President Joseph Kabila – the son of the murdered former President, Laurent-Désiré Kabila – recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC); 50 years since independence, first achieved from Belgium on June 30th, 1960. Of course, beyond the toasts, self-congratulation, flattery and small-talk that typify such gatherings, there is very much more to worry about, than to celebrate, in the harsh Congolese reality of 2010.
The war in the DRC, formerly known as Zaire, ended officially in 2003. However, the country continues to be the theatre of erratic mass violence and one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. For anyone who has ever set foot in the DRC – Africa’s third largest country by territory – the contrast between the land’s vast natural resources and its dilapidated infrastructure and crushing human destitution is overwhelming and tragic. The effects of the near complete absence of effective government are omnipresent. Here is a nation blessed with all the riches that the planet has to offer – gold, diamonds, cobalt ore, tantalum (used in electronic equipment and mobile phones), tin and, of course, massive forests and bountiful water systems – and yet the country is among the very poorest in the world, marked by incessant exploitation, corruption and conflict. The victim of one of history’s worst colonial misadventures, with its genesis in the 1884-1885 Conference of Berlin and the reign of King Leopold II of Belgium – who brazenly considered the ‘Congo Free State’ to be his own private property – the DRC endured a most cynical plundering over its last 200 years.
The paradoxical tragedy of Congo’s natural wealth is twofold: first, successive governments since independence have failed to transform Congo’s rich resources into productive output for Congo’s citizens; second, the country’s resources have made the DRC the target of regional envy and competition. Rwanda, Uganda and the various rebel movements vie for control over Eastern Congo, while millions of the country’s inhabitants suffer from a lethal combination of disease and malnutrition caused by ongoing war and displacement (compounded by corrupt, incompetent or otherwise non-existent governance). It is estimated that, since 1998, some 5 million Congolese have died from war-related violence and hunger. Tens of thousands of women and girls have been raped. The DRC also faces widespread and systematic use of children as combatants by all warring parties, placing the DRC among the countries with the largest numbers of child soldiers.
In 2006, a democratic central government was elected, but insecurity continues in the remote, resource-rich eastern provinces of the country. The world’s largest peacekeeping mission – a UN force of approximately 17,000 soldiers and police (MONUC) – struggles to prevent violence and protect a population of 70 million scattered across the most rugged of terrains. The situation is complicated by the fact that UN peacekeepers, charged with protecting civilians, must partner with a national army that is as predatory on the local population as the rebels against whom it is supposed to fight.
All of this is happening in a country that, if stabilized and ruled effectively, could, by dint of its abundant resources and position at the heart of Africa, emerge as a regional economic power. We have yet to see a Congo that fully serves its own citizens. Until that day, Patrice Lumumba – the father of Congolese independence, ousted in a Coup during the Congo Crisis and violently liquidated – will continue to turn in his grave.
The pictures presented in this photo essay were taken in the North Kivu region of the country – a region haunted by war and competition for control of land and its natural wealth. The photos were taken partly in January 2008 in the Butembo-Beni area, and in March 2010 in Muhanga, a small but militarized village in the middle of the Congolese bush controlled by the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC). Muhanga – founded by the Italian priest Father Giovanni Piumatti – has been for years a war frontier that the Mayi Mayi use as their operating and hiding quarter.
Pictures by Alessandro Callari, Giovanni Salvaggio & Emilano Tidona © Wartoy 2010