The horror goes on for the Congo
And his meddling, along with that of the Belgian government, fuelled the interethnic tensions that spilled over the border after the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
The chicotte, a whip made from sun-dried hippopotamus hide cut into razor-sharp strips and used to flay what were regarded as recalcitrant natives, became the symbol of Leopold’s reign. By the end of his 23-year rule he had become one of the richest men in Europe, and the Congo had lost half of its population, as many as 10 million people. The splendour of Brussels, the political and administrative centre of the European Union, still stands as a monument to the rape and pillage of the Congo.
One of the few voices to publicise Leopold’s genocide was Roger Casement, the Irish nationalist, in one of the first human-rights reports. “We begged the white man to leave us alone,” one of the rubber pickers told him in 1904. “You are only beasts, we were told, you are only meat.”
Now, when DR Congo needs the white man to take notice, the white man chooses to leave the Congolese alone. Not that white westerners (and the Chinese) have ceased to benefit from the country’s rich resources: the cobalt that goes into every mobile phone we carry is testimony to that.
But when it comes to the struggles of the current generation, the oppressed and the dispossessed, the world has largely forgotten the Congolese. There are some notable exceptions, mainly nongovernmental agencies and some missionary groups, as well as the Irish Times Foreign Correspondent, Mary Fitzgerald, who last November covered the presidential election that failed to bring any respite to the people. But these are the exceptions.
Meanwhile the turmoil continues. More than two million people displaced: the highest number since 2009. Rape routinely used as a weapon of war. Child soldiers, on lethal cocktails of drugs and alcohol, committing some of the vilest crimes imaginable. And the death toll of 5.4 million people being added to year by year.
At the start of the 20th century, the Polish-born novelist Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness, a book that became a metaphor for the whole of Africa, and one that was influenced by Casement’s human-rights work.
Kurtz, its main narrator, cries out at the horror. That cry has been replaced by silence. Silence at the genocide that continues, albeit to a lesser degree. Silence at western culpability in feeding that conflict. And silence at the culpability of senior Congolese soldiers in the corruption of a state and the impoverishment of its people. It’s time that silence was broken.
Peadar King is presenter and producer of What in the World? The series begins on RTÉ One on Tuesday at 11pm