My youngest daughter is a big fan of the Hunger Games novels. I am reading them on her recommendation and finished the second book in the trilogy this past week. If you aren’t familiar with the story, it’s set in a future post-war dystopian America where a totalitarian government cruelly exploits and suppresses the majority of the people. It is a good read. There are the two sides. One is good, the other evil. The characters and places are memorable and distinct. The characters have names that are easy to remember with one or two syllables, like Gale, Prim or Katniss. The cities are simply the Capitol or one of the numbered Districts where a single industry predominates. People’s motives, though not always clear in the middle of the book, are understood at the end of each book where all the twists are explained and the reader can make sense of what has happened plus what to expect in the next story. I am looking forward to the third book.
It’s not as easy to make sense of the storyline in the DRC. There are many more than two sides here. As well as the elected government, there are multiple groups that are labelled either rebel forces or freedom fighters or armies backed by foreign governments or bandits depending on your point of view, plus a variety of ethnicities and heritages to consider.
As in any real war, all sides have committed acts that make it difficult to award the moral high ground of “the good side” label to anyone. It is difficult to keep the players straight when names of people and places can be five or six syllables long and sound unusual to the western ear. The various armies have confusingly similar names with acronyms like AFDL, FDLR, FRF, FRPI, LRA, MLC, MPA or RCD that are as easily confused. In a world where much of the news is delivered in 30 second increments, it’s much easier to find a story that is more easily explained and easier to focus on. If a conflict has only two sides and can be framed as a genocide based on ethnic tensions or a war between oppressor and oppressed, it’s more easily covered by the press and understood by the public. This may partly explain why the western press and public focused relatively little attention on the two Congo wars that happened between 1996 and 2003, compared to the coverage and understanding of the events in Rwanda in 1994 and South Sudan in 2010.
I would like to share three books that have helped me make a bit more sense of the past and current situation in the eastern DRC.
“In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz” by Michela Wrong tells the story of the Congo during the time when Mobutu Sese Seko was president. It gives an overview of the history of the Congo dating back to when it was the personal property of the King of Belgium and then a Belgium colony before independence in 1960. The book was based on the author’s experience living in what was then Zaire and firsthand interviews with African politicians, ex-CIA officials, Mobutu relatives and associates and a wide spectrum of Congolese citizenry. It ends soon after the fall of the Mobutu government and his death from prostate cancer in 1997.
“Dancing in the Glory of Monsters” by Jason K. Stearns covers the period from 1993 to 2010, telling the story of a conflict that cost the lives of five million people by some estimates but is little known to most westerners (maybe I should just say that I didn’t know much about it until recently). The first part of the book discusses the Rwandan civil war and genocide and its role as precursor to the two Congo wars. The next two parts cover the first Congo war (1996-1998) and the second Congo war (1998-2003). A shorter fourth part tells the story of the ongoing conflict in the Kivu districts (where Rutshuru is located) of eastern DRC. Like Wrong, Stearns has a great deal of experience in the region but most of his book relates interviews and first hand experiences reported by people involved in and/or affected by the wars.
In his preface to the paperback edition, Stearns expresses concern that his book had only told a story of war and tragedy but failed to extol the many virtues of the DRC that he had come to know. “Radio Congo” by Ben Rawlence tells the story of those virtues. While preparing for a trip to eastern Congo in 2007, the author came across a Belgian mining company promotional pamphlet for the city of Manono in the Kataganga province of the DRC circa late 1950s. He set out on a quixotic voyage to see what has become of the city, armed pretty much with only his ability to speak Swahili and counting on the kindness and warmth of the Congolese people. He was not disappointed as he meets friendly, helpful people along his entire journey, dispelling the image of the DRC as a dark place, too dangerous for the individual traveler. Like the other two books, the strength in the writing here lies in the telling of the stories coming from a wide spectrum of Congolese who suffered and still suffer from direct and indirect effect of the wars.
I came away from these books with a better understanding of the situation in the DRC and an appreciation for its complexity. One of Stearns’ stated goals in writing his book was to tackle what he called “Congo reductionism”, the desire to reduce the conflict into an easily understood framework. The same likely holds true for many of the world’s problems and issues; most are too complicated to be explained in a 60 second sound bite or a brief magazine article or a paragraph in Wikipedia. After reading these books, I feel pushed to look for the complexity in political and social situations not just in the DRC but everywhere in the world.
After all, I am a US citizen who votes for presidents and senators and congressional representatives, the people who make and direct US foreign policy which for better or worse affects many throughout the world. I am resolved to leave the DRC with a renewed feeling of responsibility to stay informed about the world and understand that there may be few uncomplicated questions and fewer easy solutions.
But tonight while I’m still here in the DRC, scheduled to take overnight on-call in Rutshuru tomorrow night, I think I’ll just relax, start the third Hunger Games book and root for Katniss and the good guys. I can’t wait to see what happens.