- The Washington Times - Friday, November 7, 2008




Fourteen years after the fact, the Rwandan genocide continues to play itself out on the soil of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, rebel forces of warlord Laurent Nkunda, ostensibly acting to protect Congo’s endangered Tutsi minority, have taken control of much of an eastern province and are en route to the provincial capital of Goma. Mr. Nkunda’s military juggernaut has caught both the Congolese army and a 17,000-man United Nations peace-keeping force flat-footed.

Damaging though this is for the credibility of both the United Nations and the Kinshasa government, the impending fall of Goma is a dramatic reminder of the urgency of dealing once and for all with the unfinished story of the Rwandan holocaust.

The Congo, though desperately poor and chaotic, has been enjoying a brief period of peace since it held national elections in 2006. The chronic exception has been the eastern Kivu provinces where, amid cool green hills that call to mind Ireland more than central Africa, militias and government forces motivated by greed and ethnic rivalry have for 15 years waged a series of dirty little wars. As always, murder, rape and looting are the tactics, and civilians are the victims.

While there are many actors in this tragedy, “General” Nkunda has played a central role for years. He’s a perversely fascinating character, a one-time psychology student, he fought for the Rwandan Patriotic Front, joined the Congolese national army and deserted and now claims to be a born-again Christian called upon to save his people. His troops are formidable fighters, who regularly trounce their opponents, but have also been accused of atrocities.

There are several analyses of the Nkunda phenomenon. Some view him as proxy for neighboring Rwanda which has critical political and economic interests in Congo. Others see him as no more than another thug using his army to loot the region’s bountiful natural resources. And then there are his defenders, for whom he the only thing standing between Congo’s fragile Tutsi population and total extermination. It is this last explanation, however flawed and incomplete, that deserves our attention, for the ugly truth of the Rwandan genocide is that it didn’t end in 1994. It continues today in the remote mountains and forests of Kivu where the thousands of hardened Hutu militiamen, calling themselves the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) roam with impunity, inspired not by any conventional political ideology, but by a burning conviction that the Tutsi race must be obliterated. For these men and boys, the murderous work that began years ago in Rwanda is far from complete.

The international community has long understood the threat posed to the Congolese and regional stability by these Hutu militias, and has periodically promised to help bring them to heel. Unfortunately the reality is that the FDLR and associated extremists still control large swaths of eastern Congo and operate with almost complete autonomy. Despite having caused the deaths and displacement of millions of Congolese peasants, the long-running race war between Mr. Nkunda’s forces and the Hutu militiamen remains a stalemate. In a bizarre symbiosis, they have become one another’s raison d’etre.

The next U.S. administration will face some immediately pressing foreign-policy priorities but in the Congo our new president will also have the opportunity to right some wrongs. In 1994, America failed to act when faced with the genocide in Rwanda. In 2008, we have a fresh opportunity to demonstrate to a skeptical world that our country still cares about suffering and injustice. Although complex and daunting, Rwanda’s ongoing conflict in the Congo deserves the active engagement of the international community.

Chris Hennemeyer, who lived for many years in Rwanda and Congo, is a vice president at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

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