A Human Ecological Catastrophe

Ituri: A Crossroads of Cultures

A remote province named Ituri, which borders Uganda and the Sudan in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.), has become the scene of Africa’s worst nightmare. Tribal armies, including child soldiers, have killed thousands of people. There are reports of rape, mutilation, and cannibalism.

Ntumba Luaba, human-rights minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, describes Ituri as “a cemetery.” In an emotional statement to the Foreign Press Association in Paris in May, he appealed for United Nations intervention. “If the multinational force does not arrive soon,” he said, “there will be nothing left to save but the trees and the rocks.”

Luaba has been to Ituri twice in the past year in an effort to negotiate peace between the province’s warring Hema and Lendu peoples. His first mission to Bunia ended in humiliation when he was taken hostage by Hema militia. During a second visit, in May, his plane made a forced landing after being hit by a rebel missile.

The International Rescue Committee puts the death toll in the D.R.C. at between 3.1 million and 4.7 million people since August 1998, making it the deadliest conflict on the globe since World War II. Of those who have died in the conflict, the majority are civilians who perished from starvation and disease after being driven from their homes. Several hundred thousand were murdered.

Undisciplined government forces have contributed to the chaos. (The government of the D.R.C., headed by President Joseph Kabila, controls around half of the country with support from Angola.) Their abuses include summary executions, rape, looting, and other violent acts. Luaba admitted that there has been “killing, too much killing.” But he insisted that the army’s conduct would be subject to an international commission of inquiry and said he has warned commanding officers that they would be held responsible for the death of civilians.

Following are excerpts from Ntumba Luaba’s May 27 conference with the Foreign Press Association in Paris.

Radio Côte d’Ivoire: Are we not reliving the days of [the D.R.C.’s first prime minister, Patrice] Lumumba? The Congolese people have no chance to decide [their future] for themselves. More powerful countries are undermining the D.R.C.’s sovereignty so they can control its natural resources—and the U.N. cooperates.
The great natural resources of the D.R.C. are a blessing but also the reason for the country’s malaise. They are coveted by foreign powers and by some of its neighbors. But no amount of wealth will compensate for the loss of human life. We can’t just watch the population of Ituri being massacred while we look on, helpless. It is already very, very late. There are various armed factions in Congo, particularly in Ituri, who rejoice in the chance to massacre its population every time there is a new shift in alliances. These alliances involve the participation of certain neighboring countries—above all, Uganda and Rwanda—and the complicity of others.

France 3 (French TV station): Why can’t MONUC [the U.N. observation force in Ituri] put an end to this situation?
The actions of the U.N. observers are limited by their mandate. They are observers, that’s all. During the massacre at Kisangani, the Congolese began to refer to them as the “U.N. mission to observe Congolese cadavers” because the only thing they did was to count the dead. It’s necessary to change the mandate of MONUC, above all to reinforce it, and to deploy an international force.

World Press Review: What could the United States do to stop the killing?
The United States could resolve the situation in Congo in a matter of days. It has demonstrated its capacity in Iraq. If the United States feels motivated to intervene in other parts of the world to save human lives, one can well ask why it has remained indifferent to the fate of 4 million people in Congo. The United States has all the information and justification it needs to exert pressure on Rwanda and Uganda to stop their intervention.

France 3: On what do you base the assertion that the United States can influence Uganda and Rwanda?
Uganda is an Anglophone country, which has a close relationship to the United States. Rwandan leader Paul Kagame is a protégé of the United States.

World Press Review: Do you think the estrangement with France influences the willingness of the United States to get involved?
It is not right that we should be victims of the tensions that exist between super and medium powers on the international stage. It is not right to make poor countries foot the bill.

The Observer (U.K.): Are you trying to influence public opinion in the hope that it will increase pressure on the governments of England and the United States?
We must make world opinion aware of what’s at stake in Ituri...not only for the D.R.C. and the province of Ituri but also for the sake of humanity. Ituri is a rare ecosystem possessing plants and animals that exist nowhere else on earth. And it is a crossroads of African races and cultures that we must preserve from destruction. If we can find a way for its peoples to live in peace, Ituri could become a model of what is possible for the Great Lakes region and Africa in general. But the international community must act fast.