Sunday, August 13, 2006

Aurevoir Sarah

Sahara Sarah, one of the most intense, and insightful expat bloggers on - and in - the Congo, is leaving the country after 16 months of loyal humanitarian services to the country, in both Maniema and Katanga. For the occasion, she wrote a farewell piece that was a combination of a recap of her time there, her feelings about her mission there, an expat mini-guide to the country, and an analysis of the complexity of the situation in Congo. I invite you all to read the piece on her blog, but I wanted to share with you here, a segment of that analysis, which I find - at the risk of repeating myself - extremely insightful, on a situation that is amazingly complex
From Breaking Hearts in the Heart of Darkness: Aurevoir Congo:

"And what did I see? How unnecessary the suffering is. It sounds like a given, but really, I had been protecting myself from it. Did I understand the war (or “wars” for that matter)? No. I will never understand them. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the evolution of ethnic conflict in Eastern Congo, never expecting I would one day end up there. I have read most articles and several books on the Congo. But the more I know the less I understand, now that I have lived there. I hear of fearsome Mai-Mai rebels who have consumed human flesh and use magic to turn bullets to water – I did not anticipate that most of the Mai-Mai coming out of the bush would be malnourished women and children, families (and in some cases captives) of the fighters. Villages tell us that rebuilding their roads is a priority, and then someone steals three dollars worth of bags of sand temporarily holding up a bridge, causing it to collapse. I know that the fight for control of mineral wealth is a crucial fuel to conflict – I did not expect that the mining also provides crucial livelihood and economic diversity for small-scale exploitation in certain areas, that the mining companies are also providing hundreds of thousands of dollars for infrastructure and community projects. I know Mobutu gained one of the largest fortunes in the world while the country fell apart, and yet a nun colleague of mine tears up when she watches documentaries about him, explaining to me that he will always be the Congo’s father. We all want one supreme bad guy, the simple solution, the problem that can be solved. But that is not Congo. Congo is the product of decades of cruel plundering and colonialism by Belgium, being run into the ground by Mobutu, interventions and assassination by the CIA and Belgian armies, rivalries between groups amassing power and resources on ethnic lines, the fight for mineral riches, mercenaries, arbitrary boundaries, foreign rebel groups trying to take down the governments of neighboring countries, foreign and Congolese rebel groups trying to take down the Congolese government, secession attempts, and above all, the Rwandan genocide (which in turn is the product of hardening socio-economic and ethnic divisions through Belgian rule, land disputes, the political favoring of one ethnic group then another by Belgium, political exclusion…). It goes on. I don’t think that a government in the Congo has ever fully controlled its territory, which is one of the criteria by which a chunk of land is considered a nation-state. Yet this area the size of Western Europe manages to still be Congo.

The election is being hailed as the greatest chance for peace and warned as a catalyst for the imminent possibility of the increased conflict because certain people (namely former rebel-leaders and current Vice Presidents) are likely to lose power. These notions, while diametrically opposed, are both about change. The fact that either scenario can be expected sums up the fragility of peace and the dangers of democracy in a country that is still experiencing several different conflicts in Katanga, Kivus and Equator provinces (in the East), while the government is being run out of Kinshasa (in the West), by a current and probably future president (Kabila), whose power base in the western part of the country is fragile because he is viewed as an outsider (does not speak Lingala and grew up in Tanzania). It took most of the “developed” democratic countries decades of learning lessons the hard way, and our democratic governments have promoted slavery, segregation, apartheid, the oppression of women, have and continue to wage wars (hot and cold), violate internally accepted human rights standards, and a host of other problems that still need to be worked out. Democracy will also allow for local power struggles to play themselves out in parliamentary elections in Congo. Am I against democracy? Heck no. Let’s just keep in mind – there are no easy solutions."

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