In the last several months, attacks against innocent, impoverished civilians in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo had become numbingly commonplace as a rebel group bloodied government troops, capturing and later relinquishing federal military installations. Indeed, chaos seemed to have reached a weary sort of equilibrium as refugees scattered at each outbreak of fighting. Few people in the west seemed to notice, or care.
It was only this past week, when the rebels advanced to the outskirts of the eastern regional capital of Goma and routed government troops in embarrassing fashion, that the western world finally started paying attention. Jolted by the rebels' stunning march and the threat it poses to Congolese President Laurent Kabila, western diplomats have descended on the DRC this weekend to push for a lasting truce.
The immediate concern was for the tens of thousands of refugees who fled the rebels' march to Goma, capital of the North Kivu province. The fighting dissipated Wednesday and the refugees are now heading home, desperate for food and shelter. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees, the world organization's refugee agency, said it was investigating reports that rebels had destroyed camps housing some 50,000 internally displaced people in the town of Rutshuru, about 50 miles north of Goma. "Hundreds of thousands of people who have already suffered far too much are in danger and in desperate need of help," UNHCR High Commissioner Antonio Guterres said on Friday.
Once the plight of the refugees is addressed, a far more daunting challenge will face all the diplomats who are now speaking earnestly of a solution at last in eastern Congo, whose people have suffered through two wars and numerous clashes since the mid-1990s. Do all those parties with a stake in the Congo conflict from the government, to the rebels, to the U.N. and a host of peripheral western powers have the will to settle on a deal? And do they have the will to confront the government of Rwanda, a country scarred by its 1994 genocide, which has given sympathy and, many suspect, military support to the rebels? The fighters claim to be protecting ethnic Tutsis from some of the same Hutu militias responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus during the Rwanda genocide. Both Hutu and Tutsi groups are remnants of refugee militias that fled to Congo during and after the genocidal conflicts in Rwanda. "This is a massacre such as Africa has probably never seen, which is taking place virtually before our eyes," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told Europe 1 radio before departing Paris for DRC on Friday.
But Kouchner is wrong. Africa has seen such a massacre before in the exact same place, over the last 10 years. An estimated 5 million people have died as a result of conflict in Congo's east, a place whose warring factions have stymied the world just as badly as have those in Darfur or Somalia. Fighting between the rebel forces, led by Gen. Laurent Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi, and Congolese troops had raged for months. It became clear in June that a January peace deal between the government and the rebels was collapsing, but little was done. "I've been working on Congo now for 10 years and I sometimes feel we're in this deja vu scenario. We see far too often that there is a flurry of diplomatic activity at moment of crisis and it tails off quickly," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Congo researcher for Human Rights Watch. "There are no quick fixes."
Whether the diplomats agree with that sentiment is unclear. The foreign ministers of Britain, Belgium and France all headed to DRC and planned to meet with the president, Joseph Kabila. They were then to travel to Rwanda for meetings with President Paul Kagame. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazer passed through Goma on Friday before visiting Rwanda. On Friday, Kabila and Kagame agreed to attend a summit to try to resolve the issue. They have made similar promises before, but achieved little. And while experts say that efforts are underway, there are still no plans for the Congolese government to negotiate with Nkunda's rebels.
Any solution will have to include Rwanda as evidenced by the import of the planned meeting between Kagame and Kablia. Human rights groups have accused Congolese forces of colluding with ethnic Hutu militias thata fled neighboring Rwanda to escape justice for their role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The Congolese government has repeatedly promised to disarm the militias, to little effect. On the other side, Kagame, an ethnic Tutsi, has ties to the eastern Congolese rebels. That group says it is fighting to protect ethnic Tutsis in Congo who have been persecuted by both the Congolese government and the Hutu militias.
Kagame denies supporting Nkunda but the rebels are clearly getting their weaponry from somewhere. Uruguay's military commander Gen. Jorge Rosales, whose nation has troops among the U.N. peacekeeping troops in Congo, told reporters this week that the rebels were backed by Rwandan tanks and artillery, and there was a "high probability that troops from Rwanda are operating in the area." The rebel advance has also exposed some unpleasant truths. One of the most important is the fact that U.N. peacekeepers based in eastern Congo were helpless to stop Nkunda's men.
At the height of Nkunda's campaign, government troops were on the run. Goma, the eastern city that is home to countless aid groups and hundreds of thousands of refugees, stood open for the taking. U.N. peacekeepers were reportedly holed up and surrounded at one base 55 miles north of Goma, rationing food and running out of water. But as rumors spread that Goma's fall was imminent, Nkunda declared a cease-fire and halted his advance. By the end of the week, the havoc wreaked in Goma had been caused chiefly by Congolese government soldiers, who stole cars, looted businesses and raped women across the city. The U.N. multinational force, "is stretched to the limit," spokesman Madnodje Mounouba tells TIME. "We have 6,000 people in North Kivu, not all are frontline soldiers, and have to be everywhere in a territory that is bigger than France."
Nkunda had proven his point, and may have achieved what he wants: a spurt of international attention, and the potential for talks with the Congolese president Kabila to air his grievances. He is in a position of strength he's made it clear that government forces are no match for his men, and Goma is his for the taking. "Nkunda wants direct negotiations with the government," says Van Woudenberg, of Human Rights Watch. "And now he now holds the ultimate bargaining chip the town of Goma."