Conflict in the Congo, Part II

Congo war finally hits Times's front page, but more coverage is needed

About a month ago, I wrote that the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was an A1-worthy story that American newspapers—even a leader in international reporting like The New York Times—were giving an A6-quality treatment. Apparently the Times agreed with me. A front-pager on Dec. 11 recounted the horrifying details of a rebel raid on a town called Kiwanja in Eastern Congo.

Times staffer Lydia Polgreen deserves credit for delving into the absurdity of the international response to the Congo conflict, and her story includes interviews with UN peacekeepers who have watched their ability to protect civilians evaporate as the situation in eastern Congo has deteriorated. The story was especially effective in giving chilling immediacy to details like these:

Muwavita Mukangusi said she was out in the fields farming with her husband when the shooting started. Their three young daughters were at home, so Ms. Mukangusi ran back. Her husband hid in the fields, returning only at nightfall. The next morning the rebels came. “They took my husband,” she said, her eyes rimmed in red. “Because I had $50 in the house, I took $25 to them. But it was not enough. I added $25. It was still not enough. They accused him of being Mai Mai.” The rebels beat him, she said, then forced him to the ground and shot him in the back of the head.

A Lexis search reveals that the article has been the only story about the Kiwanja massacre to appear in the American press, and the Times should be commended for covering a hugely important event in which literally no other Western outlet seems interested. In addition to reporting on a massacre that an American newspaper reader would otherwise never have heard about, Polgreen’s article gives the suffering in the Congo the front-page exposure it deserves.

Still, while the Times story exposed a single appalling human rights abuse that the rest of media ignored, that is arguably all that it did. The article is thin on context—Polgreen reports on the “unfettered cruelty meted out by the armed groups fighting for power and resources in eastern Congo,” but gives little background beyond that. The relative dearth of information on rebel leader Nkruma Laurent, the Mai Mai, and the DRC’s recent, incredibly violent and complex history of conflict would have been understandable if the story had been filed the day after the massacre. But according to the article, the killings began on Nov. 4. The paper could have taken a week to let the post-Obama dust settle and still had enough time to deliver a fully contextualized account of the events in Kiwanja.

The fact that it didn’t is troubling, especially since the situation in the DRC has hardly improved since the Times ran stories on the conflict on Nov. 3 and Nov. 10. Since then, a rebel offensive displaced an additional 13,000 people in the space of two days, while UN special envoy and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo has had little success in negotiating a solution between the rebels and the government. In fact, according to a report from AFP, negotiations over future negotiations have all but broken down:

“We cannot continue to sit with a mediation that has taken sides,” Bisimwa told AFP in Kinshasa by telephone. “We prefer to withdraw to deal with the suffering of our people.”

Political leaders of the rebellion would finalise the decision to quit the talks, he added.

Talks have been underway in the Kenyan capital amid hopes of reaching agreement on a framework for substantive talks, a UN spokesman said, with a view to halting the conflict in the east of Congo.

As the EU discusses the possibility of using its own troops to reinforce the approximately 17,000 peacekeepers in the DRC , there’s a chance that the conflict will turn into an early challenge for the Obama administration. More importantly, it could test Obama’s willingness to support multilateral interventions on purely humanitarian grounds, and his action or inaction on the DRC could hint at how he plans on handling similar situations in Zimbabwe, Uganda, Darfur and Southern Sudan.

That Obama’s foreign policy team will need to formulate a Congo policy soon—along with one on the tragic human rights abuses that have characterized Central Africa’s more than decade-long regional war—makes thorough and visible coverage of the conflict all the more vital. The Times story is an encouraging, if incomplete, start.

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Armin Rosen is a former CJR intern.