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Congo Conflict

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Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 30, 2008; 1:15 PM

Washington Post foreign correspondent Stephanie McCrummen was online from Goma, Congo Thursday Oct. 30 at 1:15 p.m. ET to discuss the escalation of the conflict in the eastern part of the country.

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Over the past decade, two civil wars and fighting among militia groups have left millions dead in strife rooted in the unresolved aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. On Wednesday, the tensions threatened to flare into yet another war, despite the presence of 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers in the region.

A transcript follows.

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Stephanie McCrummen: Hello from Goma in the rolling green hills of Eastern Congo, where things are relatively quiet after a chaotic day yesterday. Rebels led by renegade general Laurent Nkunda, who has close ties to neighboring Rwanda, are at the gates of this important provincial town. The Congolese army has essentially disintegrated, and spent the night looting and harassing people here. So there is a lot of uncertainty about happens next in this region that has suffered through two civil wars and years of militia fighting tied to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Ready to take any questions.

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Arlington, Va.: What is the chance that this unrest spreads into neighboring countries?

Stephanie McCrummen: Unlikely that it would spread to other countries, but possible that other countries--Angola, Uganda, Rwanda-- would join in the battle for Eastern Congo's riches, as they have before in what became known as Africa's World War. But that is a kind of doomsday scenario at this point.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think the long-term effects will be with this conflict?

Stephanie McCrummen: I think the one key question at the moment is how the advance of these rebels so closely tied to Rwanda will affect the relationship between Rwanda and Congo over the long term. The two countries have had a testy relationship, mostly because of the presence of the Hutu militias who fled into Eastern Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The Congolese government has repeatedly failed to disarm them, and this has remained a sore point with Rwanda. There is once again an opportunity to resolve this issue once and for all but whether the two countries will--and whether international diplomats exert the necessary pressure for them to do so--remains to be seen.

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Bethesda, Md.: Is this civil war due in part to the countries location next to Sudan and other war stricken countries?

Stephanie McCrummen: It's complicated, but yes, the conflict is very much tied to the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when Hutu militias massacred more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The Hutu militias fled from Rwanda into Eastern Congo, and have remained there, and more recently joined forces, more or less, with the Congolese army. This has obviously created tensions with Rwanda, and led to the rise of the rebel group led by Laurent Nkunda, a Tutsi, who says he is protecting his people.

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Boston, Ma.: Stephanie, I heard that the rebels had overtaken park rangers in charge of protecting Congo's gorilla habitat. This had been seen as a potential tourist attraction. Has there been any word of poaching of gorillas in the area or murder of any rangers. Thank you.

Stephanie McCrummen: That's true. I haven't heard yet of any poaching, but the situation has been so chaotic that it's been impossible for anyone to get in there to assess things. The rangers fled in all directions; someone who works with them said some walked for three days straight through the forests of the park before they finally arrived here in Goma.

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New York, N.Y.: Do you think this is going to be a relapse of Rwanda? Are U.N. peacekeepers really doing anything to help?

Stephanie McCrummen: I don't think it will be a relapse of Rwanda at this point, though there are strong anti-Rwanda--and specifically, anti-Tutsi--feelings in Eastern Congo. This has to do with Rwandan invasions in the past, and of course the presence of the rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, who is Tutsi and viewed as a Rwandan proxy. Those anti-Tutsi feelings have occasionally exploded into violence and massacres over the years. Someone told me today that gangs of young men were out last night "hunting Tutsis" but at this point, I think most people feel victimized--regardless of ethnicity--and are just exhausted and want the fighting to end.

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Brooklyn N.Y.: Why you think Nkunda is not taking Goma? That seems easy at this Point.

Stephanie McCrummen: That's a good question. I don't really know why, but he probably thinks it won't score him any negotiating points right now, whereas staying outside and saying he's trying to spare civilians, allow a humanitarian corridor, etc, makes him look magnanimous.

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Washington, D.C.: How are you holding up? I am concerned with your safety. In the report is says relief workers and Americans are fleeing the area, what are you still doing there?

Stephanie McCrummen: Thanks. I'm perfectly fine, and so are the other journalists here. I was out all day today reporting and there doesn't seem to be much hostility towards journalists, per se, except in the sense that some people see journalists as symbols of a world they feel doesn't care about them. Some of the NGOs have become targets though--they've had their trucks stolen and looted.

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Washington, D.C.: What's your Internet connection like?

And, with this constant conflict, how are the armed groups and the companies operating in the region transporting minerals? As a follow, how prevalent are the hired guns brought in by mineral companies to protect their interests? Are they playing a role in the conflict?

Stephanie McCrummen: The internet is horrible here. I'm borrowing another journalist's BGAN at the moment, which is like a little satellite dish. Regarding the mineral trade, I certainly don't see much in the way of commercial traffic around here at the moment. But in general, militias get paid by mineral traders to guard the mines, and the profits from that business certainly provide militias in this part of the world a reason to fight on: it's a job that pays, and for the leaders, probably very well.

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Washington, D.C.: What is Nkunda's ultimate aim?

Stephanie McCrummen: I think he probably wants legitimacy--to have some sort of legitimate political role where he can have administrative control over some slice of Eastern Congo. This would also be in Rwanda's interest. But I'm sure there's some psychological dimension as well.

Thanks for the questions!

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