The Heart of Darkness

October 28, 2016



the Congo

When Francis Ford Coppola wanted to write a nightmarish screenplay about the war in Vietnam, he looked for inspiration in Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness. The novel is based on Conrad’s early 20th century experience exploring the Congo. It paints a bleak picture of this beautiful area of the world. He then moved the theme to Viet Nam and created Apocalypse Now

At Human Rights Initiative we have been representing asylum seekers from the Congo for our entire 16 year history. Among my earliest asylum cases in the early 1990’s were asylum cases when the country was still known as Zaire, during the reign of Sese Mobutu, more about him later. What is it about this place that has caused it to experience so much heart ache? These modern human rights tragedies do not spring from the air. There is historical context.


Historic Context

The first use of the phrase, “crimes against humanity”, was by the African American minister and journalist, George Washington Williams, in criticizing the policies of Belgian King Leopold in what was then called The Congo Free State. [1] The Congo Free State was essentially the personal possession of King Leopold and resulted in the misappropriation of millions of dollars in natural resources from the people.

ED Morel in his book titled Red Rubber detailed the atrocities committed by King Leopold in his exploitation of the people of the Congo region, to obtain the tremendous natural resources of rubber and ivory. These atrocities included seizure of land, torture, dismemberment and systematic killing. Morel, along with Roger Casement began what became one of the earliest human rights campaigns in history: the Congo Reform Movement. This movement contained-one of the earliest uses of photography as a tool in a human rights work, as Christian missionaries utilized early Kodak cameras to record the results of torture. These photos showed the physical scars of torture, and graphically illustrated what King Leopold’s atrocities looked like.  In addition, literary figures like Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle brought their talent and notoriety to bear to raise awareness of these atrocities. Most estimates are that millions of Congolese died, in what some have defined as a genocide, although one not widely known. In 1908, as a result of the intense international press, the Congo became a Belgian colony, and known as the Belgian Congo.



The Congo became independent in 1960 after over 50 years of Colonial oppression, and finally held free elections. Patrice Lumumba became the first democratic leader of the new nation, and one of the earliest in sub Saharan Africa. Unfortunately he ran into the reality of Cold War politics.

“A dramatic, angry speech he gave …brought Congolese legislators to their feet cheering, left the king startled and frowning and caught the world’s attention. Lumumba spoke forcefully of the violence and humiliations of colonialism, from the ruthless theft of African land to the way that French-speaking colonists talked to Africans as adults do to children, using the familiar “tu” instead of the formal “vous.” Political independence was not enough, he said; Africans had to also benefit from the great wealth in their soil.” (Hothschild, 2011)


This sort of talk was bound to irritate the European powers. In addition, when the West agreed to Congolese requests for assistance, Lumumba made overtures to the Soviet Union. This sealed his fate. With the acquiescence, if not active support of the CIA, Lumumba was abducted, tortured and assassinated. This created an opportunity for a Congolese Army colonel, Mobutu Sese Seko to seize power. Mobutu became a Cold War ally of the United States. He maintained a firm and despotic grip on power for the next 30 years. Mobutu’s theft of resources was at a vast scale.

“The corruption in Zaire is legendary. The “kleptocracy” has its roots in the nineteenth century Congo Free State: Belgium’s King Leopold II used profits from the export of the country’s extensive natural resources to build a personal fortune — profits extracted under conditions of forced labor that included killing workers and chopping off hands if quotas were not met. Mobutu’s ill-gotten wealth is usually estimated at around $5 billion. Stories about his bank accounts in Switzerland and his villas, ranches, palaces, and yachts throughout Europe are legion, as are wide-eyed descriptions of his home at Gbadolite, in northern Zaire, his birthplace; “Versailles in the jungle,” it is called.”  (Berkeley, 1993)

Mobutu maintained power by ruthless means. I personally represented multiple asylum applicants from Zaire, the new name Mobutu gave the Congo. All of them told stories of torture and rape at the hands of the brutal security forces.


A very present past

Why would the West tolerate this despot? Our cold war policies and Congo’s vital mineral wealth led us to support what was clearly an authoritarian and hugely corrupt government.

“The tremendous mineral wealth of Shaba, with 80 percent of the world’s cobalt reserves and 20 percent of its copper supplies, helped Mobutu secure international military and financial support. The West, and Washington in particular, also had been using Zaire as a weapons supply and staging area for support of the anti-communist Unita rebel movement fighting the Marxist government in Angola.’  (French, 1997)


With the end of the cold war, Mobutu outlived his usefulness to the West, and aid began to dwindle. In the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide, Rwandan and Ugandan backed rebel armies invaded Zaire. Mobutu finally was driven from power and replaced by Joseph Kabila, whose son now leads the country. In the resulting instability and war, which has been characterized by widespread and systematic rape, over 5 million people have died.


William Faulkner, the great Southern American Author wrote:

“The past isn’t dead.  It isn’t even past”.

This is quite relevant to the Congo. What is the context to the human rights abuses that occur there today? This context includes decades of human rights abuses by European powers, over 100 years of exploitation of the tremendous natural resources, and the active interference with democratic development to further western interests. Does this absolve modern day Congolese from responsibility? No. However, it does mean that the West should be prepared to patiently assist in a meaningful way with the development of this country. Often I see the rhetorical question asked about refugees, “Why is this our problem?” Well other than our obligations under international law and our moral responsibility, there is a certain level of responsibility that flows from the fact that we had a hand in the destabilization of the Congo.

There are many signs of hope. One of my friends, Celestine Musekura’s faith based NGO, ALARM, takes teams of lawyers and other volunteers to the Congo and other African Countries to conduct trainings in ethics and peacemaking. It’s an innovative and wise start and they see a lot of progress.

At HRI, we continue to see a lot of people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (renamed after the fall of Mobutu). They share some traits: they are educated and passionate people who were willing to risk everything to make their country a free and prosperous country -and for that they are repaid with torture and imprisonment. They’ve left everything behind and have come to the United States because they believed that in the U.S. we stand for democracy and civil liberties. They have much to offer our country, because without exception, they respect the American ideals of freedom and opportunity. And it’s up to us to welcome them with open arms -to prove that we deserve the confidence that they place in us. Let’s earn their respect.

I’ve just scratched the surface of this fascinating and interesting country. I haven’t even mentioned the rich literary and musical culture of the Congo. For instance, Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s book Tram 83 was on the long list for the Man Booker prize this year.

-Bill Holston

Further reading

In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo by Michela Wrong

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild

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



Berkeley, B. (1993). The Atlantic Monthly; Zaire: An African Horror Story; Vol 272, No. 2; pages 20-28.

French, H. W. (1999). New York Times International; Anatomy of an Autocracy: Mobutu’s 32-Year Reign;

Hochschild, A. (1998). King Leopold’s ghost: A story of greed, terror, and heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.



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