The Origins of War in the DRC

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The Ngunga 1 internally displaced persons camp outside of Goma, on April 25, 2013. (Armin Rosen)

Rutshuru sits north of the lower slopes of Nyiragongo and is insulated by uninhabitable expanses of hardened lava. On the morning I visited, M23 leader Sultani Makenga was hosting a summit with his lieutenants and bush commanders. They were meeting inside a stately government building painted a light shade of orange, with a Congolese flag out front. It was part of a larger government campus where daily life seemed to ignore the scores of heavily armed and clearly bored M23 milling about -- men with gleaming black machine guns and sniper rifles who would enter into stare-downs with UN tanks passing just feet away from where the entire M23 leadership was meeting.

We were there to meet M23 colonel Vianny Kazarama, who would not leave his meeting with Makenga under any circumstances. For the next two hours, I got a taste of M23's respect for discipline: no one would talk to me unless Kazarama gave them permission. No one would even tell me their name.

As the hours dragged on, Kazarama's two deputies -- unarmed men in fatigues who seemed as if they were under strict orders not to evince any sort of emotion -- attempted to convince my driver to join their cause. He was a stylishly-dressed man with an almost brand-new Toyota Prado entrusted to his care. By appearances, he was a hopeless candidate. They tried anyway.

"It's the Congolese people who are responsible for these problems," one deputy told him. "There's no awareness that if they work, they are capable of actually changing the country." The Congolese people's own passivity had doomed them, in his view: "With this government, even to get something very simple done becomes a prayer," one of the men said. "To get water is a problem in a country with so many rivers and lakes." Compare the DRC to Rwanda, Uganda, or even Burundi, he said. This is why they fought.

And they were right, to an extent. "The people who support them are hypocrites," Pascal, my interpreter for the day, told me. "What they're asking, their agenda -- people support these ideas. They're saying that the government can't organize the country, and it can't. The trouble is that people are tired of the war." But the trouble was also that in a political culture so warped by conflict, there would be no reason to listen to anything M23 had to say if they weren't heavily armed. I met their leaders not because of the sensibleness of their ideas, but because of the guns they commanded.

Kazarama eventually emerged from the orange building. He was dressed in U.S. army desert camo, with exposed Velcro where the nametags and insignia should be and the top collar of the uniform Velcro'd shut, in what would actually be a violation of the U.S. Army's dress standard. The uniform, along with his tendency to shift weight between his feet and stare at his phone in the middle of questions, gave him an awkward and bored affectation, as if even he had tired of spouting conscious and transparent lies to any journalist who showed up in Rutshuru. Some of his talking points at least had the benefit of being true, even if they were intended to mislead: "There is total impunity in the DRC today," he said. "There is corruption. There is no democracy. The country is rich, but the population is very poor. You have seen how the roads are. Even in Goma, you have seen how awful the roads are. They can't pay teachers or soldiers. There is practically no government...there are no human rights."

M23 would scarcely exist in its current form if it weren't for the support of non-democratic Rwanda, but Kazarama was happy to turn the accusation around: "There are many armed groups of foreigners, which are not local groups...there is the FDLR," he said, referring to a Hutu militant group consisting of former members of the genocide-era government and army, "which are Rwandan, and arrived in 1994. They are terrorists. There's the FNC, from Burundi. There's the Bororu, from Chad." (One noted DRC expert I consulted in the U.S. said that she had never heard of the latter group).

This was an embarrassing subject for M23, which isn't really a Rwandan proxy in the strictest sense - the leaders of the group are actually Congolese, even if their weapons and occasional fighting companions are not. But the group still extends Rwandan influence into an area where Kagame's government has a complex network of interests. Chief among them is resource expropriation: minerals represent 28 percent of the country's official exports, even though Rwanda has few deposits of its own. It is believed that the unacknowledged mineral trade that's trafficked through Rwanda totals in the billions of dollars. Rwanda needs access to minerals, and support for Congolese Tutsi militants is one way to protect their supply lines.

There's another, even more fundamental reason for Kagame's machinations. Less than 20 years after its genocide, Rwanda is an authoritarian marvel: Flat tarmac connects the capital to the Goma border three mountainous hours to the west. In Rwanda, all motor taxi drivers wear helmets, as do their passengers; there are public clocks in every town, and they are accurate. Outside of Gisenyi, near the Goma border post, there is a freshly built prison surrounded by high, tan walls, despairing to look upon and angled conspicuously towards the highway. Opposition leaders are in jail, the government brings cryptic charges of "genocide ideology"-- or just plain genocide -- against its opponents, and Kagame won the last presidential election with over 90 percent of the vote. Still, Kigali is a city of clean streets and shiny glass office buildings, with incorruptible police officers and traffic lights that people obey. This is a function of Kagame's famously discipline-oriented leadership style: when he was commander of the insurgent Rwandan Patriot Front during the genocide -- the group that would overthrow a Hutu supremacist government and end one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century -- he is said to have executed subordinates for offenses as trivial as arriving late to meetings.

Kagame has purchased stability in his own country by exporting its problems to Rwanda's much larger neighbor -- there's no violent Hutu-Tutsi conflict inside Rwanda, because it's been safely transferred to the other side of the Congolese border. Kagame thinks strategically: give the Tutsi a veto over regional stability, he figures, and the chances of a 1994-like hecatomb are dramatically reduced. Of course, this calculation only proves that the Hutu-Tutsi conflict still festers, even if Rwanda is superficially at peace. "This is a cyclical crisis, because the issue of Rwanda has not been tackled," one Goma-based expert told me. "The issue of the Tutsis and their contentions with the other groups hasn't been addressed."

Inside Rwanda, Hutu killers still live next door to the Tutsis they victimized in 1994, while Hutus and even some Tutsis have chafed under Kagame's tough rule. The Hutu who committed the genocide, as well as their descendants, live just next door, in DRC. Kagame might privately be wondering whether his country is another Syria -- whether even the most skilled mixture of canny leadership, shrewd regional policy, and internal oppression can make a nation forget the horrors of its recent history, and the contradictions of its current order. Read one way, Rwanda's policies in DRC reflect a strategic prowess that masks deep insecurity.

In Kazarama's telling, M23 wasn't there to help enforce Paul Kagame's particular vision of regional peace. They were solving Congolese problems, combating foreign armed groups and bringing democracy to their failed state. They would even do something about the DRC's rape crisis. "There were 126 women raped by the FARDC in Minova," he said. In another town, 90 had been raped. The commander alone had raped 16 women in another. The Minova incident actually happened, yet somehow this made Kazarama appear even more cynical than if he had been inventing his facts. Perhaps he understood his partial responsibility, and the responsibility of every militant, for weakening the state and the country to the point where its army could go on a rampage of sexual violence without anything changing as a result. Perhaps this status quo is exactly what M23 and the Rwandans were trying to preserve.

Kazarama had adopted more than just human rights language: he also showed hints of the conspiratorial thinking of other factions in the DRC. The intervention brigade was authorized because "some countries on the Security Council have been corrupted by the Kinshasa government. Now, they are bringing Africans here to kill each other, instead of finding a durable solution." He promised retaliation if the brigade moved against M23. "If the brigade attacks, we will chase them into Goma...We have to defend ourselves."

In May, M23 actually did threaten Goma in a series of skirmishes around the city, and even managed to fire a mortar on the downtown. But talk of retaking it is pure bravado. There had been a fracturing of M23 just a month or so earlier, when Makenga and his supporters violently purged Bosco Ntaganda's faction from the militant group. Aid cuts from the U.S. and various European donors had shamed Rwanda into scaling back its support for M23, and Kagame's government, which has a seat in the UN Security Council, even voted in favor of the deployment of the intervention brigade. The winds had shifted, and Kagame's calculations had shifted along with them. "The M23 has a young soldier set that's tired of not being paid, and tired of being unpopular," one Goma-based security consultant told me. There's a high rate of defection, and very low morale. He sketched out two possible futures for the group: "soft targeting," which would involve a campaign of assassinations and kidnappings, or strategic contraction and even voluntary disappearance. M23 could bury their weapons, take off their fatigues, and wait until the winds changed yet again.

Kazarama continued, unbowed by reality: "we represent all of the Congolese people who are suffering, the 96 percent who are against the Kinshasa government." "The DRC people support M23. They are saying that it is a sign of the disease in the Kinshasa government." He claimed that M23 hadn't created any new refugees: "There are even people in government territory who fled into M23 territory for security reasons."

I heard the same assertion from an M23 administrator named Benjamin Mbonimpa, a friendly man with a professorial air and a veteran of two of M23's predecessor movements. His office had an immense Congolese flag and a calendar from the International Rescue Committee, a relief NGO. "There are no refugees from the territory controlled by M23," he said. "We have records of the number of people who were here before M23 took over. They're still there. No one has gone away."

Did either of these men actually believe this? Did they expect me to believe it? The next day, at the Ngunga IDP camp on the outskirts of Goma, I met some of the people who Kazarama and Mbonimpa said did not exist. There are a lot of them: at the beginning of 2012, there were only 2,200 IDPs in the Goma area, mostly people who were too old or sick to return home after the last round of fighting. Now, there were more than 200,000, and 50,000 of them live at Ngunga. The camp is strewn with volcanic rock, which the IDPs use to anchor their tarp-and-wood frame homes. Ngunga is an island of poverty set in an ocean of verdant green, bounded by a tree stump-covered mountain where women are often raped while out collecting firewood. Overflowing latrines and infrequent food distributions characterize life there, and the IDPs get enough grain or corn for maybe two weeks of every month.

In one tent, I met four women who were weaving handbags out of colored plastic strips, a skill they had acquired through an NGO training program. They made 50 cents per bag, and their faces were dressed in a weariness too deep for an interloper to access. "We saw houses burn, and had a neighbor killed," one of the women replied when I asked why she thought M23 had attacked her village. "How do you have time to ask what happened? You just have to run away." These women had been homeless before, back when the CNDP was fighting the government in the mid-2000s. Their second displacement was a bitter homecoming -- they'd fled to an earlier iteration of the Ngunga camp during the CNDP conflict as well. "This is too hard to us," one of the women said. "We tried to rebuild our lives when we went back home -- to farm, and raise chickens and goats. We've lost all of those things again."

Monotony was one of the camp's chief cruelties. "Imagine having to eat this morning, midday and night," said one IDP, who was sorting maize on a tarp spread out over the floor of his tent. "And there isn't even enough...we are suffering here. There's nothing to eat, or to do."

"This camp is like a jail," a young woman added.

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A main avenue of the Ngunga 1 internally displaced persons camp on April 25, 2013. (Armin Rosen)

"We have a democratic ideology," Mbonimpa told me. "You can see that other political parties are not disturbed in this area. People can say what they want without any problem. Even international organizations go wherever they want to."

The space for political and civic action in the DRC has been so distorted by 80 years of Belgian colonization, 50 years of dictatorship, and 20 years of conflict that this kind of nonsensical politics is virtually all that remains. M23's rhetoric of democracy and humanitarianism consists of fake offices with hanging portraits of a fake president, or militants complaining about the government's failure to restrain the growth of militant groups, or Indian peacekeepers driving tanks that they'll never use, and which are useless anyway -- the conflict survives because it generates such absurdities while muzzling any real alternative to them. And even extreme alternatives, like the UN intervention brigade, might not be enough to end it for good.

The recent peace effort, a new UN Great Lakes envoy, and the MONUSCO intervention force all mean that a resolution could be closer than it appears. But the logic of conflict must first be broken at ground level, and peace, when it comes, will be a local accomplishment. At the moment, the country lives only in the minds of its citizens: the best doctors, teachers and engineers all work for NGOs. Oxfam provides water for over 200,000 people in North Kivu alone, and the Catholic Church operates over 650 schools nationwide -- NGOs and religious organizations have supplanted the core services of the state. In the east, the state has been whittled down to a currency no one uses, and to uniforms that no one trusts. The idea of a Congolese polity has become fatally abstracted: The state had given up on local-level engagement and institution building and retreated to a distant capital. "This fragmentation," one Goma-based expert told me, "lack of communal dialogue, and lack of engagement in the political process means that everything is centralized in Kinshasa, that corrupt people are lining their pockets, and that people on the ground are resolving their problems with the only means they have, which is through arms."

A solution is beyond the purview of armies or politicians. A future peace likely rests in those quantum-level pockets of conflict that stain the region -- through the exhausting and unglamorous business of resolving local-level disputes, through reconciling feuding communities and rebuilding a broken polity. When peace arrives, there will likely be grand bargains between powerful enemies -- the Rwandans will have to be secure in the knowledge that they have nothing to gain from meddling, and the Congolese government will have to be strong enough to take control of the entire country. But the solution isn't photogenic or even particularly exciting: it lies in teachers deciding not to become warlords, in the honesty of traffic cops, in citizens beginning to live in an environment where the gun is no longer the surest or most logical means of getting what they want.

War, like any political order, is a constructed thing. It's human. No natural law commands it, and there's nothing about it that's immutable or permanent. Conflict isn't wired into the organs or the bones, and there is a covert bigotry to the idea that war is the only possible destiny for certain people in certain places, or to the notion that there are societies incapable of breaking out of their own deadly logic of conflict. However enormous it may seem, the conflict in DRC is as inevitable as any other. There is nothing inevitable about it.

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A MONUSCO convoy on the road between Sake and Kitchanga on April 27, 2013. (Armin Rosen)

On the road to Kitchanga, the rear wheels of trucks slid in the earth as if driving on ice. In a single five-kilometer span, we passed an over-laden pickup buried to the grille in a dirt crater, a second broken-down truck with its payload and passengers huddled by the side of the road with no obvious means of rescue, and another truck tugging a car from a dust trap with a fraying rope. Even the vehicles that were surviving the journey were bruised and belching hulks, their chassis rattling and their rusted tailpipes wheezing thick smog. The traffic on the road was heavy and slow -- James said that drivers now feared the taxation that M23 imposed on commercial trucks, and preferred to take their chances with the Kitchanga route if they had to drive to the Ugandan border. But the road can barely accommodate one truck at a time. Passage of two-way traffic was a skilled negotiation, a dialogue of monsters inching backwards and forwards, then honking in greeting or warning, then tacitly agreeing to a tiny leeway buffered with a mountain-sized drop, then huffing in opposite directions billowed in clouds of dust and exhaust.

More certain of their passage are the motorbikes and bicycles, the latter of which are usualy piled high with bushels of charcoal, and then slowly wheeled to Goma, 20 or 30 miles to the southwest. This was a lucrative enterprise, James said: FARDC soldiers, who were barely paid or fed and who live in roadside bases that looked like refugee camps, pillage local forests and sell charcoal and timber to the bicycle men, who then sell their wares in Goma at a markup. But I'd spent the morning watching men push bicycles in the hot sun, with the city still hours or even days in the distance. I'd seen their vehicles propped up with logs by the side of the highway, their minders crouched in the shade of their heavy payload, looking as if mere survival were exacting an impossible price.

In a nondescript single-story building in Kitchanga, we met a nervous local administrator who locked his office door while he was speaking with me and refused to tell me his name. The terror that had gripped Kitchanga in February still hadn't lifted, and his account was tinged with a certain anti-Tutsi bias. He spoke of the "Rutshuru" side of town, infiltrated by seditious Tutsis who he believed were in league with M23, and the "Masisi" side inhabited by Hutu and Hunde. He gave his accounting of events: "The APCLS [a Hunde militia] was called here by the government, so that all of them could be integrated into the army," he said. They weren't the only ones: "Even the Nyatura were everywhere around Kitchanga...They were supposed to support the FARDC in their fight against M23."

A powder keg had been lit. "When the government integrated the CNDP, the commanders refused to go elsewhere. They asked to stay here and control this area. When the FARDC asked the APCLS and the Nyatura to come to town for integration, the ex-CNDP commanders were in contact with M23," he said. Who knows if this is true -- the important thing is that the APCLS, and some percentage of the local Hunde and Hutu community, thought it was true.

The shooting began when an APCLS fighter was killed in the "Rutshuru" side of town. A posse of his comrades attempted to recover his body, which invited a predictable response. "That's when the fighting started," the man said. That tiny fire, kindled over months of escalating tension, was enough to ignite a violence that destroyed the entire city enter -- that resulted in the hospital getting shelled, apparently by the FARDC, and in IDP camps being attacked, apparently by the APCLS.

According to one Goma-based observer who visited Kitchanga a couple of weeks before it exploded, the disaster unfolded with little intervention from the UN and the government. "The Kitchanga area has 100,000 people. Everyone was aware of the problem. Not a single emissary was sent. The UN and the government did nothing. There was no effort made to get people to the table and have them talk." (Dwyer says that "MONUSCO was involved in efforts to try to diffuse this situation," but did not go into additional detail.) The tensions hadn't abated: the terrified district administrator said that some people suspected a nearby IDP settlement was actually a military encampment for M23 sympathizers.

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Ruined buildings in Kitchanga on April 27, 2013. (Armin Rosen)

Kitchanga's IDP camp is crisscrossed with streams. The city's most vulnerable residents live atop a rocky swamp, where water rushes and pools and crawls, invading the alleys between tents and accumulating in every unoccupied wedge of space. "Everyone is afraid to talk," James said. "There isn't really peace." The sky glowered, full with the rain we both dreaded.

We found a tent where two withering women, who might have been 20 or 40 or 60 years old, sat and killed time. They had first arrived in Kitchanga six years ago, when they were fleeing the CNDP. "In March, when the fighting broke out here, we had to run away again," one of them told me. Much of the town had joined them in taking refuge in the forest. "When we came back, nothing was left. Everything was stolen. Even the brush on the roof of our hut was stolen."

The storm began as a hum, as the suggestion of rain, droplets whispering on a tarp roof. And then it became loud enough to silence our conversation and any worries I had about the conditions of the road -- to overwhelm even the most natural thoughts and fears. Our voices faded into the static roar of the deluge, imposing total silence upon us. The onslaught showed no signs of passing, and the roof did not leak, even as heavy raindrops shattered overhead.

Then tiny, clear marbles began skipping trough gaps in the bottom of the tarp, ice like mancala beads, smooth frozen disks dumped from the raging sky. It seemed impossible in a hot equatorial country, a place with palm trees and tropical birds, as if an ice storm in Kitchanga was some deliberate final rebuke to the idea that anything here, or anywhere else, needed to make much sense. Ice skipped across the ground like firm glass pills. Even at a touch they would barely sweat. This was strong and resilient ice -- brilliant, opalescent, dangerous to our purposes. "We have to go," James said. Before we ran into the storm, I asked one of the women if it rained like this very often. Every day, she replied.

The center of town sat deserted. By emptying the city, the ice and rain had revealed the extent of the devastation. The blackened trees and lumps of concrete went further back from the road than I'd realized; the men selling shoes and dress shirts, now sheltering under flimsy tin ledges, had hidden the empty frames, the piles of rubble and ash, flat reservations patterned with the footprints of destroyed buildings.

Weather, like war, is a situation from which no one is wholly immune. And this rain seemed possessed with a conscious rage: the sky heaved with force and violence, pounding Hutu and Hunde and Tutsi, pounding FARDC and APCLS and M23, slamming into refugee tents and army bases, into bicycle pushers and NGO trucks, pounding the rocky earth, pounding the empty gray spaces where a city once stood.

This reporting was sponsored in part by Oxfam America.

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

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