The DR Congo Crisis: many tragedies combined

Updated Oct 02, 2020
People in the Democratic Republic of Congo endure a complex mix of tragedies. Together, these crises form a cauldron of fear and deprivation for millions of the country’s people.

Children and women are the most acutely affected. The DRC has been counted among the worst places to be a woman or child. Babies born there today inherit decades’ worth of adversity. The challenges include:
Many Canadians find news find about the DR Congo Crisis so overwhelming, they click away. Thank you for continuing to read. On this article, you’ll find answers to some of your top questions.
  1. How did the Democratic Republic of Congo conflict start?
  2. Why hasn’t the DR Congo crisis ended?
  3. How tough is life in the Democratic Republic of Congo?
  4. Why is the Democratic of Republic of Congo so poor?
  5. Why are there so many refugees and displaced people in the DRC?
  6. How has the DR Congo crisis hurt women and girls?
  7. How has rape been used in the Democratic Republic of Congo?
  8. What about Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo?
  9. How can I help the people of the DRC?  

Help protect children in the DR Congo

1. How did the Democratic Republic of Congo conflict start?
“I was just a footsoldier so I don’t really know why we were fighting. There are lots of reasons I think...”
The past few decades of conflict in the DRC can’t be understood without considering the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.

In Rwanda, the Hutu ethnic majority aimed to kill every member of the minority Tutsi group. They murdered 800,000 people in just 100 days. In response, a group led by Tutsis overthrew the Hutu government.

During and after the Rwandan genocide, an estimated two million refugees, mostly Hutu, poured over Rwanda’s western border into the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (then called Zaire).

A surge of Rwandan people carrying large bundles and mattresses walk across a bridge in the same direction. They look rushed and serious.In 1996, thousands of Rwandan Hutus who had taken refuge in the DRC (then Zaire) fled back to Rwanda to escape violence in war-torn DRC. Photo: Jacob Akol

The Rwandan genocide caused a kind of “domino effect” in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire). Hutu refugees formed armed groups within the borders of the DRC. Tutsi refugee groups rose up to challenge them. Additional rebel groups were born in the chaos.

The government of the DRC (Zaire) was unable to control and defeat the various armed groups – and war broke out. This conflict worried the country’s neighbours.

In 1996, Rwanda and Uganda invaded the eastern part of the country now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. They wanted to root out the remaining perpetrators of the original Rwandan genocide.

From 1998 to 2003, the conflict grew even more complicated. More countries got involved. Democratic Republic of Congo government forces, backed by Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, fought rebels supported by Rwanda and Uganda.

A crowd of Congolese children gather ground the camera with their hands raised. There are make-shift wooden frames in the background with tarpaulins stretched over them.
By the year 2,000, conflict in the DRC had forced 11,000 Congolese into this camp on the border with neighbouring Zambia. The UN projected that number would triple by year’s end, as war raged on. Photo: Robert Michel

The conflict in modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo became known as “The Great War of Africa”. It sucked in soldiers and civilians from nine nations – as well as countless rebel groups. And it was fought almost entirely inside the borders of the unfortunate Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Congolese people have never lost their spirit and determination. Their hopes soared temporarily in 2003 after the signing of a peace deal. But the DRC has endured new waves of violence since then.

The thousands of UN peacekeepers which arrived in 2006 struggled to enforce peace in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Since 2016, violence has arisen in parts of the DRC’s more stable south and central regions also. Many Congolese have protested that the peacekeepers haven’t kept them safe.

Peacekeepers rest by their military vehicle at the side of the road. On the road, several children struggle to push a wooden cart holding bunches of bananas.
By 2008, the UN had some 17,000 peacekeepers in the DR Congo. Despite another peace deal in January of that year, conflict continued between government and rebel groups. More than 400,000 people had been forced from their homes and were struggling to survive. Photo: Michael Arunga

Today, multiple armed groups continue to fight in the “Congo Conflict”. And it’s not just outside forces fighting on Congolese soil.

The “Mai-Mai” rebel groups are a range of local and community-based Congolese militias originally formed to resist the invasion of Rwandan forces. In recent years, some may have formed to exploit the conflict for their own advantage. Looting, cattle rustling or banditry are common tactics.

All in all, years of conflict have formed the backbone of the DR Congo Crisis. Conflict and its ripple effects have caused more than 5.4 million deaths since 1998.

2. Why hasn’t the DR Congo crisis ended?
“The Congo's apocalyptic present is a direct product of decisions and actions taken over the past five centuries.” – Dan Snow, in BBC News Magazine
A blurry photo of a teen girl carrying her baby on her back in a yellow patterned sling, as she hurries through the jungle.
An orphaned teenage girl carries her baby son back from a day of farming labour. As a younger girl, she witnessed the death of her father in conflict. Photo: Jon Warren

The so-called “DR Congo Crisis” has not been easy to resolve. That’s partly because it’s rooted in centuries of violence and abuse at the hands of outside powers.

The country’s past includes both colonialism and slavery. Its minerals and its people have been exploited by foreign governments and companies. The country has not been able to stabilize, to create a society where law is enforced and people, empowered.

As a result, conflict of all kinds has been allowed to burn in the DRC. Over the past decades, violent conflict within the country’s borders has killed millions of Congolese people.

Hope rose in 2006, when the Democratic Republic of Congo held its first free elections in four decades. For a brief window, tragedy became opportunity. But then in 2007, came a major outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. There would be another in 2018.

Today, millions of people in the eastern DRC continue to experience what some have called a “mega-crisis”. That’s despite the fact that conflict officially ended in 2003.

Millions of people have been displaced, having fled their homes during violence. The Democratic Republic of Congo is low on the UN’s Human Development Index despite its vast natural resources like copper and cobalt. And human rights abuses like rape and other gender-based violence continues unchecked.

3. How tough is life in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

A mother lovingly cradles her toddler-aged son, in a room with a dirt floor, rough walls and old furniture.
Mbakaniaki’s little son, Valentin, survived an Ebola infection when he was just seven months old. Thousands of Congolese children do not. Photo: Helen Franchineau 

It depends on your age and on your gender, and where in the country you live. Overall, millions of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo are affected by the country’s financial, political and social conditions. But life in the DRC is understood to be
  • most dangerous for children (especially girls) and women;
  • most dire in the eastern DRC.
In Facts about Poverty in the Democratic Republic of Congo, The Borgen Project noted the ways poverty affects the country’s people – especially those in rural areas. Here are some DRC facts from their site:
  • About 80 per cent of the country’s people live in extreme poverty.
  • Poverty is most intense in rural areas, and economic downturns have the greatest impact on rural families. About one-third of the country’s population has been displaced by conflict, leaving millions of people struggling to survive.
  • Years of conflict destroyed infrastructure for life necessities like clean water, sanitation and medical care.
  • Less than one-quarter of the country’s people has access to clean water.
The Eastern Congo Initiative notes that “the absence of schools, healthcare and reliable income-generating opportunities hinders communities’ ability to emerge from crisis.”

4. Why is the Democratic of Republic of Congo so poor?
“The mineral riches that should make the country wealthy have funded governments whose corruption has undermined the young democracy and left its people desperately poor.”                   
A little boy scrapes the last smears of food from inside a large bowl that’s held by an older person.Children in the Democratic Republic of Congo scrape the last remnants of food from bowls after a supplemental feeding at a World Vision centre. Photo: World Vision

Economic development in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been severely undermined by decades of instability and violence.

The country is largely dependent on mineral resources, particularly it’s cobalt. When commodity prices fall for minerals found in the DRC, the country’s people suffer.

The International Monetary Fund describes the DRC’s fragile economy as being “highly vulnerable to shocks”. Such “shocks” include drops in commodity prices as well as the country’s deadly Ebola outbreak.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is also weakened by corruption in the extractive sector, notes the International Monetary Fund. The International Crisis Group points to the challenge of “illegal exploitation of minerals” in the DRC.

Children in a trench are barefooted and dressed in work clothes. They scoop ore out of a stream and wash it in wooden straining racks.Children in the DRC washing and bagging ore in 2008. The photo was used in a World Vision child labour policy paper. Photo: Horeb Bulambo

Mining plays a significant role in financing rebel activity in the country and fueling the ongoing conflict. Banro, a Canadian mining company, halted operations in 2019 at several of its mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The mines had frequently been attacked by rebels looking to exploit the resources.

Groups like World Vision have been concerned for years about Congolese children exploited and working in the DRC’s cobalt mines. Conditions are extremely dangerous and pay is very low. International media have also covered such abuses.

A 2019 lawsuit brought by Congolese families against several global tech giants asserted that the DRC’s cobalt mining sector is dependent upon children, with males performing the most hazardous work in the primitive cobalt mines, including tunnel digging.

5. Why are there so many refugees and displaced people in the DRC?

An adolescent girl in a white school uniform leans on her books and tries to concentrate on what the teacher is saying. The classroom looks crowded.Schools, like this one in North Kivu, often need to relocate to escape the ongoing violence. Families have no choice but to move with them if they want their children educated. Photo: Helen Franchineau

In the DR Congo, multiple conflicts are raging simultaneously across a geographic area the size of Western Europe. That makes for many painful ironies.

As of 2020, hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing from the DRC as refugees to other African countries. At the same time, people from other African countries are fleeing to the DRC for safety.

The web site for UN refugee agency notes that fresh waves of unrest in the DR Congo have wreaked havoc on the stability of Congolese communities. Added to the results of previous conflicts,
  • an estimated 5 million people are displaced within the DR Congo, and
  • more than 880,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries like Angola and Zambia (as of November 2019).
Ironically, other people have fled to the DRC in their search for safety. The UNHCR site notes that there were more than 524,000 refugees and people seeking asylum from other places now on DR Congo soil (as of November 2019).

Conditions worsening
The UNHCR spoke out in February 2020 about their concerns for the worsening situation in DR Congo’s eastern Beni Territory. There, violence—and factors such as Ebola—had forced more than 100 thousand civilians from their homes in just two months.

Tragically, many families had only just returned to their villages in November of 2019 after fleeing violence earlier that year. “They remain in dire need of assistance”, said the UNHCR press release.

6. How has the DR Congo crisis hurt women and girls?

A mother and daughter sit quietly together, looking weary and despondent. The daughter is just an adolescent. The mother is wearing a torn shirt.
Marie (right) is very bright and would love to be in school. But the 14-year-old had to assume household duties like cooking, cleaning and caring for her many brothers and sisters. Marie’s mother (left) is very ill at a nearby clinic. Photo: Jon Warren

According to UN Women, women’s roles in the Democratic Republic of Congo haven’t traditionally included involvement in decision-making. Most women have been limited to the care of children and household tasks.

When families are displaced, as millions have been by conflict in the DRC, women become very vulnerable. Nearly half of all women and girls on the move experience abuses and violations of their rights during their journeys.

Conflict, instability and poverty have delayed human development in the DRC. Both women and girls are struggling to get ahead. According to War Child, nearly 4 million girls were not in school in 2016.

“School-age girls in the DRC are routinely denied an education due to early forced marriage, domestic chores, child labour and poverty,” say the War Child web site. Thousands of young girls are unable to make the dangerous trek to school, because of the enormous risk of physical or sexual attack.

Safe places to be children
World Vision offers child-friendly spaces for children who are displaced, endangered or forced from their schools. “They are a good way to distract me from what’s happened and have fun,” says 14-year-old Christine, as she jumps with her home-made rope. This child-friendly space is in Kasai Central, where conflict has caused the exodus of more than a million people.

Play may seem like a trivial thing, with all that these children are facing. But it’s a critical part of protecting childhood. As children play and laugh and learn in safety, counsellors are on standby to help them heal from what they’ve experienced. Get involved through Raw Hope

7. How has rape been used in the Democratic Republic of Congo?
“…the sexual violence in Congo is the worst in the world. The sheer numbers, the wholesale brutality, the culture of impunity – it’s appalling”
- John Holmes

Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo have their backs to the camera, as they lean over a table, cutting and pinning colourful bits of fabric. A bright, hand-crafted quilt hangs on the wall behind them.Programs like Women Stand Up Together (a project between World Vision and HEAL Africa) help give survivors of rape hope for the future. Women who’ve been raped are often rejected by their husbands and communities. After learning to use sewing machines, women can craft beautiful creations to sell for income. Photo: Kayla Robertson

Rape has been a brutal and common part of the DR Congo crisis. Sexual violence in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo has left the world horrified and saddened. It has commanded the attention of international bodies like the United Nations Security Council.

In 2010, the United Nation estimated that 200,000 women and girls had been assaulted in the DRC in the 12 years preceding. The UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, John Holmes, called rape in the eastern DRC “the worst in the world”.

Trying to stop rapes
But, even with international support for survivors, addressing rape in the DRC has been challenging for several reasons:
  • a lack of resources within the DRC’s judicial system
  • the stigmatisation of survivors
  • the costs of legal proceedings
  • lack of protection for survivors who report
Historically speaking, one of the primary reasons for rape in war has been the destruction of communities and families. It’s an effective weapon. Thousands of women in the DRC have reported their husbands rejecting them after they were raped.

“Rape is a weapon even more powerful than a bomb or a bullet,” says Jeanna Mukuninwa in Time. As a 16-year-old, she survived multiple gang rapes at the hands of soldiers.

“At least with a bullet, you die. But if you have been raped, you appear to the community like someone who is cursed. After rape, no one will talk to you; no man will see you. It’s a living death.”

An adolescent girl holds a bundled baby in her arms, while sitting on a hospital bed. We don’t see the faces of either.A 14-year-old survivor holds a newborn baby born of rape, at the Bethesda Hospital in Goma. Girls and women who have lived through rape often report struggling with their feelings toward their newborns. Photo: Jon Warren

Rape also comes with unwanted pregnancies, making mothers of girls barely into their adolescence.

“Not only are the women stigmatized,” reports Time, “but so too are their children. In eastern Congo alone, as many as 50,000 children were born of rape over the past two decades.”

Between May 2017 and September 2018, Doctors Without Borders treated 2,600 victims of sexual violence in the town of Kananga in Kasai Central province. Within this group, 80 per cent reported being raped by armed men.

Congolese women and girls are speaking up
“Congolese women need to be taken seriously so the DRC can finally witness the peaceful future that we have all dreamed about for many years.”
- Justine Masika Bihamba

Many women in the Democratic Republic of Congo don’t like being portrayed as nothing more than “victims” of a DR Congo Crisis.

They don’t feel the world spends enough time talking about the power, solidarity and sisterhood of Congolese women and girls.

A young woman stands up in a crowded meeting, holding pamphlets about Ebola. She addresses the group. Her posture and face look confident.
Confident and caring, 19-year-old Asha is a school leader. She represents her peers, and helps her classmates understand the risks of Ebola. Photo: Brianna Piazza

“The ‘rape capital of the world’? We women in Congo don’t see it that way” is an article by Justine Masika Bihamba. The piece was highlighted by news organizations around the world.

Bihama is founder of an organization in the DRC’s capital, Goma, called Synergie des Femmes. Here are some of her main points:
  • Congolese women can have a huge influence in their communities yet are almost entirely excluded from political life.
  • Progress to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape, in armed conflict situations, has been minimal over decades.
  • That’s true despite the presence of UN peacekeepers and endless discussion on the international stage.
  • When women come together to press for change, progress is made. In 2017, dozens of women were finally included in peace talks on the Kasai region, a hotbed of violence.
  • Women can help end the DR Congo crisis of violence against women and girls and change the country from the inside out.
Empowering girls to speak out
World Vision is also listening to the voices of girls and women in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Their child parliaments give girls a chance to learn about their rights – and speak out for themselves. They identify problems and perspectives and propose solutions.

“There is a proverb that says that educating a girl educates a nation,” says a 16-year-old youth advocate, Martine. She participates in a youth parliament and is increasingly effective as an advocate for girls in the DRC.

A family of Congolese women of different ages stands with one little boy, smiling for the camera. Everyone is wearing dressy clothing.
Martine (second from left), with four generations of her family, lost her father to war when she was a baby. She’s now president of the World Vision child parliament in her community, leading youth in discussions about issues like child labour and recruitment of child soldiers. Photo: Carole St. Laurent

“I tell them that there are rights of women, rights of girls that must be respected,” says Martine, of her work with other girls.

“I tell them not to be scared, not to fear and to even advocate for other women. I also tell them that girls can do something, even if they were sexually exploited.” “The DRC is a good country…but we have many problems, many conflicts. But we can develop ourselves, we can be a powerful country in the world. We can change our country.”

“This is what I tell children so that they can regain hope for their life.”

8. What about Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Children dressed in their best clothes wash their hands at a mobile hand-washing station.Battling Ebola requires making people aware of ways to stay safe. World Vision spoke to families after morning prayers at this local mosque, getting the word out. Photo: Carole St. Laurent

The DR Congo crisis has been worsened by the world’s second largest Ebola epidemic on record. This outbreak has been worsened by the ongoing conflict situation. For thousands of people, it’s made an already brutal situation even more tragic.

The Ebola virus has ravaged communities in the far east of the Democratic Republic of Congo since July 2018. These areas were already racked by dire poverty, more than 130 armed groups, widespread violence and mass displacement, Time reported.

Ebola basics
The World Health Organization has a page of Key Facts about the Ebola virus disease.  Here’s how Ebola has been working to infect and devastate communities like those in the eastern DRC:
  • Ebola virus disease is a rare but severe, often fatal illness in humans.
  • The virus is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads in the human population through human-to-human transmission.
  • The average case fatality rate is around 50 per cent.
  • Ebola is spread through blood or body fluids like feces and vomit.
  • Early symptoms include fever, fatigue, muscle pain, headache and sore throat.
  • Vomiting, diarrhea and rash are among the later symptoms.
Ebola in the DRC
It’s easy to see how Ebola spreads in the DRC, between communities and regions. People are often on the move, relocating for work, fleeing attack, or seeking to reach family. Even when families aren’t going anywhere, the virus spreads easily throughout communities.

Someone who falls dangerously ill in rural areas of the DRC is likely to be cared for by family. Decades of turmoil have devastated infrastructure like health clinics. There simply aren’t enough clinics and hospitals to look after Ebola patients.

This means Congolese families are nursing their loved ones through periods of vomiting and diarrhea. These body fluids are prime carriers of the Ebola virus.

In the DR Congo, people nursing others have rarely had supplies like gloves, gowns and masks. They’ve been vulnerable to contracting the disease.

When loved ones die, burial traditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo involve washing the bodies for burial. The Ebola virus can be transmitted even after death, when bodies are being lovingly washed.

A health worker in plastic apron, gloves, mask and boots hangs sterilized materials on a line to dry outside a wooden hut.Staff at Ebola treatment centres follow rigorous protocol to ensure contagion is avoided. They spend no more than 45 minutes inside, in protective gear, and everything must be sterilized with chlorine. Photo: Patrick Meinhardt

Challenges in controlling Ebola
The World Health Organization notes that good outbreak control relies on a package of interventions. These include:
  • case management
  • infection prevention and control practices
  • surveillance and contact tracing
  • good laboratory services
  • safe and dignified burials
  • social mobilization
Providing these things in rural, conflict-riddled areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo has been extremely difficult.

The World Health Organization has been tracking Ebola’s deadly progress in the DRC. As of January 2020:
  • 3416 cases of Ebola had been reported
  • 2237 deaths had been confirmed
  • 1136 people had contracted Ebola but survived
“Most complex health crisis”
Some have called it “the most complex health crisis in human history”. Here are a few of the challenges, according to the World Health Organization:
  • Nearly three metric tons of supplies must be delivered each day, throughout a conflict-affected region.
  • This takes a plane, two helicopters, four trucks, 37 ambulances, and 410 motorcycles to access remote areas.
  • There’s a lack of bridges and roads to transport health supplies where they need to go.
Community awareness is key
Community awareness is key in helping prevent the spread of Ebola. World Vision’s Channels of Hope program engages local faith leaders Ebola prevention, equipping them to spread the word. Many misconceptions are ended this way, and much of the stigma of having Ebola, reduced.

Not the only outbreak
Measles is also a significant killer of Congolese families. Millions of children don’t receive immunization for measles. As of January 2020, deaths from the most recent measles outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo topped 6,000.

9. How can I help the children of the DRC?
“In the Democratic Republic of Congo, children face serious risk of violence, exploitation and deprivation.”
- Michael Messenger, president, World Vision Canada.

World Vision’s Raw Hope initiative gives Canadians a way to help children in the world’s most dangerous places. That includes the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Children in simple uniforms stand outside their newly rebuild school. They are looking content, and some, even happy.In recent years of conflict, hundreds of schools have been attacked. This school was one of the first. However, it’s recently been rebuilt, and classes are being run to help the children who had dropped out. Photo: Patrick Meinhardt 

Through Raw Hope, Canadians can help provide child survivors with
  • essentials like food, water, medicine and shelter;
  • help healing from trauma they’ve experienced;
  • protection from abuse that can occur in unstable regions – where children’s governments and local agencies can’t provide help and support;
  • connections with caring local staff (95 per cent of Raw Hope’s workers are from the countries); and
  • reason to continue hoping for brighter futures and the support needed to prepare for those futures.