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What it was like to cover the Congolese civil war

April 21, 2014, 10:19 pm | This story has an Influence Score of 976

By riazhussain

Today, when I was reading a newspaper, one piece of news caught my attention. It was about the commemorations being held on Monday April 7, 2014 by the international community marking the anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The news revived in my mind shocking images of the tragedy and the international community’s apathetic failure to intervene on time. The ruthless extermination of Tutsi people in Rwanda began on April 7, 1994. It was perhaps the fastest genocide in human history in the sense that within 100 days around one million Rwandans were brutally massacred. The surviving Tutsis retaliated and took control of the Rwandan government. The tribes of the perpetrators, fearing reprisals, fled to the eastern part of the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. This shifted the location of the conflict from Rwanda to Congo. What happened in Rwanda in 1994 and what has been happening in DR Congo appear to be components of colonial legacy in Africa.

The European colonial powers controlled the weaker nations of Africa, Asia, Americas and Australia during the last four centuries of the last millennium. After the Second World War, most of the colonies gained independence.   National liberation movements in the colonies drove away foreign colonists. But, independence did not mean political stability and prosperity. The power vacuum was then filled by local oligarchs.Though the colonists had left, they continued to exercise their influence in the politics of these newly independent states. The unequal relationships between the ruler and the ruled which was characteristic of colonialism continued after colonies had gained sovereignty. Instead of using natural resources for the betterment of indigenous population, the oligarchs built their own 'dynasties’ in the name of democracy. Exploitation, tyranny, corruption and favoritism created chaos in the lands. The result was unstable governments, repeated military coups and civil wars. This story highlights a similar situation in DR Congo. It is not about Rwandan genocide but about the armed conflict the Rwandan mass atrocity has given rise to in Congo.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo or DR Congo is located in Central Africa. It remained personal property of the Belgian king and a Belgian colony, King Leopold II, for more than seven decades. In 1960, the country gained independence. After six months, the first elected prime minister of the country was assassinated in January 1961. The Belgians fled the nation, leaving it in utter chaos and political crisis. A military coup took place and the country then saw the military chief, Mobutu, ruling the land for 32 years. In 1994 a civil war broke out in Rwanda. The Rwandan conflict then traveled to Congo as the immigrant Hutu people allied with the government in Congo and tried to victimize the Tutsis population in Congo. The neighboring nations intervened and in 1997 the Congolese Tutsi militias overthrew the government in DR Congo. Mobutu fled the country. Consequently, the eastern part of DR Congo became a battlefield of a complex proxy war, involving scores of armed groups and several African nations around DR Congo. The war claimed millions of lives. In addition to ethnicity, controlling the rich natural resources of this extremely wealthy country was another reason which fueled the was, which has been described as deadliest conflict in modern African history.  The natural resources were used to buy weapons. People starved and died of pneumonia, malaria and diarrhea.  The war yielded grotesque images of malnutrition in babies, chopped off limbs, orphaned children, traumatized people, child soldiers, millions of displaced people and thousands of cases of war rape. This article highlights similar images captured by Steve Evans.

Mr. Evans is a cultural researcher and communication specialist who is affiliated with the International Center for Ethnographic Studies - Atlanta, USA.  He has to write news reports and take photographs during his work.These days our interviewee is based in London. 

In 2009, our researcher went on an assignment in DR Congo. Describing his appointment, our researcher said, ‘It was primarily about atrocities carried out by rebel soldiers and about their victims, raising the questions: could there ever be reconciliation and forgiveness?’ He recollected his experiences and shared his views with us. Our communication specialist started and proceeded with his assignment as soon as he reached his destination country situated in the African Great Lakes region.

I do not want to come between the readers and the contributor of this story,  so the following is a verbatim account of what it was like to cover the civil war in DR Congo:

‘In every coverage, those in search of a story look for the decisive or defining moment, whether it is something said or an image captured. In eastern Congo we had several, and when they happened, we knew we had our story. I was the writer and photographer for the coverage and my colleague was the videographer.

As we started, it quickly became apparent that our story had two, maybe three, principle parts: rebels whose lives had been turned around, but had committed horrible atrocities; victims of such atrocities; and those who worked with the rebels to help them see that they needed a life-change. In order to tell the full story, we determined we had to see, talk with and document these elements.

We had easy access to those who worked with the rebels, but we had to push for interviews with rebel soldiers, and we got pushback. When we finally connected with some, my colleague and I both thought we weren’t getting anywhere because of their vague answers to our questions. Once more we had to push, but this time for details.

Finally one soldier looked into the video camera and said, “I murdered people, I raped women, I killed babies, I stole things, and I enjoyed it.”

There it was, our first decisive moment, and it was then I knew we had our story. One after another, each soldier divulged atrocities he had committed.

I contemplated the ramifications of photographing and videoing these eight men who had committed such heinous crimes against humanity. Some killed babies for the fun of it! Some confessed to rape and murder! What kind of light would our story shed on these men, I wondered, and what kind of judgment would our story bring on them?

Eventually one soldier stared into the lens of my camera. I saw his eyes and I knew I had “the image.” This was another decisive moment – a photographic one.

I will never forget the look in his eyes, the utter terror I imagined they could evoke in an individual. “I am staring into the eyes of a killer,” I thought to myself. I had to remind myself, however, that all eight of these men had truly turned their lives around, leaving a life behind that was almost incomprehensible. Yet, looking into those eyes was an eerie feeling. It still is, even as I see the photograph.

Our search for a victim willing to tell a compelling story was as frustrating as finding our decisive moment with the rebels. We went to a church in a village on the edge of rebel territory, knowing it had been attacked by both rebel and government forces. It was there that we experienced our next “decisive moment.”

As with the rebels and those who worked to help them, our early interviews were interesting, but not incredibly compelling. They would make good background materials, we decided, but were not the main story.

It wasn’t until an elderly woman in her 70s quietly asked the room to be cleared and the doors closed. She then shared with us that she had been raped by rebel soldiers but had never shared her story before. We then knew that we had our story.

What the rebels did was horrible. What the victims had done to them was horrible. One side wanted forgiveness, and the other side wanted to forgive. But it was difficult. The only redeeming factor in the whole situation was seemingly the grace and mercy of God – on both sides.

I learned a lot from this coverage. I learned how nicely a story comes together when all the elements are there, when the elements of an storyline are pushed until you get something. I learned the power of the decisive moment.

I also learned something about God, because He was there. I learned about the power and depth and breadth of love and grace, of forgiveness. These not only encompass rebels who committed heinous atrocities and the victims who truly suffered, but they also encompass another – me.'

This account of the Congolese war shows that some sort of cyclical hatred or revenge and greed appear to have been at work. The UN is trying to neutralize the lawless areas of the country by carrying out there the biggest peacekeeping operations in the world.  A war can be started in a day but once it is initiated, none can predict its end.  In fact, wars have capacity to travel across regions, as it has happened in case of the World Wars and in the case of the Rwandan conflict penetrating the porous eastern borders of DR Congo. So, although we can be quiet when we see conflicts ravaging distant foreign lands, they may gradually reach our own homes. Therefore,  we all should try to stop wars. It all depends on purity of intentions. When the warring groups really want to make peace, they do find workable solutions to quell unrest in the land. As the saying goes, ‘Where there is a will there is a way’.

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