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Recent past

Open wounds

by Manuel Wollschläger
Juvenile knowledge in South Kivu

Juvenile knowledge in South Kivu

The conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are officially over, but armed clashes are still frequent in the eastern part of the country. There is no common understanding of what exactly happened in one and a half decades of recent violence – nor of who is responsible for atrocities. By Manuel Wollschläger

For people in the DRC, life has long been a gruelling experience of turmoil and brutality. No consensus exists on the causes and consequences. Mathilde Muhindo looks back to 1996, when the country was invaded by Laurent Kabila and his rebels (see historical synopsis in box on p. 382), and states with conviction: “We did not need his war of liberation. Regime change could have taken place peacefully.” Mathilde Muhindo directs the Centre Olame, a women’s rights organisation in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province.

Her views should be taken seriously. In the 1990s, Muhindo represented South Kivu on a commission that negotiated democracy with the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and had actually secured some important concessions.

Muhindo is still an activist. Her Centre Olame speaks out for women traumatised by systematic sexualised wartime violence (see also the interview with Rwandan women’s rights activist Godeliève Mukasarasi on p. 383 ff.) and supports them. Psychosocial care and legal counselling are feasible, but democracy and the rule of law are still a long way off. According to Muhindo, most perpetrators never faced criminal prosecution, no matter which side they were – or are – on.

The situation is complicated by the fact that the history of DRC cannot be viewed in isolation. “Our neighbours’ history brought war to us,” says Raphael Wakenge of the human rights group Initiative Congolaise pour la Justice et la Paix, which launched a Justice Now campaign in 2011. The goal is to end the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for numerous massacres.

The campaign initially drew on evidence published in the UN Mapping Report in 2010, a documentation of numerous crimes committed it the years 1996 to 2003. A collection of eye witness reports from South Kivu, moreover, was compiled by the Catholic Commission Diocesaine Justice et Paix in Bukavu. Under the directorship of Abbé Justin Nkunzi, the monthly newsletter Le Flash has also been reporting on human rights violations since 1992. The newsletter relies on an extensive network of employees working to promote rural development on behalf – and with the protection – of the Catholic Church. Another positive development is that numerous students today choose recent history as a subject for theses and dissertations.

To date, however, there is far too little reliable data available. Père Franco of the Xaverian Brotherhood was among those who experienced the rebel invasion in Bukavu. He and others helped the International Red Cross bury corpses at various locations. Many of the mass graves remain anonymous; some have even been built on. Despite requests from relatives, the dead have never been exhumed. Père Franco says: “It was not possible to establish precise numbers of victims on the basis of recovered skulls, which is what they did after the genocide in Rwanda.” In the central marketplace of Nyawera, two plaques commemorate Bishop Muzihirwa, who was shot dead there. The fate of prominent victims of violence tends to be known – but little has been done to document the suffering of ordinary people.

Life-risking researchers

Where violent conflicts rage, the media cannot work independently. In Bukavu on 31 July, a memorial service was held for Pascal Kabungulu, who was murdered in 2005. He was engaged in research for the human rights organisation Héritier de la Justice, which, amongst other things, publishes a regular bulletin. The crime has still not been fully investigated. In 2008, the case was transferred for the final review to the top military court in Kinshasa, but no date has been set for the hearing yet. Other journalists such as Serge Maheshe and Didace Namujimbo of Radio Okapi were also murdered.

The case of the human rights activist Floribert Chebeya, who was murdered in 2010, is to be examined by a court of appeal. The first trial was the subject of a documentary by Belgian film director Thierry Michel, which was censored last year by the Congolese government.

Jolly Kamuntu of Radio Maendeleo reports that her broadcaster was muzzled for nearly two years by Rwanda-backed militias. But because the war is not yet over, she thinks it is still too early to address the catastrophe. One thing is certain, however: editorial archives are among the few reasonably reliable sources of information available. Another media outlet with relevant records is the monthly periodical Le Souverain, although it has only a small circulation of 500 copies.

Digging up the past can stir resentment. In 2004, regular troops liberated Bukavu from the militias that had been stifling Radio Maendeleo work. The Ushahidi production studio captured the end of the occupation on film. The DVD is sold in markets. It reveals not only the traumatised population’s deep-seated hatred of Rwanda, but also their loss of confidence in the UN peacekeepers who “stood idly by”.

It is hard to make an objective analysis of events. Rumours are rife. Wild conspiracy theories circulate about collusion between Kinshasa and Kigali, between militia forces, gangsters and regular troops, between local actors and international players.

Human rights activists in South Kivu complain that they lack the means and information to conduct independent research and systematically keep archives of eye-witness reports. Making matters more difficult, some warlords remain active and threaten the lives of all those who try to understand the truth.

Tibère Dunia of the civil society organisation Observatoire Gouvernance et Paix is convinced that “the conflicts that keep erupting are rooted in the poverty of the people and the unjust distribution of resources in the region”. Many countries suffer from economies of violence because the exploitation of resources without respect for human life and human rights is lucrative. Accordingly, Donatien Mulume of the NGO APRODEPED (Action pour la Promotion et la Défense des Droits des Personnes Défavorisés) wants disputes over land and mining rights to be resolved non-violently by the rule of law. For that to happen, administrative capacities must improve substantially. At present, public registers are totally inadequate. There are no official registers of births or land use rights – hence the temptation is always to blame violence on “foreigners”.

The population faces many fundamental problems of day-to-day survival. So it is not surprising there is little money available for erecting monuments and memorials. At the same time, people are aware of the fact that memorial sites would help establish something like a collective memory.

The biggest obstacle to reconciliation, however, is the question of guilt. Reparations are an issue, of course, but the first priority is to hold violent criminals to account so that the dignity of victims and their families is restored.