On Point: Congo Tragedy

by Austin Bay
July 16, 2003

For a brief media moment, as French-led U.N. peacekeepersdeployed last month into the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) desperatenortheast, the disasters afflicting that region -- and the town of Bunia inparticular -- generated headlines.

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

While Saddam was clearly a greater global threat, the Congo is agreater global tragedy. It's also a complex tragedy. Take the atrocity nearBunia 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 tribaltown. The Lendu gang allegedly killed 77 Alur, an act of mass theft andethnic murder.

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

The U.N. force, however, was dispatched not only to halt Hemaand Lendu warfare, but to replace the Ugandan Army. For years, as war ragedthroughout the DRC, Uganda occupied Bunia. Uganda backed one of the rebelfactions fighting with the DRC's Kinshasha government. A former Ugandancommander is now under indictment for plundering Congolese naturalresources. He was one of many -- of every national, ethnic and factionalstripe. Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, a DRC government ally, wasarguably the most heinous. He hired out his troops in exchange for Congominerals.

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

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

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

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

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

But in this new century, it is a deep wrong to spill more bloodbecause of bad ink. While deploying peacekeepers saves lives, it doesn'tresolve deeper troubles. Sadly, corrupt African governments, like the one inKinshasha, show little interest in tackling their own problems. The corruptelites who run them could care less.

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

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

When I left, Stephen gave me a pineapple. "Take it to your wifein America," he said. I started to tell him U.S. agricultural inspectorswouldn'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."

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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