Conflict in Congo has killed 4.7m, charity says
Starvation and disease multiply toll from fighting
James Astill in Bukavu and Isabelle Chevallot
Tuesday April 8, 2003
A total of 4.7 million people have died as a direct result of the Democratic Republic of Congo's civil war in the past four and a half years, according to a report released today by the International Rescue Committee, a leading aid agency.
By the IRC's methodical calculations, Congo's convoluted war - one barely mentioned in the western media - has claimed far more lives than any other conflict since the second world war.
"Over the past three years our figures have been consistent and clear. Congo's war is the tragedy of modern times."
With a margin for error of 1.6m - a standard proportion is applied to areas too dangerous for researchers to reach - IRC admits its estimate is approximate. Yet few aid workers in eastern Congo doubt that a total death toll of 4.7m is possible.
"With an almost complete lack of medical care, as well as food insecurity and violence over a vast area, this number does not seem exaggerated," said Noel Tsekouras, the UN humanitarian coordinator for eastern Congo.
"Even the fact that we are wondering how many millions have died is mindboggling."
Only about 10% of the war's victims have died violently, according to IRC: the majority succumbed to starvation or disease as a multitude of armed groups sprang up and marauded their way through the villages and fields after Rwanda's invasion in 1998 drew seven other national armies into the conflict on Congolese soil.
For the past three weeks in eastern Congo, from Ugandan-occupied Bunia in the north to Rwandan-controlled Bukavu, via half-a-dozen warlords' fiefdoms in between, the Guardian has followed a trail of devastation. The scenes of destruction- the torched huts and weed-choked fields - are as ubiquitous as the country's green hills.
In recent fighting around Uvira between the Rwandan-backed Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) and traditional Mayi-Mayi militias local rights groups documented 5,000 cases of rape.
Last week 966 villagers were massacred outside Bunia, in north-eastern Ituri province, according to UN observers, in an inter-ethnic war stirred by Uganda's policy of divide and rule.
Isabelle and Bernita, two emaciated women who have each lost a leg, lie side-by-side in Bunia hospital. Their respective tribes, the Hema and the Lendu, are trying to wipe one another out.
Last year Uganda - in search of a reliable proxy - armed a Hema militia. The militiamen went on to massacre about 10,000 Lendus in revenge for atrocities carried out by the formerly Ugandan-armed Lendu militia. Then they switched loyalties to Uganda's enemy, Rwanda.
Isabelle and Benita lost their legs to mines sent by Rwanda and intended for Ugandan soldiers.
"I was coming home from the fields," whispers Isabelle, a 47-year-old mother of seven. "There was a bomb in the ground."
"Everyone wants peace - even the Lendus - but only God knows if it will ever come," she says, her voice quavering with pain. "Life will be difficult for a cripple."
Peace looks unlikely now. Last month Uganda scattered the Hema militiamen, and reoccupied Bunia and a dozen outlying airstrips. And now the Lendus are taking their revenge: a fact made plain by the massacre of 966 Hemas last week.
Another of their victims, Ruhigwa Likoka, 32, was the only man of his Hema community left on a pale green hill outside Bunia last month.
He and his neighbours had fled a Lendu attack hours before. Now, he was back to bury his four children beside the smoking ashes of his home.
They were too young to run, he explained, pouring earth and ashes on to their bodies.The militiamen had made them round up his eighty cattle, then macheted them when the job was done.
Further south, in Kivu province, there is better news. Since Rwanda substantially withdrew from Congo in October, the killing has tailed off, according to IRC. The reason is that the RCD, Rwanda's main proxy group, promptly lost ground to the Mayi-Mayi, who have generally preyed less on civilians.
Balia Hamabura's family was among the RCD's last targets in Kalonge, a rainforest village 40 miles east of Bukavu. His home had already been looted by Rwandan Hutu rebels, and his two sisters raped.
Then, as the RCD fighters fled the Mayi-Mayi's advance, they stopped to burn his hut and shoot his 65-year-old father in the leg.
"We are poor, but Kalonge is peaceful," he said, heaving sacks of charcoal on to a lorry bound for Bukavu. "When the Rwandans were here, we had to sleep in the forest. But now, thanks be to God, we can sleep in our houses again."
But with Rwanda apparently ready to re-invade Congo, his relief may be premature. Gunfire rattled through the deserted streets of Bukavu, the eastern Congo's capital yesterday, in a battle between rival Rwandan-backed rebel armies, which many analysts fear will be the pretext for Rwanda's return.
After 24 hours of heavy shelling and small-arms fire in the western and north-western suburbs of Bukavu, 16 people were reported dead, including six civilians, and 54 injured.
"Both groups are armed by the same master, Rwanda, so it's hard to see why they're fighting," said Didace Kaningini, the president of a business group in Bukavu. "People are certainly being killed, yet we believe this is a masquerade for Rwanda to intervene."
Rwanda's parliament authorised President Paul Kagame to re-invade Congo two weeks ago. UN peacekeepers have since been trying to confirm reports of incursions by Rwandan troops. Consequently, UN efforts to disarm Hutu militias in eastern Congo - whose presence Rwanda cites as justification for an invasion - have all but ceased.
"If we have to go back to Congo ... we will go back, and there's absolutely no apologies to make for that," Mr Kagame said in a radio broadcast.
With at least 5,000 Rwandan soldiers seconded to the RCD, according to the thinktank the International Crisis Group, Rwanda only ever scaled down its control of eastern Congo.
Another invasion could spell the end of a peace deal signed last week between Congo's government and rebel groups - and the war would rage on.
Long years of war
1960: Belgian colony gains independence
1965: Joseph Mobutu ousts President Kasavubu in coup, and remains in power for 30 years 1997: Rwanda aids Tutsi and other rebels to capture capital and set up Democratic Republic of Congo with Laurent Kabila as president
1998: Rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda rise against Kabila. Zimbabwe, Nambia and Angola send troops but rebels take east of the country
1999: Rebels split into Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) supported by Uganda, and Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) backed by Rwanda
1999: MLC and RCD and six countries in the war sign ceasefire
2000: UN force oversees ceasefire, but fighting continues
2001: Kabila killed and son Joseph Kabila succeeds him
April 2002: Peace talks: Kabila agrees to share power with MLC;RCD rejects deal July 2002: Rwanda agrees peace
Sept 2002: Uganda agrees peace
Dec 2002: Kabila accepts rebels in the interim government
AllAfrica.com: Democratic Republic of Congo
Congo Sans Frontieres
Printable version | Send it to a friend | Save story