Ghost Towns in Democratic Republic of The Congo
It’s a wonder the whole of DR Congo isn’t empty of life when one considers the tragedies that have befallen it. Pillaged by its leaders and central to the conflicts that were the Congolese Wars, its people have seen nothing of the riches it possesses and have lived in fear of rape, murder and genocide for decades.
In its time the country has been called Congo Free State, Belgian Congo, Zaire, Congo-Leopoldville and Congo-Kinshasa. It is the third largest country in Africa and the 12th largest in the world as well as being the 18th most populous.
The country has the second lowest per capita GDP in the world yet is the richest in the world in terms of untapped natural resources with estimates of its natural reserves being in the order of $24 trillion. Extraction of the resources have been hampered by the many wars in the region as well as what has been termed a kleptocracy running the country whereby a large proportion of national income has been siphoned off by its rulers and deposited abroad.
Its history has been one of colonisation and exploitation. First discovered by the west through the exploits of Sir Henry Morton Stanley, the country was taken as a private domain of King Leopold II of Belgium who had sponsored Stanley. He named the country Congo Free State and in a supposed spirit of humanitarianism set about improving the infrastructure of the country. However almost all of the projects were more about releasing the wealth of the country into the hands of Leopold.
Key to his plans was the extraction of rubber in the colony and quotas from farmers were strictly enforced with limbs being cut off from those who failed to supply enough. Rubber was a valuable commodity with the explosive growth in the ownership of motor cars. It is believed that millions of Congolese died as a result of exploitation and disease.
In some areas the population was almost entirely wiped out leaving uninhabited villages and towns many of which are still unoccupied as the Congolese fear the spirits of the dead. A government enquiry later concluded that over half the population died but many fear the figures were much higher still.
Many famous individuals and countries protested at the treatment of the Congolese and eventually after bowing to international pressure, the Belgian government took the country out of the control of the king and renamed it Belgian Congo.
Even under new leadership the country’s population suffered great hardship and many more died of illnesses brought in by the Belgian settlers.
Then in 1960 a victory for the nationalist party in elections led to the country gaining independence and once again secessionist groups wanted autonomy for their regions leading to a flare up in violence.
Many of the 100,000 European settlers realising that it was becoming dangerous to stay, returned to their own countries.
For the next decade a variety of leaders took control until the US joined with Belgium in supporting Mobuto and his anti communist party which agreed to give Belgium the rights to the country’s diamond and copper mines.
Mobuto failed to live up to expectations of him and again his people suffered brutality in his egomaniacal reign. He also bled the country dry financially, stealing an equivalent of the country’s national debt. International aid, sent to help the poor who were suffering under his presidency, ended up diverted into his bank accounts. Millions of Zairians ended up starving refugees fleeing from a country that could no longer support them. Once more villages and towns emptied as essentials ran out.
He continued in power, supported by the US until he was forced to flee in 1997. The new leaders restored the name of Congo to the country from its former name Zaire.
Eventually, the country and those around it had enough of Mobuto and the Rwandan Civil Wars which spilled over into Zaire. Leaders of Rwandan and Ugandan forces set their eyes on Zaire’s mineral wealth and sought to depose Mobuto.
What is called the Second Congo War which began in 1998 is often referred to as the African World War and became the deadliest conflict since World War Two leading to the deaths of nearly five and half million people. Again millions fled as the war saw the rise of another weapon, that of rape and sexual violence against the female population.
Whilst DR Congo is a land rich in mineral wealth and natural beauty, visiting the country would be an invitation to death, violence is so common that over three quarters of the population say they have been directly affected by it and it shows no sign of abating.
For now, its people are consigned to poverty, its rich wealth and diverse ecology are only dreamt about but perhaps one day when greed and violence are put aside DR Congo can take its rightful place on the world stage.