In June last year, soon after Secretary of State John Kerry named his old Senate colleague Russ Feingold as the first American special envoy to the Great Lakes, one of Feingold's former constituents approached him with a welcome smile, and a puzzled look. Feingold had, after all, spent 19 years as a senator in the American Great Lakes.
"The is terrific," the man said to Feingold, the former senator recently recalled. "What are you going to be doing, checking water levels?"
"They thought I was going to be out in the middle of Lake Michigan with a stick," Feingold joked, after recounting the exchange.
When he told this story, the former senator from Wisconsin was stuck in traffic in Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a city on the shores of Lake Kivu, one of the lakes that gives the African Great Lakes — source of the River Nile — its name.
These Great Lakes are also the setting for some of Africa's most deadly conflicts. Up to 800,000 people died in Rwanda in the genocide of 1994. And in the two decades since then, an estimated 5 million people have died in Eastern Congo as a result of the violent scramble by dozens of armed groups for control of the region's fertile land and rich mineral wealth.
The area is "ungoverned," Feingold says.
"And people realize that you can form an armed group, come in, take what you want, treat the people how you want, and there's impunity," he says.
A Quid Pro Quo With Rwanda
Last year, the countries in the region signed an historic agreement to help get rid of the armed groups, one by one. The U.S. appointed Feingold to help hold these countries to that agreement. First up was the M23, a brutal militia that in November 2012 briefly occupied the provincial capital of Goma, allegedly with the support of weapons and troops from Rwanda. So in September 2013, Feingold met for a frank talk with Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame.
"The conversation would go like this," Feingold recalled. "'Mr. President, we see a credible body of reporting that Rwanda has given external support to the M23.' They would respond, 'That's not true.' To which I would respond, 'Please stop doing it.' Very civil. Move on to the next topic."
When the M23 was roundly defeated, it was hailed as a diplomatic coup for Feingold and the other high-level envoys from Europe, the U.N. and the African Union — who started calling themselves the "E-Team," for "envoys."
The optimism was palpable. The conflict in Eastern Congo had persisted for two decades, yet a major armed group was defeated and normally hostile neighbors were finally talking to each other. The E-Team had a collective feeling that this high-level attention from the outside world might be able to make some real change.
So in that important September meeting with the Rwandan president, Feingold said they not only put pressure on the president, they also made him a promise: to go after a group called the FDLR, the French acronym for the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.
The FDLR was founded by some of the leaders of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. After their killing spree they fled across the border and now live with their troops and families in the ungoverned jungles of Eastern Congo.
"Knowing that those individuals have not been brought to justice has to be very difficult," Feingold said.
So Feingold and the E-Team offered Rwanda a diplomatic quid pro quo: Rwanda would stop funding its rebels, the M23, and then the United Nations and the Congolese army would go after the FDLR.
That was the promise.
Timo Mueller is an analyst in Eastern Congo with the Enough Project based in Washington, D.C. He says Congo has not held up its end of the bargain.
While the Congolese army enthusiastically did battle with M23 last year, the FDLR is said to enjoy cozy economic relationships with some Congolese politicians. A leaked United Nations report found that the Congolese army has been selling its own weapons to the rebels they claim they're planning to fight.
"Rwanda is pretty frustrated," Mueller says. "Pretty angry that promises made earlier were effectively broken."
Martin Kobler is head of the U.N. mission in the DRC. Kobler was a member of the E-Team, and says the promise to Rwanda was not broken. There have been several successful military actions against FDLR positions, he says. So far they've only succeeded in dispersing, not defeating, the FDLR.
"They are scattered, they are hiding in villages, but above all, they do not want to fight," Kobler says.
Unlike the M23 — which fought more conventional warfare — the FDLR is well trained in guerrilla tactics. They disappear into the jungle they've inhabited for years, only to re-emerge later to wreak revenge on civilians. The FDLR has also used family members, villagers, abductees and other noncombatants as human shields.
"So, try to fight a ghost," says a frustrated Kobler. "We try to fight the ghost."
Despite Challenges, 'No Excuse For Inaction'
There are many in Eastern Congo who feel that the international community should not be getting embroiled in Rwanda's 20-year conflict.
Mark Dwyer is the DRC country director for Mercy Corps, the humanitarian aid organization. He says the FDLR is just one armed group among many.
The real problem, Dwyer says, is lack of state control in the DRC. Without that, even the defeat of FDLR would not make the Congolese people any safer.
"Unless you're able to control the region, another armed group will just take the void," Dwyer says.
But in a later interview, Feingold said the U.S. position would not soften.
"There is no excuse for inaction against the FDLR," he said.
In part, that's because they are guilty of terrible abuses — including rape, child abduction and sexual slavery. But it's also because they are, as Feingold explained, "historically linked to one of the worst crimes of the 20th century."
Twenty years ago, when the leaders of Rwanda's genocide first fled over the border to the DRC, international humanitarians welcomed them with food and free shelter. Now, the world has something to prove to Rwanda.
Feingold compared his mission to "diplomatic confidence-building," so that Rwanda doesn't just "believe the DRC, but they believe the international community, and they believe the United States when it gives them solemn assurances, that these efforts will be made."
For its part, Rwanda seems to be hedging its bets. M23 commanders, pushed out of the DRC last year, are allegedly roaming freely in Rwanda, re-arming and recruiting, possibly preparing to re-enter the fray.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The 20-year-old conflict in eastern Congo can feel like an alphabet soup of armed groups, scrambling for land and minerals. Today, we're going to hear about just two of those groups: one defeated, one still at large. And both key to a high-stakes diplomatic deal that's drawn in the new American special envoy to the region, Russ Feingold.
NPR's Gregory Warner has that story.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The former senator from Wisconsin, Russ Feingold, is stuck in traffic in eastern Congo.
RUSS FEINGOLD: Yes, I'm in traffic in its Bukavu and that's exactly where I should be if I want to take this seriously.
WARNER: We're in Bukavu just over Lake Kivu from Rwanda. And the traffic he's up against in this city is due less to a surfeit of automobiles, than of potholes, wider sometimes than the remaining pavement. The potholes often cited as a sign of the neglect of eastern Congo by a government seated 900 miles to the west. Go out of Bukavu for just 25 miles you can run into some armed groups.
FEINGOLD: This absolute cauldron of armed groups because it's ungoverned. And people realize that you can just form an armed group and come into a community, and take what you want, treat the people however you want, and there's impunity.
WARNER: Last year, the countries of this region signed an agreement to work together to get rid of the armed groups one by one, and the U.S. appointed Russ Feingold special envoy to hold these countries to that agreement. First armed group to go was the M23, a brutal rebel group allegedly supported by the hand of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who Feingold then met with.
FEINGOLD: The conversation would go like this: Mr. President, we see a credible body of reporting that Rwanda is giving external support to the M23. To which they would respond: That's not true. To which I would respond please stop doing it. Very civil. Move on to the next topic.
WARNER: When the M23 was roundly defeated, it was a diplomatic coup for Feingold and the other high-level envoys from Europe and the U.N. and the African Union, a team that called themselves the E-team, for envoy.
FEINGOLD: I had an idea that was only briefly in currency to call it the SWAT team. Possibly not as consistent with peace as it should be, but it had this quality that we just kind of swooped in.
WARNER: Swooped in and made the Rwandan president an important promise.
FEINGOLD: We will go after the FDLR after this is over. That was an important assurance.
WARNER: The FDLR is not just another armed group. Their name comes from the French acronym for the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda. It was founded by some of the leaders of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. After their killing spree they fled across the border and they now live with their troops, sometimes their families, in the ungoverned jungles of eastern Congo.
FEINGOLD: Knowing that those individuals are over here and have not been brought to justice has to be very difficult.
WARNER: Sort of like if the Nazis are just a border over.
FEINGOLD: I don't know how they could see it any differently.
WARNER: So Feingold and the E-team offered Rwanda a kind of diplomatic quid pro quo: Rwanda would stop funding its rebels, the M23, and then the United Nations and the Congolese army would go after the FDLR. That was the promise.
TIMO MUELLER: Rwanda is pretty frustrated, is pretty angry that promises made earlier were effectively broken.
WARNER: Timo Mueller is an analyst in eastern Congo with the Enough Project based in D.C. and he says Congo has not held up its side of the bargain. The Congolese army enthusiastically went after M23, which is the Rwandan rebels, but the FDLR is said to enjoy cozy economic relationships with some Congolese politicians. A leaked United Nations report found that the Congolese army has been selling weapons to the rebels, the rebels they claim to be fighting.
The head of the UN mission in DRC is Martin Kobler. He's the fifth member of the E-team, and says the promise was not broken. In fact, he took the U.S. delegation up in a helicopter over areas once controlled by the FDLR.
MARTIN KOBLER: You have just seen FDLR positions taken out. We have several actions against FDLR positions and they were successful.
WARNER: But the UN mission, called MONUSCO, has only dispersed the guerilla fighters. It hasn't defeated them.
KOBLER: They are scattered, they are hiding in villages, and above all, they do not want to fight. You see, they declared clearly, also publically, we do not want to fight MONUSCO so try to fight a ghost.
WARNER: The lawless scramble for loot in eastern Congo can seem like an endless episode of "The Wire."
MARK DWYER: I just see the FDLR as another armed group. There are many other armed groups.
WARNER: Mark Dwyer of Mercy Corps said that going after FDLR would not make the Congolese people any safer. The real issue is the potholes problem, Congo's lack of government.
DWYER: There are so many armed groups if you get rid of one, unless you're able to control the region, another armed group will just take the void.
WARNER: But in a interview afterward, Russ Feingold said the U.S. position would not soften.
FEINGOLD: There is no excuse for inaction against the FDLR.
WARNER: Because 20 years ago, when those genocidaires first fled into the DRC, the United Nations met them with food and free shelter. You could say the world has something to prove to Rwanda.
FEINGOLD: This is about creating a diplomatic confidence-building so they not just believe the DRC, but that they believe the international community and they believe the United States when it gives them solemn assurances that these efforts will be made.
WARNER: Rwanda, for its part, seems to be hedging its bets. M23 leaders, accused of horrendous crimes, pushed out of Congo last year when they were defeated, are said to be roaming freely in Rwanda, re-arming and recruiting, maybe preparing to re-enter the fray. Gregory Warner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.