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Thorns in the Congo

By Michael Gerson
Friday, November 30, 2007

BUKAVU, Congo -- This is a town of stomach-jarring dirt streets, and fences topped with concertina wire, and charming lake vistas, and wandering goats, and burning trash, and cock crows, and soldiers with assault rifles, and banks of bougainvillea that reach two stories high. It is also a town with the world's most brutal war just down the road.

At the center of Bukavu is a facility that houses and helps former child soldiers. One of the boys I met was 11. "They have killed," explained one counselor, "and sometimes eaten the flesh of other people. . . . Sometimes a child is 6 years old when they start, and spends seven years in the army. They are trained to think that the civilian is nothing."

The counselors attempt to gain the boys' confidence, introduce them to sports to "discharge negative energy," teach them respect for women, find out and encourage their aspirations, and eventually place them with relatives or foster parents. But the work is difficult. "They are traumatized," says the counselor, "and you get traumatized as well."

On the wall of the facility is a list of the militia groups from which the children have been rescued. Thirteen different groups are identified, with names that seem like random Scrabble tiles -- MLC and UPC and FDLR. This is one reason that Americans have paid little attention to the war in Congo -- it is complicated, and determining the good guys from the bad is not easy. But for nearly a decade, this war among abbreviations has displaced millions of civilians, destroyed Congo's health and judicial systems, and produced war crimes beyond decent imagination.

Perhaps 4 million people have died in Congo from violence, hunger and preventable disease during the current conflict. Yet, unlike in Darfur, the cameras of the American media have seldom rolled.

However complex this war, there seems to be one ultimate cause. After the Rwandan genocide of 1994, many of the authors of those atrocities -- Hutu soldiers and militia members -- fled to eastern Congo behind a shield of French peacekeepers. These forces came to be known as the FDLR, which now counts between 6,000 and 10,000 troops, who are tightly organized, well funded by mining operations within Congo and as heartless as ever.

A Congolese children's rights advocate estimates that thousands of FDLR troops are child soldiers. "All of their children are combatants," he told me. And the FDLR's ideology of mass murder is unchanged. Occupied villages are intimidated with mutilations and systematic rape -- sexual violence so terrible the damage is sometimes beyond repair.

In the past, the governments of Congo and neighboring Rwanda have often been part of the problem -- supporting one brutal militia or the other when it served their political purposes. But both nations seem to have tired of this game. This month, Congo and Rwanda signed a joint statement promising to oppose the warlords, with the goal of making eastern Congo a peaceful buffer zone instead of a source of instability.

Ending the war in Congo is likely to require both toughness and generosity. The Congolese military will need to step up pressure on the FDLR. United Nations peacekeepers in Congo are effectively securing urban areas where they operate. It would also be useful for the United Nations to secure Congo's mines, which would deny resources to armed groups -- a mission that is just beginning.

Military action, however, will need to be matched by political outreach, at least to some of the FDLR. The worst of the Rwandan genocidaires are some of the worst criminals of history. They must be captured, tried and punished, or justice has no meaning.

But the rest of the Rwandans in Congo should be treated differently. To persuade them to lay down their arms, they will need an offer of amnesty, help with resettlement and the hope of a better life back home -- a genuine alternative to war.

America is deeply engaged in brokering a resolution to this conflict. But peace will also require resources. America will need to help train Congolese forces in protecting civilians and respecting human rights. We will need to help displaced men and women in Congo return home and rebuild their lives. Yet providing these resources is not a priority of the current budget in Washington.

And it probably will not be a priority until Americans focus on the lives and suffering of child soldiers and rape victims who live in a nation crowned with thorns.

michaelgerson@cfr.org

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