The Origins of War in the DRC

How the region became overrun by warlords and lacking any kind of functional government.
DRC banner.jpg
The camp for internally displaced persons on April 22, 2013. (Armin Rosen)

The conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which I visited over the last week of April, has killed somewhere between 3.5 and 5.4 million people since 1996. It destroys human life in crushing and un-cinematic fashion. Its victims live deep in the mountains of central Africa, and despite the efforts of a few intrepid journalists, scholars, and human rights observers, their suffering goes largely undocumented. They include peasant women who are raped collecting firewood, children dying of cholera in bulging refugee camps, and starving young boys conscripted into militia groups so numerous that experts have trouble keeping track of them all. The DRC's conflict might be the deadliest since World War II, and one of world's worst active crises. But it also may be the most obscure -- the most anonymous.

In Kitchanga, the conflict erupted into view during a bloody week in February and March. The aftermath is still visible, although the journey there is a torrid demonstration of how the land, a blinding-green labyrinth of steep valleys bordered with jagged volcanic hills, can mask the tragedies contained within it. The road from Goma, the eastern DRC's largest city, rises into the mountains of the East African Rift, where villages stand silhouetted against the distant shores of Lake Kivu, a harmony of sloping green and mesmeric blue that stretches far into an unpolluted sky. As the road climbs, travelers can have the illusion of being eye-level with the white smoke billowing from the Nyiragongo volcano, alone in the center of the gaping mountain-ringed valley.

The dirt road is studded with tiny mountain ranges of bumps and craters that turn the back seat of a Landcruiser into a human eggbeater. The drive is an unending gamut of violent quakes -- every puddle and pothole inflicts a painful snap of the neck, along with the mental image of brain hitting braincase, or maybe a jarring collision between one's forehead and the passenger-side window. Breakdowns are common on every unpaved mountain road in North Kivu province; traffic can be snarled for hours if a large enough truck gives out in exactly the wrong spot. In the rain, the danger is magnified, and we arrived in Kitchanga under graying skies.

In the center of town, merchants peddled shoes and dress clothes in the skeletons of burned-out structures, and in the bare concrete lots where buildings had recently stood. The downtown was a checkerboard of charred rectangles marked with lonely support beams and piles of stone and ground-up cement. Life continued amid the ruins: rivulets of creek water gushed through the central drag, where motortaxi drivers washed their vehicles and young children bathed in crowded gutters. Columns of soldiers from the Congolese military, called the FARDC, hogged the center of a street bursting with commerce and activity -- the city continued living, paying little mind to its own physical destruction. Sellers had set up along the frontage of a building that had nearly collapsed, and the crowds were so thick that I barely realized that its sagging and ruined backside was still the best-preserved structure in sight.

This was naked evidence of war, burned-out testimony to a violent mania that had ground the physical environment to asphalt -- it's a place that reminded me of descriptions I had read of burned-out cities in Syria or Mali or the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Yet the network of problems gripping the easternmost quarter of the DRC -- "war" seems like lazy shorthand in a place with 30 armed groups -- isn't about competing visions of the country's future or about the fate of nations or ideas. Capitalism isn't fighting communism; there are no Sunnis fighting Shiites, or Kurds fighting Turks; no philosophical, religious, or national destinies in clash. Violence isn't a means to a higher end in DRC, but the expression of a deeper social, political and historical rot. Here, it's possible to witness how war can become systemic and normal, even in the absence of some broader, national-level struggle -- how a region can become trapped in violent tension and mistrust.

Eastern DRC calls into question nearly every notion of what wars are fought over, and what they even consist of. Global decision makers should keep this in mind as the international community launches a landmark regional peace effort. The UN is currently taking the unprecedented step of deploying a peacekeeping force with a specific counterinsurgency mandate, an "intervention brigade," consisting of special forces from three of the most professional militaries in Africa. It will be empowered to go on the offensive against the DRC's roster of armed groups, and a militia called M23 will be high on its list of targets. The Rwanda-backed rebel movement launched a destructive insurgency in March of 2012 and then swept through Goma eight months later.

The rebellion sparked an international crisis that convinced the world's leaders of the necessity of finally ending the conflict. In February, 11 African countries, including Rwanda, signed a framework agreement that some observers believe could mark be the beginning of a serious peace process. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon appointed former Irish president Mary Robinson as his Great Lakes special envoy two weeks after the agreement was finalized. He even visited Goma on May 23, just a day after the city's outskirts were rocked by deadly skirmishes between M23 and the Congolese army. In a brief speech at a hospital for victims of sexual violence, Ban made the UN's intentions clear: "[The peace deal] aims to address the roots, the fundamental underlying causes of this crisis. The intervention brigade...will address all this violence and will try its best to protect human life, human rights, and human dignity."

But it might not be enough to "protect human life," or go after "fundamental causes." The DRC's problems go beyond civilian protection, or armed groups, or the revenues that those groups draw from the region's lucrative and unregulated mineral trade. The situation grinds away at ideals that are hardwired into democratic political culture. It is a place to observe things through their absence: There are many soldiers, but no state; over 19,000 UN peacekeepers, but no peace to keep; countless armies and militias groups, but no single, unified reason for their existence. From the other side of the Atlantic, these absences seem like a void-like reflection of the political order that reigns over the democratic world -- that idea of a consensual relationship between citizen and state, with a mutually agreed-upon slate of rights and responsibilities to keep it in place. Peel back this order, and its opposite is an environment where the conditions for conflict appear to be cemented into place. Democracy is a human and constructed thing, and in DRC, its absence has nurtured a conflict so fully encompassing that everything seems to sustain it, whether it intends to or not.

DRC pic 2.jpg
The road from Rubaya to Goma, with Lake Kivu in the background, on April 23, 2013. (Armin Rosen)

Rubaya, a town in the Masisi Territory of North Kivu three hours northwest of Goma, is a place to observe one of the sources of the conflict's endurance: the Congolese government, its capacity sapped by decades of kleptocracy and 20 years of conflict, is capable of doing little more than making things worse. When it doesn't prey on its citizens, it outsources its power to those who do, and even when it behaves like a government, it highlights its own failures and entrenches the region's problems.

Though superficially calm, the town has been profoundly impacted by violence in other parts of the region. Thanks to the M23 threat, there are now as many as five FARDC brigades in the lowland forests and hardened lava fields west of the Nyrigongo volcano. The government is convinced that M23's best chance of taking the city is through sneaking behind the volcano and marching east. Foreclosing on this scenario has meant pulling soldiers out of parts of Masisi, where the army's presence was once unusually strong. Now, after you pass an FARDC base perched on a cliff overlooking a bend in the road -- just before ascending into a God's-eye view of the volcano, the lava fields, the lake, and the rolling green carpet of the East African Rift -- the soldiers, and the government, disappear.

Except they don't really. The FARDC recently deputized a faction of the Nyatura, a Hutu militia, to keep order in Rubaya and the surrounding villages. "It is a temporary measure," FARDC spokesperson Olivier Hamuli claimed when I asked him about this decision. "The Nyatura are not against FARDC. That's why there's a bit of collaboration." So in the city itself, the difference between FARDC and gun-toting thugs is meaningless: they all wear the same standard-issue, dark-green military uniforms. Some have shoulder patches depicting the Congolese flag. Others don't. The difference between the patch-wearers and non patch-wearers is technical and meaningless, so when Nyatura harass motortaxi drivers or steal food from refugees, it is the government that is enabling and engaging in these behaviors as well.

The area's problems have an ethnic component, and this is where the state's decisions begin to feed into tendencies that are potentially volatile. Rubaya and its environs are traditionally the domain of the Hunde ethnic group. But much of the best land is owned and cultivated by Hutu, who are relatively recent arrivals. The Hutu now comprise a majority of the area's population, and they do not always get along with their Hunde neighbors, whose leaders harbor delusions of recovering the land they've sold to Hutu outsiders over the years. Small incidents have turned explosive. Last November, a Hunde and Hutu motortaxi driver collided in a village in central Masisi. Soon their families started disputing responsibility for the accident. So did the Nyatura and a local Hunde group. "From a little thing, it became a community war," a Congolese NGO employee in Rubaya recalled. An absent state is partly at fault, explained James, my Congolese fixer: "If there's an ethnic conflict in Masisi, it's because there are no police," he said. "There's no sense of the role of local authority."

Compounding these problems is Rubaya's population of internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees from elsewhere in DRC, about 15,000 of whom live in a crowded and anxious camp on the outskirts of town. Overwhelmingly Hutu, about half of them fled from M23 after the group's emergence in mid-2012. The others were victims of the Raia Mutomboki, a notoriously violent militia that began as a self-defense network after the FARDC temporarily pulled army divisions headed by former rebels from the CNDP, M23's predecessor organization, from parts of nearby South Kivu. The government wanted to separate the ex-rebels from their local networks on the ground. The Raia were an unintended consequence of this perfectly logical  policy.

The Rubaya IDPs are no longer at the mercy of ravening armed groups. But in DRC, safety is a tight cluster of cramped wood-frame tents, a teeming colony rutted with steep, narrow gullies and creeks. Children have a tendency to plummet into them -- one had died this way the week before.

The absence of violence isn't the absence of conflict, and in the IDP camp, the war was still bleeding its survivors. I met a thinning man with patches of missing hair and teeth, who told a convoluted story of his displacement: the Nyatura had begun fighting a Tutsi group, lost, fled to Raia Mutomboki territory, and then lost to them as well -- but not before the Raia had started burning villages, believing that all local Hutu were bandits and thieves. The man's companion, a younger fellow with two fingers missing from his right hand, believed that "ethnic leadership" was to blame for these troubles. "They don't understand how to make peace between groups," he said. Like most IDPs I met, the men had been farmers, making their cramped, coffin-sized living arrangements seem all the more cruel.

"Our village is now a forest," one IDP told me. "Even if we had any crops left, the Raia Mutomboki or Nyatura probably ate all of them. We are not eager to go back home." The man was Hutu, as was nearly ever inhabitant of the camp. I asked him why the Nyatura, a Hutu group, had preyed on its own base of support. "That doesn't mean they'll protect other Hutus," he replied. "They're thieves -- all they want is power. The ethnic connotation came later." As if to prove this, the group charges a 1,000 franc ($1) fee to IDPs who want to cross the bridge out of town, which is more than most can afford.

I walked past a child climbing a rotting, branchless dead tree and entered a hut blackened with smoke, where a woman who said she had lost four children in the recent violence despaired of her prospects. "The war still continues," she said. "I don't think it will end. There is no sign of improvement or peace in our own villages." I asked her if she could explain what the fighting was about. Her friend, a younger woman, said something about minerals and tensions between Tutsi and Hutu which had then created tensions between Hutu and Hunde. But the woman who had lost four children said that she didn't even know.

DRC 3.jpg
A general view of Rubaya. (Armin Rosen)

Rubaya is comprised of close-built wooden shacks, dust-caked clapboard and tin hugging steep hills that are rich in minerals. The smell of cook-fires and burning garbage is never quite enough to overwhelm the green of its surroundings. The land is generous, and under the circumstances its inhabitants work it heroically. In every town, women peddle wax-wrapped wheels of a soft white cheese, delicious and filling and hardly the only good village street food. I ate crushed cassava root boiled in banana leaves, a heavy and sweet paste that's always served with a bag of salty peanuts on the side. I wolfed down dried plantains and skewers of barbecued goat meat.

In Rubaya -- as in the entire eastern DRC -- there is a jarring discrepancy between the abundance of one's surroundings and the insecurity of daily life. This, like so many of the country's problems, can be partially traced back to the Belgians, who imposed a uniquely brutalizing model of colonialism (described in Adam Hochschild's best-selling King Leopold's Ghost) that left the country hobbled when it finally won independence in 1960. The DRC had only 30 native-born university graduates when the Belgians left; since then, it has never been stable or competently-governed enough to make its wealth work to its advantage. "Since the colonialists left, there wasn't any thought to creating a good state," explained Innocent Nyirindekwe, the rector of a Catholic college in Goma. "All roads in DRC were colonial. There were few new high schools, or public universities." With all of the country's subsequent travails, "it is really difficult to move forward."

The east has gold, tungsten, uranium, oil, natural gas and coltan -- just feet beneath the surface of the earth are enough minerals to keep the global technology and defense industries humming. Dearth and plenty can be embodied in single individuals: outside the IDP camp, I met a miner returning home, a solid young man with dust-stained hands, a pair of cheap rubber boots, and a small pickaxe looped through his belt. He had finished a day of sweltering labor in one of Rubaya's coltan mines, whose runoff gives the town's waterways the uncanny appearance of rushing, liquid clay. He worked six days a week, and made decent money -- $20-30 over a good three days. "It is not an easy job, but it's not too hard for us," he said. "It's the only job we have here."

I asked several people about the process for obtaining a mining concession, but their answers were vague: you'd have to purchase them through a government office, which is time consuming since all the minable land belongs to politicians in Kinshasa or to FARDC generals. So a prospective developer can give into the predations of the state, or they can just start mining illegally, hence eroding the authority of the state. There's no legal or governmental framework for a mining sector that can provide more than day wages, or that isn't dominated by thieves and warlords -- the result of ongoing conflict fed by a total absence of government authority, which is itself a result of conflict. The causality is dizzying; the government's lack of capacity is an outgrowth of war, and visa versa. But its consequences are clear: in Rubaya, the Congolese government is worse than useless. It acts without considering the implications of its decisions, often in a way that seems designed to sabotage its own authority.

It's given up on law on order by handing the city over to the Nyatura, although it didn't seem to have the capacity to govern it in the first place. In a town with an official population of 32,000 (not counting the refugees) there is no centralized electricity or water, no internet, no paved roads, and only intermittent cell phone service. NGOs provide healthcare and even some basic infrastructure, like water pumps. There are only five secondary schools in town, and they are all run by religious organizations. Their place in Rubaya's social fabric is precarious. "If you work in a mine, you might make $50 in a day -- more than if you're a teacher," the head of a local Catholic high school told me. "So sometimes the teachers leave. And when the children are unable to pay their school fees, they go work in the mines as well." His school had 1100 students, eager children in spotless white uniforms. Just fifteen had graduated the year before.

No one is really in charge of Rubaya, but the theater of state authority endures. One of the city's largest buildings is a freshly whitewashed structure behind high, barbed-wire capped walls. At least theoretically, the region's mines are regulated from the building, whose lobby was featureless, aside from a small bulletin board with architectural charts of the building itself. It had lighting fixtures and light switches, but no electricity. Rooms were empty; I saw no filing cabinets or papers, and only a single desk. "This is a fake office," said James.

We met an earnest man named Francoise, the secretary for the department responsible for overseeing the area's "small mines." The process works like this: some time recently, NGOs, and, he claimed, the U.S. Agency for International Development, had conducted a survey of mines in the Rubaya area, to determine which were exploiting their employees and kicking their profits to militant groups. "After an investigation, they determined Rubaya minerals are clean," he said. Well, not really: several mines were labeled "blood sites," including one connected to Bosco Ntaganda, a career militant and the former leader of M23. Prior to March 23, 2009, he had been a leader of a Tutsi insurgency called the CNDP. Thanks to the treaty signed on that date -- the day that M23 is named after -- he became a high-ranking general in the Congolese army, despite being under an International Criminal Court indictment for his use of child soldiers during an earlier chapter of the DRC conflict. He had recently appeared at the U.S. embassy in Kigali after the group began to violently fracture, and the Americans promptly transferred him to The Hague.

Ntaganda's enterprise was unbothered, and five local mines were deemed "clean." They had each been assigned a regulator from the secretary's office, even though it wasn't clear what this regulation consisted of. Yet by "regulating" only the "clean" mines, the government had essentially given up on the vast majority of mining activity, in which minerals flowed into the global economic system to the benefit of the DRC's militant groups. The really bad stuff wasn't any of this office's concern. And then there was the issue of "blood mines" run by the FARDC itself, a problem that Francois readily copped to. "It needs a big investigation," he said. "Kinshasa and the international community know about that traffic." A colonel might simply put a relative in charge of a mine -- "regulated" or no -- and reap the income himself. By awarding certificates of legality to mineral shipments from the clean mines, Francois's office made it seem as if any regulation was occurring at all, reducing law and order to a sham.

A man named Emile Ntabwiko is professionally obligated to at least pretend Rubaya is under the government's control. He is what Congolese call the chief d'post -- the government's top representative in town. His duties, which were still vague even after he carefully explained them to me, are discharged from a mud hut whose only adornment is a portrait of Joseph Kabila, DRC's doughy and unpopular young president, and the son of the late president Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001. Clad head to toe in khadi, Ntabwiko was youthful-looking and serious. "Rubaya is not really an old town," he explained. "People came to settle here within the last 15 years because of the minerals, and it's a strategic place because it's quiet." The biggest issue he had to deal with was the arrival of the IDPs. "There's insecurity, and food is getting expensive," he said. He was grateful that the Nyatura were keeping order, but mindful of the fact that they hadn't been paid or fed yet.

Later that day, I sat under a different and even more ironic portrait of Kabila in a village seven kilometers up the road, straddling a high and narrow ridge. The town was a sort of unofficial headquarters for the faction of the Nyatura that had joined the FARDC. I met with the traditional Hunde chief, an older fellow whose responsibilities included tax collection for the same government that theoretically paid the salary of the Nyatura colonel whose base was barely 300 yards from his office.

"There's no official FARDC. Just militants who were given combat fatigues and guns," he told me. "They rape, kill and steal." He reserved his worst scorn for a Nyatura-turned-FARDC colonel named Kigingi. "He's very bad. He recruits even children. Today, I've received the message that when the Colonel catches me, he will imprison me for three months." This intimidation had not fazed him. "The dog barks, but cars pass without stopping," he said.

Kabila's portrait seemed like an absurdity, and not just because it depicted a man whose office was over 1,000 impassable miles to the west, in a part of the DRC that was at peace. Kabila's father had been a washed-up Marxist exile when the Rwandan government recruited him as the local figurehead for a 1996 invasion force that toppled Mobutu Sese Seko, a U.S.-supported dictator who had ruled DRC for the previous 30 years. In the aftermath of Rwanda's 1994 ethnic genocide, nearly 1 million Hutu refugees settled in neighboring DRC. Some of them were armed genocidaires plotting against Rwanda's post-genocide government. Rwandan president Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, accused Mobutu of sheltering members of the former Hutu government responsible for the country's slaughter -- although it's possible that the invasion was ethnic revenge under the guise of national security, considering the appalling number of Hutu refugees the invaders killed en route to Kinshasa. Laurent ended up as an accidental president after the success of the initial military campaign, although disagreements with his Rwandan backers, suddenly unwilling to pull their army and military advisers out of Congolese territory, touched off a second round of fighting (Jason Stearns's Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is an excellent popular history of this period).

The younger Kabila has shown little enthusiasm for even pretending to be in charge of a difficult country of nearly 70 million people. He has done practically nothing during his 12 years in power, other than steal the 2011 presidential election, convince international backers of his indispensability, and secure the loyalty of the presidential guard -- which is likely the only thing standing between a supine and unspectacular dictatorship, and a military coup.

Kabila is almost never seen in public. He is the least interesting kind of enigma, a secretive mediocrity who has managed to stick around for reasons that make sense individually, but are bewildering if viewed on the whole. Over French food in Goma, an expat hypothesized that Kabila could easily turn things around. If he gave a few rousing, populist speeches, if he rolled out new infrastructure programs, if he brokered a solution to a few of the country's more solvable ethnic and land-related disputes, or fired a couple of his more corrupt deputies, or appeared to be in charge of something, Congolese might start believing in him. They wanted to feel that someone was running things, even if it was the nepotistic empty suit that so many of them despised. Sure enough, when I asked Congolese to pinpoint the cause of their country's problems, I would often hear about the failure of the political leadership, or a certain ethnic group's leadership, or just of leadership in general.

In the chief's office, Kabila's portrait was just a reminder of a government that could do almost nothing right, when it decided to do anything at all. The chief said that his community had requested that the army -- Kabila's army, at least in theory -- pull out of his village. Instead, the integrated Nyatura imposed a head tax, forcing each household to provide a quantity of corn to feed their alleged protectors.

The militia had only raised resentments within the chief's community. He believed that the Hutu don't exactly want to live with the Hunde, but weren't natural enemies. "The tension is caused by leaders who are extremists, who don't want people to get along. But the people want to live in peace together."

This guarantees nothing. Events in DRC can take on a logic that's apparent only when it's too late: it wasn't obvious that a local military reorganization would lead to the rise of the bloodthirsty Raia Mutomboki, or that the government's reinforcement of the area west of Goma would empower an ethnic militia hours up the road. But that's the logic of a vacuum: absent an authority capable of isolating thorny and usually hyper-local issues, those issues are pulled into the larger ecosystem of conflict, where they fester and grow, until they drift into each other and explode. DRC's conflict continues because no one is capable of stepping in and halting the process, and the people who could be capable are uninterested in doing so.

Presented by

Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Global

Just In