With an estimated 3.5 million Congolese dead over the last six years due to war, starvation and disease, the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the world's worst long-running humanitarian disasters. About 3.3 million people are out of reach of relief organizations.
Clashes between rebel groups and government forces continue to ravage eastern Congo. Many observers say the conflict is now a struggle over resources. Learned Dees, Senior Program Officer for Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy, testified before Congress last month that forces from neighboring Rwanda and Uganda are stealing the DRC's resources.
Dees has been a freelance journalist in Africa, covering political events in Congo from 1990-1991 and filing stories for NPR, BBC, and Voice of America. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1980s in then-Zaire and is fluent in Kikongo and Lingala, two of the most widely spoken local languages in the Congo. Recently returned from a trip to the DRC, he shared his views about the conflict there.
Dees talked about his analysis of the eastern Congo situation and the lack of media attention to the crisis to AllAfrica's Milen Yishak.
What are some of the major challenges to restoring peace in the DRC?
The situation in eastern Congo has remained volatile. One of the shortcomings has been a lack of focus on ending violence.
I think the strategy seems to have been [that] progress in the political situation in the west of the Congo would bring peace to the east of the Congo. That clearly has not happened.
What are your thoughts on the 2005 national elections?
Elections are at the end of the process. Clearly right now, we are facing a short-term crisis having to do with the violence in the east. Unless those short-term issues are prioritized, it would make it difficult for elections. But having said that, there is no reason that the focus can't be shifted in order to deal with the short-term issues first and the longer-term issue of elections.
It can happen. But it can only happen if the focus changes to deal with the obstacles that would prevent the elections from happening. The first obstacle is the politically related violence in the east. The other issue is the technical organization of the elections, [which] are less of a challenge than the political violence that presents the major challenge.
Why is Rwanda helping the rebels in the Eastern DRC?
The reason put forward most commonly is that they have a security interest in the Congo. And those security interests involve keeping the FDLR (Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda) away from the border. That seems to be the security interest argument.
Other than that, I am not sure what their motivation is other than the well-established facts related to economic pillaging that were in the report that the UN has done over the years in eastern Congo and Congo.
MONUC (U.N. Organization Mission in the DRC) did not gain access to uranium mine sites, which had recently collapsed. How does the DRC's collapsed uranium mines affect workers and the international community?
Obviously, if uranium is in the mine, there are levels of radiation, which the workers and their families might not be aware of. It's a danger to them, and probably unbeknownst to them how much of a danger.
There is a great concern by the international community about the mine in general. There hasn't been much oversight over the activities at the mine. Because it is unregulated, anyone can have access to the mine. Therefore, there is the potential that uranium can be mined -- and who knows who will get that uranium. I think it is incumbent on the government of Congo to react accordingly and make sure that the mine is secure. Because attention is being focused, that will probably happen in the short term.
Do you see any similarities between the coverage of the crisis in Darfur and the DRC?
What happened in Darfur started happening seven, eight, nine, ten months ago. Not much attention was paid when the crisis was building. When the crisis exploded -- when the humanitarian issues arose -- then nine to ten months later, there was a crescendo of attention focused exclusively on this issue.
You could compare this to the situation in eastern Congo. The problem in Bukavu started in February. Fighting started in May and June. We are looking at the potential for more fighting in Goma anytime. The humanitarian consequences will be similar to what we see in Darfur - a million people displaced and in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.
It seems to me that media attention is often focused on a single crisis, as if the world can't deal with more than one crisis in Africa at a time. But over the long term, Congo represents a greater humanitarian crisis, because we have more people displaced, more people killed, and you have the potential for another level of violence.
Do you think the media spotlight in Darfur is taking away from the coverage of DRC?
I think Darfur deserves attention. There will be responses as a result, and that's a good thing.
The challenge in the Congo is focusing on what's causing the violence. If the media were to focus on what's causing the violence currently and what could be done to stop violence, that would be an enormous contribution rather than waiting until the violence has erupted and following the result.
The humanitarian consequences have occurred over a long period of time. Media attention has been fleeting. There has been some attention, and then it sort of disappears. In part, it is a result of the nature of the media, which focuses on one crisis or one set of bad news and then goes on to the next. There's not really a sustained amount of attention.
What do you think would attract more attention to the DRC?
I think a visit by Kofi Annan as he did in Darfur brought attention to the problem. A visit by Colin Powell or a high-ranking American official would focus attention. I think those are the sorts of things that the media responds to.
Darfur got into the news because Kofi Annan was there. Darfur got into the news because Collin Powell was there. I think that sort of attention by the UN and the U.S. Department of State and the Secretary of State would bring the same amount of attention.