Magazine article The Spectator

Fear and Loathing in the Congo

Magazine article The Spectator

Fear and Loathing in the Congo

Article excerpt

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa

by Jason K. Stearns

Public Affairs, £18.99, pp. 400,

ISBN 9781586489298

Jason Stearns is a brave man. He once worked for the UN's disarmament programme in eastern Congo, a job which required him to probe the forests around the town of Bukavu, seeking out members of the local Mai Mai militia. When the UN peacekeepers made contact - and there was always a risk they would run into Rwandan rebels with very different priorities - his job was to persuade twitchy, traumatised child fighters to down their weapons.

Arguably, what he attempts to do in this book is even braver. Confronted with a story as complex as the Democratic Republic of Congo's, most writers would be tempted to either pitch a tale of personal derring-do or play the atrocity card, the better to win the sympathy vote. God knows that the country formerly known as Zaire suffers no shortage of stomach-churning events.

Refreshingly, Stearns does neither. He is not interested in telling us how he felt interviewing a gang-rape victim, whether he feared for his life walking down Kivu's ochre tracks or how many times he caught malaria. And while we are not spared many accounts of gruesome bloodletting, there is no gratuitous titillation here.

Rather, by establishing a precise chronology of violence, he seeks to demonstrate cause and effect - the logical links too often omitted from accounts of Congo's crisis. Stearns' ambition is to demolish the strange spell the DRC has cast over the world's imagination since well before Joseph Conrad made a life-changing trip up river. Congo's horrors are neither random nor unpredictable, he argues, and to keep labelling the place as the Heart of Darkness is lazy, racist and counterproductive.

His story starts in the mid-Nineties, the dying days of Mobutu Sese Seko, most flamboyant of Africa's Cold War despots.

Step by step, Stearns tracks the events that led to the takeover of Laurent Kabila, the falling out between the new Big Man and his Rwandan backers, the second war that followed and the accession of Joseph Kabila, his bland but wily son.

For the uninitiated, this is a scene dangerously littered with alien acronyms and unfamiliar names. What saves the reader every time is the personal narratives: the avuncular Rwandan general who tut-tuts about the 'mess' which was Rwanda's 1994 genocide, the professorial Congolese rebel leader so decent he is utterly ineffectual, the intelligence chief who pulls Kabila's strings from Kigali with a mixture of despair and exasperation. …

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