The forthcoming Pope Francis’ trip to DR Congo will be an opportunity to talk about the tragic war that has been devastating the country for 30 years.

By Cecilia Capanna

On January 31, Pope Francis will travel to the Democratic Republic of Congo. A trip that should have happened last September but was postponed for Pope’s health reasons.

The program originally planned to visit the places where the ambassador Luca Attanasio, the carabiniere Vittorio Iacovacci and the driver Mustapha Milambo lost their lives two years ago in an ambush by armed robbers, while traveling with an inexplicably not armored convoy of the World Food Program.

At the end of the month, however, the Pope will only visit the capital Kinshasa. Goma and the North Kivu area were deemed too dangerous places. The Congolese capital is polished, the streets are cleaned up and the houses repainted for the arrival of Pope Francis, while real hell is happening in North Kivu.

“The Pope’s visit is fundamental, it is very important to bring attention and to get the media talking about what has been happening for thirty years. Pope Francis could really help making the world know about DR Congo’s war”.

This is what 107 Congolese associations and activists hope. Together with the diaspora in Italy, they set a network and they strongly supported a Press Conference on Congo, which was held on Wednesday 25th in Rome at FNSI headquarters. In three intense hours, the speakers explained the tragic situation to the journalists and then they launched an appeal inviting media to talk about Congo even after the papal trip. In attendance were John Mpaliza, computer engineer and human rights activist; Pierre Kabeza, teacher in Congo and trade unionist who has dealt with the rights of school-age children and therefore a refugee in Italy; Micheline Mwendike, writer and activist of the non-violent movement “Lutte for le Changement”; Father Giovanni Piumatti, missionary in North Kivu for 50 years; Don Antonio Dell’Olio, president of the Pro Civitate Christiana of Assisi, former coordinator of Pax Christi.

The war in Congo has been called “The Great African War”. It has been going on for too long and in 30 years the international community has done very little to stop it. The UN Mapping Report now dates back to 10 years ago and has not been followed up. United Nations documented 617 violent crimes committed from 1993 to 2003 with names and details. 6 million deaths were counted but the document stayed closed in a drawer and justice has not been made yet. How many other people have died in these other 10 years? Other 6 million? How many displaced? It is estimated that at least 600,000 people had to flee, leaving everything they had. Data are difficult to collect anyways, because there is no registry office in the DR Congo.

The Congolese land of North Kivu is bloodied by a war of all against all, in which it is difficult to clearly understand who is responsible. It is not easy to find the key to resolving conflicts. Peace seems like an impossible dream in places torn apart every day by the most brutal massacres we can imagine. Those who pay the costs are the civilians. If already 70% of the Congolese live below the poverty line, the inhabitants of North Kivu, exterminated, are now used to face the worst atrocities every day, and live in chronic uncertainty and insecurity. The new Congolese generations were born and raised with war.

“I carry the war with me, it’s part of me,” said Micheline Mwendike.

Who is fighting in the DR Congo war?

The situation is very complicated. For a long time, this war was dismissed as an ethnic conflict between Hutu and Tutsi, especially by international media. What is happening is, in addition to DR Congo regular army, more than 120 irregular militias of various kinds are fighting in the field, among which the Rwandan paramilitary corps M23 (Movement of balkanization of Congo) stands out. For this reason, many people argue that the conflict is primarily fueled by the government of Rwanda led by Paul Kagame, with the co-responsibility of the other neighboring countries governments. In recent times, the hate toward Rwanda has increased a lot and the confirmation that Kinshasa and Kigali are on the verge of open war came on Tuesday 24 January, when Rwandan forces hit a Congolese plane saying it had crossed the border line between the two countries. The ranks of irregular militias are filled up by enlisting kids along the streets as they go to school or play. The boy-soldiers are a big problem. Because they are not registered, children are even more vulnerable, especially those born as a result of rape. Raping women is rampant, it is a real war’s weapon. And it is committed – it’s hard to believe – also by the Blue Helmets of MONUSCO, the UN mission in North Kivu. The fruits of rape are rejected by the whole society, those children are abandoned, they live on the streets. Paradoxically, they are recruited by their own fathers who use them for the fight and make them die. Corruption is huge at all levels, and Tshisekedi’s government demonstrates that it does not have, or does not want to have, the ability and strength to handle the country.

Anyways, the war in DR Congo has obvious international interference. Who arms those militias? It looks like the rebels hide the hand of Western countries, first of all the European ones, followed by the United States, Israel, Canada. At the same time, it looks like weapons shipments are also being sent from countries such as China, Russia, Turkey, all interested in the rich Congolese subsoil. This happens in the deafening silence of the international media who talk too little about Congo and not always in a correct way. That’s what the conference speakers said. A silence defined as “accomplice and conniving” by Tonino Dell’Olio.

Congo is the richest land on the planet. Its subsoil hides many minerals in abundance, especially those that have become indispensable at the moment: coltan and cobalt. Digital technology and electric car batteries could not exist without them. But in Congo there are also diamonds, gold, copper, manganese, lead, zinc, uranium. The first atomic bomb was made with Congolese uranium. Last but not least, the country is also rich in oil. Some deposits have been identified in areas of the Virunga Park, protected by UNESCO because it houses the last specimens of endangered mountain gorillas. Despite this, the oil multinationals are eager to start their drills.

“Congo is condemned not by its misery but by its wealth” said Tonino Dell’Olio. This is why, since the first encounter with the white man, the country is plundered, torn apart and abandoned in a chaos which is perfect to cover trafficking and horrors of all kinds. Trafficking and horrors documented and reported with lots of videos and photos by the NGOs, by the missionaries, by the parish priests and by the nuns present on the spot. They are nowadays the real reporters of a war without envoys from the international media.

What could be the solutions to bring peace to DR Congo?

First of all, we need to keep talking about Congo and the war, this is the first step to warn the international community and involve it. According to Pierre Kabeza, it is necessary to set up an international tribunal for Congo, a commission for truth and reconciliation. We need to follow up on the Mapping Report to do justice. The names of the criminals, kept secret in the Report, belong to people who currently hold important positions and who continue to do evil to the country. We must process them and expel them.

At the same time, we need to demilitarize the country and prevent the arrival of weapons. “Congo is too heavily armed; the more weapons arrive the more war is waged” said John Mpaliza. “The war has failed – added Micheline Mwendike – it is not a solution. The solution must be non-violent, sanctions must be given. Sanctions that have been given so far have worked”. The population of North Kivu is exhausted, they no longer want to live with soldiers of any kind and have repeatedly shown that they do not even want MONUSCO, which appears to be guilty of the same crimes as the others.

At the same time, the very important action to avoid international intrusions, and to discourage extractivism, is to trace the latter. John Mpaliza in recent years has contributed to a legal path in this direction, together with the former President of the European Parliament David Sassoli, who recently passed away. The precedent was a law passed by Obama in 2010 which obliges multinationals to specify the origin of mineral extraction. The traceability law had therefore also been shaped by the European Parliament, first on an exclusively voluntary basis, later it was mandatory. But soon after it was inexorably “crippled” with the elimination of the obligation in 2017 (2017/821). It should be made mandatory again to trace the origin of all minerals and to prevent illicit trafficking.

As for the help from civil society in the north of the world, according to Father Piumatti the efforts must be channeled into removing children from the hands of the militias through the creation of more reception centers, family homes, schools. The pietistic attitude of the white man who thinks he is giving charity to incompetent beggars is no longer acceptable.

“Congo is the engine of Africa,” said John Mpaliza. “In the future, the spotlight will not be on Europe but on Africa. Europe has below zero demographic growth and does not have the resources that Africa has. We need to start thinking in these terms and talk about it together now because this is the future”.

Pope Francis’ trip will shed light on all of this, it is the duty of us journalists to follow up on it. Hope lies entirely in the new Congolese generations who, thanks to the Internet, are increasingly informed and aware. They reject facsimile colonial mechanisms and know the enormous potential of their country. But above all, because they have the failure of “Western” policies before their eyes, they will be able to build a new Democratic Republic of Congo while avoiding many mistakes. This is our sincere wish.