By Katherine N. Andrews – President Bush, while in Rwanda on his recent trip through Africa, appeared deeply moved by memorials marking the 1994 genocide there that killed some 800,000 people. Reminders of that genocide prompted Bush to urge world leaders to resolve the crisis in Darfur, where estimates of the dead range from 200,000 to 450,000. The President missed a valuable opportunity, however, to call attention to a far greater calamity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, or “Congo”), where the mortality rate is a staggering 45,000 people per month.
The missed opportunity is lamentable, because the DRC needs all the public attention it can get. Public coverage of Congo’s decade-old drama is disproportionately sparse considering the vastness of the country and of its humanitarian crisis. New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof claimed in June 2007 that Congo’s conflict “has had fewer column inches per million deaths than any other recent war.”
Though perhaps not genocidal, the ongoing instability in the Congo is ethnically driven at least in part and has produced devastation on a scale far greater than Rwanda, Darfur or any other conflict, anywhere, in the last half-century.
Mortality rates throughout Africa tend to shock, but the DRC’s rate is 57 percent higher than that of any other sub-Saharan African country: 5.4 million Congolese died between the start of the civil war in 1998 and April 2007, and about 2.1 million of those occurred since the war’s official end in December 2002. A series of reports from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) documented the malnutrition, absence (or looting) of basic health services, and mass population displacement that have kept Congo’s mortality rate about as high as it was before the start of recovery efforts: 45,000 people per month. This rate would equate to the monthly disappearance of a town the size of Charlottesville, Virginia, or Rockville, Maryland.
Most deaths in the DRC can be blamed on hunger and disease, but warfare continues to traumatize Congolese as well. In the DRC’s eastern provinces, rebel militias have long fought both government forces and each other, with Congolese civilians as their principal victims. Over the past half-year, a major government offensive against key rebel leader Laurent Nkunda has led to increased horrors for local civilians. Forced recruitment of child soldiers is up, vicious sexual violence is up, and human displacement is up. Last year, some 425,000 Congolese fled their homes to escape violence.
If Bush found Rwanda’s symbols of past suffering to be sobering, he should find accounts of the DRC’s ongoing troubles even more distressing. Unfortunately, the president’s fiscal year 2009 request for the UN peacekeeping mission (known by the French acronym, MONUC) in the DRC is down 25 percent from last year, and nearly $100 million lower than what the United States is obligated by treaty to contribute to the UN’s budget for that mission.
MONUC’s real funding needs are likely to be greater than last year’s, so any dip in US funding will hinder the mission’s ability to carry out both present and planned operations. The peace agreement signed in January 2008 between the government and key rebel factions heightens rather than diminishes the need for UN peacekeepers. MONUC forces must be present in sufficient strength to deter violations of the agreed ceasefire. Peacekeepers will be needed to ensure that proposed buffer zones between rebel and government forces stay demilitarized, a task critical to keeping small skirmishes from ballooning into renewed war. The agreement also calls on MONUC to disarm militia members and facilitate local elections.
MONUC has struggled to counter the recent spike in violence in eastern DRC, but overall the peacekeepers have done far more good than harm. They have (unusually for UN peacekeepers) killed or captured scores of militia members and overseen the disarmament of thousands more. Also, in the IRC’s numbers, the only period of decreasing mortality matched the build-up of peacekeeping efforts that began in 2005. MONUC also helped to orchestrate and to secure the country’s reasonably successful 2006 elections.
Still, with only 17,000 troops in a country the size of western Europe, MONUC simply cannot be present in enough places at once. To reduce it below present numbers—as US funding anticipates—would be severely damaging to local security and a recipe for mission failure.
Had President Bush visited the DRC, he would have seen countless memorials to its suffering. Hill tops remain crowded with makeshift refugee camps, parents still mourn children abducted to serve as soldiers and slaves in rebel militias, and hospitals teem with women raped so brutally that their insides are destroyed. As the president is one who feels compassion for those whose suffering he witnesses, perhaps such scenes would have moved him to increase MONUC funding and to call for an elevated international response to Congo’s violence and displacement. Too bad for the Congolese that they never got the chance to stir the President’s emotions.
Photo credit: MONUC photo archive