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Chapter Five: Chaos in the Congo

Sunday, September 24, 2000

By Anita Srikameswaran, Post-Gazette Staff Writer with pictures by Martha Rial, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Staff Photographer

His outstretched arms draped limply around the shoulders of the men helping him to his hospital bed. Thin legs took unsteady steps, too weak to hold up a skeletal body. His too-large head drooped to one side.

Minani Kashihamba was so tired.

Two and a half months before, rebels had raided his village, located in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They had stolen food, clothes, tools, even houses. Minani's family had fled, joining the ranks of people identified as "internally displaced." For all practical purposes, they were refugees, but they couldn't be called that because they hadn't been forced across a national border, at least not yet.


Minani had foraged in the jungles to feed his wife and seven children. He ate last, if at all. Two days before, other wanderers had brought him on a makeshift stretcher to the Mugeri Health Center in Katana. The 5-foot, 7-inch man weighed barely more than 80 pounds.

 
A young girl cries as she waits for someone to take her to a displaced children's feeding center in Kavumu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Foreign aid had provided a daily meal of maize and sorghum or soybean-based porridge, but the food supply was expected to run out within two days after this photograph was taken. Click to Photo Journal  

A short time before, he had been strong. Now he didn't have the strength to talk. He leaned on his wife as he sat on the hospital bed and listened to the head nurse. Their son, also malnourished, was on the next bed. Unlike most healthy 2-year-olds, he lay awake, not fidgeting, not crying, not even curious. His glances were the only clue that he was even aware of his surroundings.

Feruzi, the nurse, said that Minani and his boy would get better if they had a protein-rich diet. But milk was the only source of the nutrient that the medical center could reliably provide. Special intravenous fluids were far too costly and scarce, and so was meat.

Every day, more displaced people arrive at Mugeri, usually suffering from malnutrition, dehydration, dysentery and infections. Some have walked for days and traveled more than 100 miles in search of a safe place to stay.

Patients are often sent to Mugeri from smaller hospitals in the district because the center has a laboratory to test for cholera, anemia, malaria and human immunodeficiency virus. That does not mean it is a modern complex. It is a compound of one-story buildings reached by traveling a dirt road that winds through trees and brush.

People stay for awhile while they are being treated for diseases or malnutrition, or are having babies. The births offer one of the few chances for joy. When a mother is discharged from the maternity ward, she wears her best dress, usually with fashionable short ruffled sleeves, and the women of her village parade her home, singing and celebrating the birth of her baby.

Several old women with Hansen's disease -- better known as leprosy -- have found a haven at Mugeri, too, and show no signs of leaving.

There's also a clinic where as many as 50 people seek care every day. It opens at 7:30 a.m. and doesn't close until everyone in the queue has been seen.

On this particular week, two people out of 10 have been found positive for HIV, the AIDS-causing virus. They will be rehydrated if they develop diarrhea and will be given antibiotics, when available, for infections. But they have no access to the expensive drugs used in developed countries to keep the virus in check.

The unmet needs of this community, and the many others like it in Africa, frustrate health workers. Relief agencies distribute food and medicine when possible. Few patients can pay for services, so their caregivers don't make much money, nurse Feruzi says. He was asked what made him stay.

"There is nothing motivating me but my conscience," he explained.

in the spring, epidemiologist Les Roberts conducted surveys for the International Rescue Committee in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He came to some staggering conclusions.

Since August 1998, 1.7 million more people have died than predicted by standard demographic models. Nearly a third of those excess deaths were in children younger than 5. Almost half the deaths related to ongoing fighting in the region were among women and children.

While about 200,000 people have died in the last two years because of violence, many more have been killed by the indirect consequences of the fighting, which has curtailed medical services and blocked access to adequate nutrition. Health centers have been pillaged for drugs or shut down when the threat of attack was imminent. Cholera and meningitis have broken out among populations whose lack of nourishment made them sitting ducks for disease.

The problems were fueled by the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which lies east of the Congo.

In its aftermath, more than 2 million Hutus fled, more than half into this nation, which was then known as Zaire, fearing retribution from the new government. Many innocents came along with those who had committed crimes. The genocidaires -- those who had gone on the killing spree aimed mostly at Tutsis -- continued to mount assaults along the Rwandan border.

Three years later, armies from Rwanda and Uganda, joined by native Tutsis in the Congo, ousted the government of Mobutu Sese Seko and put Laurent Kabila into power.

But then, after Kabila made alliances with some of the Rwandan genocidaires, the Rwandan and Ugandan armies turned on him, along with certain Congolese rebel groups. Kabila in turn got support from the armies of Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia, plunging the whole nation into turmoil.

The fighting among the numerous armies and rebel troops has meant that ordinary villagers like the malnourished Minani Kashihamba are getting caught in a torrent of crossfire.

"All these forces have taken the [local] population hostage," said one human rights worker. "There are lootings, rapes, robbery, massacres, torture. The population doesn't know what to do or who to join."

According to the U.S. Committee for Refugees, 1.4 million people have been driven out of their homes. At least 400,000 were displaced within the Congo in the first half of this year, and about 30,000 Congolese have crossed into Tanzania, Zambia and Congo-Brazzaville, a separate, smaller nation.

Food shortages have reached the critical stage for more than 2 million people, and the food supply is rapidly dwindling for another 8 million, according to a January report from the United Nations Security Council.

Ingrained in the culture in this part of Africa is that no one should be denied shelter.

As a result, many displaced families have been bunking with locals or have taken over empty houses in the ghettos of Bukavu, a city in the eastern Congo.

 
Furaha Mirubunda gave birth to twin girls on June 27 at the Kavumu Health Center in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Prenatal care centers like this one are crucial in a country where experts estimate that in the last two years, nearly 500,000 children under the age of 5 have died unnecessarily. Click to Photo Journal.  

There are more than 50,000 such families, or about 275,000 people, said Claude Jibidar, coordinator of the U.N.'s World Food Programme in the eastern Congo.

In the Bukavu neighborhood of Bagira, to which thousands of displaced people have flocked, it is not uncommon for twenty or more people in four families to share one small house.

During our visit to Bagira, a translator talked to the residents of one home. This 12-year-old girl's father was shot, he said. This woman's husband was killed in the night a month ago, and their house was looted. That woman is taking care of these children because their mother was shot and killed.

The group that gathered said they were extremely afraid that they would have nowhere to go if they were removed from this house. They were very hungry. They felt naked, because their only clothes were the ones they had on their backs when they were forced from their homes. They had no pots and pans for cooking, no plates for eating.

"It's impossible to speak about sanitation," a woman scoffed. "We don't have soap. We can't wash our bodies."

This house and all the others were getting crowded, sparking fears that sickness would surely enter.

"And more people are coming," an older woman explained. "Someone who is running and afraid of dying, who doesn't have any choice, when he finds shelter, he sleeps there."

The international community, led by the U.N.'s High Commission for Refugees, is well-organized to provide services for those who have been forced out of their countries by war, but aiding people displaced within their own borders has been a more haphazard affair.

It is difficult to identify and locate the displaced, who often are running between the homes of relatives and friends, said Ahmed Shariff, a Philadelphia-based policy analyst who has worked with several peace-promoting organizations.

Another stumbling block is that the nation's government may not have staff and resources in place to oversee relief efforts for displaced people and, in many cases, it may be one of the parties involved in the conflicts that have pushed people out of their homes in the first place.

Religious organizations and humanitarian agencies often try to help, but it can be difficult or deadly to go into areas where fighting is still under way.

"There are those who will be courageous enough to drive into the bush to go to those villages," but no one can guarantee their safety, Shariff pointed out.

The arrival of thousands and thousands of strangers also can change people's customary hospitality into hostility.

The children in the displaced families often are sent to school in their new areas, but are expelled as soon as officials realize the parents are not paying for their education. According to the World Food Programme's Jibidar, only three out of 10 children in the region attend school.

Widows face additional challenges.

One woman in Bukavu, who guessed she was 70, was caring for five children in a rented house. But she did not have the means to regularly pay her landlord. Sometimes she could barter and give him something like a sack of cement.

Lately the landlord had been trying to evict her. She would leave, but then return after a few days when the owner began to feel guilty. This cycle had gone on for months.

Like many other houses, the one she rented was mired in squalor. She and her family slept on dirt floors in the cave-like mud and rock home. The tin roof was little better than a grate, patched with scavenged plastic. Ironically, the door was padlocked. Thievery was a problem in this neighborhood.

The woman was getting some assistance from a small group of widows that provides education and training.

Their husbands may have died recently or years ago, but they all face common problems, said Mary-Claire Dugisho, a coordinator of the widows' association.

"There is no joy anymore," said Dugisho, whose husband was killed by an armed band in their home. "In former times, women didn't work hard, it was the job of the husband. We stayed home."

Now, many rural women have traveled into Bukavu and other towns to work as porters, transporting bone-crushing loads on their heads and backs. They may earn the equivalent of 25 cents per load for their pains. Remarriage is not an option, in part because prospective husbands do not want to care for another man's children.

These women, like other Congolese, said their lot would improve if the Rwandan government withdrew its troops from their country. Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, told reporters recently that his soldiers would stay put until the threat of attacks from Hutu militants was resolved.

That could be a long time, especially because it's not clear how many Rwandan rebels, called the Interhamwe, are lurking in the jungles of the Congo.

But it also could be a huge drain on the new government of Rwanda. "How much can Rwanda continue to stay in the Congo as opposed to [focusing on] their own development?" said analyst Shariff. "It uses up more resources than the country can afford."

While they wait for the dust to settle, Dugisho and the other widows' association organizers are teaching sewing and other trades to their members. One 38-year-old woman glowed with pride as she carefully printed her name into a notebook, a skill she acquired only recently on her path to self-reliance.

Another benefit of the widows' interaction is that ethnic tensions have eased as the women have recognized their shared experiences. Tutsi, Hutu, Congolese, Christian, Muslim. Those differences have been replaced by camaraderie.

It's a message they'd like to pass on to their children.

"Educating a woman is like educating the nation," Dugisho says. "It is women who give life to the men. We need to sensitize them for peace."


Chapter Six: The young killers

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