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The second part of this story will be published Wednesday Nov. 19, 2008.

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Fighting in Congo despite rebel pledges
Producer: Zaa Nkweta

ZAA NKWETA, TRNN: Despite Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda’s promise to support a UN-backed ceasefire, fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo continues. Government forces battled Nkunda’s rebel army north of the provincial capital of Goma on the weekend, in a battle that has so far displaced at least 250,000 people since August. To analyze the ongoing conflict, I spoke earlier to McClatchy journalist Shashank Bengali in Nairobi, Kenya.

SHASHANK BENGALI, MCCLATCHY CORRESPONDENT: The conflict in Congo really began with the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. In that conflict you had members of the Hutu ethnic group slaughtering members of the rival Tutsi ethnic group. And when that conflict ended, some of the Hutu militiamen that had carried out the genocide, they fled over the border neighboring Congo, and they still live there today, 14 years later, and they live among the population, they’ve had children, they’ve intermarried. And despite efforts by the UN and other groups tried to disarm these militias, they still live there. And a few years ago, a Congolese army general named Laurent Nkunda, who was of the Tutsi group in Congo, the same group that was slaughtered by the Hutus in Rwanda. General Nkunda left the army — He took up arms against these Hutu militias in Congo, saying he had to protect members of his ethnic group from those militiamen. The growing rebellion by General Nkunda has now become something much, much bigger: not just to protect members of his ethnic group, but also to try to seize territory and actually challenge the government of Congo as a whole. The charge that the Hutu militias in Congo have carried out crimes, it is true that they carried out some crimes and they’re responsible for some abuses against civilians. But everyone that I’ve spoken to said that the response by Nkunda’s forces, the Tutsis, has been, you know, out of proportion to the crimes that were committed against them. It’s not clear to me that the Hutus in Congo now, the militias from Rwanda, pose an existential threat to the Tutsis. I mean, Rwanda had two rival tribes, the Hutus and Tutsis, and Congo has more than 400. So there are a million people in Congo who don’t believe that a genocide could occur there. And so, therefore, the same sort of danger still exists for the Tutsi population. And many people believe that Nkunda is using the presence of the Hutu militias as a pretext to grab power, to grab land. You know, they’re saying this man has an agenda that goes far beyond protecting Tutsis, because, you know, his forces are blamed for uprooting tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of civilians, and many of those people are Tutsis themselves, now living in very difficult conditions because of what his army is doing. The threat of violence is ever-present in Congo. In some places Congolese soldiers and Nkunda’s forces are as far apart as 100 meters. There’s a threat at any time that things could escalate into a full-on conflict. What makes this more complicated is that there are several hundred thousand civilians living in refugee camps, and their lives are in great danger. Every time there’s some threat of a conflict, or some shooting, or some skirmish, these people run into the hills, where it makes it very, very difficult for aid agencies to get relief to them. And the other thing that complicates all this is allegations that both these groups are being supported by other countries. There are allegations that Rwanda, which now has a Tutsi-led government, is supporting General Nkuda’s rebellion, and there are allegations now that the troops from neighboring Angola have come into the Congo to back up the Congolese government. It’s hard to separate Rwanda from Congo at the moment, because there is certainly pretty good evidence that Rwanda is supporting this rebellion. Congo, because it has such riches, minerals, that I mentioned, and because it is so ungoverned, neighboring countries—Uganda, Rwanda, others in the region—have often come into Congo to try to grab pieces of mineral wealth. To this day, Rwanda is a major exporter of minerals that it doesn’t even own, that it doesn’t even have, because they get them from neighboring Congo. There’s an open secret that Congo’s riches are being looted by other countries. So you do have a real conflict between these people and the government of Congo. Nkunda says that the Congolese government is corrupt and not protecting its people, not paying their army, and needs to be replaced. But you also can’t address conflict without looking at Rwanda’s role and the role of other countries in the region, because they have very serious interests in Congo that the international community has not been able to really address and to get to the bottom of.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Shashank Bengali reports for McClatchy from more than 25 countries and covered conflicts in Somalia, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Georgia. Before moving to Africa in 2005, he was a roving correspondent for The Kansas City Star. Originally from the Los Angeles area, Shashank studied at the University of Southern California and at Harvard University, where he earned a Master's degree in public policy. He speaks French and broken Kiswahili.