The World Is Blithely Ignoring the Longest Catastrophe of Our Time
GOMA, North Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo — The boy was sitting next to his father, as he so often did. He mimicked his dad in every way. He wanted to be just like him, but Muhindo Maronga Godfroid, then a 31-year-old primary school teacher and farmer, had bigger plans for his two-and-a-half-year-old son. He would go to university one day. He would become a “big name” — not just in their village of Kibirizi, but in North Kivu Province, maybe the entire Democratic Republic of Congo. The boy was exceedingly smart. He was, Godfroid said, “amazing.” He could grow up to be a leader in a country in desperate need of them.
Kahindo Jeonnette was just putting dinner on the table when someone began pounding on the front door. “Open! Open! Open!” a man yelled in Swahili. Jeonnette was startled.
The 24-year-old mother of two looked at her husband. Godfroid shook his head. “I can’t open the door unless you say who you are,” she called out.
“I’m looking for your husband. I’m his friend,” came the response.
“It’s too late now. My husband can’t come out. Come back tomorrow,” she replied.
The man shouted, “Then I’m going to open it!” and pumped several bullets into the door. One tore through Godfroid’s left hand, leaving him with just a thumb and two-and-a-half fingers. For a moment, he was stunned. The pain had yet to hit him and he couldn’t quite piece together what had happened. Then he turned his head and saw his tiny son splayed out on the floor.
The grieving parents can’t even bring themselves to utter their late son’s name. “I’ll never forget seeing my baby lying there,” Jeonnette told me, her eyes red and glassy, as we sat in the kitchen of her two-room, clapboard home in a tumbledown area of Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province. “I close my eyes and that’s all I can see.”
No one knows who exactly killed Jeonnette and Godfroid’s son. No one knows exactly why. His death was just one more murder in an endless tally; a killing somehow tied to a war started decades before he breathed his first breath; a homicide abetted by an accident of birth — the bad luck of being born in a region roiled by a conflict as interminable as it is ignored.
Lightning Fast Lava, an Exploding Lake, and “the Most Dangerous City in the World”
The attack on Jeonnette and Godfroid’s home, the violence they endured, was no anomaly, but another painful incident in one of the most enduring catastrophes on the planet. A new report, “Congo, Forgotten: The Numbers Behind Africa’s Longest Humanitarian Crisis” by Human Rights Watch and the New York University-based Congo Research Group, finds that between June 1, 2017 and June 26, 2019, there were at least 3,015 violent incidents — including killings, mass rapes, and kidnappings — involving 6,555 victims in the provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu.
An average of 8.38 civilians were killed per 100,000 people in those two provinces alone, a number that exceeds even the 2018 death rate of 6.87 civilians in Borno, Nigeria, the state most affected by the terror group Boko Haram. It’s more than double the rate — 4.13 — in all of civil-war-torn Yemen, where Houthi rebels and civilians have, for years, been under a relentless assault by a U.S.-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia.
“The fighting in recent years shows that peace and stability in eastern Congo are elusive,” said Jason Stearns, director of the Congo Research Group. “A comprehensive approach is needed, including an invigorated demobilization program and deep-seated reforms at every level of the state to counter impunity.”
The chances of that happening anytime soon are, however, remote. Violence has stalked the Congo’s far east since at least the nineteenth century, when slave raiders plied their trade here and local mutineers from a Belgian colonial expedition rampaged through the region. And since the end of the last century, North Kivu has been an epicenter of conflict.
For its part, Goma — home to two million people — has been called “cursed,” labeled a “magnet of misery,” and identified as “the most dangerous city in the world.” While it might not sit directly over hell, beneath the volcano that looms over it, Mount Nyiragongo, is a burning lake of lava — an estimated 2.3 billion gallons worth. At the same time, Lake Kivu, the body of water on whose shores Goma sits, could potentially asphyxiate millions in the event of an earthquake, thanks to gases building up beneath its surface. Then again, Lake Kivu itself might just explode — as it does about once every thousand years.
Goma is, to put it mildly, a tough town and, in recent times, it’s endured some genuine tough luck as well. In 1977, Mount Nyiragongo erupted, sending lava racing through the outskirts of the city at the fastest rate ever recorded, around 62 miles per hour, just shy of the speed of a cheetah running at full tilt. Several outlying villages were obliterated and almost 300 people burned alive.
In 1994, after the overthrow of a Hutu-led regime that had committed a genocide on the Tutsis of neighboring Rwanda, more than a million refugees, mostly Hutus, swamped Goma, prompting aid agencies to set up camps for them. Those camps, in turn, became bases for the ousted genocidaires to launch cross-border raids into Rwanda. In addition, cholera ravaged those refugee camps and Tutsis who had also fled the genocide were soon being attacked in Goma just as they had been in their native Rwanda.
The aftermath of that genocide birthed what came to be known as Africa’s World War, a conflict that raged from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s and saw Goma become a rebel capital controlled by a military elite, while more than five million people in the region died of violence or its fallout: hunger, starvation, and illness. Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, in 2002, Mount Nyiragongo erupted again, sending more than 14 million cubic meters of lava flowing down its southern flank. Two raging rivers of molten rock tore through the center of Goma, destroying 15% of the city, killing at least 170 people, leaving 120,000 homeless, and sending 300,000 others streaming into Rwanda.
Despite a regional peace deal that same year, Goma became the target of a Tutsi group that evolved into the March 23 Movement, or M23, a militia that would then battle the Congolese army for the better part of a decade, leading to yet another influx of displaced people settling into yet more camps and slums on Goma’s peripheries. Worse still, in 2012, the Rwandan-backed M23 rebels briefly seized and sacked the city, while carrying out an assassination campaign in and around it.
Today, Goma is officially at peace, but it’s never really peaceful. “Since the start of 2019, a series of murders, violent robberies, and kidnappings have taken place in peripheral neighborhoods of Goma,” reads a report released this spring by the Rift Valley Institute, which investigates conflict and its costs in the Democratic Republic of Congo. An armed robbery described in the report bears an eerie resemblance to the attack on Jeonnette and Godfroid’s home in Kibirizi. One of the victims explained how bandits carried out that home invasion in a neighborhood on the edge of Goma:
”I was sleeping downstairs with my wife and the baby. They entered the front door by shooting through it. We fled our room to take the stairs to go inside. Downstairs, they forced one of our daughters to show them the rooms upstairs. We locked ourselves in the room. The bandits shot through the door, hurting our baby, right above her eye and in her arm. We fled to the shower. The baby was bleeding very much. They came in and I started to give them everything they wanted from us… It was very traumatizing. My wife, who was pregnant, gave birth too early, but the baby is more or less OK. While locked in the bathroom, I called the chef de quartier and the colonel I know but they started to talk about fuel, [more specifically, the lack of fuel, which prevented them from intervening] so no one came to help.”
In the face of such violence, most Congolese are left with few options but to endure or flee. Last year, 1.8 million people — more than two percent of Congo’s population of 81 million — were internally displaced, second only to Ethiopia. All told, there are currently 5.6 million displaced Congolese and it’s estimated that 99% were made homeless due to violence.
Conflict Minerals Trumped by Conflict Alone
From the 1990s through the first years of the present century, an estimated 40 armed groups operated in the eastern Congo. Today, more than 130 such groups are active just in North and South Kivu Provinces.
With at least $24 trillion in gold, diamonds, tin, coltan, copper, cobalt, and other natural resources beneath the ground, it’s often assumed that Congo’s violence is intimately connected with the desire to control its mineral wealth. The Congo Research Group’s Kivu Security Tracker data, however, indicates that there is “no systematic correlation between violence and mining areas.” Instead, that land’s conflicts have become their own revenue stream. A “military bourgeoisie” has used the country’s complex set of conflicts-within-conflicts for career advancement, financing their private wars through kidnapping, the taxation of commodities and the movement of people, poaching, and protection rackets of every sort. Violence has become just another resource in the eastern Congo, a commodity whose value can be measured in both pain and Congolese francs.
Between June 2017 and June 2019, about 11% of the killings and 17% of all clashes in the Kivus occurred in the Fizi and Uvira territories of South Kivu and yet the epicenter of the violence in the region remains Beni territory in North Kivu (also a hotspot in the current and widening Ebola outbreak that even powerful new vaccines are unable to stem). Thirty-one percent of all the civilian killings in the Kivus took place in or around Beni, according to the Human Rights Watch report, “Congo, Forgotten,” with most of the bloodshed attributed to conflict between the Congolese armed forces and the Allied Democratic Forces, or ADF, a decades-old group that only recently rebranded itself as an Islamic State franchise.
Nearby Rutshuru territory experienced 35% of all the kidnappings in the two provinces, according to “Congo, Forgotten.” Recently, Sylvestre Mudacumura, a leader of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, an armed group founded by Hutu genocidaires in 2000, was killed there by the Congolese army. Rutshuru and neighboring Lubero territory are also home to two loose coalitions of opposing militias — the Nyatura and the Mai-Mai Mazembe — that draw from and nominally defend different ethnic groups in the region.
And so it goes in one of the most persistent bloodlettings on this planet, which is likely to continue taking a terrible toll in the years to come as the world turns a blind eye to it all.
Muhindo Maronga Godfroid and Kahindo Jeonnette, both from the Nande ethnic group, hail from Rutshuru. While they don’t know for certain who attacked their home on November 24, 2017, they suspect that Nyatura, a Congolese Hutu militia, was behind it.
When the couple returned from the hospital following the shooting, they found their home completely looted. Fearing for their lives, they fled to Goma, where I met them, with their five-year-old daughter Eliane. All three now live in a two-room shack in a rough part of town where dirt and volcanic rock serve as the floors of most homes.
With his injured hand, Godfroid has been unable to find work. The family survives on the money Jeonnette makes by selling lotoko, a potent local moonshine.
Wearing blue jeans and a red Liverpool soccer jersey, Godfroid continued to talk with me about their son until Jeonnette walked over and waved her hand as if to say, No more. The conversation had left her shaken and she didn’t want to hear about or talk about or think about that horrible night for one second more. Jeonnette said that she needed a drink. Would I like to join her? After an hour of my questions about the violence that had upended her world, about the death of a son whose name she couldn’t bring herself to utter, how could I not?
Jeonnette can’t forget that night, the sight of her son, the moment her life fell apart, but the world has forgotten the humanitarian crisis in Congo — to the extent that it was ever aware of it in the first place. After several decades of conflict, after a “World War” most people on this planet don’t even know happened (let alone killed millions), after rebel raids and village massacres, after countless attacks and uncounted murders, Congo’s constellation of crises remains largely ignored. It’s a burning reservoir of pain for which — the yeoman efforts of Human Rights Watch and the Congo Research Group aside — there is neither an accounting nor accountability.
Retreating to the back room, Jeonnette emerged with a metal cannister of crystal-clear liquor and poured a bit for each of us. As we toasted the memory of her son and I savored the slow burn of the lotoko, Jeonnette took a deep breath and leaned toward me. “This trauma lives in my heart. I can’t escape it,” she said, her eyes brimming with hurt. “This country keeps pulling us back. We just can’t move forward.”Wait, before you go…
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