Massacres, burned down villages and mass rapes. Almost every day reports come out about violence between rebel groups and the government army in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Citizens pay the highest price. According to the VN 300,000 people have been displaced in February alone. The death toll in recent years has run into the hundreds of thousands.
But the news no longer makes the international front pages. The complexity and duration of the conflict make it difficult to continue to pay attention to it. “While the situation in eastern Congo is actually relevant,” says Nelleke van de Walle, director of the Great Lakes Region of the International Crisis Group. “Because of raw materials such as cobalt and gold that are needed for the sustainable energy transition and the presence of regional troops and militias, this conflict also affects the rest of the world.”
25-year-old war photographer Moses Sawasawa does what he can to attention to the situation in his country. “I get closer than Western photographers, I tell our story from the inside.” In 1997, he was born in the city of Goma, then surrounded by mass refugee camps, in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. “Now those camps are here again. I’m capturing it with my camera so the world doesn’t forget us,” he says.
Many people in the camps have fled M23, a well-armed rebel group that even briefly occupied the city ten years ago. M23 fights the government army in the resource-rich area north and west of the city. According to Amnesty International civilians are also killed and raped.
The UN says the group is supported by neighboring Rwanda. Presumably because the relationship between Congo and Uganda has improved, leaving Rwanda feeling isolated. “M23 represents Rwanda’s interests in Congo, both geopolitically and economically, by having access to important raw materials,” explains Van de Walle. The Rwandan government continues to deny any involvement with M23.
These people have fled from rebel group M23:
Fled in the middle of the night: ‘Some have lost their children’
Due to their return and the Rwandan involvement, there is now a lot of attention for M23, but more than a hundred other armed groups are active in the east of Congo. All those militias fight each other, try to expand their territory and rob and trade raw materials.
According to Van de Walle, this has been going on for decades because the causes are not tackled: a weak state that cannot protect citizens, so that groups do it themselves, porous borders and a population that does not benefit from the mineral resources. “And, a very important one, more and more interference from other countries.”
Because Rwanda is not the only country involved in Congo. In addition to rebel groups that have emerged in neighboring countries, regional troops are also active. They help the Congolese army and fight against the rebel groups. For example, there is the controversial UN peacekeeping force Monusco, which has been in the area for years. An East African force was recently added, with the aim of pushing back M23. Kenyan and Burundian military personnel are involved. And after a failed ceasefire last week, Angola also announced it would send troops.
The UN, but also the other troops, has been criticized for not doing enough to protect civilians against the violence. “In fact, it will only get worse,” says development worker Marti Waals, who has been visiting Congo regularly for forty years. “They witness atrocities, stand by and watch, but they do nothing.” According to Waals, the troops, but certainly also rebel groups and some politicians and businessmen, benefit from the chaos and impunity in the area. “For example, they have easier access to the raw materials.”
Waals thinks that the situation in Congo is getting worse, resulting in a major humanitarian crisis. “History repeats itself. More and more countries are getting involved and grabbing Congo’s riches, at the expense of the population.”
In the short term, the situation could improve if Rwanda stops supporting M23, Waals thinks. “The West must have the guts to address Rwanda on this. The pressure must be increased. But nobody does anything, and sanctions are not even discussed.”
The International Crisis Group is also not in favor of further militarization of the conflict. “Dialogue between the countries in the region has priority. Furthermore, Congo itself must take the lead and tackle the underlying causes of the conflict,” says Van de Walle.
Meanwhile, photographer Moses walks around the refugee camps around ‘his’ Goma. “I see so much pain and despair here. Because people had to cram everything they owned into a bag again. Again they left their house and field behind,” he says. “They want peace. Just to sleep for a night without gunfire in the background.”