Members of DR Congo’s Africa Cup of Nations squad have used the opportunity of being in the international spotlight to call for peace in the troubled eastern region of their country.
Dozens of armed groups – including the notorious M23 rebels – have long plagued the mineral-rich east of the Central African nation, battling for control of the land there.
Conflict between the groups, which include pro-government militia, flared after a precarious six-month truce ended in October, with at least 60 civilians reportedly killed during attacks in North Kivu in one week that month alone.
Today the fighting continues within 25km (15 miles) of the province’s main city of Goma, in a region where the government in Kinshasa has failed to get a grip on security for the past three decades.
According to the United Nations, the heightened conflict has pushed 6.9 million people to flee their homes – with the organisation saying that the Democratic Republic of Congo is facing one of the “largest humanitarian crises in the world”.
“Everyone sees the massacres in eastern Congo. But everyone is silent,” DR Congo striker Cedric Bakambu wrote on social media.
“Use the same energy that you put into talking about the Nations Cup to highlight what is happening with us. There are no small gestures.”
DR Congo will play Afcon hosts Ivory Coast on Wednesday (20:00 GMT) in Abidjan for a place in Sunday’s final.
The country’s football association has asked the Confederation of African Football if the players can wear black armbands for the game as “a mark of mourning” and “a show of solidarity” for those recently affected by the conflict.
Contesting a semi-final for only the second time this century, the former champions previously lifted the trophy in 1968 and 1974.
Within 24 hours of posting his message on X, Bakambu’s words had already been seen by 1.5 million readers.
Although their nation – one of Africa’s largest – may be divided, several leading members of the DR Congo side have come together to call for peace in the east.
Over half the squad, including captain Chancel Mbemba, expressed support for victims and a desire to play for them in a video posted on Monday by a state-backed group aiming to deliver financial support for “victims of conflict-related sexual violence and crimes against peace and humanity” in DR Congo.
The message was then followed up by posts from various members of the team, including Mbemba, who set the Leopards on their way to victory in Friday’s quarter-final win over Guinea.
“A very big thought for all the victims of the atrocities in Goma and their families,” the former Newcastle United defender, who now plays in France for Marseille, said.
“I pray with all my heart that my country regains its peace.”
North Kivu, which has witnessed much of the recent fighting, is abundant in minerals including gold, diamonds and cobalt, a key component of the lithium-ion batteries used in mobile phone, electric vehicles and many models of e-cigarettes – vapes.
“I am Goma. I am Congolese. We want peace,” wrote Gedeon Kalulu, a mainstay of the Congolese defence alongside Mbemba.
“The players’ messages fall in an apparent online campaign driven by Fonarev, a state fund for victims of sexual violence related to the conflicts and insecurity in the country,” said the BBC’s Samba Cyuzuzo, who has covered the region for many years.
“Since the Leopards arrived in Ivory Coast for Afcon, its players have spread the message ‘Plus Jamais Seuls’ [No Longer Alone] by Fonarev in compassion with victims of atrocities in the country.
“Some popular musicians, like Fally Ipupa and GIMS, have also spread similar messages.”
Formed just over a decade ago, the M23 – which a UN report found was created by DR Congo’s eastern neighbour Rwanda – regrouped about two years ago after a previous peace deal floundered and has since taken over large swathes of North Kivu.
Rwanda has always denied backing the M23, but for many years it has criticised the Congolese authorities for failing to disarm ethnic Hutu rebels – some of whom are linked to the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
The M23 itself argues that it acts to defend the interest of ethnic Tutsis against Hutu militias it says are backed by the Congolese government, whose soldiers are also present in the region.
In recent years, DR Congo, the UN and the United States have accused Rwanda of sending its soldiers to fight in eastern DR Congo alongside M23 rebels, who face accusations of carrying out war crimes against civilians. Rwanda denies this.
As the fighting for minerals continues to the detriment of DR Congo’s innocent victims, a campaign started on TikTok towards the end of last year urging young people to give up using vapes given the human rights abuses carried out in a quest to secure one of their key components – lithium.
‘Let them smile a bit’
African champions when known as Congo-Kinshasa and then Zaire, the Congolese were the first sub-Saharan African side to play at a World Cup in 1974, since when they have failed to qualify for the global tournament again or add to their two continental titles.
However, the team have been affected by decades of political instability as well as economic and infrastructural decline in a country which suffered two devastating civil wars.
The latter of those, between 1998 and 2003, came to be known as ‘Africa’s world war’ given how it affected neighbouring states.
After knocking out record seven-time champions Egypt in the last 16, Yoane Wissa – the country’s top scorer at the 2023 Nations Cup with two goals – gave an indication of some of the incentives for a team who have yet to be beaten in Ivory Coast.
It makes me proud to fight for my country, because of what has happened there,” the Brentford forward told BBC Sport Africa.
“So hopefully now they’re going to enjoy and forget what happened in their life. We’ve done everything to just let them smile a bit.”