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“The War The World Ignores”: A Look at War-Devastated Congo & The Country’s First Multi-Party Elections in 45 Years

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The conflict in Congo has been called the world’s largest forgotten war. Yet while millions have died since the start of the most recent violence in 1998, the country has been torn apart by resource exploitation and government repression for decades. On July 30, Congo’s voters went to the polls for the first time in over 45 years, however allegations have surfaced that the elections were marred by fraud and international meddling. We speak to Alexis Motunda, national secretary for Congo’s main opposition party, as well as to journalist Johann Hari of the UK Independent, and the Congo Education Council’s Tshimanga John Metzel. [includes rush transcript]

The Democratic Republic of Congo is awaiting the results of the country’s first multi-party elections in over 45 years. Last month month thirty- two candidates -including incumbent Joseph Kabila -ran for the presidency and more than 9,000 candidates ran for the Parliament.

Official results are not expected for weeks. If no single candidate gets fifty percent of the vote, citizens will choose between the two top contenders in October. Most media have been reporting that Joseph Kabila and Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba are the top candidates but several other presidential candidates and some human rights groups allege that there has been widespread fraud. Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch said that she had personally witnessed the dumping of ballots outside of counting offices. And the main opposition party, led by Etienne Tshisekedi, boycotted the elections altogether.

Tshimanga John Metzel joins us from the studio in Washington, D.C. — He works with the Congo Educational Council.

And on the phone from the Congo we are joined by Alexis Mutanda. He is the National Secretary for the Union for Democracy and Social Progress which is the main oppoistion party in the country. He is also editor of the La Tempete des Tropiques, a newspaper in Kinshasa.

Johann Hari joins us on the line from Scotland — He is a Journalist for the Independent of London, and his article “The War The World Ignores” was published in the Independent earlier this summer.

  • Alexis Motunda. National Secretary for the Union for Democracy and Social Progress which is the main oppoistion party in Congo.
  • Johann Hari. Journalist, UK Independent
  • Tshimanga John Metzel. Congo Educational Council.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Tshimanga John Metzel joins us in the studio in Washington, D.C., works with the Congo Educational Council. On the phone from the Congo, we’re joined by Alexis Motunda. He is the National Secretary for the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, which is the main opposition party in the Congo. He’s also editor of La Tempete des Tropiques, a newspaper in Kinshasa. And Johann Hari joins us on the line from Scotland, a journalist for the Independent of London. His article, “The War the World Ignores,” was published in the Independent earlier this summer. We welcome you all to Democracy Now!

I wanted to begin with Johann Hari. We’re talking about the elections today, but we put this in the context of a war in the Congo that’s taken the lives not of thousands or hundreds of thousands, but millions of people. Can you talk about the situation in the Congo today?

JOHANN HARI: This is the deadliest war since Adolf Hitler’s armies marched across Europe. And it’s a war that has still not ended. But what I think is really important for people to understand is, this is not a distant tribal war that has nothing do with you. It’s a war whose trail of blood leads absolutely directly to London, to New York, to Paris, to the laptop people will be listening to this on, to their remote controls, the mobile phone, and indeed to the diamond necklace, if they’re fortunate enough to spend their money on one.

I always think going to Congo is a bit like, you know the TV series Lost, where that group of plane crash survivors think that they’re stranded alone on a desert island, until one day they’re going through the jungle and they discover this metal cable that leads out into the ocean, and they realize they’re in fact connected to the world beyond very closely. The Democratic Republic of Congo is full of cables like that, connections from seemingly isolated and incomprehensible acts of violence to our world and indeed to your own apartment.

Just to give people a sense of the scale of the suffering there, I’ve covered — I’ve been to Iraq, Palestine, some of the poorest parts of South America — the sheer quantity and quality of suffering in Congo is markedly worse than anything I had seen in those countries. Going to hospitals full of women who had been gang-raped and then shot in the vagina, a common practice; going to villages where child soldiers had been made to kill their own father so they couldn’t run away back to their family — unimaginably extreme violence is happening there.

And I think it’s important for you to understand, there’s a complicated kind of official story about what happened in the war in Congo and how it began, and then there’s the real story. The official story is that after the end of the Rwandan genocide, the Hutu Power genocidaires, the psychopaths who murdered 800,000 people in just a hundred days, fled across the border into Congo. And the official story of how the war began is the Rwandan President Paul Kagame ordered the Rwandan troops across the border to hunt down these genocidaires. And then, the Uganda, neighboring country, also invaded to get some of its criminals, and then Kagame appealed to some of the surrounding countries like —- sorry, not Kagame, the President of Congo appealed to some of the surrounding countries to support him -—

AMY GOODMAN: And I just wanted to clarify, when you say ”genocidaires,” for people in the United States, you mean the killers in Rwanda?

JOHANN HARI: Sorry, the people who committed the genocide, exactly. And the Congolese president appealed to some of the surrounding countries to come and help him against this invasion. So, in a sense, in that story, the war in Congo is like a kind of the First World War, just a gigantic cock-up, you know. Someone acts out of a good motive, and then it all spirals and goes wrong. It’s a nice story. It’s a reassuring story. It’s also completely untrue.

The United Nations established a panel of experts, once the war had completely spiraled, to find out what really happened. And what they said, what the panel of experts found, is that in fact these countries all acted as, in their words, armies of business. They went into Congo not to track down killers, but to seize the country’s unbelievably immense mineral wealth, to grab it and to sell it out to New York, to London, to Paris, to the developing world. So they seized, for example, coltan, which at that time had a huge market spike. Coltan is a metal that’s extremely good at conducting heat. You have it in your cell phone, in your remote control, and so on, and your laptop. And Congo has one of the largest stocks of it anywhere in the world. And there was at that point a big spike in the global price, partly because of Sony Playstations, which contain coltan, so as one human rights campaign in Congo put it: so kids in New York and London could play imaginary war games, kids in Congo were enslaved and sent down coltan mines.

So, we know that this story is the real story, partly because the Rwandan army, when it went into Congo, didn’t go to where the Hutu Power people who committed the genocide were. They went to where the mines were. And, indeed, we have memos that were unearthed by Human Rights Watch that show that the Rwandan army actually gave orders to collaborate and cooperate with the Hutu Power people in the rape of Congo.

This continues right to the present day. You still have — I went to mines that were controlled effectively by slave labor, where they were owned by the militias. So you can’t ever have a unified state in Congo, while you have this situation. The government doesn’t control the resources. You’ve got a situation where the government is trying to get the country to be united by bribing, paying soldiers to join the national army.

The problem is, you go to the camps, the Congolese National Army camps, as I did, people are paid $5 a month, if they’re lucky. There were people dying of AIDS just in the barracks. There were people are starving, people with their children there starving. And they were saying, “Well, look. If we join the national army, we get $5. If I go out and join one of the militia groups that control a gold mine or a diamond mine or cassiterite mine or a coltan mine, I can get $60 a month. What should I do?” So, it guarantees that Congo — the fact that we in the outside world are still buying these blood-soaked minerals guarantees that Congo can’t be unified.

And the United Nations identified some of the most core multinationals as responsible for this: Anglo American, De Beers, Barclays Bank. And what’s really shameful is this a war fought for us, so that we can have these resources. But when our governments were informed by the United Nations that they were cooperating with some of their — that their corporations were collaborating and indeed causing some of the worst human rights abuses anywhere in the world, our governments didn’t react by holding these corporations to account. They reacted by saying to the UN, “Why has our company been put on this list?” The companies lobbied very hard, not just in the Bush administration, but in Britain, in Germany, all over the developed world, to say, “Get us off the list.” And lots of them were taken off the list. It’s a disgrace.

And it’s a real disgrace to us, because last time there was this scale of mass slaughter in the Congo, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the Belgians colonized it and killed ten million people, basically turned the country into a giant rubber plantation, there were mass campaigns across the developed world, led by people like Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle. There were questions asked in the Senate. There were huge mass meetings in London. The same thing has happened in our lifetimes, and we’ve done virtually nothing.

It’s very easy to lose hope, but I always think of the — whenever I do feel despair about the situation in Congo, there are scenes that come back to you. I saw a guy being beaten to death. I went to a Pygmy village where a guy had been beheaded the day before. It’s awful. I think about the incredibly brave people in Congo I met, who were fighting. I met an extraordinary man, who was a kind of Oscar Schindler of the Congolese mass rapes, who had been treating women who had been horrifically subject to sexual violence by the different armies of business, who treated these women in secret, because he would have been killed if he hadn’t. I think about — there was a guy called Bertrand Bisimwa, a fantastic Congolese human rights activist. He said to me — I thought he summarized the situation brilliantly — he said, “You know, people have looked to Congo for over a hundred years, and they’ve seen a great big pile of riches with some black people inconveniently sitting on top of them.” And he said to me just before I left, you know, “It’s your country and the developed world that has been doing this to Congo. So, tell me, who are the savages, you or us?”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Johann Hari. He’s a journalist with the Independent in London. The piece that he did is called “A Journey into the Most Savage War in the World : My Travels in the Democratic Vacuum of Congo.” You know, this period now, August 6th through 9th, is the anniversary of the U.S. dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. According to Wikipedia, the uranium mine for those bombs came from the Congo. Is that true?

JOHANN HARI: That is true, and unfortunately I couldn’t get to the uranium mines. It’s one of the very few parts of Congo that is actually quite well guarded, but it’s interesting, because the — so many of the terrible problems that confronted the world actually, you find, cables back to Congo, whether it’s the fact that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were made with material stolen from the Congolese people, the fact that the earliest known cases of AIDS that we have were reported in Congo.

I mean, the situation, to give you a sense of how far Congo is regressing, when I spoke to someone in the health ministry, they said, “You know, we’ve got a note from the UN today saying we’ve got to prepare a plan for avian flu. Well, don’t get me wrong, avian flu is a really big danger, but I had to write back and say, 'In our rural areas, bubonic plague has come back. We can't do anything to deal with bubonic plague. What are you expecting us to do about avian flu?’” Just to give some sense of how awful things have become there.

And the extraordinary courage of ordinary Congolese people, just raising their kids in these situations — by every roadside, you would just meet — I was particularly impressed by Congolese women, who have been subject to most incredible violence. Even in South Kivu, which is a very small province within Congo, the UN estimates 45,000 women were raped last year. One of the ways the war has shifted is that the various militia groups, usually proxies for these foreign armies, are no longer fighting each other so much, but instead targeting the other side’s women, trying to break their will.

The women are used in Congo, basically, as pack horses, as well. There are no roads. So you would see by the side of the road, everywhere you went, women carrying these unimaginably huge heavy loads, on their backs, of wood or whatever had to be transported for, you know, a few pence a day, and you would — I thought, when I stopped and spoke to these women — often, you see them just by the side of the road. Sometimes they miscarry — they very often miscarry, you see them just bleeding by the side of the road. It’s awful, and I thought these women were kind of understandably exaggerating — they said to me these loads were 200 pounds or more — until I got them to load it onto my back, and I literally couldn’t — you know, these women were walking miles and miles every day with this on their back, and I could barely do ten paces without falling down. So, yeah, as I say, the scale of human suffering, it makes Iraq under Saddam look, you know, almost bearable. It’s so horrendous.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the phone, in addition to Johann Hari, the journalist for the Independent, by Alexis Motunda in Kinshasa, National Secretary for the Union for Democracy and Social Progress. Your party did not participate in the elections, boycotted the elections. Why? Alexis Motunda, welcome to Democracy Now!

ALEXIS MOTUNDA: Yeah. Okay, I’m here.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, I was asking why the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, why your party did not participate in the elections.

ALEXIS MOTUNDA: My political party did not participate in these elections, because, you know, first of all, we found out from the very, very beginning that the commission, the commission which is in charge of organizing these elections, from the beginning, we found out that this commission is not independent. It’s not independent because, you know, the choice of the people in this commission was very, very doubtful, in the sense that the [inaudible] of the commission was very tied to the president, and so, he is, even today, receiving his orders from the government and is not really independent.

And the second reason is that, as you know, the elective processes from the very beginning was not — you know, we have the perception that, you know, the processes from the very beginning was very, very bad, and from the very beginning, we complained to the United Nations, the representative of the United Nations in this country, and then to the council of the United States, the representative of this organization, and the [inaudible] General Secretary himself, when he came to Congo just a few months ago, and we did not receive any improvement in the processes, which could, you know — people concluded and our [inaudible] of the party concluded that, you know, this whole thing was completely, you know — they are mounting fraud in the election.

And since that we did not get any satisfaction from the organizer of the election, we just thought that, you know, this is going to be, you know, a very doubtful election, and we could not reach the conclusion of a good election. And as you know, we found out, and the people found out that, you know, in the processes they found that after that, the independent commission input extra ballots in the processes. And we could not understand where the ten million extra ballots were coming from. And that has been discovered, and the questions had been asked, and we could not receive any reliable, you know, reply from all these things.

And as far as the security was concerned, all over the country, we just found out that, you know, private military people were spread out all over the country, and we could not conclude to the security of the candidates or the security of the people who were going to vote. And there were so many elements and so many things that, you know, just convinced most of the people that these elections were not made for peace, that they could just go to the conclusion of unrest in this country. That’s why we told the Secretary General of the United Nations, the security council of the United States, and all of the people in the European Community, we told them that these elections, the processes were not good from the very beginning, and it was necessary, you know, to correct things and to — but they did not listen, you know. Everybody just pushed, you know, to go to the elections. We said, “Okay, since things are that way, the best thing is just to be out of the processes.”

AMY GOODMAN: Alexis Motunda in Kinshasa. Tshimanga John Metzel also joins us in Washington D.C., who grew up in the Congo. Can you talk about the role of the international community in these elections? By the way, the largest U.N. force is in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

TSHIMANGA JOHN METZEL: Yes, I thought it was interesting that Johan referred to the struggle of the people in the mining areas. The UDPS Party, which Alexis represents, which is led by Etienne Tshisekedi, had its origins also in the plight of the people in the mining areas, where more than 40 miners, artisanal miners, were shot down in Katekelayi, in Luamuela in 1979. This was the impetus which led Etienne Tshisekedi and 13 members of Parliament, at that stage, to form a second political party, which was against the law under Mobutu. But they succeeded after many years of struggle. Etienne Tshisekedi was imprisoned more than ten times by Mobutu, and this is the first trained lawyer in Congo.

He succeeds in 1990 in getting the UDPS recognized as a second political party, so this is the basis for his popularity. But the international community and the U.S., in particular, has played a role in stifling this people’s movement dedicated to nonviolence from even participating here in this election, but also in earlier attempts to bring about democracy. Tshisekedi was elected by over 70% of the Sovereign National Conference on August 15, 1992, but was only allowed to serve as prime minister for several months before Mobutu threw him out of office using force, when he tried to move to control the central bank at that point, which was essentially Mobutu’s piggy bank. At that stage, rather than backing the elected prime minister, the U.S. chose to back a “third voice,” it was called, and through our diplomats, Herman Cohen, in particular, moved into place Kengo Wa Dondo and essentially ignored the democratic movement in favor of someone closer to Mobutu’s liking.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have a minute to go, Tshimanga John Metzel, and I wanted to ask, you wrote a letter to Condoleezza Rice. What did you say in it?

TSHIMANGA JOHN METZEL: There, we laid out the way in which this large party has been sidelined in the current run-up to elections. Essentially, Dr. Tshisekedi was promised one of the vice presidencies. There are four under the transition government. But when everyone got back to Kinshasa, the assassins of Lumumba — Justin Bomboko and Jonas Mukamba — convened a meeting, which they called representative of the opposition, with many fake parties and voted for someone other than Tshisekedi to take that vice presidency. In fact, one of the warlords assumed that position, Z’ahidi Ngoma, one of the founders of the AFDL movement. Then, as we move toward the election, they formed not one, but four, fake UDPS parties to contest the election, to divide the UDPS vote, and that’s one of the reasons, that Alexis was mentioning, that the UDPS decided to abstain from the referendum.

After the referendum, Tshisekedi asked to be readmitted to allow his people to register to vote. That was refused by the chairman of the Electoral Commission. And the U.S. ambassador immediately chimed in in support of that position. So what you have an election manipulated long before the actual day of election, the ANC of Congo, the Mandela of Congo, excluded from even running for office. So the issue of legitimacy of power and the rule of law that could come from that has been once again denied to the Congolese people, and yet you’ll hear the Carter Center and many other groups declaring that this election was essentially free and fair. Well, on the day of the election, there weren’t a lot of incidents, but the manipulation took place long before, in the exclusion of this major party.

AMY GOODMAN: Tshimanga John Metzel, we have to leave it there, but we will certainly continue to cover what is developing here in the Democratic Republic of Congo in these elections, a winner yet to be announced. Tshimanga John Metzel ; Alexis Motunda, we spoke to in Kinshasa, with the Union for Democracy and Social Progress; as well as Johann Hari, journalist for the Independent of London. We thank you all for being with us. We talked to him in Scotland.

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