The Hidden Wounds of Congo’s Wars

How do you end an ethnic conflict?

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo—The postelection mayhem in Kenya is introducing new ethnic groups’ names into our global vocabulary. Soon, terms like Kikuyu and Luo may become common household words, like Tutsi and Hutu. It takes as little as days, even hours, for an ethnic war to flare up. But it takes decades to quench it.

On the day when dozens of Kikuyus were burnt alive in a Kenyan church, I was visiting a hamlet in Congo where old tensions started by the Rwandan genocide between Hutus and Tutsis still linger. The village of Karambi is in the northeastern part of North Kivu, just a few miles from the Ugandan border, and it is breathtakingly beautiful. At the health center where we work, covering a population of some 20,000, a midwife told me (in fluent French—this is a former Belgian colony) that cows were seen in the vicinity grazing on corn, manioc, and beans, an obvious sign of ethnic oppression of Hutus by Tutsis. An obvious sign? Yes, can’t you see it? Tutsis are breeders, and Hutus are cultivators, so, of course, when the cows go into a corn field … Oh, yes, of course!

Access to Karambi has been impossible for the last two months because of fighting between Congolese government forces and insurgents loyal to renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda. Those are only two of the four sides fighting in North Kivu—the others are Rwandan Hutu rebels and jungle Mai-Mai militias. At the moment, there are no alliances and everyone is fighting everyone else. In mid-December, for instance, Mai-Mai were battling Nkunda’s men, who were fighting government forces, who in turn were after the Hutu rebels in yet another area. “It is a basket of crabs,” my newfound Congolese friend told me.

The civilian population, caught in the middle, pays the price. Over the last year, almost half a million people were displaced in North Kivu because of the conflict, some fleeing to neighboring Uganda (where part of Karambi’s population is still camping, afraid to return). Others found temporary safe haven in camps around Goma that sheltered a huge tide of refugees fleeing the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.

Children at the UNHCR refugee camp in Goma

The white plastic-sheeting tents, erected by the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, are easy to spot from a distance, often glaring against the background of pitch black lava that invaded Goma in 2002 when a volcano erupted and a hardened black morass covered the center of the town. The tents are the visible tragedy of this civil war.

The invisible side of the war in northeast Congo is the most painful one: a virtual epidemic of rape, and—if it is possible—worse forms of sexual assault, such as the brutal destruction of girls’ and women’s organs. Hospitals here in Goma and in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, mend the victims as best they can. These are often complicated surgical operations that may not be successful the first time around. But there is a whole other trauma: the stigma, the rejection by family, the fear—often, alas, justified—of contracting HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases.

With the painfully common use of rape and sexual mutilation as a weapon of war, those of us who work in humanitarian aid have to adapt our programs. Here in North and South Kivu, we have a separate program aimed at preventing and attending to this scourge—known as “gender-based violence.” So, when we finally arrived to Karambi, we immediately met the midwife to assess the situation. The place had a bad history—in November, the local doctor reported 80 cases of rape (though only 10 percent of them came to see him). In the first days of November, another IRC medical center of comparable size, which serves many war-displaced people, saw a daily average of three cases of women seeking medical attention after rape.

In December, there were “only” 20 known cases of rape in Karambi. But when the midwife concluded that cows grazing on corn are an expression of ethnic oppression, I realized how urgent it is to attend to the other invisible wound: the deep-seated divisions and prejudices that persist and that fuel these sexual assaults and mutilations.

With a peace conference for North Kivu called for Jan. 6, a new and very slim chance exists that the fighting will end. As we met with representatives of Gen. Nkunda to clear the way for our medical team to travel to Karambi, we asked if he would participate. We were solemnly assured that he would.

After the 2006 elections in Congo confirmed President Joseph Kabila in power (oh, how peaceful those elections look in hindsight, as images from Kenya invade our screens), it seemed that the worst of Congo’s civil war was over. But it was not to be. “Give peace a chance” is a cliché, but in North Kivu it is the only option, because war has had way too many chances already.