The latest news is as grim as any emanating from the bloody battlefields of the Middle East currently dominating airtime with the international media. But this is Africa and, more specifically, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Thus, as embedded journalists in Iraq warned us to prepare for the worst as mass graves turned up amid the rubble of Mosul, the uncovering of three mass graves in DRC warranted no such coverage.
The sites of burial, in the central Kasai region, were reported to a largely indifferent world by the United Nations back in early March. No further details were offered at the time, but a later rejection on the part of the government in Kinshasa of a UN offer to help probe both the graves and allegations of civilian killings in Kasai is surely telling.
The rejection, uttered by a government spokesman was quick to assert that NGOs were hardly equipped to help the Congolese authorities with an investigation already under way and, quite aside from that, the murderous activities of the local militia known as Kamuina Nsapu could not be ignored in the investigation.
An open-and-shut case, then, at least in the minds of those in power in Kinshasa. But this is a case very much complicated by the fact that while the ongoing rebellion in Kasai has indeed seen Kamuina Nsapu atrocities, the military personnel sent to quell the violence also stand accused of gross human rights violations.
The case against the military rests on unauthenticated video footage posted online in February which appears to show soldiers of the DRC slaughtering unarmed civilians. That same month, in a spike in clashes, soldiers were implicated in a free-for-all shooting in Tshimbulu, Kasai which left at least 100 people dead after members of Kamuina Nsapu were spotted in the town.
That shooting would subsequently prompt Pope Francis to use his Sunday Angelus address of February 19 to lament the DRC violence.
With its roots in the growing disaffection of many for the rule of President Joseph Kabila – who steadfastly refuses to relinquish power as is the democratic imperative upon him – the actions of Kamuina Nsapu are aimed directly at ousting Kinshasa’s rule from Kasai. The goal is one promised by the tribal ruler for whom Kamuina Nsapu is named and in whose memory the fighting is conducted; Nsapu died along with eight followers in a military raid in August.
The results to date are hundreds dead in attacks and hundreds of thousands displaced in what is becoming that which the Catholic bishops of DRC repeatedly warned of and worked against over these past months. Urging all political parties to the table in order to broker a path towards peaceful elections by the end of 2017 (now thwarted by government), the prelates time and again urged Mr Kabila and his supporters to pull DRC from the edge of the abyss and adhere to democratic principles. Time and again, the Kabila administration tarried or fudged in the hope of retaining power.
Today, Kasai is aflame with the resulting conflict (which is over-spilling into neighbouring Lomami). It is a fight powered on one side by a militia overstocked with drug-addled child soldiers, and which has not yet found a replacement leader to rein it in, while on the other, an unrestrained military is apparently meeting fire with fire in the absence of a willingness on the part of Mr Kabila to offer his people a meaningful alternative.
The Catholic bishops, prompted to host an emergency plenary session on the crisis, are now warning of a very real “unravelling” of the nation born as much of stubbornness as of the current violence.
Time is not on anyone’s side in this. The Church is already suffering through attacks on its staff and seminarians (see the preceding page), while the populace exists under a threat of violence from all sides. As for Mr Kabila, news last week of the abductions of two United Nations staff in Kasai can only ramp up the pressure the international body will bring to bear on him. The fact that one of those kidnapped is also an American citizen promises no smaller measure of pressure from an outraged US.
Very soon it is going to be impossible to ignore DRC’s increasing woes.