On the Frontlines: The story behind the DRC’s two decades of war

by Alexander Chang (’23) | March 10, 2023

Art by Matthew Tran (’23)

On November 4, 2022, President Félix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) announced the establishment of military recruitment centers across the nation’s twenty-six provinces. The communiqué came at a time of significant uncertainty and instability in the DRC’s eastern region of Kivu, which has been under siege by rebel groups for the past two years.

The current conflict that plagues Kivu is not a new one. Now in its third phase, the Kivu Conflict has rocked the nation since 2004, when rebel groups, still resentful of the Rwandan genocide, withdrew their support from established peace proceedings. However, the conflict has morphed since it started nearly two decades ago; different rebel groups have emerged and disappeared from power, while countless civilians have continued to lose their lives. 

Tshisekedi’s announcement was primarily a response to the growing influence of M23—a once-defunct militant group that has ushered in an era of violence ever since its successful slew of attacks on the DRC towards the end of 2021. Like many of the rebel groups in Kivu, M23’s goals largely fall on ethnic lines. Thus, it has been justifying its activities in Eastern Kivu by claiming that it is protecting ethnic Tutsis from a DRC-sponsored genocide in the region—a claim that the UN and other third-party groups reject. 

Regardless, M23’s explosive return has been suspicious, to say the least. The group had been largely inactive ever since DRC and UN forces crushed it in late 2013, raising concerns about how and why it suddenly resumed offensives nearly a decade after its original surrender. The answer may lie in the bordering states of Rwanda and Uganda.

Although Rwanda has rejected claims that it has been lending support to M23 and other rebel groups in Eastern Kivu, many investigations from the UN and eyewitness testimonies have confirmed that Rwandan forces have not only armed these groups but have also directly fought alongside them to annex territory.

Uganda and Rwanda have had more than a few reasons to drum up instability in the DRC. Supporting rebel groups has enriched both nations, as annexed territories can be used to secure supply lines from Kivu’s resource-rich mines. Indeed, Rwanda has consistently been a top five exporter of coltan, despite not having any large or significant industrial mines capable of producing the amount that they are exporting. 

Overall, this ongoing conflict has taken its toll. About 1.4 million civilians have since been displaced and tens of thousands have lost their lives. Kivu itself has been in a state of siege for nearly two years, with atrocities committed by both sides. In fact, just last November, M23 forces slaughtered at least 171 unarmed civilians in what is now known as the Kishishe Massacre—a UN-confirmed-and-verified war crime that M23 claims did not happen despite mounting evidence.

It should be known that this ceaseless violence has all been occurring under the oversight of UN peacekeeping forces. Indeed, MONUSCO—the UN peacekeeping force in the Congo—has been active in the region since 1999 and one of the largest peacekeeping programs in the world. Yet its nearly billion-dollar budget and thousands of peacekeepers have failed to prevent atrocities committed by poorly armed rebel groups, provoking anger from Congolese civilians weary from the near two decades of violence. 

If peace is to be truly established in the Congo, a number of issues will need to be addressed—ethnic division, globalization’s pressure on resource extraction, and international collaboration—because the violence in the DRC only continues to prove that the international order is far more concerned with what is geopolitically advantageous than the human lives risked by its resulting complacency in the face of atrocities.

Categories: Column, Opinions

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