On the positive front, the month of December saw the United Nations Security Council approve an additional 3,200 peacekeepers on for the UN mission in the DRC (MONUC), raising the potential total force to about 8,700 troops. A comprehensive peace deal was finally clinched by all parties to the inter-Congolese dialogue, preparing the way for the installation of a transitional government and finalisation of a new constitution ultimately leading to national elections. Thomas Lubanga, the president of the Union des patriotes congolais (UPC), promised security guarantees for humanitarian agencies working in parts of the Ituri District in Equateur Province under his rebel movement's control, following months of increasing tension culminating in the expulsion of the Bunia-based representative of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Finally, the leaders of three rebel groups - Jean-Pierre Bemba's Mouvement de liberation du Congo, Roger Lumbala's Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie-National (RCD-N), and Mbusa Nyamwisi's RCD-Kisangani-Mouvement de liberation (RCD-K-ML) - signed a ceasefire agreement, which, if respected, allows for the provision of humanitarian assistance.
Throughout the year, there were also landmark events meriting cautious optimism.
With regard to the withdrawal of foreign armies from the DRC, separate agreements were reached with eastern neighbours Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, resulting in the near total withdrawal of aggressive forces from the DRC. Meanwhile, Kinshasa allies Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe - which came to the aid of then-President Laurent-Desire Kabila when rebel forces backed by neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda launched an offensive on the DRC capital - were reported to have fully completed the withdrawal of their forces from the country.
In April, agreements were signed between MONUC and the Kinshasa government, the MLC, and RCD-Goma for the reopening of the Congo river to commercial and civilian traffic.
On the donor front, the EC resumed development aid to the DRC after a suspension of over 10 years; the African Development Bank and the African Development Fund jointly approved a mechanism designed to help the DRC clear arrears of US $800 million owed them, representing 60 percent of the total arrears owed them by Kinshasa; World Bank President James Wolfensohn proposed the cancellation of more than 80 percent of the DRC's $12 billion debt, while a $454 million loan was made available to enable the country rehabilitate a wide range of ailing economic and social sectors; and the Paris Club announced the cancellation of over $4.6 billion of the DRC's external debt.
However, these achievements were arguably overshadowed by a seemingly endless barrage of setbacks.
Peace in eastern DRC, and particularly in the provinces of Equateur and the Kivus, remained elusive. Human rights atrocities were rampant, with a list of crimes including massacre, rape, and torture occurring on a daily basis, frequently unreported and almost always unpunished. Displacement of human populations reached catastrophic proportions, with OCHA reporting that access to at least 900,000 of over two million of these people remained impossible. And economically-fuelled ethnic conflict in Ituri District deteriorated to such a barbarous level that many humanitarian agencies issued warnings of genocide.
According to the October 2002 report by the UN Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the DRC, in the five eastern provinces of the DRC, the number of excess deaths directly attributable to the Rwandan and Ugandan occupation since the outbreak of war up to September 2002 had been between three million and 3.5 million people. Based on interviews with local and international relief NGOs, the panel reported a mortality rate for children under five years of 35 percent in areas most affected by the conflict, while malnutrition studies carried out by NGOs in both northern Katanga and the Kivus had shown that, in some places, 25 percent to 30 percent of all children under five years were malnourished.
Years of armed conflict had led to a social environment in which men abused women on a staggering scale throughout the eastern DRC, and children became instruments of war, forced to work in the mines and conscripted into armed forces, the report said. Destroyed farm production had resulted in food insecurity, malnutrition and high mortality rates for the displaced and host populations, while malnutrition, in turn, had substantially increased the exposure of the population to life-threatening illnesses, it added.
Unemployment had become the norm: an income survey by civil society groups in Butembo had found that 90 percent lived on a few cents a day and ate one meal a day, prompting many women to resort to prostitution as their sole source of income, the panel reported.
And even though the UN Security Council approved an increase in the strength of MONUC to a total of 8,700 military personnel, the sad fact remained that it had been unable to recruit for the total number of positions it had already been mandated to fill.
"And yet," said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his first news briefing of 2003 on 14 January, "I am still an optimist."
"Looking ahead, we can see that we are within striking distance of... pacifying the Democratic Republic of the Congo - the battleground of what some have called Africa's first world war."
For the 50 million people of the DRC - and the international humanitarian community that has appealed for $269 million in support of them for 2003 - this will be no small feat.
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