The Horror, the Horror
“The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair”
A book by Michael Deibert
“The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair” by Michael Deibert is a grim and difficult book to read, despite the author’s masterful reporting. It is painful because of the visceral attention and emotion his work demands. The tragic and depressing tale of Congo is steeped in the gruesome brutality and avarice of elite leaders-cum-plunderers. It is a story we must know.
Deibert spares readers no detail of the horrors inflicted on a population whose only crime is one of location. It is agonizing material to absorb. After yet another killing, another raid and another rape, you want the book to end. Only there is no end. Not for the Congolese. That Deibert can so compassionately balance their predicament against the voracity of their leaders and pillagers speaks volumes about his skill as an on-the-ground journalist.
He expertly untangles the myriad political and ethnic factions, their acronyms (for which he helpfully provides a glossary), and the leaders who dwell in Congo and the surrounding countries of Rwanda, Zaire, Uganda, Angola and the Central African Republic.
Today, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Congo’s Joseph Kabila and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame flit between competing and collaborating on a long-standing mission: gaining control over Congo’s abundant natural resources. Meanwhile, the world does precious little, beyond lip service, to defend Congo’s inhabitants. Indeed, world political and economic powers are not only complicit through passive acquiescence, but also actively encourage and facilitate the monstrous pillage of Congo.
Deibert begins with his exploration of the remote Eastern part of Congo, which he traverses with a driver and a translator. He ushers us “over windswept green hills from the dusty, dilapidated provincial capital of Bunia” to Ituri, “a patchwork of ethnic groups and subgroups” — broadly, the “Hema” and “Lendu.” Stemming from these divisions are “a panoply of other armed groups, each with its own competing, overlapping and colliding agendas, and a civilian population, including a substantial number of Mbuti pygmies, made to suffer the consequences of the mad scramble for power and riches.” He explains how slaughters in Ituri, as for Congo, trace back to Uganda and Rwanda. Such is the entwinement of Africa’s power elite.
Deibert examines U.S. support for the colonization of Congo, how American President Chester Arthur came “to recognize [Belgium King] Leopold’s claim to Congo in early 1884,” and the Berlin Conference that “entrusted an expanse the size of Western Europe to the whims of a king who had never set foot there.”
Echoing Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost,” Deibert writes, “the 1885 to 1908 existence of the Congo Free State was and remains one of history’s great crimes, but at the time the rape and pillage of the prostrate land continued with much approbation from the world at large.” At the time, plundering another country’s resources did not raise eyebrows among the powerful. Sadly, the only change has been the perpetrators, as Deibert elucidates throughout the book.
After decades of struggle, Congo declared itself independent on June 30, 1960. Seven months later, foreshadowing the corruption and violence that would escalate for decades, “[Patrice] Lumumba, the figure that more than any other single person symbolized Congo’s independence and its refutation of foreign domination,” was killed.
Deibert then depicts the rise of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, who after launching two coups, declared himself president in November 1965. Ruling for 32 years, he infused Congo with a “cult of personality to rival anything Africa had seen before or since.” He despotically centralized state control over Congo’s provinces, reducing their number from 21 to eight within eight months in 1966, instigating massacres along the way.
Deibert broadens the story of Congo’s ongoing conflict with its neighbors, bluntly recounting their genocidal actions. “The opening shot in the Rwandan genocide was fired,” Deibert explains, “around 8 p.m. on the evening of 6 April 1994.” Hutu military and militia went on to kill nearly 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus within 100 days.
As Deibert fumes, based on voluminous evidence, “It is hard to overstate the immorality that characterized the response of Western governments during the crisis. … In the case of US President Bill Clinton, it meant a policy of feckless, narcissistic self-interest, as the administration … spearheaded efforts to remove UNAMIR troops from Rwanda, refused to use US technological know-how to block genocidaire radio transmissions and avoided any public use of the word ‘genocide’ for fear that it somehow might be compelled to act.”
After further violence through the 1990s, Deibert presents Congo’s young current leader, Kabila, taking the helm of a nation crippled by decades of corruption and half a decade of war. Sworn in as president on Jan. 25, 2001, Kabila sought international favor through a whirlwind tour of world capitals, including visits with French President Jacques Chirac, a prayer breakfast with President George W. Bush and Rwanda leader Kagame, and a meeting with Belgium Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. Deibert illuminates the swath of atrocities since Kabila’s reign began, as factions within and beyond Congo fought Kabila’s power and he fought theirs. The civilian populations were the casualties.
In stark contrast to these embattled, impoverished and powerless citizens are Congo’s vast resources. Their pillaging is an “armed robbery of epic proportions,” in which “Congolese officials, their neighbors in Africa and the international community were all complicit.”It is these resources — and the host of ethnic groups vying for control over them — that lie at the crux of the violence. Congo contains more than 1,100 mineral substances, including 25 percent of the total known diamond reserves in the world in terms of carats, and 64 percent of the world’s known reserve of coltan, a metallic ore used in electronics. The province of Orientale is “studded with vast deposits of gold.” Those resources represent large, tantalizing profits to its leaders, neighbors and mining speculators from Europe, the U.S., Canada, Australia and China.
None of the spoils from these resources make it to the average Congolese citizen. As Deibert points out, “Congo should stride across the continent as an economic and political powerhouse; however, for the first half of the twentieth century the country was little more than an open cupboard of baubles to be looted by the Belgiums, and for the second half as a personal, seemingly bottomless bank account for its kleptocratic rulers.”
Indeed, official estimates from 2006 (the last ones available) cite 71 percent of the country living in poverty, and the 2012 per capita GDP at $400 per year. Congo ranks lowest on the International Human Development Indicators at 186, tied with Niger.
There exists no great plan to alter these abysmal statistics. Much as government officials in the U.S. cycle through the private sector and vice versa, Congo appoints “some of the country’s worst human rights abusers into senior positions” in the government. Meanwhile, as Deibert bemoans, “the international community’s refusal to hold the Kabila government to account for its more flagrant human rights abuses” (and there are many) only emboldens Congo’s government “in its belief that the path it had chosen was the correct one, and one that would bear very few negative consequences.” This attitude also allows regional and international predators to keep circling their prey.
“The Democratic Republic of Congo” will captivate readers already familiar with the blood-soaked, resource-intense country, as well as those being introduced to the struggles facing the Congolese. Deibert provides a relentless list of brutality; women are raped; children are killed; young men are dismembered; and political party leaders, supporters and journalists are routinely murdered. There seems to be no reason for optimism about the country’s future.
And yet, the book ends with a ray of hope emanating from the people themselves. “Despite what might seem like overwhelming odds,” Deibert writes, “the Congolese continue. They persevere.” I was amazed by this sentiment, so I decided to ask Deibert what he really thought:
“Michael, you penned the book ‘Notes From the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti’ and now, this one. You’ve spent years living in, and reporting on, torn countries as the bodies pile up. What keeps you going?” I asked him. “Telling these stories? Are you hopeful about the future? Or is Congo much closer to despair than hope?”
He responded, “Given the role that is often played by politically and economically powerful countries in the difficulties experienced by less powerful ones, I think that it is important that journalists bring back to readers in places such as the United States and Europe the impact that the measures being enacted in their name — by their politicians, their private sector actors and their institutions — have on the lives of people who are often so removed from the levers of that power. Hopefully, by doing so, by afflicting the conscience of the privileged, this will help affect a move towards less wantonly destructive, more humane policies.”
And it is for this very reason that everyone should read “The Democratic Republic of Congo.” If the Congolese can maintain their hope in such horrific circumstances, and journalists like Michael Deibert can literally risk their lives to bring us the stories of the voiceless, then it is our moral and human obligation to read them.