Educate a Community: History of D.R. Congo

October 3, 2013 by Diana Coombs

I learned this saying in history classes throughout my school days as a child and into college: “Those who don’t learn the past are doomed to repeat it.” There are some great events and people in the past we learn about and want to repeat or emulate, but, there are also events and people we learn of that we don’t want to be influenced by. It wasn’t until I stood on the very soil where millions of people were killed that the wise saying I learned sank in.

My colleagues and I had a layover in Kigali, Rwanda, on our way to Bukavu, D.R. Congo, to visit ELI’s school. Micah and I decided to take the short drive to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. To be honest, I didn’t know much about what had happened in Rwanda and why so many people were massacred in 1994. As I stood looking at the mass graves below, I couldn’t believe that it all happened when I was 11 years old! Genocide happens in my lifetime? I was shocked! I thought that was something of the past like when I learned about the Holocaust in world history classes. Even that seemed far removed even though it happened during the time period when my grandparents were born.

Mass graves located at the Rwandan Genocide Memorial

Mass graves located at the Rwandan Genocide Memorial

What caused this modern day genocide and why was it hitting me so hard? I had a burning desire to learn more. History was never a strong class for me, but I wanted to understand how the genocide happened.How did this war start and how did it lead to the death of millions of men, women and children throughout Rwanda and D.R. Congo? What were the effects on the innocent people caught in the middle of it all? As I researched, I learned that at the same time the genocide occurred in Rwanda thousands were also being slaughtered in neighboring country D.R Congo, into which the war had spilled.

Within a couple hours we would board a small plane to fly to the border of Rwanda and cross into D.R. Congo where ELI’s school is located. I wanted to know the history of the people to better understand the impact and need for our school there. Why here? Why this exact place? (To read about the location of our school and the importance of it, CLICK HERE). The many years of war and brutal killings that happened in these countries give us a better understanding of why ELI started a school in the slum of Bukavu, D.R. Congo.

Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960 and renamed itself the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Five years later, Joseph Mobutu led a coup and became the leader of DRC and renamed the country Zaire. Mobutu was not a good leader and allowed the people, land and economy to decline. People were left to fend for themselves and the army stole from the citizens since the government was not paying for their services. Out of frustration of the way Mobutu was leading the country, rebels began to form in the east. Ethnic tensions also began to rise between the Banyamulenge (minority who are native to Rwanda) and Hunde and Nande (majority) in northern Zaire.

In the neighboring country of Rwanda, genocide occurred in 1994 when the Hutu controlled government was overthrown by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (mainly Tutsi rebels trying to gain control of the government from Hutus) and in retaliation, the Rwandan government (led by Hutus) planned mass killings of Tutsis.

Skulls from the genocide in Rwanda

Skulls of people killed during the genocide in Rwanda. Photo courtesy of Micah Albert

Both Hutus and Tutsis began to flee to neighboring countries like Zaire to escape the genocide. One and a half million people took refuge in Zaire and built refugee camps. Within these camps, Interahamwe (Hutu extremists) hid and killed Tutsi and Banyamulenge fleeing Rwanda to seek refuge in Zaire. Over 500,000 people were killed during this time. Mobutu aided the Interhamwe by supplying them with weapons. To counter Interhamwe attacks, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (Tutsis) formed militias and the Liberation of Congo was formed by the Banyamulenge, led by Laurent-Desire Kabila.

In 1997, Kabila overthrew Mobutu and renamed the country back to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kabila’s rule was just as bad as Mobutu’s rule. The new government was weak and corrupt. There was still conflict in eastern DRC between ethnic groups. Between August 1998 and July 2003, war ensued when two brigades of a new Congolese army partnered with Rwanda to overthrow Kabila. Kabila fought back by getting the Interhamwe and other Hutu extremists in east DRC to rally against the Banyamulenge and Tutsis.

Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and his son, Joseph Kabila became the new president of DRC. Kagame (Rwandan VP and Minister of Defense) and J. Kabila met in the USA and agreed to pull back both their troops to stop the fighting. 5.4 million people died from starvation and disease as the war created refugees throughout the countries, causing massive areas where there was no clean water, no food, no medical attention, no education and no stability. People relied on outside aid and sometimes that was cut off because of war.

Rape, stealing and killing also took place as rebel groups invaded these refugee camps and took advantage of the people. In December of 2002, after the Interhamwe are dismantled and Rwandan troops withdraw from DRC, the war ended. There is a global and all-inclusive agreement which called for a two year implementation of a government with a presidential election. To this day the government is still not working well because different parties do not want to give up full control and power. The people suffer greatly for this. As you can see, ethnic tensions, war and greed for power and resources has created great instability within DRC.

The people of Bukavu have never recovered from the brutality of war and still live in oppression. Millions were displaced as they fled their homes to escape death. Those who stayed and who are still here try to rebuild their lives but it proves very difficult. Many factors come into play. The continual power struggle within the country takes the focus off of the citizens and leaves them in poverty. Men have “checked out” emotionally and escape the harshness of life by drinking their days away. Mothers are left with the burden of providing for their large families by themselves and earn less than one dollar a day. Women are threatened on a daily basis with the fear of rape. Children are forced to work or stay at home to take care of younger siblings instead of going to school and learning how to read, write and make a better life for themselves. The harsh realities of life diminish hope.

Children are left at home to care for their siblings.

Children are left at home to care for their siblings.

But there is hope! ELI is a beacon of hope in this war-torn slum. We bring the hope of Jesus as we teach our 650 students ranging in grades one through twelve. We not only provide a great education, but our staff members exemplify the love of Christ. We hope and pray that each of our students come to know God’s love. We also pray that the skills they learn in school will increase their chances of making a better life for themselves and their families.

Celebrating at ELI's school in DRC.

Celebrating at ELI’s school in DRC.


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Categories: DR Congo Education Vulnerable Children