In response to the fictionists of the “Congo fiction”
On that day, 7 May 1999, the Durba goldmine area is provokingly green, and the gravel airstrip looks like a copper road somewhere in DR Congo's north-eastern province under Ugandan army's control. A small plane (KingAir) has landed there with three passengers after flying from Kinshasa to Goma, which is controlled by a Congolese movement backed by the Rwandan army. The plane has stopped for refueling and then will head on to Durba, right in the middle of the "Ugandan influence zone."
There is nothing ordinary in this trip. It is the first non-military flight over the de facto divided DR Congo territory since the beginning of "Africa's first World War" in August 1998. What triggered this flight, and the irreversible breach in the wall of mistrust between the military blocks it caused, is the identification of an outbreak of haemorrhagic fever of unprecedented scale in the Durba area by local health and Red Cross personnel. Most of the victims are from the workers - the lumpen-proletariat – in the gold mines, who are the absolute risk-takers. These workers are not registered as staff members by the OKIMO goldmine company, and as such, only authorized to work in Durba mine's most dangerous, unmaintained shafts – those where owning boots and helmets is a rarity. The lethal deal starts at the mine's main gate, where Ugandan and Congolese soldiers take bribes from the aspirant mine workers to let them go through... to hell. For up to a week in a hellish environment, they share their space with rats and bats and, here and there, fragments of skeletons of their unlucky predecessors. It is in this Emile Zola-like Germinal decorum that suicidal ambitions and bacteria fatefully met. Even today, the world has no effective response to the lethal effects of that encounter.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross's teams based in the Province are the first to react, supporting local efforts to stem the epidemic. A quarantine camp is quickly and efficiently set up, and on-the-job training is provided to available health staff. As usual, the Congolese Red Cross volunteers show an incredible level of commitment.
Meanwhile, a thousand and a half kilometres away – still in the same country - in Kinshasa, the energetic national Minister of Health and humanitarian action, Dr. Mashako, turns the crisis into a national cause, setting up a task force and launching coordination meetings. As head of the UN humanitarian office, the author of this article is asked to help extend the country's response to the affected population. In concrete terms, it means flying over the frontlines (by then the country is already divided in four blocks and there is not a single UN blue helmet, nor any ceasefire agreement) with two Congolese experts familiar with the country's saga of hemorrhagic fever epidemics. They are Professeur Muyembe, head of the national institute for biological research, and W.H.O.'s Dr. Tshioko. In preparation for this trip, flight clearances were required from all sides. Thanks to a concerted effort of UN humanitarian coordination on both sides of the frontline, two signals to "go ahead" are obtained in less than 24 hours from the Kinshasa and Goma de facto authorities. We are so amateur in our approach that we forget to negotiate a clearance with the Ugandans – which will cost us a rather rocky welcome upon arrival at Durba's no less rocky airstrip. However, it is the Congolese administration that spoke on our behalf to calm down the Ugandan officer, visibly wary of breaching his capital's instructions. Why the rebel movements agree in the first place with the principle of a humanitarian intervention, initiated by the "Kinshasa Government," in areas under their control is open for discussion. It is clear though that our interlocutors in Goma or, later on, in MLC's stronghold Gemena were happy to use our request in a bid to secure some degree of "sovereignty" over DRC's affairs by keeping these matters outside the scope of their respective allied foreign occupying forces. And indeed, excited by this first opening, we tried more – and experienced various delays and hurdles – in physically reopening the Congo River and the north-south railway line for trade and family reunion. We transferred 51 students across the frontline from Kindu to Lubumbashi, allowed school exams and vaccination campaigns to take place across the entire country, and flew Congolese surgeons to Kisangani after the "six day war" that involved two foreign armies, Rwanda's and Uganda's, in the middle of Congo. But these attempts, in hindsight, embodied many facets of a Congolese link that was mightier than the sum of interests and coercive capacities of all the foreign – and local - armies involved in the Congo war. As for us humanitarian actors, these were the few moments in which we felt a sense of achievement in DR Congo. We had achieved what the diplomats couldn't do, and what the partisans of partition had not factored in.
Recently, someone used one of the world's most precious opinion columns to suggest that "To save Congo, let it fall apart." He probably sought to rally behind him the "rationality worshippers," priding himself for advocating a better use of taxpayers' money. Well, I hope these quiet, un-academic lines will help illustrate the key Congolese actors who, during the country's moment of ultimate weakness, had been flirting with the double risks of partition and external domination, and yet jumped on the opportunity given to them by humanitarian actors to express their attachment to a united Congo. And most importantly, they did not do that on their own, but because they were "silently told" to do so by millions of common Congolese who were not ready to see the pillars of their collective identity shattered by the war. Seeing natural resources exploited and smuggled illegally, which they were used to, they knew too well that many among their own compatriots were ready for any compromiose to get rich. But they could not accept the prospect of giving up the notion of a united Grand Congo, despite the enormous frustrations caused by a chronically divisive, manipulative, coercive leadership.
The second morning into our historic journey in Durba, I was awoken by the sound of a radio coming from outside the little room in which we were all residing. A group of miners were listening to BBC news in French before going to work. They didn't realize that they could be heard across the wall. The journalist announced that a Government plane had flown over Goma, dropped an artisanal bomb, missed its target and killed scores of civilians. The miners commented on the news, and the conversation ended with one sentence: "Good, it was about time that Kinshasa came and liberated us. And now, let them fly over here, bomb us, and liberate us".
"Let it fall apart," he said? DR Congo is the fruit of a divisive, manipulative, and coercive history. Each day wasted in questioning the reality of a Congolese national ambition is a year lost in the extremely tenuous path to self-determination, cohesion, and a new leadership self-imposing restraint in exercising power.
By Michel Kassa, Coordinator, Cohesive Leadership Initiative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
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