Africa's faraway and almost forgotten carnage


Since Christmas Day the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) has intensified. On St Stephen's Day, following fierce fighting, the town of Gemena fell to rebel forces, and Gbadolite, the home town of the former Zairean dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, came under attack.

Troops from Chad who are participating in the war have reportedly fled to the Central African Republic, after 70 of them were killed. Since Monday of last week Angolan and Zimbabwean fighter planes have intensified air raids on Congolese rebels. I read about this not in any of the newspapers (Irish or British) on sale here, nor on the websites of the major international newspapers (in English). News on the international war going on in the Congo comes from the Panafrican Newsagency or the websites of Ugandan, South African or Zambian newspapers.

The Western world, so concerned about the threat to peace elsewhere, notably in the Middle East, seems entirely unconcerned about certainly the most serious international war on the African continent in almost 100 years, and the most serious since the Gulf War.

SINCE the middle of 1998 the war has been going on in the Congo. It has involved the Congo itself plus Rwanda and Uganda (on the side of the rebels who are seeking to oust President Kabila, who himself led a rebel movement against Mobutu in 1997), and Angola, Namibia, Chad and Zimbabwe, which are backing President Kabila.

The outside world does not know the toll of lives, but it runs to several tens of thousands. There is also evidence that a genocide attempt is taking place there of the Tutsi population in the eastern part of the country. This is being partly conducted by the Hutus, who massacred 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda over three months four years ago. In the BBC review of 1999 broadcast last week, there was not a single mention of the Congo war. In The Irish Times World Review of 1998, published last Thursday, there was a mention, a 240-word mention in a David Orr column about Africa.

Like most newspapers in Britain and the US, The Irish Times has hardly mentioned the war since last July. On the New York Times Website there have been no more than eight articles in five months. The archive on the Washington Post website, as of last Saturday, lists only one article since last September.

Is there no lingering sense of guilt of how the world stood by in 1998 while the genocide of the Tutsis took place in Rwanda, stood by in contravention of the world's binding undertaking in the convention against genocide to intervene in such situations?

Is there no lingering guilt on the part of the former colonial powers, Britain, France and Belgium, that ravaged these parts of Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly "little" Belgium, whose record in the Congo is so shocking?

How is it that a row between Saddam Hussein and the head of Unscom, Richard Butler, can mobilise the firepower of the world's superpower, the United States, and its loyal ally, Britain, and the most serious international war to take place in Africa in almost a century is ignored?

A US special envoy did tour the relevant capitals, but no serious diplomatic pressure seems to have been exerted to stop the war.

The most impressive efforts have been made by Nelson Mandela and President Frederick Chibula of Zambia, but with no success (negotiations scheduled for the end of 1998 were postponed for the umpteenth time).

THE Congo is the second-largest country in Africa with the second-largest population. It comprises a vast number of ethnic peoples, with over 200 languages. In terms of natural resources it is vastly rich. Precisely because of its natural wealth (amid terrible poverty) and the multiplicity of its ethnic groups, it attracts the involvement of its neighbours and, as a consequence, conflict there has the potential to spill over into a widespread continental war. But perhaps more menacingly, other internal genocidal wars in neighbouring states could be sparked.

Widespread killings are taking place in Rwanda and Burundi. In Burundi, it is estimated that 200,000 people have been killed since Tutsi paratroopers murdered the country's first democratically elected president, a Hutu, in 1993. Since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, it is estimated that about 100,000 more people have been slaughtered.

In the same timespan, probably 100,000 people have lost their lives in the Congo as a direct spillover of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the war of "liberation" that ousted President Mobutu in 1997, a fresh genocide that has taken place there in the eastern part of that country and now the war to oust President Kabila.

In other words, about 1 1/4 million people have lost their lives in this part of Africa in the last 4 1/2 years. This is five times the number killed in the wars in the former Yugoslavia since 1991. And for the most part the world's media, international organisations and governments have not been interested.

Other parts of Africa have also been ignored. It is estimated that another million people have died in southern Sudan because of war and famine. Hundreds of thousands have died in other conflicts from Sierra Leone to Liberia to Angola to Somalia to the other Congo (the former French Congo), where a civil war has broken out in the last month.

Of course, it is not within the powers of the international community to prevent or stop all these wars, but it is within their powers to stop or prevent some of them and to influence the course of other wars.

For instance, an effective embargo on all arms sales to the countries of Africa involved in the Congo war, and to the Congolese rebels, would be a help. A humanitarian intervention on a scale of the military intervention in Iraq, for instance, would also help ease the impact of the war on hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Persistent high-level diplomatic pressure by the West, bolstering the efforts of South Africa, Zambia and Libya, would also help. A military intervention of the sort that limited the killings in the former Yugoslavia might also have helped. The sole military interventions have been a UN peacekeeping one in 1994 in Rwanda, which saw UN troops stand by while Tutsis were slaughtered before their eyes, and a French intervention at the end of that war, the purpose and effect of which were to protect the perpetrators of the genocide.