Congo Crisis Escalates

Q&A with Delphine Schrank

Fellows Fall 2008

By Delphine Schrank

May 22, 2009

Delphine Schrank is a freelance writer who prior to her 2008 IRP Fellowship was a reporter for the Washington Post


Delphine Schrank is a freelance writer who prior to her 2008 IRP Fellowship was a reporter for the Washington Post

Delphine Schrank is a freelance journalist who just returned from five weeks reporting as an IRP Fellow in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a troubled land where decades of conflict have left the country's eastern area prone to violence and turmoil. New outbreaks of violence have left the DRC struggling to find a way to curb the clashes, even as the UN appealed for reinforcements for its peacekeeping forces in Goma, in eastern Congo.

Q: Why did you decide to report in the Congo?

A: It is the greatest unfolding humanitarian crisis in the world. Here is a country that is massively underreported and a crisis that is massively under covered. In addition to that I had a fascination for a country that I know had extreme potential: with its resources, its fertility, and a democratically elected government in place for two years, the first in forty years.

Q: What were some of the logistical obstacles and challenges?

A: First one that comes to mind, although probably not the biggest, was the endemic corruption. Bribes were necessary left, right and center. It was also difficult getting around in a country that is war scarred. Conflict had broken out while I was in North Kivu which made it even harder to move around on roads that are already terrible. This is in addition to the inherent danger. It is a lawless country that is heavily militarized. Armed groups that can get away with anything are all over the place. Q: Why has this story been so under covered? Is it purely for logistical reasons?

A: I don’t think it’s purely for the logistical reasons. I think there are many other countries in the world that have terrible infrastructure. I think it is an extremely complex situation to understand and it’s understood to be an ongoing cycle of violence and displacement. It is viewed as one million people living in the mud in little mud huts. It doesn’t have an easy label like genocide, whether that is true or not, in Sudan. Its been going on for a long time and I think we have a tendency here in the West to throw up our hands in despair at parts of Africa, particularly that country, and say well more of the same. Schrank on why we should care about the Congo

Q: Do you see a reasonable solution for the ongoing conflict through either humanitarian, global, or regional efforts?

A: There have been significant steps towards bringing it to a conclusion. There was a ceasefire in place as of January that has recently broken down. There has been a concerted effort by the international community that has stepped up in the past few months. I think it’s just a question of continuing down that path until some kind of political settlement is found between these multiple rebel factions. One of the chief problems is the residual effects of the Rwandan genocide that has not been resolved. The former Hutu government that fled over the border and are now dispersed throughout the forests of the eastern Congo are called the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR). The chief rebel faction that is now fighting the government forces justifies itself as a sort of defense force of Tutsis against that group. So that’s one problem. You resolve that problem, the FDLR, you put more pressure on Rwanda to take them in. Another big thing that I was finding is the massive problem of the Congolese army itself. Efforts need to be taken to reform, discipline and pay them, otherwise they continue looting the population and complicit in rape. There are multiple aspects that will obviously take time. It’s not irresolvable.

Q: How serious is the rape problem in the eastern part of the Congo?

A: Very serious, from what I understood. I didn’t really focus on that, because that has been reported on extensively. That is virtually the only news we get out of the Congo, the extensive rape in South Kivu. Every other displaced person I talked to had some kind of experience with it. Whether it was a sister who was raped, or a daughter that was currently out in the field to get food, who had been raped the day before or a mother that had been killed.

Q: How many miles did you have to walk at a stretch?

A: I was told that it was 50 kilometers which is about 26 miles. I’m not sure if that’s possible. But it’s not just that it’s long, it is also that you are up and down through thick mud, hip high roots of trees. It’s not a road it’s a crazy path of mountainous jungle. Schrank on the role of natural resources

Q: Is the US watching this conflict? Does it have a role to play in ending this conflict?

A: The US has been involved, and Special Envoy Tim Shortley was very instrumental in getting the different armed factions to the peace process in January, which has since broken down. It is a perception thing. All of the Congolese that I spoke with believe America is unilaterally and without much justification supporting Kagame in Rwanda. Since the perception is that Kagame is supporting the main rebel leader Nkunda which is a Tutsi, it is thought that America is behind all the problems in the eastern Congo. That it’s somehow the invisible hand at work.

Q: Do you intend to go back to continue to pursue this story?

A: I would love to! As I said this is really complex to understand and I get it now, certainly more than when I arrived. My main problem when I was there, for the first two or three weeks, I was chasing my own tail. I was reporting five stories at once, because there were five huge things I could see and that’s the problem. That place is so full of really big stories; whether it’s a potential genocide waiting to happen again, this LRA story that I didn’t get a chance to touch on, or the effects of transitional justice. Obviously I didn’t have enough time to scratch many of those, so I would love to go back.