November 21, 2008 / 11:25 AM / 9 years ago

"Cursed" Congo still shocks and fascinates

DAKAR (Reuters) - Reports of massacres, rapes, looting and child soldiers have put Democratic Republic of Congo back on the world news agenda this month as Tutsi rebels battled government troops and militias in the east.

The fighting may be new, but the image of Congo it projects is not, communications experts and writers said on Friday.

In the West, description, discourse and even decisions about Congo are still shaped by Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novel ‘Heart of Darkness,’ which some believe has encouraged a view of the country as being beyond anyone’s help.

“Conrad’s novel helped fix in the European mind the idea of Congo as ... a moral void in which barbarism is the only law,” said writer Ronan Bennett, whose 1997 novel ‘The Catastrophist’ is also set in the central African country.

Conrad’s book follows seaman Marlow on his journey up a mighty African river through “a place of darkness” to retrieve ivory trader Kurtz, whose madness and whose dying words “the horror, the horror” have come to represent Congo.

There is much to horrify the observer today.

Experts on conflict-linked mortality estimate that even before the latest Congo fighting, which pits renegade General Laurent Nkunda’s rebels against the army, more than 1,000 Congolese were dying daily through violence, hunger and disease.

This continues to swell the staggering 5.4 million estimated killed by Congo’s 1998-2003 war and its aftermath -- the deadliest conflict since World War Two, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) aid agency.

With some of the highest levels of killings, rapes and child soldiers anywhere on the planet, small wonder that UNICEF calls east Congo “the worst place in the world to be a child” and women’s groups say the same for women there.

The U.N. Security Council voted on Thursday to send 3,000 more peacekeepers to Congo to help protect civilians and end weeks of conflict in the east, but countries will first need to offer the troops and it could take them two months to get there.

The idea of a dark, savage place resonates deeply in the Western psyche, to the point at which violence has become the expected national trait of Congo, and the country a canvas upon which the worst excesses of depravity have been painted.

“Ever since white outsiders have been there, it has thrown up the darker side of human behavior,” said Tim Butcher, whose 2007 book ‘Blood River’ retraces the eventful voyage along the Congo River of Victorian explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

Children who have been abandoned or orphaned by war eat dinner at the Don Bosco center in Goma in eastern Congo, November 20, 2008. Sign behind reads "Welcome". REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

“It’s a dazzling place, it blinds you, but its problems are so immense, people get spooked by the scale of it and the nature of the people. There is a propensity to violence,” said Butcher.

“It’s a curse for the Congo,” he added.


Conrad’s book was heavily influenced by what he saw of Belgian imperialism. At the time ‘Heart of Darkness’ was written, Congo was a personal fiefdom of Belgium’s King Leopold II, living under a brutal enslavement regime in which soldiers cut off natives’ hands to ensure rubber quotas were met.

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“Conrad also identified it as a great, portentous place,” said Butcher. “It has a bloody sense about it.”

Zimbabwean Winston Mano, Senior Lecturer in Communication at the University of Westminster in London, who specializes in analyzing how Africa is presented by the media said words like ‘violence,’ ‘war,’ ‘disease’ and ‘banditry’ are the ones Westerners most readily associate with Congo.

Mano says that emphasis on the ethnic conflict between Hutus and Tutsis, stemming from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, as being behind the latest violence reinforces the perception of Congo as riven by insoluble tribal enmities.

This in turn deflected attention from economic reasons why fighting rumbles on despite numerous peace attempts.

“It presents Africans as people who are savages, who are killing each other over tribal distinctions,” he said.

Mano said Congo’s rich deposits of copper, cobalt, coltan, gold and diamonds were as much a catalyst of conflict as ethnic enmities. “As a result the country is looked at as a source of minerals rather than a place where people live,” he said.

Novelist Bennett said Conrad’s bleak book had legitimized a Western view of Congo as beyond salvation.

“Congo is so irreducibly tragic, unknowable and savage that nothing can be done; and since nothing can be done, no serious effort is expended,” he said.

Editing by Pascal Fletcher

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