Ethnic cleansing up next for the Congo?

Fifteen years of conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is suddenly nearing the end game—with ethnic cleansing all but assured.

To protect targeted minorities and to prevent an escalation to all-out war in the Congo, international political intervention is urgently required… in neighbouring Rwanda.

This past week, the M23 rebel militia has taken town after town in eastern Congo—with no resistance from Congolese soldiers who run away en masse. In contrast, the M23 soldiers appear confident, announcing in an open press conference that they are ready to take the regional capital, Goma, if needed.

Their confidence is backed by Rwandan support.

The role of Rwanda in the Congo’s misery is regularly overstated and, in general, dangerous rhetoric that ignores the fundamental role of Congolese leaders and tribal prejudices in determining the country’s fate. That said, a recent UN Report traces the new M23 rebel group right to Rwanda’s front door. The Report presents evidence that Rwanda has been providing M23 with weapons, training, safe passage, and recruits.

Rwanda and the Congo first became entangled in the aftermath of Rwanda’s civil war in 1994. After the Hutu genocide of Tutsis, Tutsi rebel forces turned the tide causing hundreds of thousands of fearful Hutus to flee across the border into eastern Congo. The leader of the Rwandan Tutsi rebels was Paul Kagame, now President of Rwanda.

When the Rwandan Tutsi-Hutu conflict spilled into the Congo, it landed in a region where there was already an undercurrent of ethnic tension.

The Congo’s Tutsi and Hutu populations are viewed by many as “foreigners” as they are not indigenous peoples (‘autochthones’) of the Congo. Their native tongue is Rwandan, so they are called Rwandophones… or simply, “Rwandans”—even though most were born in the Congo and have lived here their whole their lives; some have ancestors who settled in the Congo highlands in the 1800s.

The M23 rebels are mostly Congolese Tutsis who deserted from the Congo Army in early April. It is not clear yet what M23 is really after.

Since M23 emerged three months ago, almost 200,000 villagers in eastern Congo have been forced to flee their homes to escape the fighting, hundreds of civilians have been killed, and children are once again being forcibly recruited as ‘soldiers.’

A fearful public is now targeting Tutsi citizens. UN peacekeepers recently had to rescue dozens of University of Goma students from angry mobs. Some journalists describe the mobs as “anti-Tutsi” while others call them “anti-Rwandan.” In the Congo parlance, it’s often the same thing.

M23 vows to protect Tutsi citizens. Raia Mutomboki rebels say they will remove all Rwandophones from the Congo. The FDC coalition may seek to overthrow the government, in the belief that President Joseph Kabila is actually Rwandan. (The Congo’s version of Obama’s birther headache – times a thousand.) And so on and so on. There are more than 20 rebel groups operating in eastern Congo.

Ongoing frustration at the country’s problems, plus the latest interference by Rwanda has produced a single-minded desire by many Congolese (and Congolese-Canadians as well) to “Get the Rwandans out”–referring primarily to Congolese citizens of Hutu and Tutsi heritage.

By international standards, this is a call for ethnic cleansing.

What can Canada do? Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has expressed deep concern about the deteriorating situation in the Congo. There is more to be done and it begins with Rwanda.

Melanie Gouby, a French journalist based in eastern Congo, is convinced that the international community “must be strong in its relations with Rwanda” even while observing with frustration that Rwandan President Paul Kagame is the “donors’ darling.”

Canada must not allow Rwanda to act with impunity.

The place to start is with the painstakingly documented 2010 UN Mapping Report, which strongly implicates Rwanda in war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even genocide in the Congo. Canada should strongly urge the International Criminal Court and the United Nations to step up efforts to actively investigate the most serious of these charges.

Congo’s conflict has many dimensions. Poverty is so deep that the country sits at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index. Corruption is widespread and lives inside the poverty. President Joseph Kabila remains in power despite blatantly falsified election results. With two million internally displaced persons, land and resettlement issues are a mindboggling challenge.

The Congo is heading straight down the road to Hell – and it’s paved with no one’s good intentions.

Canada needs to pressure Rwanda to stop supporting insurgents in the Congo. We need to address the atrocities committed by Rwandans on Congolese soil in the 1990s.

And we need to understand that “Send Rwandans back to Rwanda” means ethnic cleansing.

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