Simon Robinson & Vivienne Walt / TIME Magazine – 2006-06-15 08:53:44
CONGO (May 28, 2006) — Sitting on a bed in a refugee camp in Katanga, a cursed province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaïre), Mukeya Ulumba, 28, recounts the epic losses she has suffered in recent months. Several of her relatives and neighbors were killed when antigovernment rebels stormed their village last November, moving from house to house in a murder spree that lasted for hours.
Ulumba and her husband managed to flee with their four children, leaving behind their life’s possessions, a ravaged community of torched houses and the bloodied corpses of family members and friends.
Now Ulumba is struggling to save another life: that of her 6-month-old son Amoni Mutombo. The baby lies whimpering in a clinic run by the aid organization Doctors Without Borders. His belly is distended by malnutrition, and although he appears to be in pain, he has no energy to cry. A nurse tries for half an hour to inject antibiotics into Amoni’s twig-like arm, its wrinkled skin wrapped loosely around the bones. Without the drugs, he will die, wasting away from starvation.
Some wars go on killing long after they end. In Congo, a nation of 63 million people in the heart of Africa, a peace deal signed more than three years ago was supposed to halt a war that drew in belligerents from at least eight other countries, producing a record of human devastation unmatched in recent history.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) estimates that 3.9 million people have died from war-related causes since the conflict in Congo began in 1998, making it the world’s most lethal conflict since World War II.
By conventional measures, that conflict is over. Congo is no longer the playground of foreign armies. The country’s first real election in 40 years is scheduled to take place this summer, and international troops have arrived to keep the peace. But the suffering of Congo’s people continues. Fighting persists in the east, where rebel holdouts loot, rape and murder.
The Congolese army, which was meant to be both symbol and protector in the reunited country, has cut its own murderous swath, carrying out executions and razing villages. Even deadlier are the side effects of war, the scars left by years of brutality that disfigure Congo’s society and infrastructure.
The country is plagued by bad sanitation, disease, malnutrition and dislocation. Routine and treatable illnesses have become weapons of mass destruction. According to the IRC, which has conducted a series of detailed mortality surveys over the past six years, 1,250 Congolese still die every day because of war-related causes — the vast majority succumbing to diseases and malnutrition that wouldn’t exist in peaceful times.
In many respects, the country remains as broken, volatile and dangerous as ever, which is to say, among the very worst places on earth.
Yet Congo’s troubles rarely make daily news headlines, and the country is often low on international donors’ lists of places to help. After Sudan, Congo is the second largest nation in sub-Saharan Africa, a land so vast and ungovernable that it has long been perceived as the continent’s ultimate hellhole, the setting for Joseph Conrad’s 1899 book Heart of Darkness.
It is in part because of that malign reputation–and because the nation’s feckless rulers have consistently reinforced it–that the world has been willing to let Congo bleed.
Since 2000, the U.N. has spent billions on its peacekeeping mission in Congo, which is known by its French acronym, MONUC, and it is at the moment the largest UN force anywhere in the world. But troops number just 17,500, a tiny presence in such a large country. In February the UN and aid groups working in Congo asked for $682 million in humanitarian funds. So far, they have received just $94 million — or $9.40 for every person in need. By comparison, the aid group Oxfam estimates that the UN’s tsunami appeal last year raised $550 for each person.
There are various explanations for the neglect. Perhaps the global reservoir of wealth and goodwill runs only so deep. Perhaps the attention and outrage directed toward another African tragedy, the genocide in Darfur, have left the world too exhausted to take on Congo’s. But a choice like that comes with a cost. Congo represents the promise of Africa as much as its misery: its fertile fields and tropical forests cover an area bigger than California, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Texas combined.
Its soils are packed with diamonds, gold, copper, tantalum (known locally as coltan and used in electronic devices such as cell phones and laptop computers) and uranium. The waters of its mighty river could one day power the continent.
Yet because Congo is so rich in resources, its problems, when left to fester, tend to suck its neighbors into a vortex of exploitation and chaos. And so fixing Congo is essential to fixing Africa. Says Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch: “If you want peace in Africa, then you need to deal with the biggest country right at its heart.”
That task is enormous. Over the past year, TIME reporters who visited the worst-hit areas in the east of the country found much of it in ruins. Roads and railway lines have washed away or simply disappeared into the jungle. Hospitals and health clinics have been destroyed. Electricity, for those lucky enough to receive it, is patchy. Refugees fleeing fighting between government troops and rebels talk of beheadings, rapes, massacres and torched villages.
Their stories, coming eight years after the start of fighting in Congo, sound eerily similar to the reports of atrocities committed in Darfur. In that sense they are powerful admonishments to those who believe the West’s responsibilities in Darfur may have been lifted with the signing of a peace agreement in early May: Congo’s warring parties too say they are abiding by a peace deal, monitored by UN troops. But the dying continues. Congo provides tragic proof that in some places peace and war can look a lot alike.
Malemba-Nkulu is a small town on the upper reaches of the Congo River. Since late last year, the town has swelled with the arrival of some 18,000 refugees who left their villages to escape fighting between government troops and a vicious rebel outfit known as the Mai Mai. Most arrive with little more than the clothes they are wearing. Sitting outside a modest house where they rent a room, Ngoi Banza Leontine, 45, and her husband Monji Banza, 47, say they fled the fighting with their nine children just before Christmas, after the Mai Mai came to their village and burned many of the houses.
The Mai Mai, who believe in magic and occultism, began cutting open people’s stomachs even before killing them to take parts of their bodies for fetishes. Leontine says she is haunted by the memory of one friend’s death. The woman was killed by a machete and then beheaded. “Her head was put on a stick on the edge of the village. I was very, very sad because it was someone I knew,” Leontine says softly, holding her 7-month-old baby boy to her chest to keep him quiet. “Whoever could flee ran as fast as possible. They raped women and burned the houses … Sometimes people were still inside them.”
Says her husband, who works for local farmers for about 25¢ a day: “They took tongues and thumbs and the genitals of women and men. We want to have a normal life. We need clothes and mosquito nets.”
For millions of Congolese like Esperance Live, every day seems to bring a fight for survival. TIME met her last year in a rundown government hospital in Bunia, a dusty town in Congo’s northeast. Her son Jonathan, 2, was propped up on a tangled wad of clothes atop a rusting bed; he hadn’t moved his limbs or spoken for weeks. Live had already endured a lifetime of sorrow. She lost two children to treatable illnesses. Her sister, her father and an aunt were all murdered in attacks by one of the ethnic militias that terrorize this corner of Congo. Doctors at the hospital determined that Jonathan had meningitis, a life-threatening but treatable inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord. Françoise Ngave, a nurse in the children’s ward, said, “If he stays here, he can live,” but his mother had little hope left.
Congo’s history often seems like an uninterrupted tale of woe. After decades of often brutal foreign rule, first as the private possession of King Leopold II of Belgium and then as a Belgian colony, Congo won its independence in 1960. But within months its first elected Prime Minister had been killed by Belgium- and US-backed opponents because of his growing ties to the Soviet Union, an assassination that eventually opened the way for army general Mobutu Sese Seko to grab power.
A US favorite during the cold war, Mobutu presided over one of the most corrupt regimes in African history, siphoning off billions from state-owned companies and allowing most of the country to languish. In 1996 neighboring Rwanda and Uganda jointly invaded Congo to eliminate the Hutu militias, known as the Interahamwe, that had been responsible for the Rwandan genocide and were hiding in Congo’s eastern forests. As the invading armies advanced across the country, Mobutu fled, and the invaders installed a small-time rebel leader named Laurent Kabila as President.
But things got worse. In 1998, after Kabila got too friendly with the Interahamwe, Uganda and Rwanda invaded Congo again, triggering what became known as Africa’s first world war. The scramble for power and resources dragged in forces from at least eight African neighbors, spawned a myriad of Congolese factions and set off campaigns of ethnic cleansing. Kabila, as nasty and corrupt as his predecessor, was shot dead by one of his bodyguards in 2001. His son Joseph, 29, assumed power.
One year later, after some arm twisting by continental power South Africa (whose leaders recognize the crucial role Congo could play in their plan for an African rebirth), the young leader and most of the rebel groups and foreign forces in the country signed a peace deal. A national army was formed, aimed at integrating soldiers who had previously been trying to kill one another. And the Congolese people, who maintain a sense of spirit and beauty despite the horrors around them, dared to hope for a better country.
In the three years since then, some things in Congo have improved. Mining firms have returned, and cell-phone companies — particularly welcome in a country that has just a few thousand fixed lines serving more than 60 million people — are doing a booming business. But in some parts of the country, the fighting has never really stopped. The UN’s peacekeeping force has got tougher in the past year, chasing rebels and apprehending or even killing them, but the force lacks the numbers to impose complete order. Congolese troops who are supposed to be helping the UN peacekeepers have proved ineffective and corrupt and have been hampered by slow and often nonexistent wages.
The European Union is working on ensuring that salaries and rations get to Congo’s soldiers, and there has been some improvement. But corruption is still a big problem. A Western official in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, estimates that at least $3.2 million of the $8 million a month budgeted for Congo’s military is stolen.
Frustrated and often hungry, Congolese units have taken to looting and pillaging the people they are meant to protect. In early May, Congolese troops in Ituri in the northeast forced at least 4,500 refugees out of a camp because they suspected militia fighters were sheltering there.
Some Congolese units have split back into their rebel and ethnic parts and turned on one another. The upsurge in rapes, killings and torture by Congo’s security forces has become so serious that the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo is debating whether to end its cooperation with the police and army altogether.
Congo’s elections, set for July 30, have become both the great hope for and the great threat to the country’s recovery. A report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group warns of trouble ahead, since many former belligerents “stand to lose power in the elections and are set on prolonging or disrupting the transition.”
The elections will be the Congolese people’s first chance to choose their leaders in more than four decades. But just holding the vote will pose a logistical nightmare. It can take four or five days to travel 50 miles by road. The country’s main artery remains the snaking Congo River, which is full of treacherous sandbars and shifting currents.
The country “hasn’t had a census since 1984. There are no ID cards in memory. We will need at least 40,000 to 50,000 polling stations,” says William Lacy Swing, veteran U.S. ambassador in Africa and head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission to Congo. He says the poll will cost $422 million.
“Elections should be a time of national unity and reconciliation. But if it is not handled correctly, it can be a moment of great division.”
Even if the election does run smoothly, Congo’s worst problems will surely persist.
The country is less a functioning nation-state than a patchwork of disjointed cantons. While the war’s messy front line no longer exists, trade between the east and the west is almost nonexistent. “It’s as if we are still two countries,” says Dr. Pascal Ngoy, a health coordinator for the IRC.
That division is felt most keenly in the provinces and is made worse by the long-standing perception that the capital doesn’t care about the country’s farthest reaches. The local administration in Bunia, for instance, says it sent about $1 million in taxes to Kinshasa in the first half of 2005. It got back just $5,000.
Can Congo be saved? Maybe, but it can’t save itself. If the country has any hope of escaping the cycle of violence, misrule and despair, it will need the largesse and mercy of governments and citizens all over the globe. “Even in five years, it will be lucky if we have isolated pockets of real progress,” says a Western official in Kinshasa, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch says, “The focus is on bringing this country to elections, but there’s almost no interest in the impunity and human-rights abuses that continue today. The truth is, Congo isn’t magically going to become a democracy. It’s going to take years of hard work and money.”
Is the world willing to see it through? The shame of indifference should be reason enough for action. But without more money from the developed world to help rebuild, without more troops to secure the peace and protect innocent civilians, without a genuine effort by Congo’s leaders to work for the country rather than just their part of it and without Congo’s neighbors ending their meddlesome ways, Africa’s broken heart is unlikely to heal. In 10 years’ time, you may be reading another story much like this one. The only difference will be that millions more people will have died.
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