Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Very, very disturbing news is coming out about a September massacre in the Northeastern Congo village of Nyankunde:

Wearing crowns of leaves and screaming war cries, 6,000 tribal fighters and their allies attacked the mission hospital in Nyankunde, slaughtering patients in their beds.

Then they turned on the town itself and, over the next two weeks in September, burned, shot and speared thousands to death, according to some of the 1,200 survivors who made a nine-day trek to safety in Oicha.

The Democratic Republic of Congo's government signed a power-sharing accord with two big rebel groups and the political opposition on Dec. 16 to end a four-year civil war. But the lawless northeast of this vast central African country has been a killing field of tribal conflicts for decades. Bringing peace to the region will be a key test for any post-war government.

Information is only now emerging about the massacre in Nyankunde, which began Sept. 5.

The attackers used rifles, machetes, knives, spears and arrows, said Kakani, head nurse in the intensive care ward at the Evangelical Medical Center...

...The bloodshed occurred in Ituri province, a beautiful region nearly 1,100 miles northeast of the Congolese capital, Kinshasa. It is rich in gold, timber and other resources that tribes have fought over for decades, but the violence worsened after the civil war broke out in August 1998.

"Tribal clashes in Ituri are increasingly lethal due to proliferation of heavy weapons and emergence of ethnic-based militias," said Jackson Basikana, an aid worker who fled the region. "The end to the bloodbath lies in disarmament and restoration of effective government on the ground."
Aside from all that heavy quotation, there's some important lessons and trends to be understood from this news.

First, is the seemingly self-evident (but often forgotten) fact that mass murder and even genocide need not come at the hands of weapons of mass destruction, but can be simply the work of a lot of dedicated killers with relatively simple implements. To eliminate the more powerful weapons does not necessarily mean that the problem of mass murder will be eliminated; far from it.

Second is a point that is buried within the story and not really focused on when people look at conflict nowadays: the tribalism. Tribalism and nationalism are on the rise worldwide, and have been ever since the Cold War ended and the pressure cooker of ethnocentric warfare that had been kept tightly closed throughout the World Wars and Cold War finally exploded. A lot of commentators and pundits go on about the religious aspect of conflict, without recognizing that there are usually strong ethnic aspects as well. In other words, not everything has to do with Islam, whether some of the people involved are Muslims are not.

Third is the question of what to do about it. I'm sure that some would argue that the best solution for these sorts of situations (assuming, for the moment, that the current peace deal in the Congo doesn't last) would be for a Great Power to step in and impose peace and order on "these uncivilized people". (Very Victorian, yes, but the widescale adoption of a cartoonish version of Huntington's thesis has revived some rather Victorian attitudes in many westerners.) It's certainly a solution constantly advocated for in resolving the conflicts in the Middle East. Yet it should be understood and remembered that the last time this sort of thing was attempted was the Colonial period itself, and many of the problems of the non-European world are linked to, if not stemming from, the self-serving behavior of colonial powers. To argue that there should be a return to such attitudes (with a remaining and much-revived tendency to justify similar self-serving actions by saying that it would "civilize the savages") requires the assurance that the New Colonialism wouldn't end up making things worse, just like the old one. That hasn't been proven, and barely passes the laugh test.

(This isn't a pie-in-the-sky notion, by the way; what the U.S. has planned for a post-war Iraq is very similar to the pseudo-colonial "mandates" that characterized the great powers' exploitation of the Middle East in the interwar period and (thanks to their flagrant betrayal of the Hussein-McMahon agreement) that convinced most Arabs that westerners were not to be trusted.)

Finally, the most important lesson that one can learn from this is that mankind is capable of rather horrible things. Not a new lesson, but one that needs to be remembered.

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