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Consuming the Congo
War and Conflict Minerals in the World's Deadliest Place
By Peter Eichstaedt
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2011 Peter Eichstaedt
All rights reserved.
THE MANDRO HUT
* * *
The air is thick and beery in this crowded mud-and-thatch hut.
The woman brewing the mealy beer they call mandro wears a bright wrap and fills a gourd for me, insisting that I drink. When I refuse the frothy mix, something like runny oatmeal, she bellows a drunken curse about this rude foreigner to the amusement of her customers.
I'm in Bunia, the heart of the Ituri region in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Dusty streets and pockmarked buildings lend Bunia the look of a Wild West movie set. Far from a Hollywood fantasy, this town is deadly real. At one of the main intersections, a pyre of sandbags is topped by a machine gun manned by two soldiers wearing the blue helmets of the UN peacekeepers. These soldiers have a commanding view and guard the entrance to the UN's compound, an outpost of civilization in this lawless and blood-soaked part of the world. With me is Jacques Kahorha, a Congolese journalist from Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province.
A mild euphoria has been wafting through town. It is late June 2008, and one of the town's favorite sons, former militia leader Thomas Lubanga, is about to go on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands. He's been charged with conscripting child soldiers from among his ethnic Hema community to fight against the more populous ethnic Lendu. The trial has drawn worldwide attention as the first international case to highlight the problem of child soldiers. It is also the ICC's first case to go to trial, despite its nearly six years of existence as the world's first permanent war crimes court. But just as expectations peak, the court suspends the trial in a dispute over evidence. Ironically, the suspension won't be the only one to plague the trial, which will eventually stretch on for years. This initial suspension, however, has many in Bunia convinced that Lubanga is on his way home after more than two years in jail in The Hague waiting for his trial to start.
Bunia is at the heart of what has plagued eastern Congo, by far the deadliest region in the world, outstripping Iraq, Colombia, and Afghanistan combined. The most reliable information about this dubious honor comes from a study by the International Rescue Committee released in early 2008. Based on research conducted over the previous ten years, 5.4 million "excess deaths" occurred across the Congo from August 1998 to April 2007, deaths above and beyond what normally would have occurred without war. An estimated 2 million deaths came after a peace deal was signed in the country in 2002. More than 3 million were killed in the Congo's mineral-rich eastern provinces.
Five million dead in a span of ten years makes this — called Africa's First World War — the deadliest human catastrophe since World War II, but, save for occasional articles in the back pages of major newspapers and magazines, and sporadic books, hardly anyone outside Africa knows about it. Though most people have heard of the genocide in neighboring Rwanda, which pales in comparison, I marvel at how a tragedy of this magnitude could have been so thoroughly ignored. This tsunami of mortality has not been random killing at the hands of a few renegades. It has been the result of a vicious civil war that started in 1996, then erupted again in 1998, and involved at least five other African countries. It has flared continuously ever since.
I am in eastern Congo not to cover a war but for something quite different. As Africa Editor for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting at the time and based in The Hague, I'm here to lead a workshop for journalists who report on the ICC's efforts to bring those responsible for the killing to trial. At that moment, the ICC holds three men from the region in custody and is preparing a trial for a fourth, Jean-Pierre Bemba, the Congo's former vice president and 2006 presidential candidate. Bemba lost a runoff election to the current president, Joseph Kabila. Just weeks before I arrived in Bunia, Bemba was arrested in Belgium, and he awaits extradition to The Hague. Bemba's first hearing at the ICC will take place in early January 2009, and his trial will be subsequently and repeatedly rescheduled. Bemba's trial will finally begin on November 22, 2010.
Underlying the internecine violence in eastern Congo has been a dizzying array of militias spawned by ancient ethnic animosities. In the Ituri region, it is the Lendu and Hema tribes, the two largest ethnic groups in the region. The Lendu and Hema are just two of the more than two hundred ethnicities scattered across the Congo and speaking a wide array of languages and dialects.
In this thatch-and-mud beer hut on the Hema side of town, my questions, as well as the brew, unleash years of pent-up anger against their ethnic Lendu rivals.
"We want to know the crime that [Lubanga] committed," the proprietor hollers, waving her empty serving gourd. "They came to rescue us," she says of Lubanga's swarm of boy soldiers. "We were running with kids in our arms. He came to help us." She points at the dirt road outside the hut. "Five were killed right there."
"People were trying to kill us," says another woman, cradling a gourd of the foamy brew. "They were Lendu. He [Lubanga] helped us so much. They're telling lies," she says of the ICC. The militia was composed of child soldiers, she says, but it was a matter of necessity, not criminality. "Maybe they came and killed your family," she says of the child soldiers, some of whom were orphaned and had to choose between picking up a gun or starving to death. "It's better to be a soldier. Children were joining as a way to protect themselves." She points to one of the customers. "He's an orphan. The Lendu killed everyone in his village."
Resentment against the international court is palpable. As people speak, I ask for their names, but they refuse, telling me that if they are identified in print or on the Internet, ICC investigators will drag them to the court in The Hague and force them to testify against Lubanga. They'd rather die.
"When someone comes to kill you, what do you do?" asks a man sitting beside me. "You defend yourself. That's what [Lubanga] did." Because of this, he claims, Lubanga should not be on trial.
But Lubanga's arrest has not been a mistake. Lubanga's full name is Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, and he was apprehended on March 17, 2006, for his activities as leader of the notorious Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC). After he sat in the ICC jail for ten months, the court finally confirmed the charges against him, meaning that the judges were satisfied that the evidence against Lubanga was enough to put him on trial. He stands charged with war crimes, specifically conscripting and enlisting children under the age of fifteen into the UPC and using them to fight throughout the Ituri region from September 2002 to August 2003.
Also in ICC custody at the time are two other militia leaders from Ituri who fought against Lubanga: Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo, both of whom are ethnic Lendu. A third militia leader from the region, Bosco Ntaganda, fought with Lubanga's group and is also indicted by the ICC. After fighting in the Ituri region as Lubanga's top commander, Ntaganda became the deputy commander for another militia leader, General Laurent Nkunda, whose ethnic Tutsi militia controls the mineral-laden hills of the Masisi in North Kivu, far to the south of Ituri. Ntaganda subsequently joined the Congolese army and remains free.
The ICC has been focused on the Ituri region of the Congo for years, even before it issued indictments against Joseph Kony, the leader of Ugandan rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army, which fought a vicious and senseless war in northern Uganda for over twenty years.
Because the ICC has interviewed hundreds of people in and around Bunia, many of whom witnessed or participated in the killings that swept the area, the beer drinkers are understandably wary. Since most foreigners they have met are affiliated with mining companies, the ICC, or the aid groups that prowl the region, these in the hut suspect me of spying for the ICC because that is what I keep asking them about.
My fear that the beer drinkers have little or no concept of the international court is quickly dispelled, however, when one mandro drinker complains about the court's postponement of Lubanga's trial and his rumored release. He pokes a finger into the air and shouts, "We don't understand why they have postponed [the case] so many times." Before I can offer an explanation, he provides his own answer: "It shows that the ICC cannot take control of the case." Keeping Lubanga in jail for two years without a trial is simply more colonial oppression, he says. "The whites are behind this."
The man's friend chimes in, saying that the Lubanga situation is rooted in ethnic-based political maneuvering, not fact. "It sounds like politics. They don't understand what happened. The ICC didn't get all the information."
"The ICC is unable to judge Thomas Lubanga," the first man adds. "He should be brought back here. For peace to resurface, he has to come back."
What confounds most in the mandro hut is that Lubanga has been charged with using child soldiers. This has been a common practice, however deplorable. More important, it pales in comparison with the horrific massacres that took place in the villages of their ethnic Hema kin and went far beyond the bounds of conventional warfare.
"The people who know what [Lubanga] did live here," a woman says, arguing that the judges in the Netherlands can never render a sound judgment because they will never know what happened in Ituri, or why.
"Thomas Lubanga worked for peace," says a young man.
"The voice of Ituri is not being heard," says another.
"The killers are not here. They're in power in Kinshasa," says yet another.
"Instead of arresting the killers, they arrested Thomas Lubanga," shouts still another.
Word has spread quickly that a foreigner is asking questions about Lubanga, and the beer hut has gotten crowded. Emotions run high as the proprietor serves gourd after gourd of mandro. The palpable tension becomes laced with anger, and I nod to Kahorha that it's time to leave. Kahorha nods back as he translates a torrent of comments. Kahorha has been in these situations before, having worked for some of the world's top news organizations, including CNN and the BBC. We edge toward the door as people shout over one another, Kahorha continuing to translate as I scribble notes. We push through bodies jammed at the entrance and dash for the car, leaving the drinkers behind. The car doors slam, and we barrel down the road, trailed by a plume of dust.
"We left not a moment too soon," I say with a big sigh.
Kahorha smiles. "Well, you wanted to talk to some folks ..."
We are on our way to the Lendu side of town to get another take on the deadly fighting that has gripped Ituri. The drive gives me a moment to think. One of the mandro drinkers said the killers were in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, so I ask Kahorha about that. Some of those who commanded militias in Ituri have become part of the Congolese government establishment or members of the Congolese military, Kahorha explains. Despite the crimes they may have committed in the eastern provinces of the Congo, they are now protected by their government status.
It has been part of a government policy, Kahorha continues, to defuse the war by enticing the militia leaders to abandon their commands in exchange for government or military posts. This removes them from the battlefield and draws them into the central government — the same entity they've fought so fiercely in the past. The hope, of course, is to bridge the gap between the Congo's disparate eastern and western provinces, a gap that is not only cultural and linguistic but also geographic.
The problem with this policy is precisely what angers the mandro drinkers: no justice. Those who may have been responsible for the most heinous of crimes are now living large in the national capital. But not all. Since the Congo is among the 111 nations who agree to support the ICC, it is obligated to arrest those indicted by the court. The Congo has complied by arresting Lubanga, Katanga, and Ngudjolo. But others are still free who the mandro drinkers know were involved in the region's violent history, and they can't understand why only certain people are arrested. To them, the court is political, not judicial.
BEFORE WE get to the Lendu side of town, Kahorha says we have to make a stop. Just off the main road in Bunia and within sight of the UN compound is a placid complex of whitewashed buildings that houses the offices of Caritas, the Catholic charity. Here I find Father Alfred Ndrabu, who heads the local Peace and Justice Commission under the auspices of the Bunia diocese. It is one of many such commissions set up throughout the Congo to collect information and monitor the progress of peace, or the lack thereof, in Ituri. The Bunia commission was established in October 2003 to accept the child soldiers released by Lubanga's militia and reintegrate them into society. "It was very difficult," Ndrabu says with a heavy sigh.
In the wake of the region's heaviest fighting, Ndrabu and the other Catholic priests began working toward community reconciliation by talking with key members of their congregations in and around Bunia, some of which included both Hema and Lendu. The goal was to get them just to talk to each other and hopefully defuse the ethnic tensions that had divided the town. It began to work. "People started talking to each other," he says, and neighbors began to trust each other. Then, in March 2006, Lubanga was arrested and turned over to the ICC, sending a shockwave through the community and causing the Hema and the Lendu to step back. "The confidence among people diminished a bit. Most of the people withdrew from each other. They couldn't understand how all the killing in the area could be the burden of just [Lubanga]."
The violence wasn't due only to Lubanga's militia, Ndrabu says. But he was the first one to be arrested, and the Hema community became suspicious because Lubanga had cooperated with authorities and released his child soldiers. More important, Ndrabu points out, Lubanga was not the only one responsible for the UPC as a political entity and a militia. "Those who pushed him to fight committed many crimes," he explains. The child soldiers who filled the militia were not necessarily forced. "The children joined him in order to survive."
Yet this desperate circumstance has been ignored by the ICC. "This is not adapted to reality," Ndrabu says of the ICC charges against Lubanga. "Recruitment of child soldiers was not new." The practice had emerged years earlier, when the late Laurent-Désiré Kabila, the former Congolese president, swept through the region in 1996 on his way to Kinshasa, where he toppled the government of Mobutu Sese Seko. Not only did Kabila's army use child soldiers, but so did the regional militias. "How can [the ICC] now only charge one person for what all have done?" he asks.
I have no answer. But the reasoning of the court, despite the apparent lopsidedness of the case, is that the international community must start someplace with the prosecution of those who use child soldiers. Lubanga was an obvious target and most likely will not be the last.
People in Ituri, Ndrabu explains, want to see those responsible for the mass killings in the region face justice, either in the Congo or abroad. "For local people, they want to see those who killed sixty thousand people in all the communities to be arrested." Ndrabu applauds the arrest of the Lendu militia leaders, Katanga and Ngudjolo, because it has defused some of the inter-ethnic tension. Regardless, people in Bunia have a hard time understanding why the slaughter of an entire village is not considered a crime worse than the recruitment of child soldiers.
"The community does not understand." If the ICC wants respect, it has to explain that, Ndrabu says. "Most people don't know the procedures." Many in the community think Lubanga is already dead. "It's better if [Lubanga] appears" in person at some point so that the Hema know their hero is still alive. It would help dispel misconceptions. Most people "think he is a political prisoner." The people of Ituri distrust the ICC. "When they arrest those in government and with the power, then people will begin to trust the ICC."
WE CONTINUE through Bunia, past the UN compound, and make our way down dirt roads deep into a jumble of block homes and mud-and-thatch huts. This is the Lendu side of town. We park and walk under towering trees and beside neatly hoed gardens of corn, beans, and vegetables. We settle into low chairs on the hard-packed dirt that fronts a few mud-brick homes while we wait for Ernest Peke, a Lendu community leader. It's a long wait, and as the day fades, we watch women and children finish eating dinner. A chicken aggressively pecks food from a child's hand until he swats it away. African music floats over the women's murmuring voices, punctuated by an occasional child's cry. Just as darkness descends, Peke appears.
He's a lean man in his midfifties, possessing a leathery face creased by time. He wears a brown sport coat over a pressed shirt, trousers, and sandals. He has seen the best of times and the worst of times, he tells me, mimicking the opening line of Charles Dickens's novel A Tale of Two Cities.
He gestures to the house behind me. "There was a big house here," he says. "It was all destroyed." To understand Ituri, I need to go a short distance back in time, he tells me.
Excerpted from Consuming the Congo by Peter Eichstaedt. Copyright © 2011 Peter Eichstaedt. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: The Gates of Hell 1
1 The Mandro Hut 7
2 Village of the Skulls 19
3 Gold from Blood 31
4 Cauldron of Chaos 45
5 An Epidemic of Rape 57
6 The Agony of Abyei 69
7 A Tale of Two Sudans 83
8 Armies and Exploitation 97
9 Woes of Walikale 111
10 Controlling the Flow 123
11 Into Coltan Country 137
12 Realities of Refugees 153
13 Charcoal, Wildlife, and Angry Mai-Mai 165
14 Things Fall Apart 179
15 Resolution and Illusion 195
Epilogue: The Horror and the Hope 211