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
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
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
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
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."