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  • Writer's pictureNicoletta Fagiolo

Palestine & the Democratic Republic of Congo, a common history of mass atrocities and genocide

Updated: Jan 7

Picture: Footballer Smaïla Sarr celebrated his goal for Senegal at the World Cup on December 2, 2022 by covering his eyes and pointing a finger at his head, imitating a gun. Sarr explained on Twitter that this gesture symbolizes the world's contempt for the atrocities taking place in Africa, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On 3 January 2023 a news story went viral on social media, namely that Israel was in talks with the Democratic Republic of Congo to accept Palestinian refugees. This came a day after US State Department rejected, as inflammatory and irresponsible, statements from Israeli Ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir advocating for the resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza.

What is deeply disconcerting about this unconfirmed and bizarre news story is that both Palestine and the Democratic Republic of Congo share a common contemporary history of conquest, occupation, forced displacement, dispossession and genocide.

Just as there is the Palestinian Nakba, and the current on-going Palestinian Nakba, the DRC, then Zaire, also has its Nakba and is living an on-going Nakba to this day:  the 17 of May 1997 saw the fall of the 32-year-old regime of Mobutu Sese Seko and was the beginning of a permanent occupation of the eastern part of the country. It has been called the Nakba day by Congolese historian Boniface Musavuli.

That year local archives were plundered by the advancing proxy militia, known as the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL) made up mainly of soldiers from the Ugandan and Rwandan army, yet falsely presented in main stream media as a Congolese liberation movement. The  Congolese state archives were also seized and transferred to Kigali, Rwanda. “The war was not a war of liberation. It was a war to monopolize the resources of the Congo and its liquidation as a state”,  Musavuli writes. Millions of civilians were massacred.

On 29 of December 2023 South Africa filed a detailed application with the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of committing genocide in Gaza, in violation of the 1948 Genocide Convention which defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Yet State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller stated on 3 of January that the US has not observed acts in Gaza that constitute genocide and National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby slammed South Africa’s case as being without merit in response to a White House press briefing question. “The Holocaust, in which six million Jews were killed, was the impetus for the very treaty that Israel is now accused of violating,”, underline two international law experts Alaa Hachem and Oona A. Hathaway.

Hachem and Hathaway summarize the suit: “South Africa’s application argues that the damage inflicted by Israel’s military campaign against Gaza since Oct. 7 constitute genocidal acts. It states that Israel has “killed in excess of 21,110 named Palestinians, including over 7.729 children – with over 7,780 others missing, presumed dead under the rubble—and has injured over 55,243 other Palestinians” and that “Israel has also laid waste to vast areas of Gaza, including entire neighborhoods, and has damaged or destroyed in excess of 355,000 Palestinian homes.” The application unambiguously condemns Hamas’s targeting of civilians and hostage-taking on October 7 but argues that “no armed attack on a State’s territory no matter how serious—even an attack involving atrocity crimes—can . . . provide any possible justification for, or defense to, breaches” of the Genocide Convention. While the application focuses primarily on Israel’s conduct since Oct. 7, 2023, it discusses the “broader context of Israel’s conduct towards Palestinians during its 75-year-long apartheid, its 56-year-long belligerent occupation of Palestinian territory and its 16-year-long blockade of Gaza”. The case will be heard on 11-12 January 2024 by the ICJ.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is undergoing a neocolonial genocide since 1996. This was however preceded by a colonial genocide:  under King Leopold II of Belgium’s reign of terror, that ruled over the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908, the population of the Congo was reduced by half - as many as 10 million Congolese lost their lives. This genocide is the focus of a 1998 book King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild.

In October 2001 the DRC’s Human Rights Ministry produced a White Book denouncing the crimes the Congo faced in the three years of aggression the country suffered and called it a genocide behind closed doors. Alphonse Daniel Ntumba Luaba Lumu, author of the report and Human Rights Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the time, coined the term stategenocide to explain the extreme form of aggression the Congo underwent. Lamu wrote in 2001:“this aggression, which was accompanied by serious violations of human rights, was distinguished in the eastern part of the Republic by massacres, murders, assassinations, and other atrocities whose cruelty, similarity and effectiveness of the methods and techniques used, ended up convincing impartial observers on the international scene of the premeditated and planned nature of these acts as well as the intended purpose of the approach.”

More recently, in 2013, Noam Chomsky and Andre Vltchek wrote On western terrorism, From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare and spoke of a super-genocide in the DRC: “something that could easily compete with what was done to the Congo by Leopold the II a century ago.” Back then they already pointed to figures as high as eight or ten million civilian deaths. They wrote eleven years ago: “ the country is being plundered by both Rwanda and Uganda on behalf of western interests, the worst genocide since World War II, an absolute cover-up, gaining hardly any media coverage in the west.”

UN reports published bi-annually since 2001 have denounced the illegal exploitation of natural resources which accompany this relentless war of aggression.  The Mapping Report published only in 2010, which covers crimes committed till 2003,  refers to some of the incidents revealed as possibly qualifying as acts of genocide.

In 2023 Franco-Cameroonian historian Charles Onana wrote Holocaust in the Congo, the omertà of the international community which pin points through meticulous archival research the intentional set-up put in place since 1994 which has allowed the occupation and  genocide to continue for now nearly three decades. Events concerning Holocaust in the Congo as well as well as a film directed and produced by Gilbert Balufu, Congo, the silence of forgotten crimes, were heavily censored last year in both the United States and Europe.

Attempts to address the Congolese genocide in international legal fora abound: for exemple a suit for acts of armed aggression against Rwanda and Uganda, acting as US proxies in the region, was filed with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as early as 1999 . Only Uganda was eventually condemned in 2005 by the ICJ. Yet, left unresolved till 2021, the ICJ again asked Uganda to pay a total of  330 million US dollars for the loss of human life, natural resources and property damage. Rwanda,  through its numerous proxy militias (AFDL, RCD-Goma, CNDP, M23,ADF) which have and still bring havoc to the region has escaped all effective measures to penalize the numerously documented human rights violations.

Today the RDC has seen since 1996 over 12 million civilians  massacred, nearly 7 million internally displaced people and 500,000 women who have been raped.

Recently in both Palestine and the Democratic Republic of Congo the settler neocolonial set up has turned more aggressive, embracing a scorched-earth approach. They are both international wars of aggression. Both peoples also show extraordinary resilience and resistance when facing these extreme forms of violence,  yet so far the world has failed in protecting them.

There is an urgent need to acknowledge, address and take action against these contemporary genocides.



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