Sunday, June 24, 2007

A ‘Painful Way to Die’


By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Op-Ed Columnist
June 25, 2007

JOMBA, Congo

If you think you face tough choices, imagine you were living here in eastern Congo.

“If women go to the fields, they’re raped,” said Shabain Katuija, a local man. “If they don’t go to the fields, they starve.”

So why don’t men go to the fields instead? Olivier Sbasoro, a villager here, explained: “They rape the women, but it’s worse for the men, because they kill them or kidnap them to make them slaves.”

On this “win a trip” journey through central Africa with a teacher and a student, we’re visiting the forgotten war inside Congo. The death toll has already reached four million, making this the most lethal conflict since World War II.

The warfare has also caused a vast and potentially rich land to sink into hunger and poverty. Roads have returned to jungle, so as the rest of the world has gotten smaller, Congo has become bigger. When foreigners drove into a village that had been cut off by the insecurity, the local people hadn’t seen a vehicle for decades — and marveled at what they called the “walking house.”

After 10 years of warfare in Congo, much of the country is finally enjoying real progress, especially since U.N.-sponsored elections last year. But here in eastern Congo, war is ratcheting up again.

Grim shantytowns have been set up for some of the 150,000 people who have been driven from their homes by fighting since January. At one of these camps, I asked a chief if I could talk to a woman who had been raped recently. He introduced me to Angella Mapendo, whose husband had been killed and who was pregnant as a result of rape by soldiers.

When I had finished hearing Angella’s story, I looked up — and there was a growing line of other women who had been raped, all waiting to tell me their stories.

The tension is thick around Jomba, where a priest was executed recently for showing compassion and leadership. When we drove into Jomba, local people crowded around us to describe kidnappings, rape and murder by soldiers of various loyalties.

Peasants in some villages are now sleeping out in the bush every night, for fear that soldiers will raid their houses. At a local elementary school, I asked the children in one class how many had lost their fathers. Too many hands went up for me to count.

(Many of the rapes and killings are by soldiers loyal to Laurent Nkunda. He’s the warlord whose mountain lair I wrote about a week ago.)

You can see videos of these sights, and read the terrific blogs of Leana Wen and Will Okun, the student and teacher accompanying me, at nytimes.com/twofortheroad.

The U.N. World Food Program and a tiny number of aid groups are struggling to keep people alive. The effort is led by groups of heroic Catholic nuns and priests, supported by the aid group Caritas.

This war staggers on in part because the suffering here hasn’t registered on the international conscience, and because it has been allowed to fester and continue. Barack Obama and Sam Brownback are among the few prominent American politicians who have focused on the war here.

There’s no simple solution to the conflict, but we can lean on Rwanda to stop supporting its proxy force in eastern Congo, and also to work harder to repatriate Hutus who have destabilized Congo since they fled here after the genocide in 1994. We can push a peace process. We can support the U.N. peacekeepers. We can help with the reform and training of Congo’s security forces. And a six-hour visit by Condi Rice would help put the crisis on the map.

Of the many people I’ve met here, one I can’t get out of my mind is Cecilie Nyirahabinana, a young woman with a shrinking family. A few years ago, fighting led to famine and her two oldest children died. Her youngest, Anita, was still a baby and survived on Cecilie’s breast milk.

Then a couple of months ago, soldiers shot her husband dead. Since then, Cecilie has had nothing to feed Anita but green leaves.

So Anita is now skeletal and barely able to move, having slowly starved for months. Aya Schneerson, who runs the World Food Program office in the area, explained what Anita is going through: “These kids are in constant pain,” she said. “It’s a very painful way to die.”

And the way things are going, hundreds of thousands more will die that way.

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground.

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