LEGEND has it that their wealth has become a curse for them. People of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African country three times bigger than Pakistan, can be described as one of the most unfortunate nations on earth. Their country has huge reserves of natural resources like diamonds, gold and uranium, but these precious minerals have served for decades more as an invitation to exploitative forces backed by powerful international players than a means which the Congolese might use to bring about a change in their lives.

First the colonial rulers and in recent times the multinational companies have divided the Congolese on ethnic and tribal lines, with horrendous results. DR Congo has been at the centre of what can be called Africa’s world war which has claimed an estimated three million lives, either as a direct outcome of fighting or because of disease and malnutrition caused by conflict. Economic activity, which had never been forceful, has further declined, creating unemployment on a large scale. The five-year civil war pitted government forces, supported by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, against rebels backed by neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda. Despite a peace accord and formation of a transitional government two years ago, the threat of a resurgence of violence remains.

The Republic of Congo was established in 1908 as a Belgian colony. Fifty-two years later, the country got independence but its early years saw political and social instability until 1965 when Colonel Joseph Mobutu took over and declared himself president. Mobutu, who managed to hold power for the next 32 years, changed the name of the country to Zaire. In 1997, his regime was toppled by Laurent Kabila following ethnic strife and civil war caused by a huge influx of refugees from fighting in neighbouring Burundi and Rwanda. With the change of president, the country’s name also changed to ‘the Democratic Republic of the Congo’. Kabila, however, never had smooth sailing in his 43-month rule. In 1998, a rebellion backed by Rwanda and Uganda posed a serious challenge. Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad and Sudan intervened and sent their troops to support the Kinshasa regime. Though all these countries as well as the Congolese rebels signed a ceasefire in 1999, sporadic fighting continued until January 2001 when Kabila was assassinated. His son Joseph Kabila was then named head of state, who successfully negotiated the withdrawal of the Rwandan occupation forces from eastern Congo in 2002. The same year the Pretoria Accord was signed by all the remaining warring parties to end the fighting and give way to a government of national unity. A transitional government under President Joseph Kabila came into being in 2003. The government has been joined by four vice-presidents representing the former regime, ex-rebels and politicians.

On a recent visit to DR Congo sponsored by Inter-Service Public Relations, a group of journalists from Pakistan was told that the relative calm in this country of 56 million had been possible mainly because of the help extended by the international community. The United Nations Mission in DR Congo, known by its French acronym Monuc, was created in late 1999 at a time when the security situation was poor. The UN Security Council authorized the deployment of a liaison team comprising UN military officers as well as civilian, political, humanitarian and administrative staff. They were tasked to liaise with different parties and groups. The UN strength increased quickly and today Monuc is the largest of the 17 peacekeeping missions operating in various parts of the world. Monuc, its budget reaching nearly $1 billion a year, comprises troops from several countries, including Pakistan, South Africa, Uruguay, Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Senegal.

Pakistani troops were deployed to South Kivu province in December 2004 after, according to military sources, forces from South African and Uruguay had failed to maintain peace in the hilly province bordering Rwanda. India had earlier refused to conduct any operation against rebels encamped in thick forests.

Disappointed at the failure of the UN forces in providing protection to them against rebel attacks, the Congolese population used to pelt stones at the peacekeepers’ vehicles. The Congolese army itself was demoralized to such an extent that 40,000 of their troops had failed to put up any resistance when on one occasion a group of 300 rebels came attacking the local population from Rwanda.

Pakistani troops, numbering 4,000, launched an Operation Night Flash in troubled areas: the locals would beat drums to inform the troops stationed in nearby posts that they were under rebel attack, thus enabling a timely military action involving armoured personnel carriers. On the political front, the Pakistanis started Operation Iron Fist under which the rebels started negotiations with the Pakistan military officials aimed at bringing violence to an end and using peaceful means to resolve issues. Under Operation Thunder Storm, in which 1,200 Pakistani troops backed by helicopters took part, 67 huts and over a dozen camps of rebels were destroyed on July 20, 2005 as a result of which a vast area was vacated. Rebel influence on business centres was also brought to an end.

Pakistani military authorities based in Bukavu, capital of South Kivu, say about 9,000 such missions were carried out by their troops from January 2005 to Sept 2005. Pakistani army units are operating in different parts of the province, including the towns of Walangu, Panzi, Kamynola and Uvira and thick forests like Kahuzi Bega park.

Schools have been reopened and playgrounds have been restored. Sports gears have been provided to youths. There was an interesting football match played between the teams of the Pakistani army and the FARDC troops in the Uvira town. A large number of people had come to witness the match preceded by traditional African dances performed by a number of groups.

The Pakistanis have provided training to hundreds of officers and thousands of soldiers of the Congolese army called FARDC (Forces of Republic Democratic Congo). The UN mission’s provincial head, Jean Paul, says that 16 FARDC brigades will be required to help conduct a referendum next year, but so far only six brigades have been organized. The referendum will be followed by elections.

But before that, the existing tenuous peace has to be reinforced. Jean Paul described the situation in these words: “We now have to organize elections in this huge country. However, there are no roads here and it is extremely difficult to reach out and enrol voters. At present, we don’t even know the exact population. The next challenge will be for the people to accept results of these polls”.

Endorsing Mr Paul’s views, Monuc’s chief electoral official in South Kivu, Sheikh Chingora, however seemed more optimistic. Mr Chingora, who belongs to DR Congo’s 10 per cent Muslim minority, said that all political parties were ready to contribute to the stabilization process except the Union for Democracy and Social Progress which had set certain preconditions to get along. According to him, weekly consultations are held with political parties to strengthen their confidence in the election process.

Years of fighting, starvation and disease have clouded DR Congo’s potential as an important trading partner. The country, spread over 2.34 million square kilometres, has sizable reserves of natural resources like cobalt, coltan, copper, niobium, tantalum, petroleum, diamonds, gold, silver, zinc, manganese, tin, uranium, coal, hydropower and timber.

Its major exports are diamonds, copper, coffee, cobalt and crude oil. Tanganyika, one of the largest lakes, is located in this country. An expanse of poetical beauty, the Tanganyika lies between several valleys and beautifies the banks of a number of Congolese cities. In the absence of an industrial base capable of meeting basic needs, DR Congo heavily depends on imports of everything from toothbrushes to motorcycles. The country lacks basic infrastructure like roads and telecommunication, thus offering a fantastic opportunity for investment in these as well as other sectors.

In separate interviews, the vice-governors of South Kivu province for political affairs and economic affairs, Didace Kaningini Kyoto M and Thomas Nziratimana Jiji called for economic relations with Pakistan. Appreciating Pakistan’s role in improving security conditions in the province, they said: Pakistani exporters and investors might find a good market in the country. The two also emphasized the need for increased diplomatic ties with Pakistan.

During a visit to the main bazaar of Bukavu, it was found that household items, electrical appliances, bikes, computers, crockery, plastic products, stationery, and lots of other articles are imported to DR Congo from either South Africa or via Dubai. We also came across a shop run by a Pakistani. Middle-aged, bearded Mohammed Ali said he belonged to Karachi and had come to DR Congo five years ago. He said that was a terrible period of ethnic bloodshed that had terrorized many indigenous businessmen into fleeing Bukavu. Mr Ali said he was only a worker at the shop whose owner had left the city for fear of attacks from an opposing tribe. Pointing to a shop across the road, Mr Ali said that store was owned by an Indian national who he said had extended him all support in that trying time when he needed help to maintain the shop. “It is mainly because of his (Indian’s) help that today I own this shop”, said Mr Ali.

Asked he how viewed the suggestion made by the vice-governors, Mr Ali said Pakistan should open a consulate in DR Congo and Pakistanis should take advantage of the promising Congolese market. He said the law and order situation in South Kivu had deteriorated when armed rebels launched attacks from Rwanda and Burundi, but had greatly improved since.

In their briefings, Pakistani military authorities also emphasized the need for Pakistan to draw economic benefits from this African country. General elections in DR Congo are set for March 2006 for which registration of voters is under way. Should the process pave the way for durable stability, Pakistan must go ahead to explore the possibility of establishing economic ties with DR Congo.

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