Conflict in the Dem. Rep. of Congo Leads to World’s Worst Refugee Crisis

A flare-up of conflicts between Congolese, Ugandan, and irregular forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo has caused one of the world’s worst refugee crises and also contributed to the killing of at least 14 UN peacekeepers in the Congo in early December

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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito Ecuador. Last week a joint Ugandan and Congolese military operation killed more than 100 militants of a supposedly Islamic group. It is said that the group was responsible for killing 14 UN Peacekeepers in early December. The attack on the UN Peacekeepers was one of the worst such ever attacks in the history of the UN and it briefly called attention to this part of Central Africa.

Unknown to most, the Democratic Republic of Congo is currently also experiencing one of the world’s worst refugee crisis. According to Internal Displacement Monitoring organization 1.7 million people have been forced to flee their homes in 2017 because of the conflict in the Congo. This makes the Congo’s internal displacement greater than those in Yemen, Syria or Iraq.

Joining me to shed some light on the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo is Helen Epstein. Helen is a Visiting Professor of Public Health and Human Rights at Bard College and is the author most recently of Another Fine Mess, American Uganda and the War on Terror. She has also worked as a consultant for many international organizations including UNICEF and Human Rights Watch and writes frequently about Africa for the New York Review of Books and other publications. Thanks for joining us today, Helen.

HELEN EPSTEIN: My pleasure.

GREG WILPERT: Helen, let’s start with the attack against the UN Peacekeepers. They were all Tanzanians, the 15 that were killed earlier this month. What exactly happened in that case?

HELEN EPSTEIN: Well, it seems as though at about five o’clock in the afternoon on December 7th, hundreds of militants stormed a detachment of Tanzanian Peacekeepers in a region known as Beni in Eastern Congo, which has seen a great deal of instability over the past three years, in fact. And this is just the culminating event in a long series of horrific massacres mostly against civilians in that area. But this has really been going on for some time. And what’s particularly puzzling about this particular attack is it’s been widely attributed to a group called the Allied Democratic Forces that have been operating in the region for over 20 years and originally came from Uganda.

But many local sources are skeptical that the Allied Democratic Forces could have been responsible for these attacks because most accounts suggest that the ADF is really on its last legs and really consists of only 100 fighters or so at most who really don’t have great sources of support. So, the question really is quite open as to who is responsible for this attack? It’s worth noting that they seem to be wearing Congolese Army uniforms as have many of the other attackers in previous massacres so that might give one a clue as to what’s going on.

GREG WILPERT: So, what is it, what do we know about the ADF and why would the Congolese and Ugandan Military attack them and kill 100 of their members?

HELEN EPSTEIN: Well, it’s very hard to get a handle on exactly what’s going on in this region. According to the Ugandans, they attacked the alleged ADF because the ADF has wrong professed a desire to overthrow the government of Yoweri Museveni in Uganda. And that they were afraid that the ADF, this was an opening move in this somehow was connected, this attack on the peacekeepers was connected to that mission somehow. But it really doesn’t make sense because the ADF for the most part hasn’t attempted to attack Uganda since the late 1990’s and it’s really quite unclear whether that really happened. What Uganda is actually doing in Congo may be quite different than what it says it’s doing.

GREG WILPERT: Yeah, actually let’s take a step back and give us maybe a brief overview as to what is going on in the region. I mentioned earlier that up to 1.7 million Congolese are internally displaced at the moment. So, what are the main conflicts? And what are the main factions in this conflict?

HELEN EPSTEIN: Well, there are actually conflicts all over Democratic Republic of Congo but in this particular region something very peculiar has been going on in the past, really since about October 2014,which the summer of 2014 really seemed as though there was a kind of lull in the troubles there. The ADF so called, which was already was on its last legs had really been sort of summarily smashed by the Congolese Army in about six months before and everything seemed sort of peaceful. And then suddenly in October there was a spate of terrible, terrible senseless, incredibly brutal massacres broke out in that region and they’ve been going on sporadically in villages around the area, around this whole area known as Beni ever since. And nobody can quite predict when they’re going to happen. Despite the fact that there are about 20,000 soldiers deployed in the region as well as the largest peacekeeping, UN Peacekeeping mission in the world. For some reason those forces as well as the police and intelligent services of Congo have been unable to prevent these horrific massacres.

And what typically happens according to accounts of local witnesses is that very often people who look like soldiers will actually turn up in a village wearing Congolese Army uniforms, tell, gain people’s confidence by saying, “We’re here to protect you. We hear there’s some militants in the region,” and so on. And then once everyone’s kind of relaxed and sort of their guard is down, suddenly these very same individuals in army uniforms will begin massacring people. And witnesses say that some of those people are, do seem to be members of the Allied Democratic Forces, but in many cases members of the Congolese Military are also involved. And sometimes seem to be carrying out the most brutal attacks. So, in some cases they, it seems as though they are doing this for no reason, as though they’re just trying to demonstrate how brutal they can be. So, they’ll slaughter the men first to get them out of the way, so they can’t protect anyone else. Force everyone else to watch that and then one by one work their way through the women, the children, and the elderly, and even health workers.

It’s a ghastly situation and as I’ve said this has been going on for three years, and we know almost nothing about it, or rather we hear almost nothing about it. Local people of course know a great deal about what’s going on. But there’s been a kind of strange silence about it despite the fact that it has indeed caused hundreds of thousands of people in this area to flee their homes where they then need to be taken care of by charities and the international community where they were once until very recently supporting themselves as farmers. It’s a dreadful situation.

GREG WILPERT: To what extent can one say that natural resource acquisition and exploitation is at the heart of this? I mean, it is well known that that part of Africa is a area that is very rich in natural resources of all kinds. To what extent would you say is that fueling what is going on there right now?

HELEN EPSTEIN: Many people are scratching their heads and wondering if that’s not the case as to what’s going on. It’s worth noting a couple things. One of them is that some of the people involved in these attacks, especially the ones in Congolese Army uniforms. It turns out that over both Congo, sorry, both Rwanda and Uganda have since the early, beginning of the mid 1990’s, they invaded Congo, this particular region of Congo and really occupied the area for many years. Their main armies left in 2003 after a peace deal was signed but they’ve continued to support proxy forces in the region that have been involved in trafficking in resources and also in horrific human rights abuses against the population.

And as part of the various settlements over time peace deals have also been enacted with these groups and as condition of those peace deals some of them have been integrated into the Congolese Army. And it’s thought that those people actually, these sort of former rebel combatants seem to be involved in the current attacks. And what they’re doing is not clear. There is a great deal of oil underneath the surface of Beni. And Uganda, these are oil fields that are actually linked to Uganda. And Uganda’s oil fields, which Uganda is currently exploiting.

And so, that’s worth bearing in mind but it’s also the case that large numbers of peasants seem to be arriving, many of them from Rwanda saying that they’re Congolese refugees who are now returning from Rwanda to settle back in their lands. These people, many of them don’t actually speak Swahili very well, which is the Lingua franca of Congo and so some people are kind of wondering they speak very good Kinyarwanda. So, people are wondering if they’re really Congolese or are they perhaps Rwandans that are being settled there as a sort of de facto way of occupying this incredibly lucrative area, which also happens to be kind of at the crossroads of the illegal trade in gold and timber and ivory and especially Coltan which is the raw material of cell phones and computer chips. So, whoever has possession of this particular area really controls the trade in that, and all of those materials and therefore can do extremely well. So, but exactly what’s going on unfortunately we really don’t know but that’s what-

GREG WILPERT: I just want to turn briefly to the politics within the Democratic Republic of Congo Joseph Kabila, the current President of the DRC has postponed elections that were supposed to take place last year. And he said he would leave by the end of the year but so far remains in place. What is happening here? And what effect does this lack of an election and the conflicts that is the political situation in the DRC? What effect is that having on the conflict and the displacement within the Congo?

HELEN EPSTEIN: It’s a huge problem actually because in addition to these rather more mercenary activities and motivations that seem to be at play in Eastern Congo and in other regions of the country. There is also a protest movement, sort of various uprisings all around the country that are trying to recruit members to try to move against Kabila and persuade him to step down. So, the country is really fracturing and it makes it very difficult for, really to find credible leaders especially in this region but anywhere who can try to sort these problems out.

So, the country is really turning into a kind of terrible lawless frontier and it’s extremely tragic because the international community has for a very long time, particularly in the Eastern Congo situation been very, very forgiving particularly of Uganda and Rwanda, which have been the recipients of vast amounts of development and military aid over the years, but which continue to meddle militarily in this region and creating enormous upheavals for millions of people really. And so, the international community as far as I can tell is not really helping. And the Trump Administration has so far given Joseph Kabila another year in power in Congo but that doesn’t seem, before who knows what they will then do, it’s not really clear. But in the meantime more mayhem will reign and more different sort of groups will try to take advantage of the situation to advance whatever interests they may have.

GREG WILPERT: Okay well, we’ll continue to keep an eye on this of course and then we’ll probably come back to you. I’m speaking to Helen Epstein, Professor of Public Health and Human Rights at Bard College. Thanks for having joined us today Helen.

HELEN EPSTEIN: Thanks so much. My pleasure. Take care.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network. If you like our news and analysis please don’t forget to donate to The Real News this holiday season.