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Fallen Leaders and Uncertain Times

DR Congo, January 19, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    van.brussel &lt;a href=&quot;http://www.flickr.com/photos/zeemanshuis/2835374083/&quot;&gt;(flickr)&lt;/a&gt;  </span>
    Assassinated 49 years ago this week, Patrice Lumumba remains a heroic figure throughout the world. Photo: van.brussel <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/zeemanshuis/2835374083/">(flickr)</a>

Today is a holiday throughout Congo to commemorate two fallen leaders: Patrice Lumumba and Laurent Kabila. But, in sharp counterpoint to Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S., no one is really talking about this occasion's significance. It seems simply to be a day off.

Then again, it seems to be a day to forget rather than to remember: the present crisis has much to do with the assassinations of these two Congolese leaders.

Lumumba's murder on January 17, 1960 — Congo's first elected Prime Minister after independence lasted less than three months in office — led to the rise of Mobutu and his decades of brutal rule.

Kabila, the man who finally deposed Mobutu in 1997, met his end at the hands of a bodyguard. His death on January 16, 2001 came amidst the tumult of the Second Congo War, which at one point involved eight African nations and killed 5.4 million people.

Those events lead us directly to Congo's modern era, the so-called Kivu Conflict that has engulfed the area where Mercy Corps is working. Like the regional wars that preceded it, it's often difficult to understand all the forces involved. But I'll try.

Basically, the current conflict is between the a rebel group called the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) and Congolese government troops. The CNDP is led by General Laurent Nkunda, who led Congolese government forces during the Second Congo War but then left under the auspices of protecting ethnic Tutsis in eastern Congo against still-active Hutu militias. His position was that the Congolese government was not protecting these minorities.

What has followed in the wake of Nkunda's uprising is more than four years of often-horrific fighting, atrocities and human-rights violations committed by all combatants. It has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Over the last week, however, CNDP officials and representatives of Congo's government signed a truce here in Goma. Allegedly, CNDP soldiers will now be integrated into the Congolese army, effectively ending the uprising and releasing the rebel force's hold on large portions of eastern Congo.

But there is no celebration yet: As I've written in my previous journal entry, no one is sure what exactly this truce means.

There are assumptions — and fears — that the two fighting forces are uniting to go after the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a pro-Hutu group comprised of many participants in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. This other rebel force is currently holed up deep in North Kivu's forests. I heard today that troops are massing near Masisi, a city to the west of Goma, preparing for an offensive against the FDLR. According to many, that action would displace many thousands of people and put them in harm's way — creating another humanitarian catastrophe in a place that can scarcely afford more tragedy.

Tomorrow is uncertain, as it has been for decades here in Congo. But, for me, it holds the promise of visiting those we're helping and hearing their stories. We're traveling to the city of Nyanzale tomorrow, which is located six hours north of Goma. We will be without Internet access for a couple of days, but I will try to find a way to communicate what we find while we're there.