I RECENTLY returned from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where I walked through the deserted villages and squalid displaced person camps that mark the spectacular countryside. A fragile ceasefire agreement between the Congolese government and rebel commander Laurent Nkunda collapsed in August, followed by heavy fighting throughout parts of North Kivu province. More than one million people have been forced to flee their homes.
To visit the camps and the dilapidated hospitals crammed with injured civilians is horrifying, but what is even worse is the possibility that this conflict could spread, making Congo the centerpiece once again of brutal regional war, like the one that ended five years ago.
Knowing that war in the Congo has cost 5 million civilian lives in the last decade, international leaders seem ready to take this crisis seriously. A diplomatic solution to the crisis is desperately needed, and for such efforts to succeed the shuttle diplomacy will need to be sustained, even when Congo falls out of the headlines.
To find a solution, diplomats will have to deal with two uncomfortable realities. The first is that Nkunda, bent - he says - on protecting Congolese Tutsi, has been able to use Rwandan territory to recruit soldiers, gather funds, and tranship such goods as military uniforms. The second is that the Congolese army collaborates with the Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, an armed group led by Rwandan Hutu, including some who participated in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
My colleagues and I have documented terrible human rights abuses committed by all the forces in the region: Nkunda's soldiers, FDLR combatants, and Congolese army troops. They have killed civilians, raped women, abducted children to serve as soldiers, and pillaged the food crops people need to survive. In a heartbreaking public letter from 44 human rights groups in North Kivu this week, the pain of this brutality is evident. "We don't know which saint to pray to; we are condemned to death by all this violence and displacement," the letter says.
High-ranking Rwandan authorities, themselves Tutsi, deny aiding Nkunda, yet his agents have recruited hundreds of experienced soldiers within Rwanda, many of them demobilized from the Rwandan army.
Whether Rwandan officials encourage this or merely tolerate it matters little to most Congolese. Given the history of Rwandan military occupation of eastern Congo in the last war, the presence of Rwandans in Nkunda's ranks fuels the hostility of other ethnic groups against Congolese Tutsi.
Meanwhile Congolese government soldiers are collaborating with the Hutu FDLR despite having agreed in 2007 to break links with the militia and disarm it. The FDLR, based in eastern Congo, says it intends to overthrow the government of Rwanda but instead abuses Congolese citizens and enriches itself from Congo's minerals. The continued FDLR presence is seen by Rwandan officials as evidence of Congo's hostility against Rwanda.
Diplomacy will take time, something the people of eastern Congo don't have. While awaiting a solution, they need immediate protection against the armed assailants who brutally maraud their way through the region.
The Congolese pin their hopes on an increase in the number of UN peacekeeping troops who can stand up and say no to the killers and rapists. UN Secretary Genera Ban Ki-moon pleaded for reinforcements last month for the over-stretched force, but the UN Security Council has not yet acted. Once authorized, peacekeepers will need at least two months to arrive. The European Union, which has troops who can deploy quickly, has been asked to fill the gap, but EU leaders dither in indecisive debate.
Meanwhile, more people in eastern Congo die. US, EU, and African Union leaders must step up efforts to find ways to protect civilians while they continue work on the diplomatic front.
President-elect Obama visited Congo while he was a senator and was an active voice standing up for the people of this war-torn nation. The crisis in the Congo demands immediate attention from his new administration. The world has failed Congo too often in the past. It cannot do so again.
Anneke Van Woudenberg is a senior researcher on the Democratic Republic of Congo at Human Rights Watch.