The horror goes on for the Congo
While filming a television documentary in the Democratic Republic of Congo, PEADER KINGwas appalled by the conflict there – and even more appalled by our indifference
BY ANY MEASURE it is an astounding figure. Between August 1998 and April 2007, 5.4 million people died from violence or war-related hunger and illness in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2007, as many as 45,000 people died each month. The fighting is still going on, and the largest country in equatorial Africa is now home to the deadliest conflict since the second World War.
Few people in the West have heard about it. Yet when an aircraft crashed in the Democratic Republic of Congo in July last year, killing at least 48 people, it was widely covered by the media. It was a devastating, painful loss for the families of the people killed. But no more devastating or painful than their losses must have been for the families of the 5.4 million Congolese.
Why did the crash get so much more coverage? Is it because we can identify with the crash victims? People, for the most part, like us. People with enough money to fly. Businesspeople. Senior government figures. Nongovernmental workers. The rare tourist. The even rarer journalist.
I was on one of those flights earlier this year, filming a television documentary. We travelled from the capital, Kinshasa, at the western end of the country, to Goma, the centre of the current conflict, on the border with Rwanda. No street hawkers were aboard, no subsistence farmers, not one of the tens of thousands of people who visibly carry the physical wounds of the conflict that has blighted the country ever since the Belgians first set foot in the Congo, during the great scramble for Africa, in the 1870s.
In many respects that flight epitomised DR Congo’s great divide. A disproportionate number of white people. Burly businessmen with bulging briefcases. Women dripping with gold. The all-pervasive presence of senior army figures. And sycophantic foot soldiers to do their bidding.
It is easy to caricature what is happening in DR Congo and in Africa as a whole. But, equally, it is easy to turn a blind eye to the excesses and corruption that continue to plunge the country into penury and conflict. Notwithstanding its extraordinary mineral reserves– the source of much of the conflict, and now estimated to be worth €17.5 trillion – DR Congo is sliding into even greater poverty. It is already the poorest country on the planet.
But to reduce the conflict there to yet another example of mindless black-on-black violence would be to succumb to the laziest of stereotypes. The violence of the present is rooted in a peculiar kind of colonialism that resulted in the Congo becoming the personal fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium. Under his tutelage, a country that he described as a magnifique gâteau africain became a virtual Gulag of shocking proportions.