In Africa there are some conflicts that are simply too convoluted, too entangled to comprehend. Most are the result of a long history of violence and colonialism, timeless tribal and sectarian animosities, greed, corruption, intervention of foreign interests, and the spillage from neighboring conflicts. The civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1998-2004) contained all of these elements and more. The fighting — which continues to this day, though sporadically — has been going on so long few of the combatants know why it started in the first place.
In the new issue of New York Review of Books historian Adam Hochschild attempts to explain how the DROC got to its present chaotic state of affairs, a state where barbarism — the likes of which have rarely been seen — are commonplace.
Hochschild is best known for King Leopold’s Ghost, his masterful retelling of the Belgian king’s bloody rape of colonial Africa. The atrocities committed in his name were so horrific they drew loud condemnation from Mark Twain (in his satire King Leopold’s Soliloquy) among others, and resulted in the first great human rights movement of the 20th century.
If the mission of European colonizers was to spread the benefits of civilization, and not mere plunder, they failed miserably. But the story Hoschschild tells is how little things have changed. Post-colonial African history follows a familiar pattern. There is the concentrated effort to stamp out Western influence. There is the back and forth between pro-U.S. and pro-Soviet kleptocratic regimes during the Cold War. There is the dysfunction, the poverty, the tribal warfare, the unspeakable brutality, accounts of which will make your hair stand on end.
It is the latter that Hochschild seems intent on recounting here following his recent visit to the DROC. Example: He asks one native human rights worker what got her involved in her work. In a detached, emotionless tone, the woman recounts how a decade ago she was raped by local militiamen:
Their main purpose was to kill my husband. They took everything. They cut up his body like you would cut up meat, with knives. He was alive. They began cutting off his fingers. Then they cut off his sex. They opened his stomach and took out his intestines. When they poked his heart, he died. They were holding a gun to my head…They ordered me to collect all his body parts and to lie on top of them and there they raped me — twelve soldiers. I lost consciousness. Then I heard someone cry out in the next room and I realized they were raping my daughters…When I got out I found these two daughters were pregnant…After this [my husband’s] family chased me away. They sold my house and land, because I had had no male children…Both girls tried to kill their children. I had to stop them. I had more difficulties. I was raped three more times when I went into the hills to look for other raped women.
The various militias currently roaming the DROC make Attila’s Huns look like a band of archangels. Among the many horror tales is an account of an ethnic Ngiti militia that in 2002 burned a library and massacred everyone in a hospital maternity ward. In all militiamen killed 3,000 in that hospital, including patients, staff and nearby residents. The commander of that militia, he notes dryly, is now a minister in the cabinet.
CAN SUCH THINGS BE? Hochschild replies with an emphatic yes, and attempts to show that such brutality has many fathers. For one, the continual and eternal strife between ethnic and religious groups or tribes. Second, the Tutsi and Hutu militias, still fighting the battle that began with the Rwandan Genocide, only now on Congolese soil. Perhaps more important is the battle over rich natural resources: gold, tungsten, diamonds, coltan, and copper. “[F]inally, this is the largest nation on earth — more than 65 million people in an area roughly as big as the United States east of the Mississippi — that has hardly any functioning national government,” he adds.
Indeed, the Democratic Republic of Congo may be the most perfect kleptocracy that ever existed on earth. Its armies loot because they don’t get paid, because the colonels simply take the soldiers’ salaries for themselves. “If they don’t have any money,” one UN official notes, “they have a weapon, so…” The DROC is a classic example of why anarchy will never work. Rid yourself of a federal government and somebody much worse than the government will step in to fill the vacuum. Soon you will have armed, self-proclaimed officials collecting taxes every time you try to take your kids to school. If there are any schools.
Rape, however, remains the weapon of choice for militiamen, “a calculated method of sowing terror.” Almost all rapes are done by gangs, three to five armed men, with some victims as young as two. Today the perpetrators include three different armed rebel groups — plus the Congolese national army.
Again, Hochschild searches for an answer:
What turns such people into rapists, sadists, killers? Greed, fear, demagogic leaders and their claim that such violence is necessary for self-defense, seeing everyone around you doing the same thing — and the fact that the rest of the world pays tragically little attention to one of the great humanitarian catastrophes of our time.
With the exception of the eastern region, a fragile peace is maintained, mostly because in order to buy “a series of half-effective peace accords” the government has had to invite into the government “an array of predatory, criminal warlords and their followers.” Hochschild recommends purging the thugs from senior officer ranks, but this will likely only cause them to form rebel bands and renew hostilities.
Hochschild is seasoned enough to know a writer cannot end on a downer. You have to try to find some reason for hope, some statement that proves goodness and the universal human spirit will ultimately triumph. But it’s not easy. Strangers help him change a flat tire. He spies a few others rebuilding a town devastated by a volcano. Most of all there are the former rape victims now helping other rape victims overcome their trauma. These pale besides the unspeakable horrors, but they offer a small glimmer of hope. Anything more, Hochschild concludes, “will be a long time in coming.”