DR Congo's Silent Ordeal

Houses in Bunyakiri region of Sud-Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. (Photo: ICRC)

On May 14 at 2:45 a.m. in the Kamananga village in Sud-Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, the village is asleep, but not for long. At 3:00, unidentified militiamen enter the village. They are gone by 6:00 a.m.

The pictures of what occurred during those three hours are horrific. According to the Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Bukavu, at least 32 people were killed, some hacked to death with machetes. At least one woman, Stefania Furaha, was burned alive in her house, and others were sexually abused before they were killed. Children were not spared.

A second report, by the independent Congolese human rights organization CADDHOM, counts the number dead at 35. The CADDHOM report adds that 19 people were injured, 45 houses were burned, and numerous objects were pillaged.

According to the diocesan report, this was the third such massacre in a month. Both reports implicate the FDLR militia group—Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, ideological descendants of the Interahamwe militias responsible for the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. The FDLR is one of several domestic, foreign or foreign-backed armed groups threatening to tear the country apart.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission MONUSCO has been here since 1999. There are 19,000 U.N. military and civilian personnel mandated to keep a hold on order, however precarious, in this country nearly the size of Western Europe. Just over 17,000 are soldiers.

"Fifty thousand troops were in Kosovo, and the U.N. has only 17,000 in Congo. There is no way they can protect civilians over that territory, and they can't communicate with the people they are trying to help," says Laura Seay, a U.S. researcher and writer who has observed developments in the Congo for 15 years.

Eastern Congolese speak Swahili, Lingala and French; many peacekeepers come from South Asian countries such as Bangladesh and India, and so speak English. "I know of a MONUSCO patrol where someone tried to tell them of a mass rape but they didn't understand and so they couldn't help," says Seay. "I know peacekeepers wouldn't let that happen if they were aware."

The Bunyakiri massacre occurred approximately 3 kilometres from a mobile MONUSCO base. The CADDHOM report names two people, a man and a woman, as being shot and injured by peacekeepers in the hours after the massacre. Various Congolese blogs report that they were among dozens of angry villagers who marched on the base the following morning to protest U.N. inaction, injuring 11 peacekeepers with rifles and stones.

U.N. spokesman Madnodje Mounoubai, based in the capital, Kinshasa, says he doesn't have specific information on the events of Bunyakiri. He says the peacekeepers are allowed to use force to protect civilians from an imminent threat or in self-defense, but they cannot patrol every locality.

That's not good enough for the diocese. "All these deaths for nothing," reads the text accompanying the photos. "MONUSCO needs to go." This July, a rally in South Kivu called for the mission's departure. It was not the first or the last.

"We understand the reaction of the public, who are frustrated for many reasons," sighs the U.N. spokesman. "Especially in the east, MONUSCO is the most organized group in existence, as there is no police and a fear of soldiers. They [civilians] hope for MONUSCO to resolve all their problems, and when we can't do everything, they get frustrated. It's not a MONUSCO problem and it's not their problem; it is the problem of the absence of the state and of justice. We understand, and we just have to live with it."

Nearly everywhere outside this troubled country, the silence was deafening. As war in Syria and mass shootings in the United States grabbed the headlines, the thick forests absorbed the screams of Bunyakiri.

"We are telling you…"

It wasn't for lack of trying. CADDHOM Coordinator Joseph Kitungano, a South Kivu-based human rights activist, brings a resident of the village 80 kilometres down a high-risk road, from Bunyakiri to the CADDHOM head office in Bukavu, to shout down a terrible phone line at a Western journalist.

"I am an eyewitness," shouts the man. "They came and killed people and burned houses, and there was no outside intervention. We are telling you, MONUSCO was right there and NGOs were right there while people were being killed. The population should be protected, but people were killed in the presence of the U.N."

"We regularly record cases of deaths and pillaging," says Kitungano. "The FDLR are the law in these areas, without intervention from MONUSCO or the FARDC [Congolese government forces]. … Civilians are always targeted by the FDLR because they do not have any means of defense."

"Militarily, MONUSCO is not very visible," he says, adding that he has collaborated with the mission constructively on other issues, such as fighting impunity and sexual violence.

Kitungano says he met with the Congolese minister of information shortly after the events of Bunyakiri. He also emailed photos of the carnage to Kambale Musavuli, a charismatic New York-based student activist who was born in Congo. The photos made the rounds of the social networks at the same time as those of the Houla massacre in Syria, which claimed around 100 lives including 32 children—with little impact on the mainstream media.

His speaking out comes at significant personal risk. "If you're Congolese you have to be very careful, because human rights activists get killed all the time; you have to be careful," says Seay.

"Not normal"

"The whole of the East is repulsed by this foreign-imposed suffering, and the speeches by foreigners who minimize the problem are very hard to digest," says Kitungano, who also blames a lack of political will in the Congolese government and a lack of Congolese national unity for the crisis. "The people of the East really need peace, and we wish the international community would implicate themselves further."

So why the silence? Outside the Congolese blogosphere, only France 24's "The Observers" citizen journalism segment and British Marxist magazine The New Internationalist carried accounts of the slaughter in the days after it happened.

"Silence is an action," says Musavuli. "People need to know that this is not normal. It's very strange that people could know who Joseph Kony is and not know what is happening in Congo."

Although the technology boom has made the journalist's profession far easier than it was 20 years ago, when journalists had to confine their Rwanda coverage to Kigali because an air link was needed to get the film out, some places are still off the radar screen. "In Congo, you are not going to have live videos of kids being slaughtered as in Syria," says Seay. "Even though that happens all the time [in Congo], it happens in places that do not have electricity."

And then there is the question of the news agenda. Musavuli cites a Western tendency to reduce the complicated, increasingly political Congolese conflict to an "ethnic" conflict.

"It's not just about where there are Hutus and Tutsis," he says. Indeed, apart from the overtly racist Hutu FDLR, the question of ethnicity rarely comes up in the warring factions' public statements.

Jeff Sallot is a Canadian journalist who covered the Rwandan genocide and civil war and the resulting refugee crisis in eastern Congo for Canada's national daily, The Globe and Mail. He says media inattention to Congo's troubles is nothing new. "I got my chance to go [in 1994-95] after writing a piece for the paper about the double standard at the U.N. about support for peacekeeping in the Balkans while Rwanda was being ignored by the major powers," he recalls. "The piece basically accused them of racism."

"People see violence in the Congo as natural," adds Seay. "There is a lot of stereotyping; it's sort of seen as nothing new. A lot of people see the Congo and Congolese as naturally violent, although I don't think there's a good basis for that."

"The [media] bias favours coverage of what happens closer to home to people who look like us and speak our language," says Sallot. "It favors coverage of wars involving Western forces in Afghanistan or Iraq. It favours coverage in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East where oil interests are important over coverage in African countries that export coffee beans. But at some point continued bias for the familiar becomes willful ignorance of the fate of 'the others.'"

"The people who make decisions about news coverage are to a large extent comfortable middle class editors living in places like New York, Washington, London and other European cities," he adds. "They base decisions on a strange kind of morbid math calculation that makes the slaughter of a dozen people in a Colorado movie theatre more newsworthy than the massacre of 10 times that number in a village in South Kivu."

Musavuli says he believes bringing more attention to the bloodshed in Congo may eventually help bring it to an end.

"Decision makers don't expect you to care. The moment they see that people care, that is when they shift, so they can present themselves as heroes," he says. "The decision makers know what's going on; they think people don't care. But that isn't true. As I tour North America, the first question I get is, 'Kambale, What can I do to help?'"

In the past, Musavuli has called on donors to send laptops and digital cameras to rural youth, allowing them to document their daily lives and crimes that take place around them, in areas where journalists and outside observers can't or don't go.

"Just like we did in the United States with the Freedom Riders, drawing attention to [racial] segregation, just like we did with apartheid, we can get people to pay attention to this."

Ruby Pratka is a nomadic, Canadian-educated freelance journalist. She speaks English, Russian, French and Quebecois. Her suitcase is currently parked in Nimes, France, but her heart and mind are in East Africa.