Thursday, February 5, 2009

It's Ilunga Time for the Congolese

Back in 2004, a panel of linguists identified the 100 most difficult words to translate. These are words that are so idiosyncratic, so culturally specific, that it is nearly impossible to find an equivalent word in another tongue. In second place, for example, was the Yiddish word “shlimazl,” which is “a chronically unlucky person.” Coming in 7th was the Portuguese word “saudade,” which means “the hope that what is being longed for might return, even if that return is unlikely or so distant in the future to be almost of no consequence to the present.”

But the most difficult word to translate, according to the linguists, was the Tshiluba word “ilunga,” meaning “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time but never a third time.”

Reading the Congolese newspapers, it strikes me that it is now ilunga time in the Congo. There is in the air an anger, a militancy, I haven't seen before. The Congolese believe that the Rwandans and Ugandans have entered the Congo to establish, under the auspices of the international community, some sort of "free trade zone" in the Kivus and Ituri with the express purpose of exploiting their country's natural resources. And this prospect is infuriating the Congolese in a way that even the 1996 and 1998 invasions did not. They feel like they're being sold out, as much by France and the United States as by their own president.

As I've said before, not all dots necessarily connect. But here's what the Congolese see:
12/16/08: Herman Cohen, a nefarious influence peddler now working on behalf of the French, publishes an op-ed in the New York Times proposing an economic common market in the region. The market "would allow the free movement of people and trade. It would give Rwandan businesses continued access to Congolese minerals and forests. The products made from those raw materials would continue to be exported through Rwanda."

12/16/08: Ugandan troops helicopter into the Congo to stamp out the LRA. Kony, apparently alerted to the danger, manages to escape an hour or two before they arrive. Dubbed Lighting Thunder, the operation is described as a joint Ugandan-Southern Sudanese-Congolese effort, although the latter two's contributions are minimal. The widespread belief that the US was involved in its coordination is later confirmed by an NGO with close ties to the new administration.

12/25/08: The LRA disperses into northern Congo, where, like some sort of hideous Terminator, it reassembles itself and on Christmas Day slaughters several hundred innocent Congolese, apparently just for the hell of it. The Congolese death toll will soon approach 1,000.

1/13/09: Heritage Oil announces the discovery of a "world class" oil find in Lake Albert, straddling the Uganda-Congo border.

1/20/09: Five thousand Rwandan troops enter the DRC to root out the FDLR, under an arrangement so secretive that Kabila didn't even tell the chief of his own armed forces or the speaker of parliament about it. Kabila later goes on TV and promises that the Rwandans will be out of the Congo by the end of February.

1/28/09: La Lettre du Continent reports that France's President Sarkozy is going to propose that the Congo permit Rwanda to police the eastern Congo and eliminate the FDLR and CNDP threats. In return, the mineral wealth of the eastern Congo will be put in a "common pot" under the auspices of one or another of the regional economic hubs.
Cynics point out the following:
1) The Rwandans occupied eastern Congo from 1998 to 2003 and failed to crush the FDLR. In fact, they didn't even spend much time chasing them, pre-occupied, as they were, by looting Congolese resources.
2) The FDLR are semi-integrated into local communities, which makes it all the more unlikely that the Rwandans will be able to conduct a quick, surgical strike against them.
3) That some eyewitnesses say that the Rwandan army arrived with their women, children, and cattle in tow. That hardly suggests that they are planning a quick return.
4) That the Ugandan troops ostensibly hunting down the LRA have instead hunkered down near the oil-rich Lake Albert, several hundred kilometers from where the LRA were last spotted.

The Congolese sometimes appear paranoid, but in their defense nothing in their history gives them reason not to be. And you must admit: it is an odd constellation of events.

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