5.4 Million and Counting

For nearly two decades, the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have been the epicenter of the deadliest conflict since World War II. Part of a vast country straddling the heart of central Africa, the eastern Congo continues to defy efforts at pacification. As the conflict has morphed from a regional war to a series of tenacious local insurgencies, the civilians caught in the middle have paid the steepest price.

In addition to the ongoing humanitarian crisis, continued instability in sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country by area has strategic implications for the entire region. The DRC’s vast natural resources hold great potential but also complicate efforts at peace. The eastern Congo’s minerals power the world’s consumer electronics, and the country’s largely untapped farmlands have the potential to feed the rest of Africa. Yet disputes over these resources also drive the conflict, and rebel groups seek to control them to fund their own campaigns.

Subject to foreign interference since the colonial era, the eastern Congo poses difficult questions about the role of international intervention. The UN mission—the largest peacekeeping deployment in the world—has provided crucial support for the DRC’s peace process, but many observers argue that it lacks a clear strategy for sustaining the peace and eradicating the plethora of armed groups that remain. With presidential elections originally scheduled for 2016 likely to be delayed to 2017 or even later, the Congolese government, Western policymakers, and regional leaders all face pivotal decisions that will determine whether the country can consolidate its democratic progress.

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The wars that have raged in and around the eastern Congo since 1994 have heaped by far the greatest suffering on the civilian populations caught in the crosshairs. The death toll in the country has topped 5.4 million, the vast majority of these in the east, while nearly three million people remain displaced and more than one million women and girls have been victims of rape. Soldiers killed in direct combat have, by many estimates, totaled less than 10 percent of the conflict’s overall deaths.

Nor have civilian casualties been simply an unfortunate byproduct of fighting. Rather, civilians have been targeted for supporting opposing rebel groups or for their ethnic identity. They have been robbed, displaced from their homes and villages, and pressed into service as slaves. Women have borne the brunt of sexual violence, wielded as a weapon of war. Driven from their homes, many have died from hunger and disease.

The Congo crisis has from the start been defined by mass displacement, which has strained the resources and organizational capacity of UN relief agencies, the Congolese government, and humanitarian NGOs. The conflict began when nearly two million Rwandans crossed into the eastern Congo in the wake of the 1994 genocide. The region has since become home to semipermanent tent cities housing more than 2.7 million internally displaced Congolese as well as hundreds of thousands of foreign refugees. For civilians, the choice has often been between languishing in overcrowded camps, fleeing into the region’s dense jungles to be exposed to roving militias, or, for refugees, returning to their country of origin and risking persecution.

The persistence of more than forty different armed groups in the eastern Congo means that the death and disruption continue even as the ranks of the region's major rebel organizations have shrunk. The largest remaining rebel army, the Rwandan Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR, according to its French spelling), has been reduced to fewer than two thousand fighters, while most other groups number in the hundreds. These small and mobile guerrilla forces can survive by avoiding direct confrontation with UN and government soldiers, while continuing to terrorize villagers and exploit local resources.

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The Democratic Republic of the Congo spans a territory nearly the size of western Europe. Home to more than seventy million people, making it the world’s most populous French-speaking country, the DRC’s borders were originally defined by its Belgian colonizers in 1885. In addition to colonial domination, regional powers—the DRC is surrounded by nine other nations—have repeatedly intervened in its internal affairs.

With the national capital, Kinshasa, located nearly one thousand miles from the major eastern cities of Goma, Bukavu, and Uvira, the Congo has long defied easy governing. The hundreds of ethnic groups, myriad tribal languages, and divergent regional interests have proved fertile ground for recurrent rebellions against the central government. In eastern Congo, conflict has centered on the North and South Kivu provinces, as well as nearby Orientale, Maniema, and northern Katanga—an area roughly the size of California that counts more than twenty million residents. The region’s fertile highlands straddle the borders of Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, along the shores of Lake Kivu and Lake Tanganyika, and transportation between the west and east is arduous—most of the eastern cities can’t be reached by road from Kinshasa.

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Violence in the eastern Congo has its roots in ethnic conflict dating back to the colonial era, which was then aggravated under the thirty-year dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko that began in 1965. The horrific scale of the recent fighting grew out of events beginning in 1994. That year, the genocide of nearly one million Rwandan Tutsis sparked a regional conflagration that came to be known as the “African World War.” After many Hutu genocidaires fled to eastern Congo and threatened incursons back into Rwanda, the Tutsi government of Rwanda led a retaliatory invasion in 1996 that would eventually entangle nearly all of the Congo’s neighbors. Sweeping from east to west, Rwandan forces, together with their regional partners and Congolese allies, overthrew Mobutu and installed a new government under Laurent Kabila.

The alliance broke down in 1998 when the new government in Kinshasa turned against Rwanda, ordering Rwandan and other foreign forces out of the country. Regional rebellions emerged, fracturing the country, and local militias sprouted up. Neighboring countries, divided between those supporting and those opposed to the Kinshasa government, once again invaded.

After several partial agreements, a 2003 peace deal pacified the west, but fighting in the eastern Congo continued. Pro-Rwanda rebels from the Congolese Tutsi, or Banyamulenge, populations concentrated in the Kivus clashed with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the Rwandan Hutu militia tied to the 1994 genocide, as well as government soldiers. Other rebel groups, like the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), have been a target of the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, for years. The ADF, a small but potent force ensconced in the Rwenzori mountains on the border with Uganda, has remained a threat with a spate of deadly attacks in November and December 2015. Meanwhile, a multitude of ethnically based local militias, known as the Mai Mai, have added to the chaos with their opaque networks of shifting alliances.

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Join the Fight

1,479 Congolese will, on average, die today. The conflict in the Congo is manufactured and devastating, but its gruesome effects are reversible. Make a contribution or consider volunteering to help end this affront to human decency and save lives today.