If the Democratic Republic of Congo had good cops, they’d catch and accuse the Congolese soldiers who raped and fatally injured Bitondo Nyumba in 2005. If the Kinshasa government maintained hospitals properly, she could have been saved. But the ultimate responsibility for her death lies with you and me, the political class of the world’s powerful, gun-and-bullet-exporting nations.
If we can push through a few key changes, civilians like Nyumba will no longer suffer gross violations of human rights, and some of the millions of displaced people in Africa’s Great Lakes region and the Democratic Republic of Congo will be able to return home in peace.
The aftershocks of the 1994 Rwandan genocide never really stopped. Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo have seen atrocities on a huge scale over the past 15 years. Tension over the area’s rich minerals, mutual distrust among ethnic groups and fear have sustained, as the BBC recently put it, a “bewildering patchwork of warlords.” Two of the better-armed forces broke into especially tough fighting last fall. They are the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a Hutu militia related to the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, and the National Congress for the Defense of the People, led by ruthless general Laurent Nkunda. Rwanda, which had been accused of supporting the CNDP, arrested Nkunda in a surprise move last month.
Despite Nkunda’s arrest, civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo are still at great risk. Congolese and Rwandan government troops are marching into the area to engage the remaining FDLR and CNDP. Meanwhile, armed groups have resisted offers to be incorporated into national armies. Some brigades of national armies have even broken off to form their own independent militias.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has the largest contingent of U.N. peacekeeping troops in the world, at about 17,000 nationwide, of whom 6,000 are stationed in the most volatile area. The Security Council authorized this mission to use lethal force, but its commander recently resigned, privately saying that the U.N. peacekeepers in the Great Lakes region were doomed to fail. Six thousand blue helmets are scattered over an area four times the size of Connecticut. A massacre at Kiwanja last November happened within spitting distance of a U.N. military base.
The recent fighting has forced hundreds of thousands more people to leave their homes in search of safety, only to be caught later by hunger and disease. Many of the armed groups in the area have conscripted children as porters and soldiers. In November, Save the Children reported that militias have targeted entire schools for kidnapping. Both government forces and rebel groups have been accused of recurring sexual abuse, making war by infecting women with HIV/AIDS.
Bitondo Nyumba was one of those women. To put a stop to deaths like hers, we in the West should send specialized troops on a blunt but effective mission: to stop or control weapon and ammunition imports into the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Great Lakes region. Major arms-producing nations such as China, the United States and Russia should ensure that bullets made in Chongqing, Utah and Izhevsk don’t end up in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s war zones.
For their part, the governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and other regional countries should submit all arms imports to inspection by U.N. specialists. Soldiers must be held accountable for sexual violence and other offenses. The lawless atmosphere of the war zone has created a feeling of impunity. Local governments, the U.N. and our Western nations must punish those responsible for war crimes.
Our governments and the U.N. should work for a permanent peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo. First, this means aid for refugees, former child soldiers and survivors of atrocities. An entire generation grew up in this horrific war, a problem whose psychological consequences are still not understood. Second, the U.N. must strengthen its current arms embargo on the Democratic Republic of Congo, and U.N. member states should agree on a global arms-trade treaty that fortifies such embargoes.
These tasks do not lie only at the feet of Ban Ki-moon or Barack Obama. Since we live in a purportedly democratic society, it is your responsibility and my responsibility to advocate for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We are responsible for our government’s actions, even if we say nothing. Those of us from Africa’s Great Lakes region should hold our own governments accountable, and those of us from the world’s great powers should know that we have great influence to wield.
Learn about conflicts like that in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Write to your representatives. Call your senators. Shell out hard cash. If you and I can help get guns under control and bring war criminals to justice, we won’t have the blood of another thousand Bitondo Nyumbas on our hands.
Edwin Everhart is a senior in Saybrook College.