Late Saturday night, Islamist insurgents struck residences and a health clinic in the Congolese city of Beni, claiming upwards of 51 victims in close-quarters machete attacks designed to shock and horrify as much for their intimacy as for their brutality. The following morning, makeshift hearses trundled through the streets, their open truck beds bearing not even shrouds to cover the dozen-or-so bodies unceremoniously stacked within. Grieving onlookers snapped photos as rigor mortis set in.
Suspected rebels killed at least 36 civilians [later estimates were higher] in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the provincial governor said on Sunday, marking the deadliest massacre in the conflict-ravaged region this year. […]Local army spokesman Mak Hazukay told Reuters that the attack was staged in the early evening by rebels from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan Islamist militia that has operated in eastern Congo since the 1990s.The ADF, a secretive organization of only a few hundred fighters, did not comment.Hazukay said the raid was in reprisal for army operations against the ADF, which the government says is responsible for nearly all the attacks near Beni over the last year.However, a United Nations panel of experts and independent analysts says that other armed groups, including some Congolese soldiers, have been involved in attacks on civilians.
Dozens dead, Islamist involvement, potential government collusion—what happened in Beni has all the makings of a big news story. Aside from the initial wire service reports, no major media outlet has released an in-depth story on the massacre. Had such an attack occurred just about anywhere else, even in less accessible and more hazardous reaches of Syria or Afghanistan, reporters would have flocked to the scene. World leaders would issue condemnations and call for summits. Names and stories and pictures of victims would circulate on social media. We would see a new Facebook filter à la Paris or notice hashtags trending around the world. #JeSuisBeni. #PrayforBeni.Yet we heard so little.In French, béni means blessed. But when it comes to receiving international attention, Beni is cursed. The August 13 attack is merely the latest act of a violent drama that has claimed more than 1,100 lives in the region over the past two years.A Tale of Two ReactionsMuch has been made in recent years about how and why widespread mourning breaks out in the West after attacks on places like Paris and San Bernardino but not when terrorism strikes the likes of Garissa and Ankara. As disheartening as the empathy gap is, it is not the focus of this piece. It’s regrettable, but understandable, that readers grow numb to stories of mass deaths in far-off places they only know, sometimes inaccurately, as hotbeds of violence and instability. What’s less forgivable is when the international news media falls short of its core responsibility to faithfully inform the public of critical events around the world.Even in those high-profile cases where there was not a Western outpouring of sympathy in response to a terror attack, at least the Western press upheld a standard of professional coverage: Wire services released initial reports, major outlets dispatched reporters to the scene for in-depth investigations, and editors insisted on adding historical and geopolitical context to help readers understand what happened and why it was significant. In the wake of Beni, however, only the wire services upheld that standard.Wire reports aside, the only mention of Beni in a major American paper this week came in passing as part of another story. Monday’s Wall Street Journal:
GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo—Election delays and deadly clashes threaten to plunge this resource-rich country the size of Western Europe back into civil war, but have also given rise to peaceful activism in the country’s most violent region.In eastern Congo, which was at the epicenter of a brutal 1998-2002 conflict and where suspected rebels killed at least 36 people late Saturday [again, later estimates skewed higher], this new wave of peaceful youth activism echoes movements that have helped unseat long-ruling presidents in Burkina Faso and Senegal. […]The LUCHA group—a French acronym spelling out “Struggle for Change”—is bent on things being different this time. The group, which emerged in 2012 but has gained strength in the past year, has held demonstrations crafted as vigils for those slain in mass killings, marched through this verdant lakeside city with mouths taped shut and hands bound to show their commitment to nonviolence and staged sit-ins outside the local United Nations base.
Only out of Africa does news of a massacre arrive a day late and a paragraph down. But kudos to the WSJ for at least acknowledging Beni and incorporating it into a story about the LUCHA movement that was clearly already in the works.That LUCHA reacted so strongly to news of the massacre does tell us something interesting about the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While the international response was muted, the national response was not. It might seem obvious that the reaction at home was louder than the reaction abroad, but there’s no inherent reason why students and young professionals in Goma, an eight-hour drive south of Beni, should care so much about what happened to their countrymen in the north. After all, folks in Goma need not necessarily think of terror victims in Beni as their countrymen at all. National sentiment has never been as strong in Congo as the more parochial ties of place. National identity tends to be much weaker than geographic, religious, and ethnic sources of identity. The DRC is about the size of the Louisiana Purchase, after all, and the vast territory contains more than 200 distinct ethnic groups.Historically, the country has been held together not by democrats but by strongmen—first the vicious and greedy King Leopold II of Belgium, then Mobutu Sese Seko, and now Joseph Kabila. Mobutu and Kabila have found a way to govern the vast territory, and it’s not through Western-style democracy. It’s not exactly the hog-the-wealth-and-power-for-your-group approach of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Obiang’s Equatorial Guinea. Instead, the territory is so vast and the ethnic groups so many that no single group can completely dominate. The despots of the DRC have had to share, maintaining elaborate patron-client relationships with local leaders who swear fealty to the central government in Kinshasa in exchange for a sharing in the spoils of the country’s tremendous mineral wealth.Kleptocracy and narrow ethnic loyalties, not to mention years of relentless warfare, have done little to inspire public pride for the DRC among its 79 million denizens—and pride is the foundation of national identity. Such an atmosphere makes the public-spirited protests of LUCHA all the more remarkable. Despite the weakness of national identity, these protesters do genuinely seem to care about what happened to their fellow Congolese last weekend in Beni. The same could not be said of the international news media.Lessons from a MassacreHow did the media miss what happened in Beni? Even the WSJ’s bland summary reveals some of the pitfalls of reportage in this region:
U.N. officials say the tensions among local groups have skyrocketed. Researchers estimate there are at least 69 armed groups in this 48,000-square-mile region. In the latest of many incidents, the Congolese military said suspected rebels killed at least 36 people over the weekend in Mwalika, about 20 miles from the northeastern town of Beni.
Admittedly, there was not enough room in the piece to do justice to the story of Beni. There was, however, sufficient space to present the key facts in more precise language: ethnic groups, not “local groups;” massacres, not “incidents;” Ugandan Islamist rebels, not “suspected rebels.”Employing more precise language is just the beginning of what journalists can do to provide better Africa coverage. Here’s a wish list of five key concepts news reports should convey to help readers gain a better sense of what’s really going on in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and why it matters:
- Porous borders. The DRC shares porous borders with all its neighbors, especially its eastern ones. The borders are mostly just imaginary lines on paper maps, especially once you get off the major roads. Militias move back and forth across the imaginary lines, free to transport arms, supplies, and troops. This means that the DRC isn’t just hosting homegrown armed rebel groups; it’s become a veritable playground for all the roughest kids in the neighborhood, including enemies of Uganda, one of America’s more reliable counter-terrorism partners in the region.
- The limits of sovereignty. Like its borders, the sovereignty of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is more of a legal fiction than an actual fact on the ground. Decrees signed by ministers in the far-away capital often don’t have anything to do with what actually happens in the far-flung cities and towns of the sprawling country; Beni is almost a thousand miles from Kinshasa, the capital, and no roads connect the two cities. Even the relationship of the armed forces to the government is fuzzy. The troops in the east often aren’t paid on time and look to make up for lost wages and low wages by freelance activities of various kinds, often unsavory. Some survivor testimony from the recent massacres in Beni suggests that elements in the Congolese military may be involved in addition to the Ugandan rebels. Killers were reported to be downing beer, hardly the drink of choice for hardy Islamists, and speaking Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda spoken by some government soldiers in the area. Potential collusion with the Islamists aside, the poorly paid, poorly trained and poorly controlled Congolese military and its UN peacekeeper babysitters have yet to establish a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in eastern Congo, and aren’t set to do so any time soon.
- Narrow ethnic loyalties. Unlike the broad-based ethnic coalitions required to compete in nationwide Congolese politics, the militias running amok in eastern Congo tend to draw from far narrower ethnic constituencies. Fighters from the same group speak the same language and share similar customs, resolving basic issues of trust and cohesion essential to the day-to-day functioning of a military unit. For example, the legendary loyalty of the Congolese Tutsis or Banyamulenge of eastern Congo gave Jean-Pierre Bemba an extraordinary fighting force in his infamous 2002-2003 campaign. Bemba’s soldiers were so loyal and motivated that they were able to endure harsh conditions together, traversing more than a thousand miles from their homes in eastern Congo all the way to Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic—where they committed war crimes that eventually drew the ire of the International Criminal Court, which convicted Bemba this past June.
- Conflict entrepreneurship. A report from NYU’s Congo Research Group shows that the number of militias active in the region has gone from about twenty in 2008 to more than seventy today. One main reason for the fragmentation: profit. Running a militia is a profitable business in the DRC; enterprising lieutenants are splintering from their commanders to charter their own spin-offs. There’s a reason these men aren’t beating their swords into plowshares—subsistence farming is their main alternative, and those who aren’t armed and organized are, in the persistent state of chaos in this mineral-rich part of the world, the natural prey of those who are.
- Religion matters. Journalists and academics in the West are at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding Africa: Their training comes in a setting that is much more secular than their area of expertise. Africa is the world’s most religious continent, and from Uganda’s culture wars to Zimbabwe’s faith-based opposition movement to Nigeria’s ongoing struggle against Boko Haram, religion is a dynamic force from Cape to Cairo. Regarding the Beni story, there is some scholarly debate over the Islamist nature of the Allied Democratic Forces, the Ugandan-exile group blamed for Saturday night’s attack. Just about everyone agrees that at its founding in 1995 the ADF’s ideology was defined by its founder, Jamil Mukulu, who was born a Christian in Uganda but converted to a radical sect of Islam after time abroad in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Jason Stearns of NYU’s Congo Research Group contends that over the course of the ADF’s 21-year insurgency in northeast Congo its Islamist fervor has diminished as the group became more embroiled in local politics and disputes. Others aver that that the ADF retains impeccable Islamist credentials, such as ties to Al-Shabaab and a sharia court system known for meting out crucifixions and beheadings as recently as 2014. Regardless of which view is more accurate, religion is clearly an integral part of the story here.
This all looks very complicated if you are seeing it for the first time, but the massacre that transpired last weekend in the DRC is no harder to understand than events in many other world hotspots. Given how slapdash and superficial most press coverage of Africa is, it wouldn’t take much in the way of time, resources, or intellectual focus to do a measurably better job. With terrorist organizations like ISIS and Boko Haram looking to expand further in Africa, and Asian powers like China, India, and Japan scrambling for influence and lucrative contracts there, no serious student of geopolitics can navigate global trends with a blind spot obscuring this billion-strong continent. The wire services and, for that matter, the WSJ, deserve credit for doing more with Beni than most of their peers. We hope they’ll redouble their efforts. Stories like these are too important to overlook.