The men with guns stripped then bound their victims. To save bullets, they stabbed them or broke their necks, throwing the dead into piles. What began as a Christmas Day celebration ended as a nightmare that left over 250 people dead as the Lord’s Resistance Army targeted crowded churches to maximize casualties in retaliation to a government offensive. But here in the United States, the situation was far from people’s minds as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin drew headlines with her expensive taste in clothing and President Barack Obama defended connections to radicals.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, though, edged toward civil war as the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group that wants to form a government based on the 10 Commandments, terrorized citizens. The group is only one of several now based in eastern Congo, though the primary combatants are the Congolese National Congress for the Defense of the People and the government. U.N. peacekeepers stationed in the country have been able to do little to stop the killing of civilians, and the conflict has gotten little attention from the general public, prompting some MSU students to say, “Enough.”
“It makes a lot more sense to prevent a genocide than to stop it later,” said Britt Larson, a junior pre-veterinary medicine, animal science and zoology major and the vice-president of STAND. The student group, originally formed in 2004 at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. in response to the genocide in Darfur. STAND’s mission has expanded to hiring guards for refugee camps and raising awareness of “any genocide or conflict where innocent people are being killed,” Larson said.
[congo]Despite several years of work, Larson said STAND still has a long way to go. “If you ask the general public what’s going on in either region, they might know that there’s genocide in Darfur and that there’s a war in Congo, but I don’t think they’d know anything beyond that,” she said.
That is partly because news coverage often reflects government security priorities, said journalism assistant professor Manuel Chavez, who has studied how media report on armed conflicts overseas. Generally, that means conflicts in nearby countries and direct threats to the United States or its allies, such as terrorism and nuclear weapons, get the most attention, he said.
“[Conflicts are covered that way] not because the problems are not sensitive, but when you consider the number of the countries in the world [the United States] has to focus on priorities,” Chavez said. Other reasons that conflicts are sometimes ignored are when they settle into long stalemates or if there is no clear victimized group, he said.
Larson said that some people she talked to see civilians’ deaths as unavoidable because of the lack of a victimized group in Congo, where the conflict is between government forces and rebels. Others, though, want to hear about the less-familiar conflict, she said.
“Unfortunately, I think on a general scale people are tired of hearing about Darfur,” she said. “I think people are interested when you bring up something new, but it’s difficult to educate people because it’s such a complicated conflict.”
Some of the confusion results because the conflict began in neighboring Rwanda in 1994, said James Madison College assistant professor Rita Kiki Edozie. In Rwanda, a civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups resulted in thousands of Tutsis dying, and a million Hutus fleeing after Tutsi rebels seized control of the government. The Rwandan Tutsi government claimed that many of the Hutus had gone to eastern Congo and crossed the border to catch them. The ensuing instability spread the civil war into Congo, Edozie said, and though fighting has varied in intensity over the years the government has not been able to control the whole country since then.
“They establish security where they can,” Edozie said. She added the conflict has little to do with ethnicity anymore, and relates more to tangible issues like allocation of resources. “[The rebels] are choosing to use militancy to get what they want.”
[LARSON2]The conflict has been deemed a “low-insurgency conflict,” Edozie said, placing it in the same category as countries like Thailand and Burma, where the military and anti-government forces sometimes clash. Sometimes excessive government responses to an insurgency can cause human rights violations, which in turn lead to retaliation, she said.
Congo also lacks the racial element that draws attention to other conflicts, such as Darfur, she said.
“It is being postulated that in the Sudan, the country is divided; in the north they tend to be Muslim … and more Arabized, and in the west and south they are Christian and more African,” Edozie said. “This is the reason that this conflict made it to the international attention. It’s perceived as a racialized genocide … an accusation that still has not been proven.”
A 2005 report by the United Nations found the Sudanese government and Arab militias had committed war crimes, but not genocide, which it defined as “a specific intent to annihilate, in whole or in part, a group distinguished on racial, ethnic, national or religious grounds.”
The distinction is crucial. The United Nations cannot send peacekeepers into a country without its consent unless the government is allowing genocide, or has invaded another country. In Congo, there was no need to prove genocide, because the government allowed the peacekeepers to supervise an earlier ceasefire with the rebels.
To STAND member Larson, however, the difference is irrelevant to the main issue of human rights violations.
“To me, the definition of genocide is targeting people for who they are,” she said. “To me, it doesn’t have to be an ethnic or racial focus. [Darfur and Congo] are very different issues, so I think it’s important to distinguish between them, but in both cases people are dying on a massive scale and both need attention from the international community.”