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Forgotten crisis cries out for humanitarian aid

Congolese mourn victims of bombing


John Burger - published on 05/24/24

In spite of wealth of natural resources, or perhaps because of it, people in Democratic Republic of Congo are struggling.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is the second largest country in Africa by area, and home to the continent’s largest Catholic population. With 105 million people, it is the most populous Francophone country in the world.

Unfortunately, a superlative of another kind applies to the nation in Central Africa. In spite of its extreme wealth in natural resources, a long-running civil conflict has left the country’s population in desperate need of help.

“It’s usually said that the Congo has the largest population in need of humanitarian aid in the world. There are considered to be 25 million people that need humanitarian aid,” said Johannes Schildknecht, program manager for Malteser International, the humanitarian aid agency of the Order of Malta. 

Schildknecht said that there are “many crises happening at the same time” right now in the DRC. Most of the world has lost sight of them, in the midst of higher profile wars now in Ukraine and Gaza. 

The Economist magazine recently said that there is a risk of a catastrophic regional war in Congo — “one that could possibly be averted but for the inattention of the West.”

It would be the third such war since the 1990s, when perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide took refuge in the much larger country to the west – Congo, at that time called Zaire – and proceeded to strike back at the Rwandan forces who pushed them out. “In response, local Rwandan-backed rebels marched on Kinshasa [the DRC’s capital] and toppled Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire’s dictator,” The Economist explained.

“The second Congo war started when Rwanda invaded again, in 1998, after Laurent Kabila, the figurehead leader of Congo, turned on his erstwhile patrons and began supporting the Hutu militias,” the magazine went on. “The resulting conflict involved troops from eight countries and lasted until 2003.”

“The two big Congo wars in the 90s and the early 2000s basically destabilized the country completely,” Malteser’s Schildknect told Aleteia.

“Forgotten crisis within a forgotten crisis”

Schildknect explained that in three provinces in the east of the DRC, “the situation actually never really calmed down: Ituri, North Kivu, and South Kivu. The conflict in North Kivu, around the city of Goma, where there have been deadly attacks on internally displaced persons camps, has made it to the headlines; the others, not really. 

Earlier this month, Pope Francis denounced what he called a “cowardly attack” in which bombs were detonated in the Mugunga and Lac Vert displacement camps, near Goma, the capital of North Kivu [photo above shows mourners at the funeral of some of the victims]. The Congolese government and the Rwanda-backed M-23 rebels blame each other for the attack, which killed at least 18 people.

Malteser works in the Province of Ituri, where, Schildknecht says, people are in the midst of ethnic conflict that hardly ever gets any media attention.

“It’s a forgotten crisis within a forgotten crisis,” he said. And yet, a quarter of the population in the province is displaced.

People who don’t have anything

Schildknecht, who used to be based in the DRC but now travels there about four times a year from Malteser’s headquarters in Cologne, Germany, says that people are struggling with the most basic aspects of life. 

“It’s like [not] getting enough food or proper food,” he said. “I was in the displacement camps in Ituri not too long ago. And you basically see people that don’t have anything — and it’s actually sometimes heartbreaking.”

A large majority of displaced people are living with host families, who don’t have much themselves. “But they still take in people and try to get along with them,” Schildknecht said.

Some people are so desperate that they sometimes send their children back to their villages to collect food, he said, “because they speculate that maybe children will not be attacked by the militia.”

Congo resources we use

Congo exports cobalt, from which are made rechargeable batteries, air bags, paints, radial tires, anticorrosion treatments; copper, from which is made wiring, plumbing, sterling silver, medical equipment; bauxite, from which is made aluminum, such as aluminum foil; lithium, from which is made cellphone, laptop and electric car batteries, aircraft, pacemakers, clocks; plus petroleum, diamonds, and gold.

With this list, it’s easy to see how these natural resources can be a source of great income for those who are willing to exploit the population to get them. They are resources widely used in the West.

Consider supporting efforts to aid DRC: Malteser International or Catholic Relief Services or others.

Fighting for resources

He said that the local Church is as present as can be, helping people however it can. One very practical way of doing that is opening up church buildings for displaced people to live in. 

“Often, especially when people are newly displaced, they either sleep outside or they can sleep in a church or a school, so the churches are absolutely crucial for any type of support in the area,” he said.

Nor is the Church averse to speaking out. During a May 11 Mass at Notre-Dame de Fatima in Kinshasa, in memory of the victims of the May 3 bombing of the camps in Lac Vert and Mugunga, Fr. Eric Mashako condemned what he called “war crimes” and called on the international community to intervene, reported Fides, the news service of the Pontifical Mission Societies. 

Weapons controlling mines and people

One issue that seems to be driving much of the fighting is the natural resources found in the DRC. A lot of the minerals mined there are exported via Rwanda or Uganda. 

Said The Economist, “A weak central government in Kinshasa … has allowed the emergence of around 120 armed groups that fight one another and the army for control of mines, people, and land. A national army too ineffectual to provide security for the region’s people or to control the country’s borders has been an open invitation to meddling by neighbors.”

Pope Francis spoke out about this during a visit to the DRC in early 2023.

“I make a heartfelt appeal to all the people, to all the internal and external organizations that orchestrate war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in order to plunder, scourge, and destabilize the country,” Francis said. “You are enriching yourselves through the illegal exploitation of this country’s goods and through the brutal sacrifice of innocent victims.

Listen to the cry of their blood (cf. Gen 4:10), open your ears to the voice of God, who calls you to conversion, and to the voice of your conscience: Put away your weapons, put an end to war.

Enough! Stop getting rich at the cost of the poor, stop getting rich from resources and money stained with blood!”

AfricaCharityDemocratic Republic of CongoPope Francis
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