Saturday, February 28, 2009

One Gorilla's Opinion

Mountain Gorilla
Taken while researching Heart of Diamonds

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Rwandans Go Home, Little Changes In DRC

The latest Rwandan adventure in the Democratic Republic of Congo is over. The Rwandan army has marched back across the border to the huzzahs of their countrymen, international organizations are issuing laudatory press releases, and now it's time to take stock of what was accomplished. It appears to me that much happened while very little changed.

The Rwandan troops were invited to the Congo by DRC President Joseph Kabila, ostensibly to destroy the FDLR, the remnants of the Hutu Interahamwe who have been terrorizing both countries from bases in the Kivus since they fled there following the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Unlike the last two times the Rwandan army marched into the DRC on a similar mission, this one was conducted jointly with the Congolese army rather than against it.

My guess is that the operation was a quid-pro-quo in which the Rwandans agreed to remove Laurent Nkunda as commander of their proxy army, the CNDP, in return for the opportunity to take over some of the FDLR's economic activities in the Congo. Kabila got rid of a major thorn in his side, a man who threatened to march across the DRC to overthrow the government, a threat not to be taken lightly considering how consistently Kabila's forces rolled back the Congolese army in other operations last fall. We'll probably never know what the Rwandans actually received--how many illegal mines, expropriated farms, and surreptitious transport routes for the Congo's wealth to make its way into Rwanda.

Kabila also agreed to integrate the CNDP, now under the leadership of indicted war criminal Bosco Ntaganda, into the FARDC, the Congelese army. Terms of that settlement are still being worked out in negotiations supervised by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo and Tanzania's former leader Benjamin Mkapa. Like everything else in this very fluid situation, it remains to be seen whether the CNDP (and other, previously-integrated units of the Congolese army) will actually carry out their duties in the interest of the DRC or of someone else.

Politics aside, what of the announced goal of operation Umoja Wetu, the joint mission to destroy the FDLR? Official sources say 153 rebels were killed (and eight government troops), about 5,000 Rwandans were persuaded to return to their homeland, and the FDLR's capacity to operate was substantially disrupted. Sounds good until you realize the FDLR was believed to have 5,000 to 7,000 soldiers in the DRC, so the loss of a few dozen isn't going to make much difference.

The FDLR leadership is still living the good life in Germany, supported by the extorted profits of their troops in the DRC and scoffing at the hoopla. You can be assured that they won't feel a thing.

That can't be said for the civilians in the Kivus, who are waiting for the retribution to begin in earnest. The FDLR has already killed hundreds while the Congolese and Rwandan armed forces were attacking and can be expected to carry out its quite explicit threat to retaliate with a paroxysm of pillage, murder, and rape.

Who is defending the civilians? With the Rwandan troops on their way home, that job is left to the FARDC, an army made up of rogue units and unpaid soldiers whose record of civilian terrorism is no better than the FDLR's.

And where is the UN? They say they will be supporting the Congolese in a second operation against he FDLR while making sure the rebels don't retake the areas secured by the joint operation. But words are cheap. My guess is the blue helmets will be in the same place they have been for the last fifteen years in the Kivus, assiduously guarding their own bases and escorting NGO's and journalists to places where they can be sure their vehicles won't get scratched. MONUC wasn't consulted about the joint Rwandan-Congolese operation, although they were allowed to observe from a distance--a tactic which the UN forces have used frequently.

In the Congo, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

More Praise for Heart of Diamonds

Heart of Diamonds got a four-star review at J. Kaye's Book Blog. Among other things, J.Kaye said,

" of the most positive aspects of the book was Donelson’s realistic portrayal of the main characters and the warlike conditions in Africa."
For links to more reviews, visit

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"Ruined" Exposes Horrors of Congo Rape

The Pulitzer flags should be flying over Lynn Nottage's acclaimed play, Ruined, which I saw recently during its NY run. The play exposes the horrors of terror rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) through the stories of victims of the crime.

Nottage chose to write a play about the strife in the Congo much the same way I was drawn into the crisis with Heart of Diamonds. She started out to write something else--in her case, an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage--but was compelled by the reality of the modern tragedy in the DRC to create an entirely different work. The world should be thankful she made that choice.

Ruined centers on Mama Nadi and her tavern cum whorehouse in the Ituri region of the Congo. The stories of Mama Nadi's "girls" are told in a swelling chorus of pathos among a parade of soldiers, rebels, miners, and traders who show up looking for relief from the violence wracking the countryside.

Each of the women tells a story of how they were victimized by the conflict. Josephine (played by Cherise Boothe), the daughter of a village chief, had been cast adrift when the social structure of her homeland was destroyed by war over the region's mineral wealth. Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) was snatched by rebels and used as a sex slave for five months before she returned to her village, only to be rejected by her husband and family.

The plot revolves around Sophie (Condola Rashad), who was "ruined" by a gang of rebels who mutilated her genitals in an act of terror rape all too common in the Congo today. Rashad's performance perfectly captures the tragic effects of the crime. Her sweetly innocent face contrasts sharply with the awkward way her body moves in response to the constant pain from her injuries.

In an telling touch, most of the soldiers, rebels, and miners are played by the same cast members in alternating roles, emphasizing the shifting nature of loyalties and alliances in the real conflict playing out today in the Congo.

Mama Nadi is the star of the play and Saidah Arrika Ekulona portrays her as a flamboyant, strong-willed survivor, hard-crusted but soft-hearted, a woman for the ages. Her bravery in the face of the ever-heightening violence is the pillar that supports the entire play.

The emotional climax comes early in the second act (in a scene that reminded me greatly of Ogastine's story in Heart of Diamonds) when Salima delivers a soliloquy about her horrific experience. The audience literally gasped when she described the details of her capture, then you could hear them squirming uncomfortably as she told how she was used as a sex slave. The theater was struck silent when she related her return to her village expecting succor only to be given the back of the hand and driven away by her husband.

The heart-wrenching, mind-stopping production premiered last fall at Chicago's Goodman Theatre and moved to Manhattan Theater Club's Stage 1 at City Center (where I saw it) this month for a limited time. The run in New York has been extended, but it will probably end soon, so I strongly recommend you order tickets today.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Congo History in New Video

Kadi Kabeya, a fine filmmaker from Congo who is now living in Canada, is producing a series of documentary videos explaining the political history of the DRC. Here are the first three in what promises to be a very enlightening production:

You can see more of Kadi Kabeya's excellent work at KM Media Productions.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Friday, February 20, 2009

Chicago Reader Asks For Congo Fix

The fifth in a series of posts from my correspondence with a Chicago reader. He asks a big question:

How do we fix the DRC?
I replied:
If you define "we" as the US, I believe "we" can't do anything to fix the DRC--but the Congolese can. However, the US, the EU, and the AU can help the process along. The UN has a role, too, although I'm afraid that its authority and stature have been irreversibly impaired by its seeming impotence in the current crisis in the Kivus and Haut-Eule.

The first step is to bring a halt to the lawlessness in the east through cooperative military action by legitimate armed forces. The current actions by Rwanda and Uganda in concert with the government in Kinshasa has the potential to accomplish that end (even though I am deeply suspicious of the real aims of those operations). The UN should be protecting the civilian population--as is their mandate--while this is going on. They're not, from the reports I've read, but they should be.

Once peace is restored, people can return to their homes and begin to rebuild their lives while the DRC begins the long, expensive development process. US, EU, and Chinese investment--not aid--will be key. One component in both keeping peace and promoting economic development would be establishment of a "common market" in the mineral-rich eastern provinces. This would encourage the flow of capital to the region, taking the place of rogue armies and slave labor in operating the mines and other concerns.

Many of my Congolese friends protest that their country's wealth should not be exploited by outside interests. They're right, of course, but they often fail to differentiate between investment and exploitation. Aside from peace, what the DRC needs more than anything else is capital. There is no reason that fair and equitable commercial partnerships can't be formed with foreign companies in the DRC as they are in the rest of the world. That's the only way that funds can be attracted to the DRC.

This is obviously a very brief, simplified overview of a very complex situation. Many, many obstacles have to be overcome before these things can happen. As an objective observer, however, I believe the Congolese people can and will achieve their country's full potential.
Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Chicago Reader Asks About Congo Blame

The fourth in a series of posts taken from my correspondence with a reader in Chicago. He writes:

What do you say to those who would place blame for the DRC's dire circumstances on Belgium? ...on the U.S.?... on the Congolese people?
I replied:
At the risk of sounding flip, there is plenty of blame to go around. Where do you start? The Belgians exploited the country for nearly a century, then essentially walked away. The Americans put Mobutu Sese Seko into office, then turned a blind eye while he systematically looted the nation for 30 years. Let's not forget that he enriched plenty of his Congolese supporters along the way, too.

Who is responsible for the fighting today? Everyone. Despite all the finger pointing and ethnic propaganda, it's all a mad scramble for control of the country's wealth. Are there US and European businesses profiting from the illegally-operated mines? Certainly. The same holds true for China and many other Asian countries. The Rwandans and Ugandans are both agents of these foreign interests and operate on their own behalf as well, as do many, many Congolese.
Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Chicago Reader Views "The Greatest Silence"

The third in a series of notes from my correspondence with a discerning reader in Chicago. He writes:

Last night, I watched a documentary called "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo". It makes clear that rebel soldiers are not just raping, but torturing. As insightful as it was, however, it failed to address a question I have been unable to answer with my research: What benefit is derived by the rebel militia groups from rape and torture?

Soldiers/rapists in the bush were interviewed in the documentary and explained that they raped because they were told it was necessary to effectuate the safety and protection they received during battle from drinking a "magic potion". Another soldier explained, basically, that he rapes simply because he doesn't get a lot of sex and has needs. As perverse as those explanations are, they are at least the product of reason, albeit faulty. They did not address why they force siblings to have sex, why they twist the heads off of young children and why they mutilate women's genitals. What motivates this kind of behavior? Any ideas?
My response:
This is a question I've heard often and one I struggle with myself. As Lisa Jackson's film so eloquently shows, individuals justify horrible acts of rape and mutilation for their own personal reasons--motivations beyond the ken of people like you and me.

Their leaders, though, have a fairly clear reason for encouraging these crimes: to intimidate and thereby control the civilian population. I often use the term "terror rape" because it is an act of terrorism little different in purpose from suicide booming in the Middle East or mass decapitation ordered by drug lords in Central America.

The terrorist wants to be feared, so the more outlandish the act, the further outside the bound of humanity, the more fear it can create. Fearful people do as they are told. They hand over food and money when ordered to; they work for nothing in mines or fields; they refuse to identify criminals to the authorities.

Terror rape is one of the most execrable tactics of war.
Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Another Question From A Chicago Reader

This is the second in a series of notes from my correspondence with a reader in Chicago. He writes:

Thanks for the response. My girlfriend is living in Kinshasa working for Voyageur Airlines under the auspices of MONUC. She is a member of a flight crew that transports people and equipment around the DRC as needed. Accordingly, I have been researching the DRC's history and current predicament.

I now understand the point you are making with that figure. My issue with the figure you cited was that it gives the impression that 90% of the DRC enjoys safety and order. My understanding, and you seemed to allude to it, is that even where the militias do not operate, crime and health conditions are nearly as dangerous. Would you agree with that?
I responded:
Yes, that is a good assessment. While there may not be military operations throughout Congo, there is certainly much that remains to be done in the administration of justice, health care, education, and many other areas of development that were retarded by first the Mobutu regime and then the 1998-2003 war. Elections in 2006 were a good step, but a baby one, toward helping the DRC achieve its potential.
Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Monday, February 16, 2009

Heart of Diamonds Note From Osaka

A nice note from a friend I made at the Congo Peace Rally in Washington:

Hello Dave,

It was great meeting you in Washington D.C.

I’ve just finished reading your autographed book. It was a great read which I thoroughly enjoyed. Fast paced and a very exciting finish. I enjoyed the evangelist/corporate connections lurking throughout the novel. I also saw your write-up on the rally in D.C. Thanks for including Osaka!

I’m slowly moving forward with my blog Stealth Conflicts, and have just started a Stealth Conflicts Forum, which is opened up to those interested to write posts on the subject. I’m also planning a photo exhibition/talk on the situation in the DRC with a photojournalist friend.

Keep up the pressure and ‘be strong’!

All the best,


Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Chicago Reader Writes

I've been corresponding recently with a reader in Chicago who asks some provocative questions about the Congo. I thought his questions and my answers would shed some light on ways to look at the situation in the DRC.

On Feb. 11 he wrote a short note about my post on the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra:

from where do you get the figure of 90% as the percentage of the DRC living in relative peace, as you wrote here, and what qualifies as "relative peace"?
I wrote back:
Good question and thanks for raising it. My statement that 90% of the DRC lives in relative peace came from several sources, including Congolese friends of mine who have been in the country recently and a conversation I had with UN Ambassador Ileka Atoki about a month ago. It's not a scientific figure at all, but serves to illustrate the point that the entire vast nation is not at war.

While conditions are far from ideal and tensions exist in many other parts of the DRC, the fighting that's drawing all the headlines is restricted currently to the eastern and northeastern provinces. The situation there is not good, as I'm sure you know, but the rest of the country is "peaceful" by comparison.

I hope this clarifies the post and thanks for following my blog. Please feel free to comment (or discuss matters via email) if you feel so inclined.
We've since exchanged some longer notes, which I'll post in the coming days.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Two Homes

Weaver Bird
Taken while researching Heart of Diamonds

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Friday, February 13, 2009

More Alike Than Different

I got a kick out of this note from Dr. Joyce Furfero, who has invited me to speak to a class in Economic Growth and Development she teaches at St. John's University.

Dave — As I was driving home last night, I heard the following story on the radio:

EASTCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) — Police say a man who was waterproofing the foundation of a diplomatic residence in New York City's northern suburbs has been rescued after his trench collapsed and buried him to his chest.

Eastchester police Chief Timothy Bonci (bahn-SEE') says the man was pinned against the home's wall for two hours or more before being pulled out at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. He says some of the digging had to be done by hand.

The worker's name has not been released. He has been taken to a hospital, but his condition isn't immediately available.
I really didn’t pay it too much attention, until the end, when the announcer said that the house was owned by a diplomat of the Democratic Republic of the Congo! I immediately thought of that scene in your book, where Valerie is touring the mine and a worker slips in the trench! So, I sent an email to my students asking them to read the story, with the following questions and comments:
“Can’t you just picture the injured man wallowing in the mud like the workers in Gary Peterson’s mine (p. 80)? Can’t you just imagine the injured man being carried over the shoulder like a sack of potatoes by Captain Yoweri or one of his FIC henchmen to be deposited at Jaime’s clinic? Apparently, the Congolese provide no better working conditions for their workers here in the US than they do back home in the Congo!”
The more things change, the more they stay the same! --Joyce

Joyce may have a point, but it also seems to me the story demonstrates that a working stiff has it rough no matter which part of the world he's in.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Monday, February 9, 2009

AFRICOM Backs Botched Congo Operation

One of the first publicly-acknowledged AFRICOM operations has turned into a general debacle, resulting in the death of nearly a thousand civilians and sending untold numbers of children into sex slavery and military servitude.

The New York Times reports that the newly-organized US military command for Africa, AFRICOM, bankrolled the largely-botched joint Ugandan-Congolese-South Sudan campaign to wipe out Joseph Kony's Lords Resistance Army, which has been using the DRC's northeastern Haut-Eule province near Garamba National Park as a safe haven since it fled Uganda in 2005. AFRICOM said it supplied $1 million worth of gasoline, satellite phones, intelligence, and 17 military advisers to help in the planning, although no US personnel were involved in the fighting. Despite the US support, the LRA eluded the attackers and turned on the civilian population in retribution.

The anti-LRA campaign, bombastically named "Operation Lightning Thunder," was poorly conceived and even more poorly executed. The joint Ugandan-Congolese forces hoped to surprise Kony in his lair in the Garamba forest on December 14. The plan was to bomb his headquarters, then move in with land forces to wipe up the remains. Instead, as has been reported, weather got in the way and apparently word got to Kony and his troops in plenty of time for them to flee. The air attacked flattened basically empty huts and the ground forces captured a small pile of discarded weapons and supplies.

The LRA scattered in angry groups bent on destruction. The effect of the operation can be described as what happens when you throw water on a pan of burning grease: potential death goes everywhere.

The Congolese and Ugandan command had made no plans to cut off fleeing elements of the LRA, so the rebels scattered throughout the countryside in a rampage of fresh violence. Villages were pillaged and burned, hundreds of civilians murdered and raped, and an undetermined number of children were kidnapped, tactics the LRA has used throughout its twenty-year history. A spokesman for Doctors Without Borders, says more than 50 villages in the area have been attacked. Kony disappeared.

Since the disastrous initial strike, Ugandan officials have touted a string of "victories" in which dozens of rifles and stores of food supposedly left behind by the fleeing rebels have been captured. A couple hundred LRA soldiers have reportedly surrendered.

In the meantime, the official civilian death toll is 900 and 100,000 people have been driven from their homes.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Join Me At Chappaqua Library

The latest developments in the on-going struggle over the riches in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) will be my topic this coming Wednesday, February 11, 7:30 PM at the Chappaqua Library, 195 South Greeley Street, Chappaqua, NY. I'll also be reading from Heart of Diamonds, my novel based on the Congo's endless strife, and displaying some of the photos I took in Central Africa while researching the book.

Since my last appearance (a well-attended program at the Scarsdale Library in early December), two foreign armies have marched onto Congolese soil and the already-dire situation has become even more dangerous for the civilian population. The region's fate is balanced on ever-shifting alliances and a teetering democracy.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Night Stalker

Spotted Hyena
Taken while researching Heart of Diamonds

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Friday, February 6, 2009

Dancing In Congo

The bizarre dance that is the war in eastern Congo continues, with Rwandan troops claiming victory after victory over the FDLR, former rebel commander Laurent Nkunda either under arrest or vacationing at an undisclosed location, and now indicted war criminal Bosco Ntaganda calling for immunity for the crimes committed by the CNDP while it was under Nkunda's command.

It all appears to be part of a surreal ballet choreographed by Rwanda's Paul Kagame and Congo's President Joseph Kabila, who is either dancing under duress or simply swaying along in time to the beat sounding from Rwanda's capital Kigali. Either way, thousands of Rwandan soldiers are tearing around North Kivu province, invited to the ball by Kinshasa ostensibly to finally stamp out the FDLR, remnants of the Hutu Interahamwe who fled to Congo after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Previous incursions by the Rwandan Tutsi forces and a decade of pursuit by their proxy army, the CNDP, didn't accomplish that task, but someone apparently believes it can be done now.

Of course, there is also the very real possibility that the entire operation, known as Umoja Wetu (Our Unity), was meant to do nothing more than clean up the mess Nkunda was making by announcing his megalomaniac intentions to overthrow Kabila's government. One good indication of that premise is that the first place the Rwandan army headed was toward Nkunda's stronghold, not the FDLR camps, and the first major action they completed was to "arrest" Nkunda. The commander disappeared following the action, which doesn't do much for the credibility of anyone involved.

Joseph Kabila promised in an address on January 31 that Nkunda would be extradited "in due course" but Paul Kagame's government has been silent on the matter. The plea for immunity for Nkunda's troops issued yesterday by the current leaders of the CNDP clouds the issue. If they are forgiven their actions, why should the men who ordered (or permitted) them to commit the atrocities be punished? As a practical matter, of course, it will be much less disruptive if the CNDP is fully integrated into the Congolese army as other dissident groups have been since the 2003 peace accords were signed. It doesn't make for a very effective command structure, but at least everybody wears the same uniforms.

Then there is the question of what happens to Bosco Ntaganda, the current self-proclaimed leader of the CNDP. He's been indicted by the ICC and is apparently accessible by reporters, yet neither the Rwandan nor the Congolese army seem able to "arrest" him. The dancing around such questions is endless.

The biggest question of all is whether the Rwandan forces will actually leave Congo. The same can be asked of the Ugandan army pursuing Joseph Kony's Lords Resistance Army over the bodies of hundreds of slain civilians farther north. Kabila said that both armies must leave by the end of this month (February). If the past is prologue, however, neither one will leave until they've secured the mines, timber, and other commercial interests they've always pursued in Congo.

Sorry if I sound skeptical of everyone's good intentions, but there is too much history here to take anything at face value.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the