War-torn Congo struggles to revive

Baseme Mukonbelwa pulls her emaciated twin daughters closer to her. One slumps and cannot even lift her head. The other's eyes open wide as she frantically tries to suckle her mother's empty breast.

"I need to go home to my other children," says Ms. Mukonbelwa, coughing. "There is no one to take care of them. They, too, will soon be dying."

With the peace process under way in the Congo, United Nation observer forces and aid organizations alike are gaining access to the interior of this central African nation - and they are finding the civil war's devastation everywhere.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has estimated that 3 million people have died here in the past three years. While some have been killed directly by the fighting, the vast majority, according to the IRC report, have died from starvation and disease. More than 2 million people are thought to be displaced inside the country after fleeing their homes for the bush. Due to a lack of transport routes and remaining security problems, the UN estimates that more than half of the affected population is still unreachable.

Environment suffers, too

Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund issued a report last week chronicling the havoc the war has wreaked on the environment. Much of the land has been stripped of its natural resources, says the report. And endangered species have been decimated by illegal hunters, poachers, and the starving.

According to aid workers, thousands of unpaid soldiers, militias, and guerrillas in the region - many of them children - have been attacking remote villages for months, pillaging for food and harassing and even killing innocent civilians. Villagers have consequently fled, leaving their homes for the forests, where they survive by eating roots and leaves and, if they can get it, bush meat, including monkey, rat, antelope, and porcupine.

It is only within the past two months, as the various parties to the 1999 Lusaka cease-fire agreement began disengaging from the front lines, that some of these desperate villagers are beginning to be able to make their ways back home.

The village of Kitchanga, 85 kilometers northwest of Goma in the forested Masisi district, is among the places slowly and painfully coming back to life.

Huts are being rebuilt, land is being cultivated, and mothers like Mukonbelwa are turning to the newly established feeding center nearby for help. The three-room center, run by Doctors Without Borders and supported by the UN's World Food Program, serves about 80 babies a day - initially feeding them intravenously, then trying to get them to take in some milk and porridge. The children range from tiny infants with bloated legs to bald 3-year-olds whose growth is so stunted they could easily be mistaken for infants themselves. The mothers crowd around straw mats, holding their sick children, cleaning up them up, and worrying about other children left alone at home.

"I go home at night.... But those babies never leave me alone," says Elvira Pruscini, the director of WFP in the area. "I know that they are dying because we cannot do enough for them... And I know there are so many more that are far away that we have not even reached yet."

In the bigger towns of the rebel-held east like Kisangani and Goma, the war has destroyed the economy, and food is scarce. The highest bank notes allowed in the East are the 20 Congolese franc bills (the equivalent of 0.1 to 0.06 cents), and these have traded hands so many times that they smell of fish, cassava, and sweat. Pharmacies stock malaria and cholera medicines but not "luxury" items like toothpaste, which no one can afford.

Every morning residents line up in front of the UN compounds in hopes of finding even an hour's work. "We are willing to be anything you want us to be," says Saleh Lukina, a homeless, unemployed father of four. "I can guard the airport. I can cut grass. Anything."

Greed alongside need

In Kisangani, bullet holes pepper the facades of the Belgian mansions from the colonial period, and acacia trees grow through the broken windows. The main street is a ghost town of boarded-up stores and faded billboards advertising one diamond company or another.

In Goma, the capital of the rebel territory, the situation is also fast deteriorating. But even as the vast majority of Congolese are forced to buy washing detergent and salt in small handfuls, others are making a fortune out of misfortune and chaos.

A scathing UN report released last month details the exploitation of Congo's riches. Implicated in large-scale looting of timber, gold, diamonds, and other resources are the two main insurgent groups, Ressemblement Congolais pour la Democratie and Forces Liberation Congolese, as well as the invading armies of Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda - including members of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's own family.

The report, which was rejected by all those denounced, says, for example, that Uganda -a country with no diamonds of its own - has "mysteriously" exported millions of dollars worth of the gems over the past few years. Rwanda, meanwhile, is calculated to have taken in at least $250 million in 18 months from exports of Coltan (Columbite-Tantalite), a mineral used in manufacturing cellphones, jet engines, and other high-tech items.

According to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, the pillaging is a threat to several endangered species. Fund Director Gen. Claude Martin, in a statement issued in Nairobi, voices concern both for the eastern lowland gorilla found in the Kahuzi-Beiga National Park, held by the RCD, and for the okapi, a member of the giraffe family found in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, held by FLC rebels. Both of the refuges are being mined for Coltan, and the animals are being pushed away, killed, or eaten.

Meanwhile, due to illegal hunting and poaching, the elephant populations in both the parks has virtually disappeared since 1996, when more than 3,600 were counted.

"There is really no one winning this war," one Western diplomat said recently, "It is all about loss."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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