Sunday, July 20, 2014


The government in Kinshasa, the capital, is weak and corrupt, leaving this vast nation rotten at its core. The remote east has plunged straight into anarchy, carved up by a hodgepodge of rebel groups that help bankroll their brutality with stolen minerals. The government army is often just as sticky fingered and wicked. Few people in recent memory have suffered as long, and on such a horrifying scale, as the Congolese. Where else are men, women, and children slaughtered by the hundreds, year after year, sometimes so deep in the jungle that it takes weeks for the truth to come out? Where else are hundreds of thousands of women raped and just about nobody punished?

To appreciate how Congo descended into this madness, you need to step back more than a hundred years to when King Leopold II of Belgium snatched this huge space in the middle of Africa as his own personal colony. Leopold wanted rubber and ivory, and he started the voracious wholesale assault on Congo’s resources that has dragged on to this day. When the Belgians abruptly granted Congo independence in 1960, insurrections erupted immediately, paving the way for an ambitious young military man, Mobutu Sese Seko, to seize power—and never let go. Mobutu ruled for 32 years, stuffing himself with fresh Parisian cake airlifted into his jungle palaces while Congolese children curled up and starved.

But Mobutu would eventually go down, and when he did, Congo would go down with him. In 1994 Rwanda, next door, imploded in genocide, leaving up to a million dead. Many of the killers fled into eastern Congo, which became a base for destabilizing Rwanda. So Rwanda teamed up with neighboring Uganda and invaded Congo, ousting Mobutu in 1997 and installing their own proxy, Laurent Kabila. They soon grew annoyed with him and invaded again. That second phase of Congo’s war sucked in Chad, Namibia, Angola, Burundi, Sudan, and Zimbabwe—it’s often called Africa’s first world war.

In the ensuing free-for-all, foreign troops and rebel groups seized hundreds of mines. It was like giving an ATM card to a drugged-out kid with a gun. The rebels funded their brutality with diamonds, gold, tin, and tantalum, a hard, gray, corrosion-resistant element used to make electronics. Eastern Congo produces 20 to 50 percent of the world’s tantalum.

Under intense international pressure in the early 2000s, the foreign armies officially withdrew, leaving Congo in ruins. Bridges, roads, houses, schools, and entire families had been destroyed. As many as five million Congolese had died. Peace conferences were hosted, but cordial meetings in fancy hotels didn’t alter the ugly facts on the ground. The United Nations sent in thousands of military peacekeepers—there are around 17,000 today—but the blood continued to flow. Donor nations sank $500 million into an election in 2006—Congo’s first truly inclusive one—but that didn’t change things either.

Congo’s east remained a battle zone. Ugandans, Rwandans, and Burundians kept sneaking across the borders to sponsor various rebel outfits, which kept using minerals to buy more weapons and pay more rebels, like the wig-wearing Cobra Matata boys. Despite the international outcry, no one knew exactly what to do.

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