On a recent trip to the North and South Kivu provinces of Congo, I went to great lengths to go beyond the subject material I was there to research. I wanted to ask people—both Congolese and foreign—about their lives and experiences, and about their interpretation of the past and future for the families and communities of the people of eastern Congo. For a couple of weeks I bounced around in trucks and boats between Goma and Bukavu, and the myriad of different stories and historical interpretations became overwhelming. Just when I thought I understood “the real story,” someone would come along and offer a new perspective that caused me to re-evaluate my fundamental perceptions of the region’s history.
Not being an old Congo hand, I suppose this was to be expected. But having traveled and worked extensively in the region for the past seven years, including in other parts of Congo outside of the Kivus, I thought my insight was relatively respectable. However, at the end of my trip when I threw my backpack into a taxi at the Rwandan border and crossed into Gisenyi, Kigali bound, I spent the next three hours staring at the beautiful Rwandan countryside and coming to a single conclusion. There is no amount of external experience or assumptions one can make to understand eastern Congo without having been there to hear and feel the stories—to begin to process the formidable amount of information—just to get to square one. And sitting shotgun in that cab on the long way back to Washington, D.C., that’s exactly where I was.
There are few conflict histories more difficult to explain than that of eastern Congo. Experts and analysts vary on where and when to start the story—the Berlin Conference of 1884, Congolese independence in 1960 and the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the destructive reign of Mobuto Sese Seko, the Rwandan genocide of 1994. All of these points mark events that were catalysts in shaping what exists in Congo today. All also include an overwhelming complexity of internal political dynamics and external geo-political chess matches. In Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, Jason Stearns asks the question, “How do you cover a war that involves at least 20 different rebel groups and the armies of nine countries, yet does not seem to have a clear cause or objective?” He then follows with one of the most comprehensive explanations in print today and certainly the most accessible.
By bringing to bear the access he has gained through his extensive experience in the region, Stearns tells the story of how Congo became crippled through external manipulation, internal corruption, and continual conflict using the stories of individuals who not only lived it, but in many cases were leaders of communities, rebel groups, and the government structures involved. Putting a human face on the story, he goes beyond existing literature on the subject and creates a compelling narrative, steeped in empathy, for how and why events unfolded, and what drove individuals to take certain actions that have been characterized as the basest form of evil.
Chapter five opens with the sentence: “Like layers of an onion, the Congo war contains wars within wars.” This concept, put so simply, is critically important for the reader to understand and Stearns does a masterful job leading one there. He points out that the roots of conflict in Congo are not born of one or two conflicts but “at least forty or fifty, interlocking wars…local conflicts fed into regional and international conflicts, and vice versa.” Therefore, the reader begins to realize that at the crux of complexity in understanding the conflict in Congo is the recognition that there is no single driving force caused by ethnicity, politics, land rights, or minerals. Rather, the series of parallel conflicts must not only be understood individually, but should also be understood for their interconnectivity and contribution to the whole.
Through the book Stearns weaves the reader through historical accounts from the wake of the Rwandan genocide, through both Congolese wars, to the political and economic environment as it exists today. He does not pretend there are simple solutions for solving the problems that have become cemented over the past decade and a half or more. However, by using the stories of those he interviewed, along with his own deep understanding and commitment to the people of Congo, he has done a service to those hoping to find solutions by providing a tremendous starting point for understanding not only the history of both violence and hope in the region, but what drives and motivates the daily lives of those who exist amid it. Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is a must read for anyone with an interest in Congo and the Great Lakes region of Africa, and it certainly is a useful tool for those trying to get beyond square one.
Photo: Cover of Jason Stearns' 'Dancing in the Glory of Monsters'