Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Heart of Darkness

While I hover over a steaming mug of morning coffee in my clean corner of Iowa, a world away, in the land once dubbed by Joseph Conrad as "the heart of darkness," continues to smolder in a jet-black pit of conflict, death, and mayhem.

The Congo, formerly known as Zaire, formerly the Belgian Congo, and before that the Belgian Free State, is a sprawling landmass in the very heart of Africa. It's a huge, unlikely landmass that, like so many other European conjured states, has borders that reflect the whims and priorities of fat colonial powers. In 1885 King Leopold II, Belgian's squirrelly, mercurial ruler, acquired a vast swath of African territory that other European nation's dismissed as unproductive, mosquito laced, jungle. The land was actually some of the most fertile in Africa, and an abundance of rubber and ivory led the King to implement a draconian system of forced labor among Congolese natives that killed millions. Belgian Imperialism lasted in the Congo until 1960, and effectively stripped the land of its vital resources while providing nothing for its inhabitants. Under these utterly insoluble circumstances, a series of despotic, vengeful, and murderous tyrants took control of the country. As an imaginary nation-state made up of diverse and competing tribes with no loyalty to the concept of nationalism, Congolese patriotism is nonexistent. When civil war, prompted by the fervor of unrest during the genocide in neighboring Rwanda and Burundi, erupted in 1998, these ethnic distinctions and priorities burst to the forefront. Not since WWII, according to international aid agencies' statistics, has the world seen a deadlier conflict.

Most startling, is a recent survey conducted by the International Rescue Committee and reported on by the New York Times and Washington Post. Though four years removed from the end of conflict, the survey estimates that 45,000 Congolese continue to die every month. Very few of this galactic number perish as a result of direct conflict. Instead, they succumb to disease, starvation, and lack of basic health care. The conflict uprooted over a million countrymen, and this desperate diaspora grinds out life in squalid refugee camps, shantytowns, and jungle shelters. Since the war started in 1998, more than 5.4 million Congolese have died. Half of that number was children younger than 5.

Finally, there is some hope in these dire circumstances. Earlier this week, a host of rebel armies, fighting against Congo's figurehead government agreed to peace terms eked out by the United Nations, European Union, and U.S. At the core of the issues to be resolved is the presence of ethnic Hutu militants who fled Rwanda after perpetrating genocide there, and resettled in Congo. Enormous gold, diamond, cobalt, and timber reserves make controlling Congo a highly lucrative business. Its neighbors, especially Rwanda and Uganda, have a vital interest in stabilizing the country and will work fiercely to keep their hands in Congo's deep pool of resources.

In the U.S. recently, it has become in vogue to adopt and scream foul about humanitarian-crises. Many, many rotten places exist in this world, and people are raped, robbed, and murdered every day. Genocide may or may not be unfolding in Darfur, the Middle East is exploding with ethnic tension, and in so many other places around the globe, humanitarian and social injustices occur on a daily basis. In no place, however, has the loss of human life and raw human impact of conflict been so egregious as in Congo. Is it the world's responsibility to step in, stop the bloodshed, and clean up the carnage? If only this solution were feasible. There are no easy solutions, the conflict is deeply embedded, multi-layered and largely internal. By acknowledging its existence and feeling even a twinge of remorse or pain for the millions of innocents slaughtered in the bloodshed, however, we can help bring light to the situation. There is hope for the "heart of darkness," it will require an international spotlight and plenty of patience.


Nate said...

Spot f-ing on.

Jon Gold said...

It's not that nobody should step in and stop the bloodshed, because they should. It's just that they should have at least some idea what happens next.

Humanitarian intervention, not Iraq invasions, if you see what I mean.