Most Americans may not have noticed that Africa is on the verge of another bloodbath. The American media have been concentrating their news coverage on the U.S. election and pay little attention to the unfolding tragedy in eastern Congo. Voters are naturally more focused on the possibility they might lose their jobs or homes than on the likelihood that thousands of Africans will be raped and murdered. Too bad for the innocent Congolese who are fleeing a rebel army. The world has turned its back on them.
Congolese government troops are no match for the better armed and trained rebels. There are even reports that the Congolese Army is looting and raping as it pulls back from the rebel assault. That leaves only UN peacekeepers to stop the violence, and when push comes to shove, the UN troops have proved to be spineless.
The UN Security Council sent peacekeeping troops to Congo after the main fighting in the Congo War ended in 2003. They number 17,000 - the UN's largest peacekeeping force - and helped contain and reduce the level of violence until recently. Now they are retreating from the rebel assault along with the Congolese Army, and seem more concerned for their own safety than for the civilians they were sent to protect. Hapless Africans who are fleeing for their lives have been throwing rocks at the UN tanks and armored vehicles that clog the roads in a mass retreat from the rebel onslaught. One can understand their frustration.
UN officials in Congo are appealing to the Security Council for more troops, but few countries seem willing to send volunteers. France suggested sending a European Union force of a few hundred men, but several other European countries oppose the idea. No one seems to be listening to the small voice of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who warns the rebel offensive is â€œcreating a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic dimensions that threatens dire consequences on a regional scale.â€
He cannot be accused of exaggerating the danger. If anything, his warning is an understatement. Tens of thousands of villagers are now fleeing in panic, and humanitarian agencies in the city of Goma - the UN's principal base in the country - say there is a risk that more than a million refugees who have been displaced from their homes in the past two years could be cut off from aid.
The 1998-2003 war in Congo â€“ which some call the â€œAfrican World Warâ€ â€“ is estimated to have cost more lives than any other conflict since World War Two. Eight other African nations were sucked into the fighting, and up to five million Africans died from violence, hunger and preventable diseases. The war was a deadly mixture of ethnic tensions and greed, fuelled by a lust for Congo's diamonds and other mineral riches.
The Congolese rebels who are now advancing on Goma are Tutsis â€“ members of the same ethnic group who were slaughtered by their rivals, the Hutus, in the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. Rwanda is now run by a Tutsi-dominated government and is accused of providing military support for the rebels. The rebels are threatening to continue their offensive all the way to Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, and take over the country.
The rebel push threatens once again to draw in other African countries. The government of Congo is appealing to Angola to intervene and come to its aid. The bloody history of Congo seems to be repeating itself.
This is a complex conflict. It is hard to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys, but there is no question that there will be another explosion of violence in Congo if other African countries become directly involved. Something could be done to stop it. Western media could shine a brighter light on this dark corner of Africa. Western countries that provide aid to the region could use their influence to try to prevent a wider war, even if they refuse to send peacekeepers. But the rest of the world is preoccupied with its own problems. No one seems to care enough to stop another bloodbath.