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On the Long Road: Burundi
By Alexandra Douglas and Dr. Alexia Nibona


War and Health

Health and Peace

A Community Peace and Health Model

FWA’s Philosophy

On the Long Road: DRC
By Alexandra Douglas and Zawadi Nikuze


The Story You Need to Hear

Learning From Within

The Worst Place to Be a Woman


The Story You Need to Hear

The world focuses on the conflict after 1997. But it has its roots in 1992. This is the story you need to hear. Zawadi Nikuze

Some people have called the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo “Africa’s World War.” Indeed, it is the deadliest international conflict since World War II. An estimated 5.4 million have died as a result of the conflict either through direct violence or the indirect consequences of war (disease, poverty, malnutrition).

Yet few people understand the nature, breadth, or history of the conflict in the eastern DRC, in part because reporters and journalists have been highly restricted and threatened in their movements. For the most part, however, the world tends to focus on the development of the conflict since 1997, even though the roots of the conflict go back as far as the Berlin Conference of 1885. It is only through the currents of history that you can begin to understand the conflict in North Kivu today.

The DRC is a massive territory stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to eastern Central Africa, sharing borders with Angola, the Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and Zambia. Its land mass is approximately equivalent to that of all of the U.S. east of the Mississippi. Yet the recent conflict in the DRC has predominantly been isolated to only the DRC’s most eastern provinces—North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri (the map to the right highlights key areas of conflict)—an area just smaller than Pennsylvania.

The scramble for Africa could be labeled as the starting point for the ethnic conflict in eastern DRC today. At the Berlin Conference of 1885, European nations arbitrarily placed lines across the continent of Africa and gave power over the new nation states of Rwanda, Burundi, and what was then known as the Congo Free State to Belgium.

Today, Rwanda claims that the region of the DRC encompassing the Masisi territory, Rutshuru, all the way down to South Kivu (an area extending down to Bukavu) is historically part of the Rwandan kingdoms. Rwanda also claims portions of Uganda and Burundi. This is one dynamic at play in the conflict today.

A second dynamic at play is that throughout the early colonial period, the eastern DRC became a predominantly Hunde area due to the Belgians’ division and categorization of ethnic groups. Then, in the late 1950s, the Belgians forcefully imported Hutus from Rwanda to exploit the fertile land of the Masisi territory (the Belgians believed that the Hutus were stronger workers than the Hunde) and Tutsis to oversee the Hutus labor.

Nyamitaba in Central Masisi was the first area of forced migration by the Belgians. While it was the center of the seven surrounding villages, the importation of Hutus and Tutsis was so large that it was not long before they were the majority in the area. Because the Belgians had made a deal with the Hunde leadership prior to the forced migrations, Hutus and Tutsis were excluded from the leadership of the area.

When the Congo Free State gained independence in 1960, the new Constitution recognized all people brought over from Rwanda before 1960 as Congolese. Later, after Mubuto Sese Seko took power, they were also recognized as Zairois. However, the Hunde leadership continued to deny Hutus and Tutsis entrance into local power structures.

War broke out in 1964. It was called the “War of Kinyarwanda,” meaning that Hutus and Tutsis were fighting for their right to leadership in the Masisi Territory. Hutus eventually took power and declared that there would be no more fighting. So, as a local pastor described it, “People kept quiet. They lived together, but like cats and dogs. They lived together because the master wanted them to, they were obligated. But by their own will, the Hutu and the Hunde would not live together” and tensions continued to grow.

In 1977, Hutus and Tutsis were elected to the Parliament for the first time. The term was 5 years long. Upon completion of this first term, a national mandate was issued denying Hutu and Tutsi candidates’ participation in national elections; it was not until 2006 that they were again allowed to participate.

From 1982, people in the Masisi territory began to divide even more. Militias started forming and in 1992 war broke out again. In our interviews, locals called this the “second phase of the war,” a continuation from 1964. The Hutu land holders formed one militia, the Pareco. The Hunde formed another militia, the Mai-Mai. After the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, the Interahamwe, or Hutu génocidaires, who fled (still armed) to Congo formed their own militia, the FDLR. The Congolese Tutsis fled to Rwanda after Paul Kagame, the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, gained victory in Rwanda and welcomed back all Tutsi refugees and people. In this way, the war and conflict just kept on expanding.

In 1996, although the international community often claims that this is when the war started, the third phase of the war began. First, militias backed by Rwanda and Uganda ousted 30-year ruler Mubutu Sese Seko in what became commonly known as the “Liberation War.” Then, after newly installed former-rebel President Laurent Kabila broke his alliance with his former backers, the Rwandan and Ugandan militaries invaded eastern DRC claiming they were looking for members of the Interahamwe, or the Rwandan génocidaires, in the “Re-Vindication War.” The people we spoke with in Nyamitaba stated that at this point “organized and systemic rapes and massacres began, houses were set on fire, and there was massive displacement.” The ethnic war had become an international war: Rwanda and Uganda against the Congolese army backed by Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. However, according to one of our HROC participants, it was actually “an open, ‘legitimized’ war between three ethnic groups. It was all about revenge.”

A peace agreement was signed in 2002 which supposedly brought an end to the war and the integration of militias and rebels into the national army. However, the military integration process fell apart when one rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, refused the offer to be a general in the national army and began organizing a new, predominantly Tutsi, rebel group, the CNDP. Despite the “official” end to the war, the worst abuses of the conflict in the eastern DRC were still to come.

The first multi-party elections in over 40 years were held in the DRC in 2006. Joseph Kabila, the son of the former President, won the election based on a campaign to end the violence in eastern DRC. But only months after President Kabila took office, the CNDP attacked the national army, leading to a period of even worse displacement, lootings, recruitment of child soldiers, and sexual violence.

In 2007, an attempt to “mix” the CNDP with the national army was tried again and then abandoned, the only result being a quadrupling of the CNDP’s brigade size. In 2009, in a shift in former political alliances brought about by international pressure to end the conflict in North Kivu, the DRC and Rwandan militaries launched a joint offensive against the FDLR (former Rwandan génocidaires).

Today, North Kivu remains politically divided. The national government, CNDP, and FDLR all maintain political control over particular sectors of the province, especially in the Masisi territory. Six years after the war “ended,” people still live in fear. When we spoke with HROC participants in Nyamitaba, they told us that people in the surrounding villages still sleep in the bush at night, only returning to their houses during the day, for fear of the militias and army which patrol the area.

As Zawadi says, the conflict in the DRC cannot be simplified to the invasion of eastern Congo by Rwanda and Uganda. It is a long and complex history of building mistrust and hatred between ethnic groups. To walk the road of peace, this is the story that needs to be understood.

Next Article: Learning From Within