By Rachel Vincent
To get to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, you can fly, drive or take a ferry across Lake Kivu from Rwanda. Making Kigali—Rwanda’s calm and tidy capital—the starting point for our trip to eastern Congo seemed like a no-brainer. But it is an obvious starting point for another reason.
It was 20 years ago this year that the Hutu elite of Rwanda instigated a 100-day killing spree of the Tutsi minority. But the killing did not stop there. Fear, hate and desperation crossed the border with thousands of Hutus escaping into eastern Congo. The migration displaced local people from their land and resulted in what seems like an unending human tragedy. Conflict spread like poison, with groups in Rwanda, Uganda and other neighboring countries, as well as national armies, fighting for control over mineral resources and land in Congo. Some have called this “Africa’s World War”. At it height it involved 11 countries in the region, and resulted in the death of millions of people.
The latest well-reported round of raping, killing and plundering lasted throughout 2012. The M23, supported by Rwanda, unleashed its fury on the residents of Goma—a town the straddles the border between eastern Congo and Rwanda.
The conflict today in eastern Congo is impossible to understand without knowing something about Rwanda’s pivotal role in fueling that conflict.
This came home to us three days before our arrival in Kigali. Our local Congolese partners informed us that authorities from the Congolese intelligence agency were refusing to grant us permission to fly our chartered plane from Rwanda into eastern Congo.
The Congolese government is not firmly control in eastern Congo, so they exert what little power they can. They refuse air space permission. Or wait until the last-minute to grant that permission. It is small tantrum, the act of people who feel small.
Sitting here in Kigali, sipping a café latte, it is abundantly clear to us that there is no sense of powerlessness here. Unlike in most cities in Africa, the streets are clean and there are functioning sewers and timely trash service. And foreigners—international aid workers, Christian missionaries, human rights types like us—are in plentiful supply, walking the streets in safety.
President Paul Kagame’s unqualified success in making the proverbial trains run on time is, according to some analysts, one of the reasons the international community until recently turned a blind eye to Rwanda’s obvious role in fueling the humanitarian crisis next door. They see a country that, at least on the surface, is highly functioning. Sitting here on this terrace, overlooking the tidy red tile roofs and lush trees, it’s hard to believe that there is war anywhere.
Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide, this country feels more like Switzerland than a place where blood ran in the streets. And hard to conceive that just next door, the killing, raping and plundering continues.
Rachel Vincent is the Director of Media and Communications for Nobel Women’s Initiative. Vincent started her career as a radio journalist, working for six years in Canada, the US and Mexico, where she hosted an afternoon radio program in Mexico City. She left journalism to be the head of communications for the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, based in Montreal. For the last 16 years, she has turned her in-depth understanding of media towards advising NGO’s and others on how to communicate their messages most effectively through media. She has worked as a senior communications advisor, speechwriter and media strategist for not-for-profit groups and governments on international and social justice issues.