The renewed fighting in eastern Congo is the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time, and The New York Times continues to do a poor job of covering it. Instead, in a front-page article today, Jeffrey Gettleman is played for a sucker by the M23 “rebels,” the armed predators who triggered the latest upsurge in violence by seizing the regional capital, Goma, last week.
Gettleman has stopped completely gushing like a schoolgirl over the M23 movement, which he memorably described on November 22 as “lean, young rebels in crisp fatigues.” He now calls them “a heavily armed paradox.” He recognizes that the M23 in captured Goma is “going from house to house arresting people, many of whom have not been seen again by their families.”
At the same time, the M23 generously let him visit their stronghold just to the north, Rutshuru, where he learned they are “able administrators.” He found cleanliness and order, and he even saw hand-painted signs that read “M23 Stop Corruption.” (Human Rights Watch visited the same area, and issued a report in September that found the M23 responsible for “summary executions, rapes, and forced recruitment.”)
Gettleman does at least recognize that “the M23 rebels are widely believed to be covertly supported by Rwanda.” But why the passive voice, as though he were only relaying suspicions from the streets of Goma? Instead, how about this: “United Nations Expert Panels dating to 2001 have found that Rwanda is stealing millions of dollars of minerals from eastern Congo, and the latest such report charges that the Rwandan minister of defense, James Kabarebe, is actually the M23’s supreme commander.” (That Human Rights Watch report warned that “Rwandan officials may be complicit in war crimes through their continued military assistance to M23 forces.”)
The Times article does rightly blame the Congo government and its president, Joseph Kabila, for corruption and for vote stealing in the November 2011 election. But Gettleman forgets that a year ago he dismissed the opposition leader, Etienne Tskisekedi, as a “rabble-rouser,” and the Times did not pursue the election fraud story.
Gettleman has entirely missed all three elements of the big picture. First, you learn nowhere in his article that three American administrations in a row have supported the Rwandan leader, Paul Kagame, and that hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid – the main donors are the U.S. and Britain – make up 40 percent of the Rwandan budget. Why hasn’t Gettleman – or another Times reporter – asked the donors why they haven’t applied more pressure to Kagame?
Second, the Times article does not explain that there are already 18,000 United Nations troops in Congo, who are standing idly by as the M23 attacks. Gettleman must have seen some of these blue helmets around, but he failed to press their commanders on why the U.N. violated its mandate to protect the civilian population.
Third and most important, Gettleman fails completely to illuminate the ongoing humanitarian tragedy. You would never know from his article that more than five million human beings have already died since fighting started in Congo in 1998. He does find room at the end of the story to talk to a single refugee, but you don’t learn that some 500,000 people are already displaced in the region. Some of those refugees that you see in photographs fleeing from the fighting are surely already starting to die.
(For a more complete look at the crisis in the Congo, see my article in The Nation.)