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Conflict In Congo Escalates, Goes Largely Unnoticed


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Congolese rebels today captured the city of Goma, as government troops melted away and U.N. peacekeepers stood by. And if that sounds a bit like deja vu, you may be remembering a similar battle on the same ground four years ago, or parts of other wars that have ravaged the eastern part of Congo for nearly two decades now, wars blamed for the deaths of five million over those years, along with a long list of associated crimes including systematic rape, looting and child soldiers.

The latest from Goma in just a moment. We'll also step back to see how this latest chapter fits in the bloody history of Africa's great lakes, about the other countries engaged in this fight and the role of the international community. If you have questions about the Congo conflict, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the evolution of the point-and-shoot video game, but first the crisis in Congo, and we begin with Reuters correspondent Jonny Hogg, who joins us on the phone from Goma. Good to have you with us.

JONNY HOGG: Good evening, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you, and listeners of course can hear that long five-seconds-or-so delay from Goma, but please, tell us what happened there in Goma today.

HOGG: Well, it's been a fairly momentous few hours in the eastern city of Goma, and essentially, the last few days, the M23 rebel group has been edging ever closer to the town. But the question was would they actually dare to try and take the town, and if they did dare to try, would they be able to do it.

Now, that question was answered pretty conclusively today. We woke up this morning. It was very calm, but extremely tense. Government troops were deployed in the center of the city. We were hearing reports of fighting to the north of the city, towards the airport. And then (technical difficulties) try and make it to the airport, we saw rebel troops advancing down the road towards us. We turned around.

Shortly after that, there was heavy fire-fighting, which went on for perhaps a couple of hours. And then things started to die down, and what was actually happening was that government troops were evacuating out of the city. They were heading south. They were heading west. They were moving (technical difficulties), and they were ceding ground to the rebels who then marched in very calmly, very peacefully, into the center of the city towards the Rwandan border, which symbolically is a very important place to reach for the rebels.

They did that, and then slowly more and more rebels came in, and some members of the population actually came out onto the street to welcome them. Now, the city is much quieter. There's still every now and then sporadic bursts of gunfire, but the rebels seem to be largely in control, and certainly there's no evidence of government troops inside the city now.

CONAN: You said some of the residents came out to cheer the rebels as they took over. Obviously, some did not. Were they expecting the U.N., the MUNUSCO Force, as it's known, to protect them?

HOGG: Absolutely. I mean, you know, all through this crisis, people have been looking to the U.N., and they've repeatedly said that they would protect the city, that they would not allow Goma to fall. Tonight, the U.N. has said that obviously it cannot be a substitute for (technical difficulties) to stem the rebel advance. But at the same time, clearly there much anger amongst certain people within the population who are saying that what use were they.

And what we saw were U.N. peacekeepers simply standing there and watching as rebels marched through the city, and there's been no official comment from the mission here in Congo, but I did speak to one U.N. force, he told me, well, what were we to do? (Technical difficulties) there would have been clearly the risk is very high for civilian casualties. At the same time, that clearly hasn't done everything to stem the anger that is felt by the (unintelligible) people at the failure of the U.N. to protect the city.

CONAN: And we're losing the line there to Goma, but I will risk one more question. Where do the M23 rebels go from here?

HOGG: Well, that is a very good question. I mean, still I think there are - one of the big doubts is that they have the numbers to hold a city like Goma with all the problems and logistical challenges that that brings. And on the hand, if you compare their situation today to what their situation was perhaps 10 days, two weeks ago, where there (technical difficulties) support, where they were isolated in an area which they hadn't been able to expand, their position is infinitely stronger now.

And most importantly, the Congolese government's position is infinitely weaker. I suspect now we'll move towards the (unintelligible) negotiations, and that could end up being a very humiliating experience once more for the Congolese government.

CONAN: Jonny Hogg, thanks very much for your time. We know you're busy. We appreciate it.

HOGG: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Reuters reporter Jonny Hogg with us from Goma in the Congo. He's on the cell phone there, but according to Oxfam, more than two and a half million people are displaced in Congo. In recent days, tens of thousands more fled their camps and homes to seek shelter from the mortars and the shelling. With very few places left to find cover, the humanitarian crisis in eastern Congo is deepening.

Tariq Riebl is dealing with that situation firsthand. He's the humanitarian program coordinator for Oxfam, and he joins us now on the phone from Goma. And good to have you with us this evening.

TARIQ RIEBL: Hi, good to hear from - good to talk to you.

CONAN: And what is the situation there as far as you can see it in terms of, well, how people are getting along?

RIEBL: Well, basically the situation as yet not fully clear because we've not been able to move. We heard just now about the situation has only calmed down a few hours ago. We have been out and about yesterday, before the resumption of fighting, and we were able to see the camps, the situation was quite serious because on the - all the people on the eastern side of town were forced to move to the western side of town, fleeing the fighting as the M23 was advancing towards the airport and further into Goma.

So yesterday, the snapshot we saw was about 50,000 people that had fled the fighting. From what we know today, the skirmishes and the fighting across several parts of town led to many people fleeing through Rwanda. Across the border, many people were seen leaving, thousands of people in that direction. We also have people fleeing within Goma itself. So you have displacement from one neighborhood to another.

We also have reports of a lot of looting and pillaging that happened last night. That - we don't know the scale of it, but we have many reports of that happening, shops, as well. So...

CONAN: That would have been pillaging and looting like...

RIEBL: (Unintelligible) but it looks bad.

CONAN: Forgive me for interrupting. That would have been pillaging and looting by government forces.

RIEBL: You know, we don't know who the perpetrators all are. Some of it would have been opportunistic bandits, but definitely the armed groups involved in all of this are probably responsible to a large degree, as well.

CONAN: What has it been like for civilians since the rebel groups began advancing in eastern Congo? I mean, M23 just stands for March 23rd movement. This has only been going on a few months.

RIEBL: Well, yes and no. Nord-Kivu, like places such as Somalia or Afghanistan, has known conflict such as this for many years, at least 18 to 20 years for Nord-Kivu. So this is not new, and many of the displaced people we work with in Nord-Kivu have been displaced many, many times in the last years. So it's not new for them, unfortunately.

On the other hand, this new wave of violence has commenced since about July, when the M23 seized the Rutshuru area northeast of Goma. That led to displacement to the Goma camps, and we're seeing people now that were displaced again over the weekend. So displacement has been new, but many of the people, when you talk to them, this is not the first time they've been displaced, by a long shot.

CONAN: And where will they go? Where will they find food? Where will they find shelter?

RIEBL: Well, this is the big question now. One of the biggest questions we face in Goma is space. It's just that there isn't a lot of space to house even modest space. Goma was already hosting about 100,000 internally displaced persons before the events of this weekend. Now those people had to be re-displaced.

The fighting is over for the most part in Goma, but it's unclear whether the fighting has ceased in other parts of Nord-Kivu, whether they will be a resumption. People are in panic in many cases right now. So we'll have to find places for them.

The second step will then be trying to get supplies to them. This will require that the security situation allows free access of humanitarian access. That will allow us to move to where people are. And then of course we have the funding available to do kind of - provide the large amount of assistance we need to.

CONAN: And will the U.N. help you?

RIEBL: Well, the U.N. humanitarian agencies, some of your listeners may know the World Food Program or UNICEF. They will be operational as much as possible. And then there are many NGOs and the Red Cross, NGOs such as Ofxam and the Red Cross that will be operating as much as possible.

Again, many us have had to reduce our presence significantly over the last few days, given the deterioration of the situation. So we hope to be able to move and - move freely and also have full access to people.

CONAN: You're talking about relief agencies. What about the U.N. peacekeepers who were there? Will they help you?

RIEBL: The U.N. peacekeepers' role in this is to guarantee the protection of civilians. I think as was mentioned on the program, there are some concerns about this. What the U.N.'s role will be would be to make sure that where people settle, those people are protected from incursion, from looting, from pillaging, from attacks, from targeted atrocities.

And that's - that is what their mandate is. Their mandate will not be to provide the direct relief...

CONAN: I hear what you're saying...

RIEBL: The peacekeepers should be responsible for security.

CONAN: We just have a few seconds left. Is it too strong to say I hear a hint of skepticism in that answer that the U.N. will protect the people?

RIEBL: I'd have to say the track has not been good in the last few months, not just in Goma but across Nord-Kivu, and we require much stronger engagement.

CONAN: Tariq Riebl, humanitarian program coordinator for Oxfam in Goma, with us on the line from Goma. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. As M23 rebel forces reportedly backed by Rwanda take Goma and civilians flee, it's easy to get the feeling you've seen this before. For nearly 20 years, Congo, Rwanda and their proxy forces have traded fire. Though the conflict started with the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, it's evolved into a fight over valuable minerals, from gold and diamonds to cobalt and tungsten.

Twice the fighting descended into war. Many fear this latest escalation may be headed there, as well. If you have questions about the conflict in Congo, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. And click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And joining us now is Jason Stearns, who's been researching armed violence in the Congo for the past decade. He's on with us by Skype from Abu Dhabi, and it's good of you to be with us.

JASON STEARNS: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And what is this most recent escalation of violence, how does it fit in with this conflict that's been going on for decades now in the eastern part of the Congo?

STEARNS: Well, there's some similarities, but there's also some differences. On the similarities front, this current conflict has a lot to do with three factors, I would say. First, the deep weakness of the Congolese state, as we could see during this recent escalation of violence, the Congolese army ended up crumbling, fleeing, looting as the soldiers fled, and that's really the story for Congolese institutions in general.

You know, there was a peace process in the Congo. There have been two elections now since the peace process. But the Congolese institutions, including in particular the security forces, are still extremely weak. The second factor are very deep communal conflicts between communities that have to do with identity, ethnicity but also land - control over land.

And the third fact, which is probably actually the most important one in understanding this, are tensions between the Congo and its neighbor Rwanda. And here's also where some of the differences lie, I think, because this is the third time that Goma has fallen to a rebel force in the last 18 years. 1996 was the first time, 1998 and, now, it's 2012 is the third time.

The previous two times, it was an all-out Rwandan invasion. The Rwandan army deployed troops across the border. They occupied Goma. And then they had very good security justifications. They were fighting a war with rebels that had carried out a genocide in Rwanda and had subsequently fled into the Congo.

This time, Rwandan involvement is much more discreet. They backed the rebels, but they're going to great lengths at not revealing their backing. And their justifications are also much slimmer because the security threats to Rwanda are much lower than they were in the past.

CONAN: So as we look at this conflict, this is, as we keep saying, minerally wealthy area. Why does the DRC, the Democratic Republic of Congo, continue to be so weak? It can't defend its own borders from Rwanda, which we don't think of as a superpower.

STEARNS: Well, it has a lot to do with organization. I mean, you can have all of the abundance of minerals in the world and still have an organizational deficit, and the Congolese government is beset with immense organizational difficulties. Disorder has almost become part of the strategy of rule in the Congo. It's become a tool in the toolbox of Congolese rulers.

Instead of creating strong armies, they weaken their own armies in order to prevent those armies from overthrowing them, and that's been a feature of Congolese politics since independence, really, in 1960. So I think that the political logic of instability in the Congo runs extremely deep, whereas in Rwanda, this is a country that for centuries, now, has prided itself on a very strong central organization, in particular very strong military forces.

They go back to the pre-colonial period. So there's very - two different kinds of political organization we're talking about.

CONAN: Let's go to a caller, and let's get Tye(ph) on the phone, and Tye's with us from Laurel, Maryland.

TYE: Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

TYE: And hi to Jason, too. I wanted to ask a question about the role of Rwanda, but I think from the light of what your correspondent in Goma has said, I'm going to actually broaden it a little bit and make it: What's the role of the international community here? Because if we fear - we read through the lines of the declaration of the head of MONUSCO in Goma, it sounds as if he's making a, what do you call it a support, an actual allegiance to the rebels.

My question really here becomes twofold. The first one is: Who is ensuring the security of the territory that the M23 have taken so far? Would it be Rwanda? And that question comes with the - MONUSCO was supposed to be actually supporting the FRDC together with ensuring the security of the people.

So if the head of MONUSCO is saying that they are doing their work by just supporting the security of the people, what happens to the other part of the mission, which is to support the FRDC...

CONAN: We're hearing a lot of acronyms, which most people are not familiar. Jason Stearns, can you fill us in? And also, who's in these U.N. forces? Of course the U.N. doesn't have any forces of its own.

STEARNS: Right, well, those are some very good questions. Rwanda obviously refuses or denies any involvement in the eastern Congo. So they would not accept any responsibility for the goings on in the eastern Congo. With regards to the U.N. peacekeeping mission, and the caller has, you know, alluded to the FARDC, which is the Congolese army, the U.N. does have a mandate to prop up Congolese institutions and to back the Congolese army against threats.

And throughout this whole fight with, battle with the M23, they have been backing up the Congolese army, including by flying helicopter, attack helicopter raids against the rebels. But eventually that did not - that didn't work in the sense that the rebels were able to take Goma.

There's been enormous amount of criticism of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, and I think to a certain extent some of this is justified. But in general, the U.N. peacekeeping mission's mandate is to back the Congolese army. If the Congolese army then crumbles and flees the battlefield, it is extremely difficult for the U.N. peacekeepers to hold the front lines, especially against unconventional forces such as the M23, who are guerrilla forces fighting largely with small weapons, not in tanks deployed conventionally.

So it's extremely difficult for them. So I think that while one can be critical of the U.N., at the same time we have to realize that they have very strong limitations. With regards to who is manning and staffing the U.N. forces, these are largely, in the eastern Congo in particular, largely South Asian countries - Pakistani, Indians and Bangladeshis form the bulk of the contingents in the east, but there are also Uruguayans and South Africans, as well.

CONAN: Let's bring John Kron into the conversation, a reporter with the New York Times in East Africa. He's with us from Nairobi. Nice to have you with us today.

JOHN KRON: Thank you, sir, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you. And let me ask you a follow-on question about the United Nations: There's been a report that's been leaked, supposedly due to be published on Friday, which blames Rwanda to a greater extent and Uganda to a lesser extent for their parts in this most recent rebellion in eastern Congo. How has that complicated things?

KRON: That's quite a good question. Obviously it would be hard to distinguish the two entirely, but it is quite a good question. The president of Uganda recently stated that this leaked U.N. report or even the U.N. report in general, something that comes every six months, every 12 months, rotating on different topics, but over the years, you know, Rwanda has been a focus of a lot of attention from a number of parties.

And it would be hard to say one thing is the reason for something or another, but there's no doubt that over the course of the last several years, but maybe seriously picking up in the last year, there has been - things have felt, at least as somebody reporting on it, a bit more personal, and whether that plays into people's temptations to do certain things or make certain orders is unclear. But it's certainly - it's something the U.N. report 2008 just around the same time that rebels then were haunting down on Goma, so...


CONAN: And that sounds like an interruption in the phone line of some sort, so we'll try to re-establish the line to Nairobi there and get back on the line with Josh Kron. In the meantime, let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Phil, and Phil is with us from Unionville in Pennsylvania.

PHIL: Hey, good afternoon. How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

PHIL: Yeah. Frankly, Zaire (unintelligible) is a failed nation state. You don't even have adequate roads (unintelligible) troops had to be airlifted out that way. I don't see any reason to continue the support this failed nation state which has not been able to bring order to Eastern Congo, and I see no reason why we should throw our support behind the rebels and allow them to create a nation state in Eastern Congo that actually will function and can bring some decent services over a long period of time. Mind you, it won't happen overnight. (Unintelligible) the residents of the eastern Congo.

CONAN: Jason Stearns, first of all, is that the rebel's goal, to establish a separate state in eastern Congo? And if so, might this be a de facto declaration of that?

STEARNS: Well, you know, it's funny. The drive to split up the Congo - and precisely because it's too large, it's unviable and it's, as your caller pointed out, it's decrepit - comes largely from Westerners, this kind of - this kind of logic gets very little traction in Congo, not because the Congolese government have - or the Congolese people have a great loyalty towards their own government that they're often very mistrustful of, but because - it's strange. There's very little functioning government in the Congo. But one thing that's functioning is patriotism. It's an extremely patriotic country that is extremely wedded to the idea of being Congolese.

Now, there are some exceptions, and the rebels that have conquered Goma may be one of these exceptions in the sense that they have previously said, at least in internal conversations, that they want to secede from the Congo - establish their own state, although it's not entirely clear what their final aims are. I would point out, however, that the rebels have a relatively narrow social base in the sense that they are not representative, I would say, of the larger - most communities in the eastern Congo. Most of them come from the ethnic Tutsis community in the eastern Congo, at least their leadership does. And many Congolese perceive them as stooges or allies of the Rwandan government, and many Congolese are resentful of Rwanda for past interference in the Congo. So I don't think that many Congolese would back the notion of your - that your caller just suggested.

CONAN: Josh Kron of the New York Times is back with us on the line from Nairobi. As you look at this situation, there is a fait accompli. The rebels have achieved something important. They've taken Goma and its airport. What happens next and are they going to be able to solidify that control?

JOSH KRON: Yeah. That's a good question. I think - I may not be the best to know, but I don't think it's time yet to say whether or not the rebels are going to stick around. Obviously the momentum of what happened today, they have control over the territory, and it doesn't look like the (unintelligible) are going to come back in the Congolese army and try to (unintelligible) things up. And the U.N. is not going to start a fight in town either. But it depends to be seen if they're serious about trying to overthrow a government or go to the following city or whether what they really want is to hammer out some better deals for themselves.

I think for a while, what we see today in Goma is what we're going to see, more or less, for a little bit, but it's really - it's really early to tell. It would be hard to think of a reason why the rebels would pull out. At the same time I think if you were betting against the rebels going into the city today, you would've lost some money. So it's really hard to tell.

CONAN: Josh Kron is with the New York Times in East Africa, with us by phone from Nairobi, Kenya. Also with us, Jason Stearns, author of "Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: A History of Congo," project director for the Rift Valley Institute. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go next to Quanque(ph), Quanque with us from Boston.

QUANQUE: Oh, this is Quanque.

CONAN: Oh, go ahead. I'm sorry I mispronounced your name.

QUANQUE: I'm glad you're having this discussion. I've been wondering whether the world has forgotten the conflict in the DRC. (Unintelligible) so many refugees coming across the borders of Uganda and Rwanda. I was in the refugee camp in September in Kisoro, and I saw many refugees with horrifying stories of their problems as they were running away from the villages, from the rebels. There are so many groups of rebels and bandits that I feel as though the refugees do not feel that the U.N. is providing adequate protection for them. And so my question is, I know that this conflict has been going on and off(ph) for the last 20 years. For some reason the political leaders are unable to talk to each other or take responsibility in resolving the problems so that the refugees can finally go home.

CONAN: I hear your question. Jason Stearns, let me ask you. And we do talk about the government as if it was a monolithic force and the rebels as if they were a monolithic force. There are allied militias who are less disciplined than even the government and the rebels.

STEARNS: Yes, absolutely. I think that's a very good point. There are several dozen armed groups in the eastern Congo. The M23 is only of them. So this is obviously a problem that's much larger than just the M23. And I think coming back to your caller's point that, you know, the U.N. is not providing security, the U.N. has always failed at - its principal mandate is protection of civilians in imminent danger. That's an extremely difficult mandate to execute. You know, you end up firefighting, responding to fires all over the place over an area almost the size of California, and it becomes extremely difficult to do that with the troops, with 18,000 soldiers.

What has been lacking, I think, since about 2006 has been some political process that the U.N. can insert its military pressure into. In other words, you have all of these different armed groups, probably first amongst them the M23, but you have no political process to deal with this. A military strategy alone is not going to work absent a larger political framework in which to insert that. And I think that's really what needs to happen now. There need to be some sort of political process involving international mediation that not only brokers a ceasefire and some sort of a short-term deal, but deals with some of these root causes of the conflict that involved not only the institutional fragility but also Rwandan interference in the eastern Congo.

CONAN: And let me finally end with Josh Kron on the point. Rwanda's biggest - one of its biggest and most important allies is the United States. Is the U.S. going to lean on Rwanda to back out?

KRON: Well, for the course of the last several years, it seems that via different state trips and speeches and so forth and programs, the U.S. has seemed to come a little bit closer maybe, if one had to put it that way, to the DRC. And in this world of Rwanda and Congo, at least for some of the people that live in this land, everything is really, really zero-sum. It's really hard sometimes for somebody in Rwanda, for instance, to see the U.S. getting closer with Congo and not seeing it as them getting further away from Rwanda. It's really a very, very airtight situation like that. But I think right now what's clear is that the ball's in Rwanda's court to some extent.

CONAN: Josh Kron of the New York Times, and we thank him. We also thank Jason Stearns, the author of "Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: A History of Congo." Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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