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A Nation Saturated With Misery

Pain and despair are everywhere. 'The war invades even our dreams,' one woman says.

June 15, 2003|Cynthia Scharf | Cynthia Scharf, who formerly worked as a researcher in The Times' Moscow Bureau, is a London-based writer on international affairs. She recently returned from Congo.

KINDU, Congo — In this provincial capital along the Congo River, the central marketplace is bare, save for a few shriveled tomatoes and cups of foul-smelling cooking oil. For months, traditional warrior groups, called Mayi Mayi, have stationed themselves outside town, where they have kidnapped, raped and killed civilians at will, often targeting them as they cultivate their crops. Few now work the fields.

Not surprisingly, severe malnutrition has reached alarming levels among children in Kindu. One day I entered a feeding center set up by Merlin, a British nongovernmental organization. There, a nurse checked a 6-year-old boy with matchstick-thin limbs and prematurely whitened hair. The boy emitted a barely audible cry for his mother. But she was not there to hear him. Kidnapped by either the Mayi Mayi or rebel soldiers, she is presumed dead. His father, meanwhile, was probably dragged off to fight.

There is a tragic irony to the presence of hunger in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country so fertile, it's said one can throw a stick into the ground and watch it grow. But 10 years of war have exacted a cruel toll, displacing large segments of the population and leaving a trail of hunger, disease and despair in its wake. Some 70% of the population has no access to adequate health care. In some areas in Congo's northeast, that figure is higher. Children, like the boy in Kindu, are the first to die, either from malnutrition, diarrheal disease or malaria -- all treatable conditions.

There are few places on Earth where the gap between humanitarian needs and available resources is so large -- or so deadly -- as in Congo. But not many people in the West know of its war. In the last five years alone, the war has claimed an estimated 3 million to 4 million lives, making it the world's deadliest conflict since World War II.

Numerous African armies and rebel proxy groups have fought since 1998, plundering the country's mineral wealth to fill their coffers. Last month, ethnic-inspired massacres in the Ituri region of northeastern Congo, coupled with the murders of U.N. peacekeepers in the area, finally drew the West's attention to the conflict. A French-led international force is now in Ituri, but few expect Congo's violence to end anytime soon.

Women are among the most vulnerable victims of Congo's spiral of violence. Rape, physical abuse and kidnapping are widely practiced by all sides in the conflict. In Ituri, the war's epicenter, human rights workers have reported numerous cases of women being sexually tortured and mutilated. No local health care exists for these women. International NGOs try but have a difficult time reaching the most desperate rape victims because the security situation is so precarious.

Human Rights Watch has estimated that 60% of all combatants in Congo are infected with HIV, making rape a weapon of war -- one that is cheaper than bullets. Women who are sexually assaulted or beaten while working the fields say they often have no choice but to return to the fields after they've been attacked. The fields are the only source of food for their children.

Isolation adds to the sense of fear and vulnerability many Congolese women feel. Congo has no functioning telephone or postal system. Without means to communicate, women suffer alone in silence, cut off from anyone who might listen to them, let alone help.

Marie, an elegant, middle-age community activist, speaks softly, but the pained frustration in her voice is unmistakable. "Here it is, the beginning of the third millennium, and yet our lives remain at such a primitive level," she says. "It's a dog's life."

Congolese are renowned across Africa for their ability to cope, to carry on despite horrific hardships. Marie believes that the capacity for survival depends to a large degree on Congolese women.

As the coordinator of a local NGO in central Maniema province, Marie strives to improve the safety and socioeconomic status of women throughout the region. There are 10,000 women in her association, most of them agricultural laborers, many of them illiterate. They provide 75% of the household income in the province while usually raising five to eight children, often alone, because their husbands have been taken away to fight, are ill or are dead. Each day the women live under the constant threat of violence.

A college diploma offers little protection from the harsh realities in Congo. Marie Jeanne has one but considers herself extraordinarily lucky to be scrubbing toilets for money. With unemployment running as high as 80% to 90% in some areas of the country, the 38-year-old mother of nine knows she and her husband, Elio, pastor of a Pentecostal church in Goma, are very privileged by Congolese standards. Elio is a former civil servant, but like most state employees he stopped receiving a salary years ago.

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