With refugees in Goma, Congo

July 7, 2009 in General, News

goma_01Gerry Clarke SJ, coordinator of programmes for the Jesuit Refugee Service, Goma, recalls moments before the North of Ireland peace process when he thought the Northern conflict would go on forever.  The bombings and assassinations were reported daily, operations against the “terrorists” were intensified and the public turned to the sports pages in boredom.  It feels very much the same in North Kivu, troubled eastern province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, although the reality is staggeringly more painful.  Experts reckon that since 1994 the war in this region has cost the lives of 5,000,000 people, the vast majority of these civilians: it’s the 3rd World War … in Africa … and Europeans are not really sure what it’s all about. Read Gerry’s analysis below.


Gerry Clarke SJ

The Jesuit Refugee Service Goma held its national meeting for the Congo this month and we looked at recent political developments that will affect our mission with the internally displaced people in the camps around Goma.  A new military operation called Kimya II (translates from Swahili as “Calm”) pitted the National army of the Congo against the Hutu rebels in the forests and hills of the province.  But “even the dogs in the street” could tell you that it’s going to be a failure.  Firstly, the aim of the campaign is the total annihilation of the rebel groups … hardly achievable since the rebels are immensely more resourceful, are integrated into the population and the national army is undisciplined and unpaid.  And more importantly, it will be civilians who pay the price: when the national army has finished looting local shops, and raping and killing those accused of complicity with the rebels, the rebel forces will return and do the same.

This is the pattern established since the last joint Rwanda/Congo cleanup operation in January (called Umoja Wetu, “united we declare victory”) and as a result the local bishops along with numerous Aid organizations based in North Kivu have deplored the operation: the Provincial episcopal assembly commented on the social and political context of Eastern Congo:  “Have the authorities really taken the time to evaluate properly the operation Umoja wetu as well its consequences in North Kivu before thinking about Kimya II and its results, the same causes with the same effects?”  It seems that the authorities really cannot think this problem out and there is a sad deficit in creative analysis.

One fact that stares us in the face here in JRS Goma: the role played by mineral wealth in all this drama.  Across the dusty and unpaved street from our office is what people here call a “Comptoir de cassiterite”.  Heavy duty trucks roll in on a weekly basis (almost blocking our access) full of this valuable mineral (pictured below).  It is offloaded and treated before export by the planeload from Goma airport.  The mineral looks rather like tiny pebbles you gather by the handful on the seashore but it’s just a little bit heavier.  (So heavy, in fact that some pilots refuse to fly it out of Goma airport because planes find it difficult to leave the ground!) 


The truth is that many of the rebel groups, as well as the government and the government of the neighboring country, are reaping immense profits from mining in this region.  And the analytic catchphrase applied often by the CORI justice desk on budget day in Ireland also helps the analysis here: “Who benefits; who pays?”   From our point of view it is the internally displaced people who are paying.  How do we know that?  Because they number almost 1,000,000: 20% of the population of North and South Kivu.

One of our team used the analogy of hitting a beehive with a stick to understand what’s happening: the bees all come out and buzz around for a while, some people get stung but they all eventually return to the hive.  Then you hit it again and the process is repeated.  The point here is that everybody’s attention is focussed on the bees and the stings but meanwhile someone is pinching the honey!

In the North we often felt that prayer was the only solution.  How many vigils did we attend and how many times did we join in the peace prayer before communion, thinking of Enniskillen and Omagh!  “Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles, I leave you peace my peace I give you …”.  Well they are doing the same here.  Prayers for peace featured strongly in a Lenten series we organized with our Sunday congregation in the Internally Displaced Persons camp of Bulengo on the outskirts of Goma.  Perhaps when a genuine effort is made by all the parties to the conflict in this region, including a disinterested contribution from the European Union, then the peace hoped for and prayed for will finally take root here in North Kivu, troubled eastern province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.