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On Point

Congo Tragedy

by Austin Bay
July 16, 2003

For a brief media moment, as French-led U.N. peacekeepers deployed last month into the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) desperate northeast, the disasters afflicting that region -- and the town of Bunia in particular -- generated headlines.

The headlines have disappeared, but the terror and suffering haven't. On July 11, the French killed three Hema tribal militiamen outside Bunia. If Bunia were Baghdad, the incident would rate a headline like, "Resistance Continues Despite Peacekeeper Efforts." But U.S. troops aren't in the DRC, so media pencils aren't so pointed.

While Saddam was clearly a greater global threat, the Congo is a greater global tragedy. It's also a complex tragedy. Take the atrocity near Bunia committed on June 11 by the Hema's bitter enemy, the Lendu tribe. Lendu militia attacked the Congo town of Mahagi. Mahagi is an Alur tribal town. The Lendu gang allegedly killed 77 Alur, an act of mass theft and ethnic murder.

Global headlines? No -- though the region paid attention. The Alur straddle the Uganda-DRC border, with many living in Uganda's West Nile Province. Lendu attacks on Alur towns put pressure on Uganda to post troops to the border, where they can quickly enter the DRC to protect the Alur.

The U.N. force, however, was dispatched not only to halt Hema and Lendu warfare, but to replace the Ugandan Army. For years, as war raged throughout the DRC, Uganda occupied Bunia. Uganda backed one of the rebel factions fighting with the DRC's Kinshasha government. A former Ugandan commander is now under indictment for plundering Congolese natural resources. He was one of many -- of every national, ethnic and factional stripe. Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, a DRC government ally, was arguably the most heinous. He hired out his troops in exchange for Congo minerals.

In 2000, the Congo's intricate hell led then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to call it Africa's "world war." She wanted the American public to appreciate the war's immense geographic scale. Arguments continue over the war's death toll, but 3 million is a common figure.

Last September, I walked into the northeast DRC to visit a farm owned by an Alur man named Stephen. Ugandan Alur took me, and we didn't go that far. In fact, part of Stephen's farm may be in Uganda. The pineapple field is definitely Congolese; it drains into a stream that feeds the Congo River. But the kassava and millet fields? Their creek ultimately reaches the Nile. The DRC claims that creek is the border. Uganda says it's the Congo-Nile watershed divide (between the kassava and pineapples).

Ethnic hatreds fuel many conflicts around the globe. The Hema and Lendu clash much like Serbs and Albanians. Political boundaries splitting ethnic groups have produced bloodbaths everywhere. Africa, however, is the planet's current chronic case, where artificial boundaries magnify resentments.

Stephen's farm reflects, in miniature, sub-Saharan Africa's struggle with absurd boundaries. These borders are the sad pen and ink legacy of European parlors, kings and iron chancellors drawing lines on jungle, dividing tribes and, in Stephen's case, a farm.

Drawing new African borders has been anathema. As bad as the borders were, most post-colonial African leaders concluded the process of drawing new ones would unleash further violence.

But in this new century, it is a deep wrong to spill more blood because of bad ink. While deploying peacekeepers saves lives, it doesn't resolve deeper troubles. Sadly, corrupt African governments, like the one in Kinshasha, show little interest in tackling their own problems. The corrupt elites who run them could care less.

9-11, however, demonstrated that anarchy in the world's hard corners can't be ignored. At some point, the persistent devil of absurd borders must be confronted.

Though Stephen's farm was peaceful, Bunia is less than 50 kilometers away. Refugees fleeing the Hema and Lendu slaughter had passed his way.

When I left, Stephen gave me a pineapple. "Take it to your wife in America," he said. I started to tell him U.S. agricultural inspectors wouldn't let me take it into the States.

But I stuffed that unkind truth and accepted his gift. "Thanks," I said. "My wife likes pineapples."

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