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Reflecting on forgotten wars

Michael Poffenberger | Sunday, September 26, 2004

In the more than half-century that has passed since World War II, millions of lives have been lost to war, most of them virtually ignored. Consider what has been the most destructive conflict since World War II. No, it is not Gulf War I or II. It is not the Vietnam War or the slaughtering of East Timorese. It is a five-year conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that ended in 2002 after claiming the lives of at least 3 million.

Normally, violence that involves nine different nations and claims as its victims one in every 10 citizens in a country with rainforests the size of Western Europe would demand constant front-page headlines around the world. Obviously, this was not the case.

But what does this have to do with us? There is a long history of Western powers interfering in African lives in destructive ways. In the DRC, it began in 1491 when Portuguese explorers visiting the African kingdom of Kongo opened the door to the slave trade. It progressed to 1884 with the arrival of Belgian colonial authorities, whose desire to exploit one of the world’s most resource-rich regions led them to introduce forced labor to local populations, with punishment of systematic rape, torture and murder for resisting. Those policies killed off half of the Congo’s population by 1908 and set in motion the gradual unraveling of the local norms and practices that had guaranteed relative peace, stability and equality for millennia. With colonialism came the opportunity for previously unimagined wealth and power as well as the resulting explosion of violence.

If you fast forward a century and a half, Western greed has taken on a more subtle tone, though it is just as real. During the recent conflict in the Congo, the governments involved (Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Angola, Burundi, Namibia, Sudan and Chad) as well as various rebel groups exploited the work of Congolese people in the diamond, coltan, and gold mines, expropriating the valuable minerals and using the profits to buy arms. The international community did nothing to stop the steady stream of Western arms going into the country (after all, there was quite a hefty profit being made for corporate arms manufacturers). The international community failed to prevent Congolese resources from reaching our living rooms, allowing us all to participate in the violence. Conflict diamonds and gold made their way into our jewelry stores, and coltan into all of our cell phones.

The United States also had a hand in the politics that led to the war, at times supporting the reign of President Mobutu, a dictator who makes Saddam look altruistic, and at other times lending support to the forces pushing for a regime change. Always, however, the position of the U.S. on politics within the country reflected its economic interests, prodded by corporations looking to get their hands on the Congo’s wealth. Blinded by self-interest and the opportunity for profit, we can convince ourselves that anything is in the best interest of local people. The result: the death of 3 million people, the rape of women from little girls to grandmothers, the proliferation of small arms and the screeching halt of day-to-day activity as citizens undertook forced labor or fled for their lives, banished to existence as refugees.

Now, even as the new government in the DRC struggles to consolidate power and gain control over the numerous parts of the country still engaged in conflict, there are once again calls to open up the mines to international investment. The meager allocation of U.N. troops in the East was recently overrun by a Rwanda-supported rebel group, and a band of militants recently crossed into Burundi and killed more than 100 Congolese refugees. Stable infrastructures to guarantee peace have yet to be developed.

This rush to profit is sowing the seeds for more bloodshed and loss of life. Earnings from Congolese mining ventures have never made it to those who need it most. They are not yet directed to AIDS treatment, education or farm improvement. In this resource-rich country, 73 percent of the population suffers from under-nourishment. Structures of accountability to the Congolese people still need to be developed and respected.

This reality must inevitably raise a question I’m sure we would rather avoid confronting: how many other conflicts which our lifestyles and corporate policy contribute to are we ignorant of? Those of us on this end of the destructive cycle do not have to deal with any of the consequences of our irresponsibility, as we might otherwise be forced to search in earnest for ways we can end it. Our inaction demonstrates that we instead prefer to receive the benefits and watch the death lay out before us. The United States has the power to ensure these conflicts never reach our doorstep, even if the plunders from them do, but it is our responsibility as citizens to recognize and reject the practices that are complicit in structural violence. Meanwhile, wars rage on in Uganda, Colombia, Sudan, Burundi, Ivory Coast, Burma, Kashmir, Afghanistan … the list goes on.

Michael Poffenberger is a senior anthropology and peace studies major who is working with the first-ever university initiative of Africa Faith and Justice Network. He can be contacted at mpoffenb@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.