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Tracing History's Route

DR Congo, January 17, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    from Flickr, courtesy of hoteldephil  </span>
    Genocide memorial in Nyamata church, Rwanda Photo: from Flickr, courtesy of hoteldephil

Most of the next three days, we will be en route to our destination: the eastern Congolese city of Goma, capital of violence-plagued North Kivu province. Because of war and damage to the airport from a volcanic eruption in 2002, we can't fly directly into Goma. Instead, we will fly from Brussels to Kigali, Rwanda, and get a ride to the Congo border, where we'll meet up with Mercy Corps staff.

In my opinion, there is enormous significance in our routing: traveling by way of Rwanda and Belgium, we will touch down in two places that have much to do with Congo's current crisis.

Congo was Belgium's most prized colony for more than a half-century, from 1908 to Congolese independence in 1960. For more than 20 years before the colonial period, Congo was — unconscionably — the personal property of Belgium's monarch, King Leopold II. Altogether, those eight decades witnessed the pillaging of Congo's vast natural resources and blatant human rights abuses. Even as late as the 1950s, forced labor was commonplace and life expectancy didn't reach 40 years. An apartheid-like system kept Congolese people at the bottom of the social and economic orders.

Congo's natural resources are vast and rare enough to make the country wealthy: cobalt, copper and diamonds abound. Unique minerals used in modern electronics are abundant. And the uranium from Congo's mines were used in thousands of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. In fact, the uranium used in the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II was mined in Congo's Katanga province.

But this blessing of resources was also Congo's curse, dooming it to meddling by European and other powers that led to the long reign of Mobutu Sese Seko, whose time in power brought the term "kleptocracy" into the modern lexicon. Even after independence, Mobutu and his patrons plundered and terrorized Congo's people, keeping them mired in poverty and plagued by horrific violence.

It was such violence that signaled a new, but no less terrifying era in Congo. In 1994, the Rwandan Genocide meant the deaths of as many as one million people over the course of just 100 days. Militias from the Hutu ethnic groups slaughtered mostly citizens from the Tutsi people in violence touched off by the assassination of Rwanda's president. Thousands of refugees — both Hutu and Tutsi — streamed into eastern Congo during and after the genocide. This mass influx created new problems for an already-chaotic region of Congo, leading to the epic conflict of the First and Second Congo Wars, which finally toppled Mobutu but also caused the rise of several rebel groups. That brings us to the situation in eastern Congo today: millions dead or displaced, thousands dying every day and no end in sight.

We are tracing more than a century of exploitation and tragedy on our journey to Goma. And these are the historical facts that are available to anyone interested in looking; I am sure that the people I meet once I reach eastern Congo will add their own thoughts, wisdom and words to what I've written here.