TORONTO (NFTF.org) -- Even for local people who are quite familiar with the situation on the ground in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (Background Report), it is becoming difficult to keep straight what is actually going on.
As part of a United Nations peacekeeping force considered woefully insufficient even by many within the U.N. itself, French troops began arriving about two weeks ago in a bid to end ethnic fighting that had erupted with the departure of the last of foreign troops at the end of April. DRC has been the scene of a civil war that in five years has taken more lives than any conflict since World War II, a war that eventually involved the troops of eight nations. A peace treaty reached in April has promised hope but as the last of the foreigners withdrew, ethnic hatred -- some say inflamed by the departing troops -- erupted in the northeastern part of DRC. Several hundred people were killed, mutilated, and in some cases eaten, before the U.N. finally reacted to send peacekeepers.
On the ground, the French troops who have arrived in Bunia, the largest town in Ituri province and the scene of the worst ethnic violence, have observed evidence of mass murder, rape, abduction, and a humanitarian disaster only a few more missed meals away. There is a great risk of starvation, particularly among children, and the greatest part of the citizenry of Bunia has fled for safer ground, some as far as Uganda. Armed militia, at least partly made up of disaffected and drugged youth, have fought skirmishes with the French.
Late on June 19, news was breaking that the DRC and two rebel factions had met in Kigali Rwanda and agreed to halt fighting in the province of North Kivu and to pull back from their positions. The situation in Ituri is still uncertain but calm in North Kivu might allow for more resources to be deployed to Ituri in an effort to settle that region; in another setback, though, two U.N. observers have gone missing near the Ituri town of Beni and it is feared they have been abducted.
Life in Congo has never been easy but the violence that made up its five year civil war and the recent wave of ethnic atrocities has been particularly repugnant. All over the world, combatants recognize the Red Cross/Red Crescent as neutral and armies normally respect and honor this. But this is nothing like a "normal" situation; most of the fighting is being conducted by lawless militias made up of thugs and drug-happy youth, including a large number of "child soldiers," kids as young as nine or ten-years-of-age toting submachine guns on the backs of pickup trucks. Mostly, the Red Cross/Red Crescent folks have to keep their distance until the shooting stops and they are then left to bury the dead with a dignity that eluded them in life.
There is wide-spread belief that this situation in and around Bunia will repeat itself in perpetuum unless something is done to disarm the militias. Unfortunately, the peacekeepers recently deployed by the U.N. do not intend to make any effort at disarmament and most local observers are saying that while the violence might abate for now, it will only re-ignite when this U.N. mandate ends in September 2003.
YellowTimes.org correspondent Paul Harris drafted this report.