/ death and destruction / outside the visible media universe /
"I am convinced now, that the lives of Congolese people no longer mean anything to anybody. Not to those who kill us like flies, our brothers who help kill us or those you call the international community. Even God does not listen to our prayers any more and abandons us."
Salvatore Bulamuzi, a member of the Lendu community whose parents, two wives and five children were all killed in recent attacks on the town of Bunia, north-eastern DRC. - from an AI 2003 report
If there was ever any real doubt that Africans are simply not considered important by the rest of the world - and particularly by the rest of the world's media - the sheer fact that the little news item, linked to from this post's title, was indeed, a little news item, should put it to rest. I quote:
Some 1,200 people in the DRC die daily from conflict-related causes. More than 20 per cent of the children die before their fifth birthday and one in 10 die in the first year of life. The refugee agency’s appeal last year for the repatriation and reintegration of Congolese refugees received only 14 per cent of the needed funding, or $10.6 million out of the $75 million required.
Meanwhile, of $14.7 million requested for UNHCR's programme for internally displaced people (IDPs) in a country the size of Western Europe, only $3.2 million had come in.
Now this is not the result of war - this is just the aftermath of a war: the deadliest war after WWII, whose victims direct and indirect numbered by 2004, a year after the peace accord was signed, around 4 million people. These were butchered, fell ill, starved or wasted away in the period of just five years. If the 1,200 figure is any guide we're talking about an extra ~0.8 million dead since the official ceasefire.
No wonder then that the UN has listed the Congo disaster as one of the "10 Stories the World Should Hear More About" or that Reuters had it at the top of its "forgotten" disasters list.
The sheer numbers are so huge as to be almost inconceivable. Yet it turns out that the per capita foreign aid that Congo receives is minimal, when it gets there at all. Why is that? Why is Congo receiving, per capita, 25 times less foreign aid than Kosovo for example? How are the needs prioritized? After all as dire as the situation in Kosovo might be, there certainly aren't any plague epidemics and reports of little girls being boiled alive, so by all indications one would expect a similar level of news exposure and humanitarian aid.
An interesting answer comes from Larry Thompson, Director of Advocacy for Refugees International, in an article posted in the International Council of Voluntary Agencies' website, he suggests:
Why do some humanitarian emergencies receive more attention than others?
Answers to this question usually focus on three topics. First, media coverage of the emergency; secondly, the national interests of the aid donors, and third, the influence of aid organizations.
* Media coverage. This is what is often called "the CNN factor" Humanitarian emergencies which receive extensive publicity, such as Kosovo and, recently, Afghanistan are believed to get more attention and assistance from donors. Thus, humanitarian emergencies which are unpublicized, such as the Congo, may receive less assistance. The theory behind the "CNN factor" is that people and governments respond to the needs of people they see on their television screens.
* National Interests of the AID donors. Humanitarian assistance is perceived by the big donors as an arm of their foreign policy. Afghanistan is a recent example in which the United States and its allies perceived that providing humanitarian aid to Afghan civilians was important to achieving political and military objectives.
Humanitarian aid in Kosovo in 1999 had an even closer link to the interests of the large powers, especially the Europeans. Certainly, one reason why large amounts of aid was provided to Kosovar refugees in Macedonia and Albania was to prevent the refugees from trying to immigrate to other countries in Europe. "Keep the refugees comfortable in Macedonia - and they won't try to go to Paris" was how one relief worker described to me a factor underlying the generosity of European aid donors. U.S. humanitarian aid to Haiti in the mid 1990s had much the same purpose: keep the Haitians at home.
* Influence of aid organizations. Another factor influencing the level of humanitarian aid is the lobbying and influence of aid and citizen's organizations for a particular cause. Southern Sudan, for example, is cited as one area in which donors have provided humanitarian assistance over a long period of time primarily because aid agencies and non-governmental organizations have maintained pressure on donor countries to provide assistance.
An even better example might be the cause of the Tibetans versus that of the Uighers [note: that's Uighurs properly]. The plight of the Tibetans, whose culture is being overrun by the Han Chinese, is familiar to most of us. But how many have ever heard of the Uighers - a people in western China who have a similar cause? Why? Some observers have said the difference is that the Tibetans have a support structure of foreigners and foreign organizations plus a charismatic leader - and the Uighers do not.
So, what is the answer to the question as to why Kosovar refugees received $207 each in UN assistance in 1999 and Congolese refugees and displaced persons received only $8? The Kosovars had on their side at least two of the above three factors: their plight had the attention of the media and they were important to the national interests of the large donors of international assistance. The Congo had none of the three factors listed above operating in its favor.
The author then goes on to add such factors as racial and ethnic kinship, traditional ties and accessibility of stricken area to humanitarian organizations...
Yet there are other sides to this: who's arming the conflict, what's fueling it and who profits?
On the first question the answer is "a lot of people": from the US military aid that helped arm the warring parties in the first place, to the fact that 17% of all weapons in the DRC were found to be made in China, to "arms dealers, brokers and transporters from many countries including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Czech Republic, Israel, Russia, Serbia, South Africa, the UK and USA", there is certainly money to be made selling weapons - and its very easy to smuggle them in through porous borders - with countries that were themselves embroiled in the war. It seems that the ban on arms exports to any of the warring factions is more or less moot: AK-47's are jokingly referred to as Congolese credit cards...
As for the root cause of the fighting, it suffices to note that in the DRC:
"...The Congo River system has 10 percent to 12 percent of the world's hydroelectric capacity. More than 50 percent of all the tropical hardwoods in Africa are inside the Congo. It has been in the top 10 in terms of production of five or six major minerals: gold, industrial diamonds, copper, cobalt and coltan - the material from which cellular telephones are made..."
So while it is a given that all sorts of local and neighbouring military units and armed groups were struggling to gain control of and riches from Congo's fabulous mineral and forest wealth, at great pain and cost to the local population, it is worth remembering a UN report on plunder in the DRC, that pointed to quite less marginal figures as culprits in the wartime pillage. In fact as Keith Harmon Snow and David Barouski write on Znet:
...Some people are aware that war in the Congo is driven by the desire to extract raw materials, including diamonds, gold, columbium tantalite (coltan), niobium, cobalt, copper, uranium and petroleum. Mining in the Congo by western companies proceeds at an unprecedented rate, and it is reported that some $6 million in raw cobalt alone: an element of superalloys essential for nuclear, chemical, aerospace and defense industries exits DRC daily. Any analysis of the geopolitics in the Congo requires an understanding of the organized crime perpetrated through multinational businesses, in order to understand the reasons why the Congolese people have suffered a virtually unending war since 1996...
The UN has 17000 troops in the area and all sorts of diplomats and mediators, doing what they can (and a few implicated in a major scandal as well), but to limited effect - though one has to give the UN credit for brokering the peace process in the Congo - whatever the shortfalls of this peace may be. They are quite proud - and justifiably so - of the fact that they are about to oversee elections in the DRC and of the general progress achieved:
Look at where the country was even three years ago, at the time the [peace] agreements were signed, and look now, with most of the country pacified and the [armed groups in the] east increasingly being put under pressure.
The great hope here is the determination of the Congolese people. There are an estimated 28 million voters here. [Of them,] 25.6 million went out and registered. That's not like driving up to the shopping centre and going to register. These people have had to walk 20km or 30km, stand in line for seven or eight hours, perhaps come back the next day in order to get that voting card.
Then these same people went out - two-thirds of them, 15 million - in December to vote for a constitution that most had never seen and very few had ever read, because they saw this as the next ticket to be punched on the way to elect their own leaders.
Locals seem to be less optimistic about the elections:
...There are hardly any colours flying for any of the other candidates contesting the election. It looks as if Oriental Province is a sure thing for the young and incumbent president. Almost every observer IRIN encountered said the same thing: "Kabila has the money, so he will win."
At Yasira market, a vendor sells unlicensed drugs; others offer smoked fish, bananas and cassava cake wrapped in leaves. Aside from petty trade, the economy is at a virtual standstill. The electorate here, as in other villages throughout the impoverished heart of the Congo, is needy: "We want money, beer or T-shirts," one voter said.
In Kisangani, people walked around in T-shirts emblazoned with the images and names of candidates a month before the official start of campaigning.
"In all this misery, you can buy a poor man with a piece of soap," said Sister Marie Madeleine Bofoe, head of the Catholic NGO Caritas in Isangi.
This also illustrates a paradox: an election to end despotism is making an entire society gamble with its future. "We don't know any of the candidates, and we have no idea who to vote for," said Bebale Bombole, a fish vendor.
With more than 9,600 parliamentary candidates and a campaign period limited to one month, many voters will not be able to make an informed decision...
Meanwhile the opposition isn't really impressed by the process either:
We have said to everybody that the electoral process imposed on the Congolese people is not a good one. The impression we have gotten is that our [international] partners don't want to organise [proper] elections. We can't understand why our partners are just pushing us to go to elections without asking the question, "But what about after the elections?"
With all this as background, the EU is about to embark on a military mission to the DRC to help with the elections. The mission will "support MONUC in its peacekeeping efforts where necessary; the EU is responsible for protecting and -- if necessary -- evacuating election personnel, election observers and U.N. personnel. They will also protect and remove civilians out of danger zones, if such form, and provide MONUC with information from the EU's military intelligence services." The mission will consist of 2000 troops and be under German command. There are serious misgivings about this deployment in Germany however. Deutsche Welle notes:
"..how serious can Europe really be about this mission, when Central Africa's big hope rests on the shoulders of just 2,000 European soldiers, many of whom will never actually be stationed in the country? And what are they supposed to secure in this country saddled with unrest? A poorly prepared election in which former warlords will surrender to the ballot?
If the observers are right, then interim President Joseph Kabila will profit more than anyone else from the presence of European soldiers in DR Congo. As far as security goes, he prefers to rely on his private army. Kabila is friendly with the French, who are involved in power politics in the region and therefore play a decisive role in the conflict. Paris is only concerned with stability and the status quo in Africa, regardless of whether dictators or democrats come out on top. Since no one wants to hear about that in Berlin, France was able to lure the Germans into DR Congo by assuring them that the mission would strengthen the European Union's position as a global security power...
...That all sounds very nice, but DR Congo is a poor choice for improving the EU's reputation. As soon as the situation escalates, the European mini-force will have to make a run for it -- and leave a lot of disappointed people behind.
It seems that the main motive for this expedition is less the protection of the (already flawed) Congolese elections and more a grand opening for the European Security an Defense Policy and, possibly, the protection of French interests in the country. Already the opposition is calling EU Envoys in the country "public enemies":
...According to Bomanza the International Electoral Commission (IEC) has been instructed to organize the polls to convert them into a plebiscite for Kabila. For this the European Development Commissioner, Louis Michel bears a large responsibility. His support for Kabila can be traced back to January 2002, when he managed to convince Congolese participants at a round-table meeting in Brussels to accept Kabila as the president of the future transitional government, said Bomanza.
"The Congolese people consider the EU's Special Envoy in the Great Lakes, Aldo Ajello, and Louis Michel as its public enemies", he added.
while the sentiment on the street in Kinshasha isn't exactly always pro-european:
Tyres were burning on Kinshasa's main boulevard, tear gas hung in the air and the whole angry mob was screaming at once.
But one voice eventually rose above the rest: "The Belgians and the rest of their European friends will have to watch out," shouted Jean Bosco Muaka.
"This place is no longer their colony and, if they aren't careful, we may have to burn a few of them," the lawyer and parliamentary candidate added as some fellow protestors ran their fingers across their necks in a menacing gesture.
Just weeks ahead of Democratic Republic of Congo's first free elections in 40 years, visiting U.N. Security Council delegates this week told politicians to tone down election rhetoric and avoid inflaming ethnic tensions.
But Monday's protests, called by opposition parties unhappy with preparations for the July 30 polls which are meant to draw a line under years of war and chaos, demonstrated mounting hostility to foreign involvement in Congo.
"There is a clear 'anti-international community' sentiment growing out there," a U.N. official told Reuters.
"They see us as having already decided who will be elected," said the official, who asked not to be named. "They are totally frustrated with the process and could start taking it out on soft targets, which is worrying."
The scope, the circumstances and the timing of this EU unit is troubling: rather than being sent there under UN command with some tangible humanitarian goal, the EU's presence is seen as legitimizing rather suspicious elections - in a country in which at least one of its member states has both interests and clients. Having said that, this mission is indeed at the UN's request and is thus surely legitimate. Whether it is wise, relevant or disinterested, is another matter.
Meanwhile, from another point of view, this operation is described as "cosmetic" by those that wish to see a more "militarily involved" EU. Jean-Yves Haine and Bastian Giegerich write in the IHT that:
...The mission's rationale has more to do with French-German cohesion and with the EU's desire to bolster the credibility of the European Security and Defense Policy after the fiasco over the European constitutional treaty's rejection in referendums in France and the Netherlands. The actual reality on the ground in Congo is only a secondary factor...
To sum it up the two facts that are making me suspicious of whether anybody has a clear and acceptable goal in mind is that a. the EU force will be there to safeguard against "bad losers" and oversee the elections which b. most consider very one-sided and the opposition is renouncing as rigged - so if the elections are "flawed" the EU force will be using force against people who will rightfully demonstrate. So are "we" (in the EU) helping in setting up another de facto dictator by lending him credibility or are "we" doing whatever the UN tells us with no agenda of our own...? I'd love to read some local perspective on this - so I would be grateful for any suggested sources (or your personal views if you are from the DRC or the region).
Anyway, the story developing in the DRC needs some drastically more serious exposure - and since the Real Media aren't doing that job, I wonder if bloggers can step up and try to publicize the extent and urgency of the DRC's ongoing humanitarian catastrophe, that is currently claiming one Bosnia every three months...
Cross posted over at the European Tribune, slightly edited