Hell on Earth: An Interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning Journalist Nick Kristof


New York Times columnist Nick Kristof has seen "Hell on Earth" first hand. In 2007, he visited eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. He witnessed and wrote about a region that has been wracked by bloody conflict since spillover from the 1994 Rwandan genocide consumed the country in civil war and ethnic and resources-driven violence, to date claiming the lives of nearly 5 million people. Kristof arrived in 2007, a time when the conflict between Tutsi rebels and Hutu militias was starting to dramatically escalate again. The continuing violence has led to new waves of displaced civilians and nearly constant bloodshed.

A few days before rebel leader Laurent Nkunda was arrested in January, AJWS's Josh Berkman had the opportunity to ask Mr. Kristof a few questions about the warring militias, the affects of starvation and the prevalence of gruesome rape, which threatens the very fabric of civil society.

Why has catastrophic violence persisted in eastern Congo while the rest of the country has achieved greater stability?

Eastern Congo is a mess for two reasons. First, the Hutu-Tutsi conflict is still playing out, 15 years after the Rwandan genocide. Second, rebel groups can easily get support from neighboring countries and can export precious metals and resources such as coltan or diamonds through neighboring countries like Rwanda and Uganda. If running a militia wasn't profitable, there wouldn't be warlords.

Natural resources are a huge liability to Congo. Why is that?

One of the worst things a country can have is a vast bounty of natural resources, and Congo is a victim of that bounty rather than a beneficiary of it. Experts call this the "natural resources curse," and there's a well-known inverse relationship between a country's dependence on resources and its long-term rate of economic growth. One reason is that resource-dependent countries tend to have over-valued exchange rates, which harms other sectors of the economy such as manufacturing. Another reason is that rebel groups have a financial reason to fight and can monetize the territory that they control. Research into insurgencies suggests that the crucial factor in the rise of a rebel movement isn't grievance but rather the ability to exploit resources to pay for weapons and to make rebels rich.

DRC has been called "Hell on Earth." In addition to the killing, what is going on in Congo that, in your opinion, is most deserving of this epithet?

Rape is a problem in conflicts all over the world, but I have never, ever seen a conflict where the rapes are as widespread and as brutal as in Congo. Women are often raped with sticks that tear apart their insides; soldiers fire guns into the vaginas of women or girls. As best I can make out, the rapes have become a bonding mechanism for militia members. They engage in barbaric rapes as a kind of gang rite, and they show their toughness by demonstrating their cruelty.

People sometimes say that women are the worst victims of war, but I think that's mistaken one-upmanship; after all, the male mortality rate is significantly higher than that of women. But the culture of rape in eastern Congo is a pathology that is unfathomably horrible and will have reverberations long after the conflict is over.

With five million people dead, does this qualify as genocide?

The slaughter in Congo is awful, but I don't believe it's genocide. You have groups killing people in ways that often have an ethnic element, but it's not a case of a government or quasi-government deliberately choosing people on the basis of ethnicity and killing them or driving them out. It's more like the brutal chaos of Somalia than like the organized Sudanese genocide in Darfur. I think we should set a fairly high bar before using the word genocide to avoid devaluing it, and while Congo is horrendous in terms of numbers I don't believe it qualitatively rises to that standard.

What will it take to bring stability to eastern Congo?

There are some specific steps that are needed: a bigger, more robust, more mobile U.N. force with a stronger mandate; pressure on Rwanda to stop supporting Tutsi rebels; pressure on Rwanda and Uganda to halt the export of minerals from Congo; more training of Congolese forces; repatriation of more Rwandan Hutu to Rwanda and a crackdown on the remaining extremist Hutu elements; and also a harsher crackdown on the Lord's Resistance Army to the north. But what is needed above all is political will to deal with the problem; if the world's leaders have the will, the resources and policies will follow.

Why is engagement of high-level diplomats so important in ending humanitarian crises such as this one?

At the end of the day, diplomacy is still about carrots and sticks, reward and punishment. And only high-level figures can credibly promise benefits for cooperation or whacks for obduracy. The tendency with humanitarian crises is for Western governments to dispatch low-level, second-string negotiators, and that doesn't work. In contrast, the 2005 north-south agreement in Sudan followed an intensive high-level American diplomatic initiative. And the 2008 Kenya agreement likewise followed heroic efforts by Kofi Annan backed up by other world leaders, including Condi Rice.

Are people right to question the U.N.'s ability to protect civilians and humanitarian workers? What can be done to bolster their effectiveness where they operate?

U.N. peacekeepers are lousy, but far better than the alternative, which is not having U.N. peacekeepers. When I'm in Congo or elsewhere, I always conclude that the criticisms of peacekeepers are all valid—but, boy, I sure feel better in a tough neighborhood when I see the blue helmets. And some studies show that U.N. peacekeepers are highly cost effective, because the alternative is paying for long-term refugee and relief efforts that cost incomparably more.

Most Americans don't realize that our cellphones and laptops might contain coltan, one of the exploited metals at the root of so much violence in eastern Congo. Aside from not using these products, which is unrealistic, what can people with a conscience do?

I agree that a boycott of coltan isn't feasible, but we can put more pressure on regional governments. Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, has done a superb job running his country and he cares about international opinion—so we should hold his feet to the fire for his behavior in Congo. It was probably because he did feel pressure that his troops recently arrested General Nkunda, the warlord he had previously supported, in a move that may mark a step toward security. We can also demand that Kagame do more to encourage the repatriation of Hutus in Congo to defuse the warfare there, and ensure that Rwanda does see eastern Congo simply as its buffer zone.

We can demand an end to exports of Congolese coltan through Rwanda or neighboring countries. Kagame depends on the U.S. and we should use that leverage to help the people of Congo escape from their Hell on Earth.