On Monday February 22, 2021, the high-profile Italian ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Luca Attanasio, was kidnapped on the outskirts of Virunga National Park and assassinated. What happened and who’s behind this heinous crime?
To answer this question, let us first analyse the crime scene.
Luca Attanasio and his companions, two other Italians and a Congolese, were murdered a little more than 10 km north of Goma, in the area commonly known as the ‘Three Antennas’ near the border between the DRC and Rwanda. A criminologist familiar with the region, believes that the location of this umpteenth bloody crime is significant.
In 2013, the area was already the scene of violent fighting between the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) and the M23 rebels, a former rebel movement supported by Rwanda at the time. Due to the proximity of the Rwandan border the rebels had access to an unprecedented source of supplies. The M23 had given the Congolese armed forces, under the command of the late Colonel Mamadou Ndala, a hard time. However, after several weeks of intense fighting, the M23 was finally dislodged. Ndala suffered a heavy loss of troops, and was forced to leave brand new military equipment behind.
Paradoxical as it may seem, the current permanent positions of the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) and Rwanda Defence Force (RFD) on both sides of the border should ensure that no rebel movement can easily venture in without being intercepted.
There is even unverified speculation about the existence of secret agreements that were signed between the Congolese and Rwandan governments in favour of joint FARDC-RDF military operations. Some analysts believe that the generals have made agreements under which the Rwandan military camouflage themselves in FARDC uniforms so as to make their presence on Congolese soil unnoticed and orchestrate crimes.
Citizen movements, civil society and inhabitants along the border, the majority of whom are Congolese speaking Kinyarwanda, have continued to denounce these indiscretions and the movements of Rwandan soldiers on Congolese soil. These allegations are formally denied by the Governor of Nork-Kivu, Mr Kasivita Carly, and the DRC government is exercising diplomatic caution, avoiding any active stance on the issue.
The three antennas, a cut-throat place
Many questions should be asked about the responsibility, motivation and interest that led to the assassination of the Italian ambassador in this particular place and not elsewhere.
Could it have been the indignation of FARDC soldiers who were not happy with their situation and wanted to draw the attention of the international community to the horrors of the war in the eastern part of the DRC, that has been going 25 years to the day?
Could it be a kidnapping organised and planned by some elements of the RDF and FARDC forces involved in mixed operations in the crime zone in order to make money?
Is it a sabotage by Rwanda against the development of the tourist industry in this Congolese area? Did the RDF act under the uniform of the FARDC on behalf of Rwanda to blame the FARDC in order to discourage tourists who wanted to visit the Virunga Park?
In any case, all indications are that this was a job by professionals who were well informed about the ambassador's movements. Some analysts specialising in security and defence issues in the sub-region believe that ambassador Luca Attanasio was a collateral victim of the tourism war. What could be more poignant than the assassination of an ambassador of a Western power, member of the European Union, to discredit the Virunga Park as a tourist area. This would ultimately benefit Rwanda, as the mountain gorillas that are the main focus of tourists in eastern DRC are also found in the neighbouring Volcanoes Park on the Rwandan side.
Some actors in citizen movements and civil society have argued that secret agreements between the DRC and Rwanda, without the involvement of the Congolese parliament, would put the DRC in a bad position, as in case of failure, the government would not share the responsibility with the National Assembly. Among possible solutions to insecurity, some residents suggest that the military operating in the East should be rotated regularly and replaced by new units from the West and the Centre of the country. They feel that the familiarity the troops have with the area encourages a certain amount of business at the expense of state authority and security for everyone.
Also, and despite the change in its mandate, the UN mission in the region, established in 2000 during the 2nd Congo War, continues to fuel controversy about its passive attitude towards the killing of civilians. UN missions still behave as observer missions, reducing their role to the macabre counting of victims' bodies.
Collateral victim of the war for control of wealth
Anatole France, a French author, wrote that business is nothing but hell. In the context of the sub-region this might well be true. A source specialized in the sub-region thinks the war for the control of wealth in the area is the reason for the ambassador’s assassination.
The region of Goma and its surroundings is a lawless zone with an explosive cocktail of armed groups and international businessmen exploiting strategic minerals, gas and oil, all the while working together with crooked Congolese generals. And since the secrecy of silence is best for these kinds of dealings, the presence of an ambassador suspected of being a humanist could only put the white-collar criminals on high alert. According to the criminologist we spoke to, it seems obvious that the Rwandan services had something to do with the killings. He stressed that if Rwanda had had an interest in seeing this area stabilised, it would have worked with the DRC for its pacification. Given the discipline and professionalism of its army it is likely that if Rwanda had chosen to step in to stabilise the area this would have been successful. As peace would likely have had multiplier effects on development in both countries, the only reason there can be for the lack of action is that Rwanda had alternative motives. It seems the country and some multinationals are benefiting more from the chaos and insecurity.
It seems Rwanda and some multinationals are benefiting from the chaos.
While we are still awaiting the conclusions of the investigation, the outcome is likely to be the same as with previous ones in similar cases: Luca Attanasio and his companions are collateral victims of the war motivated by a desire for control of this rich area. It is clear that his death was planned and carried out by a specially prepared commando. It was an operation to eliminate a man who already knew too much and who could open Pandora’s box when the time came. His numerous visits to the sub-region, his meetings with local notables and his reputation as a man sympathetic to the local population, are all aspects that caused nervousness and agitation amongst those benefiting from the chaotic situation in the sub-region. They therefore decided to make him suffer the same fate as many other inconvenient witnesses who have disappeared under the similar bloody circumstances.
Besides its forays in mineral exploitation, Rwanda has made the tourism industry one of its main sources of income. It is also developing technology to the extent that it is building a whole technological hub inspired by the model of Silicon Valley.
The Three Antennas are located at the gateway to the corridor leading directly into the prestigious Virunga Park. For several years now, Virunga Park has been undergoing shock therapy: development, anti-poaching, animal protection, reorganisation of the tourist industry, recruitment and training of eco-guards (rangers) are all cruising at speed with a view to getting tourism back on track permanently in the park. The Institut Congolais de Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), with the support of the Virunga Company headed by Prince Emmanuel de Mérode, are working towards these ends. The Virunga company has also embarked on the construction of hydro-electric power stations for the production and distribution of electricity in Goma and the surrounding region.
The ‘Visit Rwanda’ brand
In Kigali and other cities in Rwanda, you almost never see a portraits or effigies of President Paul Kagame. In contrast, the Visit Rwanda logo is clearly visible in the country, and you can even find it printed on the jackets of influential European football teams.
Since 2015, the tourism industry has grown significantly in Rwanda and is one of the major sources of foreign investment. In 2019 alone Rwanda welcomed 1.63 million international tourists including 173,944 holidaymakers which represented a 17% increase over the previous year. In January 2018, the easing of arrival procedures and the removal of visas for many nationals of different countries was implemented. It has helped to attract many more tourists also through the ‘Visit Rwanda’ brand. The most reputable airline in the Rwandan Region also facilitates flights to Rwanda in line with the country’s image as being clean, safe, green and without corruption.
The great apes that reside in the east of Rwanda are one of the main tourist attractions, with a spectacular ascent of the Nyiragongo volcano, and a night-time bivouac in the red glow of its active criterion at over 3,000m. Tourism alone, and mainly mountain gorilla visitation, brought $498 million into the country’s GDP. In 2024, the Rwandan government expects to reach $800 million in revenue from the tourism industry. On the Rwandan side, opposite the Virunga Park along the border with the DRC, in the same environment is the 160km2 Volcanoes Park where you can visit the mountain gorillas and different types of apes.
The town of Musanze, from where tourists visit the Volcanoes Park, is located at the foot of the mountains, 100km northwest of Kigali in the Northern Province of Rwanda. With an area of 530km2, it has a population estimated at 398,986 in 2012, living mainly from agriculture and hospitality. Due to the black volcanic and rocky soil and a humid mountain climate suitable for growing potatoes, fresh and organic fruits and vegetables of all kinds, Musanze is booming. In the last 5 years, the hotel industry has been increasingly developing with many hotels and facilities under construction.
60km away, by the shores of Lake Kivu, lies the town of Gisenyi, also a destination for a good number of tourists. Gisenyi is larger and more developed than Musanze, and neighbours Goma.
The cleanliness, safety and relatively cheaper cost of living Gisenyi has compared to Goma attracts a large Congolese community to reside in Gisenyi, despite the fact that Goma and Gisenyi need to compete for the same income that fosters their development.
Since the inaugural flight of Rwandair from Kigali to Kinshasa, many Congolese travellers have opted for Rwandair because of the 40% lower fares than those of airlines operating in the DRC. In doing so they also avoid the multiple hassles, disorder and forced begging observed in the Congolese aeronautics industry causing unforeseen additional costs to passengers.
In Goma (DRC), the hotel industry is also developing. Last year, a 5-star hotel, Hotel Serena, was inaugurated in the third quarter of 2020, the first of its kind in Greater Kivu. In the Great Lakes Region, Serana Hotels can also be found in Gisenyi, Kigali, Kampala and Dar-Es-Salaam.
Goma constructed its roads in 2016, and today the city has modern flats, hotels, bars and restaurants. The main thoroughfares are swept daily, and the internal tourists coming from other provinces and countries are seduced to revisit the city. This is quite a miracle after the volcanic eruption of 2002 carried away one third of the city and most of the downtown area.
From Goma, tourists can climb the 3,470m long Nyiragongo Volcano located in the Virunga Park 20km north of the city, visit the Green Lake and a small cave commonly called Kilijiwe which means in the local language big stone.
The monument in the city centre at the Chukudu roundabout, is the symbol of Goma, a silhouette of a man pushing a wooden scooter, locally made, used to carry goods up to a good half a ton. A Cathedral with a mosaic like tower that is visible from everywhere in the western part of the city, attracts the curiosity of visitors and decorates the sky of this corner of the city under a magnificent aerial view. The Mubambiro stream, 20km west of Goma, is a fresh and cool water where visitors sit along and dip their feet to relax, refresh themselves and cure stress and fatigue.
Further west of Goma in the Masisi territory, about 30 km away, is Mushaki, Malaika Lounge, a hotel located in the pastures overlooking the mountains with endless greenery at a high altitude where you can ride horses, taste fresh milk and cheese made on the spot...
For the inhabitants of Goma, a tendency to sell the image of the city is gradually taking hold and a kind of open competition is being observed with other surrounding cities in the region, notably Bukavu and Gisenyi... this is especially visible in social networks.
Goma had been visited by Nelson Mandela in 1991, the American actors Angelina Jolie and Ben Affleck in 2013 and 2017 respectively, the American artist Akon in 2014 and many others. When the area is visited by influential personalities, their testimonies affect positively or negatively the image of the place concerned and influence the flow of potential tourists. Since 2013 the city organises the annual Amani Festival with an agenda for Peace in the Great Lakes Region.
The military operating in the east should be regularly rotated by new units from the west and centre of the country. With the development of tourism in the eastern part of the country, many jobs for young people can be created in hospitality, likely encouraging many young people to specialize and take training in these fields.
Most analysts were outraged by the attention the death of the Italian received compared to the lack of attention for the many Congolese victims. They felt that this attack should be used to also talk about the Congolese who lose their lives every day in this part of the Republic. So many Congolese have been killed for over 20 years in this region. The multiplication of armed groups and the complicity of certain civil and military authorities mean that in Eastern Congo the value of life is scorned, trivialised and suppressed. Sadly, talking about the death of Congolese in the East no longer seems an interesting topic for the media. To awaken the journalistic flair of their students, teachers start their lesson with this funny example: "When a dog bites a man it is not an event, but when a man bites a dog it is an event". But if the dog starts biting everything that moves, is it an event or a non-event?
Why is it that the presence of the largest UN mission in history, with troops, budgets and impressive equipment, fails to deter serial killers? Why is Monusco's role limited to observing atrocities, even though their mandate has been change, hope, and protecting civilians?
Eric Mwamba is a Congolese investigative journalist and editor of Le Grand Journal. @edmjv