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Congolese Citizens Caught in Crossfire of Battle for Region’s Lucrative Resources

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A quarter of a million people have been displaced in fighting between government forces and rebel militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where reports of rape, looting and murders of civilians continue to rise. We speak to Maurice Carney of Friends of the Congo about the varying regional and international actors fueling the conflict. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations is poised to send an additional 3,000 troops to the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where reports of rape, looting and murders of civilians by both government and rebel forces continue to rise. A quarter of a million people have been displaced since rebel forces led by General Laurent Nkunda advanced towards the provincial capital of Goma this August.

The United Nations has accused both the Congolese army and Nkunda’s forces of committing war crimes during the latest violence. Goma is now ringed with refugee camps, but rebel leaders ordered displaced people staying near the United Nations peacekeeping compound to return to their homes. Many are scared of going back.

    MAMY CHIBALONZA: [translated] We are afraid to go back, because they rape women, and they rob us, too. They rape women of all ages.

    DISPLACED CONGOLESE WOMAN: [translated] The new occupants told us to go home, and if we don’t go home, they will shoot at us.

AMY GOODMAN: The UN Secretary-General called for a ceasefire Monday to allow aid workers to reach refugees in rebel-held areas. But it’s unclear when the fighting will stop.

Neighboring Angola has announced it will send troops to assist the Congolese army, and rebel leader Nkunda has vowed to attack any foreign troops that enter the conflict. Some reports indicate Rwandan army soldiers have been fighting alongside General Nkunda, but Rwanda denies backing the rebel leader.

Meanwhile, Congolese activists in Belgium protested outside the US embassy Wednesday, calling on the US to end its support for the governments of both Rwanda and the DRC.

    HENRI MUKE: [translated] We are asking the US to officially condemn Kagame and to try to get more troops in the DRC in order to stabilize, because today the Congolese government is not able to ensure the security of the population and the integrity of the territory. So we need the help of the foreign troops to end all of that.

AMY GOODMAN: I am joined now here in Washington, D.C. by Maurice Carney. He’s the co-founder and executive director of the advocacy group Friends of the Congo.

Maurice, welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us the latest, and especially in a country like ours that is so insulated, even though the global power in the world. Just explain where the Congo is, and set this in a geopolitical context for us.

MAURICE CARNEY: Certainly. Thank you for having us on today, Amy, to talk about this very vital situation. The Congolese people are on the verge of experiencing another humanitarian catastrophe, one that they’ve really experienced over the last twelve years.

Congo itself is located in the heart of Africa. It’s literally and figuratively the fulcrum on which Africa swings. It’s the size of western Europe, bordered by nine other African countries. So, when something happens in the Congo, it affects not only its neighbors, but the entire African continent. And it’s the geostrategic storehouse of minerals that are central or vital to the functioning of modern technology, as well as the US and Western aerospace and military industries. So it’s a critical country not only for the African continent, but for the world as a whole.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain the latest developments right now in the Congo, in eastern Congo, and the role of Rwanda. And then I’ll ask you about the United States.

MAURICE CARNEY: Well, the latest development is a result of what’s been transpiring for the last twelve years or so. The central question that we see in the Congo is, who’s going to control Congo’s wealth, and for whose benefit? Wangari Maathai, the Nobel laureate, said that these wars, when you look at them, it’s about who’s going to control the resources. And this conflict in the Congo that we see today is a resource conflict.

And the latest expression of this resource conflict is Laurent Nkunda’s rebel group, that is trying to capture and control resource-rich areas in eastern Congo, that’s backed up by the Rwandan government, who has invaded the Congo twice, first in 1996 and again in 1998, with the full backing of the United States and other Western nations. And this is according to congressional testimony that was held in 2001 when Cynthia McKinney and Tom Tancredo had hearings on the situation in the Congo, where you had experts under oath documenting US involvement or backing of the invasions.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the scope of the killings right now, and who is actually doing them? Who is Nkunda?

MAURICE CARNEY: Nkunda is a former member of the Rwandan military. He had fought with Rwandan Patriotic forces when they replaced the so-called Hutu regime in 1994. He is also under an executive order from President Bush, who outlined that he should be called for or brought to justice for committing war crimes. And he’s heading up a group called the Congress — or the National Congress for the Defense of the People. So he and his group is made up of about 6,000 rebel forces, which is a key point, because these conflicts are often presented as Africans warring against each other, but what we have here is a small group — 6,000 in a nation of nearly 60 million — that’s getting strong support by one of US’s staunchest allies in the region, Rwanda.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is selling weapons?

MAURICE CARNEY: Well, you have a number of weapons traders in the area. From 2001 to 2003, the United Nations documented the trades of arms in the Congo. It identified individuals such as George Forrest out of Belgium, also looked at eastern European nations that are involved in arms trades in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the natural resources in the region, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, that might explain why so many countries are involved right now, Maurice Carney?

MAURICE CARNEY: Well, Congo is endowed with spectacular natural resources that are vital to the functioning of modern society. We can take, for example, cobalt, of which Congo has a third of the world’s reserve of cobalt. Cobalt — the Congressional Budget Office says cobalt is a strategic mineral for the US’s aerospace and military industries. For those of us who are concerned about environmentally friendly cars, such as the hybrid, cobalt is a central mineral for the functioning of the batteries in those cars. You have about 2.5 kilograms of cobalt in a Toyota Prius, for example.

You have coltan, or columbite-tantalite. Congo has anywhere from 64 to 80 percent of the world’s reserve of this mineral, which is found in almost every cell phone. It’s found in the video games that our children play. It’s found in the airbags in our automobiles, and the air suspension brakes. It’s actually the wonder resource or wonder mineral of our time.

You have tin, which is vital to the functioning of our computers and laptops. So there are a number of strategic minerals that are found in the Congo that are key to the functioning of modern society and modern industries.

AMY GOODMAN: The different forces, beyond Rwanda, even, what, Angola right now and Zimbabwe involved in fighting in the Congo.

MAURICE CARNEY: Well, the different forces that came into the Congo — you have to understand, Congo was invaded in 1996, where Laurent Kabila, the father, was installed, and then invaded again in 1998, when Kabila fell out with his backers, Rwanda and Uganda. As a result of the second invasion in ’98, Kabila reached out to its SADC members, Southern African Development Community members, Angola and Zimbabwe, to come to the rescue and forestall Rwanda’s and Uganda’s effort to overthrow him.

Here we have again today, where we see Rwanda backing Nkunda, Nkunda vowing to go all the way to Kinshasa, and Angola has said, “Well, we’re not going to allow that to happen again. We’re going to step in.” So, now you see Angolans coming in. That’s why in today’s New York Times editorial, it warns about a regional war occurring as a result of Rwanda’s backing of Nkunda and Angola now saying that it’s going to come into the fray.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the role of the UN peacekeepers who are in eastern Congo? More, thousands, are being sent right now.

MAURICE CARNEY: Well, there are 17,000 peacekeepers, UN peacekeepers, in eastern Congo. They are being kept there or maintained there to the tune of a billion dollars a year. However, Congo is the size of western Europe. You have about one peacekeeper for every 10,000 people or so. So they have a daunting task to try and bring about peace and stability in the region. So they’ve had difficulty protecting the civilian population. So you have — Nkunda’s troops are really running circles around the UN troops. In addition to that, UN troops, their mandate is limited. They don’t have an offensive mandate. So that makes it even more difficult for them to rout the rebel forces of Laurent Nkunda.

But I must say, Amy, the issue is not even so much the UN forces. What we see in the Congo is policies coming from the West that prioritize profit over the people. Kabila, himself, was installed in 2006, in elections that were held in the Congo, with the full backing of the Western powers, to the exclusion of the pro-democracy and grassroots forces inside the Congo. So you hear today experts in the media saying, “Well, Kabila should control the country, or he should do more with his own troops,” who have been also been accused of committing atrocities. But it’s not in the political DNA of the Kabila government to govern. The government actually reigns, but it does not govern. And when it was put in place by the Western nations, they knew very well what the outcome would be, because he was put in place in order to provide unfettered access for Congo’s vast mineral resources to Western corporations. And this has been documented by — in Foreign Policy magazine back in 2006 by Paule Bouvier and [Pierre] Englebert. They clearly stated that the US and Western nations were prioritizing stability over democracy. We argued at that time that the result — that the US or the Western nations would get neither stability nor democracy, because the policies were flawed in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you see a new Obama administration doing? What do you want it to do?

MAURICE CARNEY: Well, with the Obama administration, Obama is very familiar with the situation in the Congo, and he said if Africa is to achieve its promise, resolving the problem in the Congo would be critical. Therefore, the logical extension of that argument is that Congo should take priority in the new — in his new term. And if Congo is going to take priority, we are hopeful or we expect that the policies that the US has had towards Congo, and Africa in general, will radically change, that is to say, to change from the — change to where the policies serve the interests of the people of Africa as opposed to serving foreign corporations.

AMY GOODMAN: What do see is the chief difference Obama would take with what President Bush is doing right now?

MAURICE CARNEY: Well, one critical indication or first step that would give us some insight into what they’re going to do has to do with how they approach Congo, in particular, and Africa, in general. That is to say, are they going to go from a — look at Africa from a perspective of charity and militarization, or are they going to look at Africa from a perspective of justice?

And if the Obama government gets rid of the Donald Rumsfeld AFRICOM that’s been proposed, then that will be a sign that they’re looking to change their relationship with Africa, because right now, we have AFRICOM on the table, which furthers the militarization of the African continent, and if the Obama government continues that policy, then that will be a sign that they’re heading in the wrong direction. So we’re hopeful that they will put justice and the people as priorities and radically change and fundamentally change the way the United States and Western nations deal with the African continent.

AMY GOODMAN: Maurice Carney, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Maurice Carney is with the organization Friends of the Congo.

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