. Caught in mud up to our hub caps one day, I bent down to the shock of grasses that our guide had just cut through with his machete. In this random spot on a hillside in South Kivu, and without even searching, I saw more than ten insects crawling about and I heard a cacophony of others. Crunching, munching, crawling. It was an astonishing experience.
Role of International Players.
Congo’s burden is its wealth; its wealth is its burden. I live on the Rwandan/Congolese border, on the shores of the limnic Lake Kivu, in Goma, a town that grew on the substrate of the Rwandan genocide as passageway for tens of thousands of refugees. Settled at the base of a still-active volcano, Goma is now a dusty base for NGOs, UN deployments, miners and business people profiting from cross-border trade, as well as an ongoing mixture of floating expatriates who fit no clear category.
In its purgatorial state – not at war, yet hardly at peace – the non-profit world still leans towards a humanitarian inclination; few others are willing to, or have the capacity to deal with the still frequent reality of armed robberies and violent attacks on their houses, vehicles and projects. There is a sprinkling of smaller development NGOs as well who have tried to break into a range of longer-term goals. But donors are trigger shy. Who wants to invest in a place where any day the city might be threatened by rebel groups, the smoldering volcano might rumble over again as it did in 2002, or the methane-floored lake might erupt, with earthquakes and mythical tsunamis?
Surrounding the aid community are the various branches of the UN, with MONUSCO (the so-called peace-keeping mission in DRC) lumbering or hovering by at all times in Goma, and throughout the region. They have a staff photographer who takes beautiful photographs, run a radio station known for decent journalistic standards and otherwise maintain a mission whose silence speaks loudly to those in search of transparency. They are a “peace- keeping”missionbutwhatpeace,infact, are they keeping? And whose peace? They are questions for which I do not, but I imagine that someone does, have the answer.
What is interesting about being in DRC at this time in history is that civil groups (students, representative of grassroots NGOs, women’s groups) have also begun to ask why, when the aid community has now been here for decades, and the UN semi-occupies their towns, the situation is still so bad for the population.
This questioning may take the form of threats to NGOs for what are seen as biased recruitment practices, or demonstrations against the aid community in general. I work for an NGO, so this kind of response is perhaps professionally concerning but I find it personally fascinating, and cannot quite avoid a sense of pride when I see it. In the last 25-30 years, where have been the voices of these “beneficiaries” (or, as a friend of a friend once called them, these “right-holders”) in the system of international aid? To whom is the aid community accountable? If we have been acting in the place of the government then why should the population not begin to ask us to be more accountable as a government? If we did not want the role, then why did we take it? And can we reject it now, while still wanting to maintain our invested presence?
What is primarily fascinating to me is that in this region of Congo the government has been for so long so ineffective and seemingly uninterested in providing its most basic match to the social contract that the international community has felt obligated to invest in the long-term. It has saved lives, certainly; for all extents and purposes the people of Congo seem to be an expendable resource for their government.
In fact, the longer you stay in the country the more unbelievable it becomes that people here are living in abject poverty.
This is not a poor country; it is a country where a very few people in power refuse to direct the wealth of the country to those who by their birthright own it.
In Eastern DRC the aid community has been present for decades, during which time the government has been largely absent (in terms of providing anything for the people) and international actors have been invited in for their own benefit. The aid community’s investment in this area of the world has begun to strike those who live here as shallow. Those of us in the aid community like to distinguish between ourselves and the UN forces. But for the population I do not believe there is any such clear distinction.Inspiteofwhateverefforts, most people are still living without employment, without access to basic healthcare, without access to education and with an unreasonably high level of insecurity that often enough turns to terror and fleeing.
Today, as I write this, we received news of a new group of 20,000 people displaced in the south because of attacks on their towns and villages, and another 3-5,000 displaced across the border in the north, as well as various villages pillaged and emptied in the center of the country. These numbers are difficult to care about. Perhaps that sounds cold but is it not true for most of us, much of the time? Life is complicated and busy; what does it mean that 20,000 people were displaced? They were not killed, or drowned, or burned, or dying from car crashes. They just had to move.
In our garden on the edge of Lake Kivu, the morning sun distributes itself as if committed to a black and white spectrum: the qualities of brightness and saturation (flower stalks between the lava rock walls, grass blades rolling into the ripples on the shimmering and oceanic surface of the lake) somehow carry more meaning than the color. The color is so saturated (fuscia, orange, white-green new leaves) that it almost outdoes itself, and leaves room in the mind only for form.
Congo is a riot of color, and the color so cinematic, and so real, that there is rarely a struggle to define its quality, or to pin down a moment in its transience, and so somewhere in the experience of these extremes the mind becomes oddly free to see what is otherwise so often disguised by beauty. Form. Depth. Movement.
Today we will leave the city of Goma to go 3-4 hours north to one of our projects, driving straight towards towering Nyirongongo. Yesterday I watched the steam trail of this hulking volcano pouring to the west, only 10km from the city and for once free from haze or clouds. As we drive north we will see other volcanoes – baby ones, grandfather ones – one long chain of seismic gasps in the earth’s surface.
We are like Pompeii; our human history ripe for repetition.
The helicopters have begun again. It is a measure throughout the world, or at least throughout the UN-occupied world, that the number of helicopters you hear corresponds directly to the state of security of the country. Here, the helicopters and the planes and the armored vehicles and the egg-carton UN trucks with their legions of homesick soldiers are omnipresent and have begun to multiply like bacteria in a petri dish: exponential, overnight. We wish they wouldn’t. We know that peacekeeping is only useful when there is war-making. We know that carrying guns makes things worse, even when you hope to make things better.
I spent more than two years living in Rwanda. And although Rwanda is a world and culture of its own, returning to Congo last September still felt like coming home; the film-set quality of central African light, the forehead knob greetings, the petites aubergines: these were things I knew, and had already grown to love.
But Congo, or at least the region of the Kivus, where I now live, is already loved by too many. Last night I heard someone try to explain the “way it all works” to a new expat. He tossed his hands around, trying to illustrate the mess of armed groups and economic power players – mining and technological and pharmaceutical companies – the way they are all subsidiaries of the other, who is loyalist to, and who is enemy of whom, what Rwanda wants, what the government wants, what China and Europe want, and also how to recognize the heart of a soldier by the shape of his nose. It is the pride of the foreigner here to be able to recite these things; but their reports are given with such gusto that it makes me wonder how genuinely we would want to remove the cause of such excellent entertainment.
What is it, this quality of stability, that allows us to live our lives? We speak about instability as the root cause of so much suffering in eastern Congo, assuming or stating, that what we would wish for the country is for it to be stable and the people to have this thing, stability, otherwise defined as: constancy, steadiness, firmness, fixity, permanence.
But stability is not a goal in and of itself; it is a consequence.
Yesterday we drove through a town that seemed like a town. It was not deserted or pillaged; it was full of normal life. Market women called out greetings to passers-by, or sat with sleepy eyes next to piles of avocados. Men repaired motorcycles next to shops. Children gossiped in school uniforms. Life seemed calm and, yes, stable.
Just north of this town in the past month several thousands of people have run from their homes across the border to Uganda, seeking refuge. Life in war is like this; alternately calm and terrifying and, often, simply surreal.
Driving through North Kivu yesterday it occurred to me to remind myself that I am living in a country at war. We prefer now – and it is probably officially classified this way – to say that the Kivus are in a state of ongoing instability and conflict. Ok, fine. Then what, I wonder, is war?
Something well-defined? One group versus another? The groups internationally powerful and the cause considered admirable?
Or is “war” simply a definition that is useful for clarifying when and how and where another government is obligated to break the autonomy of a nation-state and intervene, on an international level?
But what autonomy, I ask? Our worlds and our economies are interlinked. Our minerals and our natural resources cross all borders. Our human suffering does as well. We are often trained, in the West, to view poverty and the suffering of people living in conditions of conflict as very sad and inevitable things. I certainly grew up thinking this: how sad that there are poor people who cannot eat and are caught in war; we must take them food, we must bring them to a place of peace.
I did not grow up thinking, “it is my responsibility to research the pharmaceutical and technological countries that make the items I want to buy because it is the market demand for their products that is continuing this conflict a million human-paradigm years away.”
I did not grow up thinking, “nobody in Congo should actually be living in poverty and the fact that they are is not a fatalistic sad fact of life. No. The fact that they are is a direct result of our (and I speak of the world) choices.”
It is not an oversight of Mother Nature that people in Congo are living in poverty and dying of preventable diseases and violence; it is our ongoing investment in political and economic systems whose implementation, if not intent, is criminal: criminal because we are making specific choices that allow these systems to continue, and we are passing off the costs to those who cannot object.
This is an abuse of power, and no matter how diffused we render the responsibility, no matter how well we hide the links between death on the ground and a product in the store, no matter how many millions of dollars we spend on conciliatory peacekeeping and micro-economic development efforts, we are still in the wrong. Quite simply. We are in the wrong.
Human history is always ripe for repetition, true, but we are the ones choosing what it is that we will repeat. (Photos used in the article: source UN, under creative commons license. Emily can be reached by email at emilycavan@gmail. com and follow her DRC experience on her blog http://www.emilycavan.blogspot.com)
This article originally featured in the April 2012 issue of Global South Development Magazine along with a DRC Country profile and a Historical Timeline. You can download the issue in its entirety for free.