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Hunger, disease haunt many in war-torn Congo

WASHINGTON (BP)–A sad-eyed father from Congo tenderly holds his malnourished 3-year-old son in his arms. Dejected and stripped of his manly role of providing his family’s food, he slumps in the crumbling local hospital, waiting in silence while his wife is out, somewhere, looking for something for them all to eat. He has no idea how she is doing it.

“My son is getting better, but when we return to the house he will get worse again,” the father shares. “There is nothing there to eat. It’s not that I haven’t worked — I have crops in my fields to harvest, but I cannot go up in the hills to get them because of the rebels.”

He doesn’t think he’s any worse off than most people in the area. His starving son nearly died, but many in Congo are in the same state … or worse. In one sense his family is blessed — at least they still live at home.

According to the Associated Press, residents of many areas of Congo have been reduced to eating rats and seeds. The war-torn area has been hit by rebellions and looting, disease and the destruction of crops from volcanic ash.

The AP reports that Congo’s humanitarian crisis was triggered in August 1998 when rebels, backed by Rwanda and Uganda, took up arms to topple former Congolese President Laurent Kabila. An often-violated 1999 cease-fire gained momentum following Kabila’s Jan. 16 assassination and the succession of his son, Joseph, to the presidency.

Encouraged by compliance with key provisions of the peace accord, donor countries and aid agencies are laying the groundwork for stepped-up relief operations in eastern Congo.

“Certainly, there is a humanitarian crisis in Congo of almost unparalleled proportions. It’s one of the biggest emergencies, perhaps the biggest emergency, that we have to deal with in Africa at the moment,” says Nigel Marsh, World Vision’s communications manager for East Africa.

World Vision is a Christian organization specializing in child-focused projects that are offered freely, regardless of the recipient’s beliefs, ethnic background or gender. “It is a commitment born of faith that fuels World Vision’s work, supplying staff with wisdom and ability, giving donors the resources to share, and enabling recipients to work toward the fulfillment of their dreams,” says Sheryl Watkins, a World Vision spokeswoman.

Marsh oversees communication from East Africa and visited Congo as part of a wider Africa Relief Office assessment of program opportunities at the end of January. “We’re not describing it as a famine, but it certainly is a very serious food emergency,” he explains. “The problem with that is, it shouldn’t happen at all. In most parts of the Congo, you could throw a handful of beans over your shoulder, turn around and they’d be growing.”

“But,” Marsh adds, “because of the massive displacements, because of the insecurity, because of a complete breakdown of economic structures in Congo, people can’t plant, they can’t harvest, they can’t sell, they can’t buy. And that’s leading to a large amount of malnutrition.”

The United Nations says at least 1.7 million have died, at least 2 million are internally displaced, and more than a million are homeless and unable to grow food. Only 30 percent of the population has access to basic health care and education, and relief agencies say they are operating with only a quarter of the funds needed to address the tragedy. Most of the victims are in the rebel-held east where tribal fighters still ambush vehicles, steal cattle and rape and kidnap women.

Marsh says many of the displaced people could otherwise be farming little pieces of land, tending animals, and otherwise surviving quite well. “First of all, these 2 million are removed from their home areas so they can’t harvest, and then they descend on people who may already be struggling, may already be hungry.” He explains there are many communities in east Congo that are playing host to large numbers of displaced people.

“That,” he continues, “leads to large numbers of medical emergencies. There is epidemic disease of almost every description in Congo. There are shortages of water, which again, in a country with so many rivers and so many mountain streams, shouldn’t be the situation.”

The Washington Post reports that the human toll of Congo’s 32-month war is “being sketched in apocalyptic terms, beyond any previously documented in an African conflict.”

According to a new death census conducted by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the number of lives claimed by the Congo war now approaches 3 million. The survey attributes a relatively small proportion of the deaths to the battles waged by the Congolese army and its rebel enemies. The overwhelming majority of deaths were related to disease and malnutrition.

“If anything, the situation is worse than last year, when our previous Congo mortality survey estimated the loss of 1.7 million lives,” says epidemiologist Les Roberts, the IRC’s director of health policy, and author of the study. This year’s survey re-examines several areas studied last year and covers three new health zones. Roberts found a stunningly high death rate in nearly all the areas surveyed — with extraordinary losses among children.

IRC’s figures are one-third higher than the number of deaths estimated from 18 years of war in Sudan, and three times the most frequently quoted death count for the Biafra conflict of the 1960s.

As assessments of Congo’s devastation accumulate, help has been slow in coming, according to the Washington Post. UNICEF has received just a tenth of the $15 million needed for essential drugs and therapeutic feeding centers. And despite vows of action from Washington that greeted the IRC’s first survey, U.S. disaster relief to Congo remains at just $13 million. Halfway through the fiscal year, that sum is already depleted.

“Agencies and people have been reluctant to invest,” Marsh explains, because the political turmoil has been so serious.

That’s why the work of organizations such as World Vision is so crucial. World Vision provides therapeutic nutrition and emergency supplies in many areas of East Africa. They are trying to get access to set up a hospital in Congo with a feeding center, and provide feed and tools to people who can farm. In addition, they often offer “food for work.”

Perhaps most importantly, they develop relationships with local churches and provide them with needed support. “Churches are strong in Congo,” Marsh says, “but they face tremendous pressures.”

Many, like Pastor Jacob Ndovya Kambiote, have found room at the hospital, and are being fed with hand-outs collected from local church-goers. “I was pastor in Mambaou, to the north of here, but a week-and-a-half ago we were all forced out by armed men,” he explains. “I made it here with my wife and six children, but we couldn’t bring anything with us and now we are dependant on the charity of Christians here.”
Chismar is Religion Today editor for Crosswalk.com. Used by permission.

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  • Janet Chismar