washingtonpost.com  > World > Africa > Central Africa > Congo

For Congo's Mothers, Unceasing Loss

War, Though Ended, Still Claiming Children

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 12, 2005; Page A01

SHABUNDA, Congo -- Nsimenya Kinyama carried her 3-day-old baby outside bundled in rags and gingerly placed his tiny, jaundiced body in a rusty blue crib. As the first healing rays of the morning sun reached him, he fussed and wriggled and stretched his arms up.

Kinyama, 36, stared at her new son with a flat, empty look in her eyes. She was wondering if this child, like the six who had come before him, would die.

Nsimenya Kinyama holds her new son, not yet named because his father is traveling. Congo's war, ended by a 2002 accord, " has made us poor," she said. "It has brought hunger, and it has given us a hard life." (Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)

_____War in the Shadows_____
Interactive Primer: Nine audio chapters trace the history of a decade of conflict in the Congo.

"God help me," she prayed, "so that this child can live."

It is a common prayer in Shabunda, a former trading center in eastern Congo that was ravaged by war, then left poor and isolated by the destruction of roadways that had long given it life. A recent survey by the International Rescue Committee found that Shabunda's children were dying in such numbers that more than half would not see their fifth birthdays.

Such is the nature of death in modern African conflicts. For every soldier felled by a bullet, countless children die quietly of preventable and treatable maladies while fleeing to safety, waiting for care at an understaffed clinic or huddling terrified and hungry in a jungle hideout.

"It's the war that has caused these problems," said Kinyama, who has a gentle voice and hair woven into braids. "It has made us poor. It has brought hunger, and it has given us a hard life."

Children die faster in Congo than in all but 10 other countries in the world, according to U.N. statistics. A house-by-house survey in Shabunda by the International Rescue Committee found that the child death rate was four times that for Africa as a whole. If conditions remain unchanged, 515 of every 1,000 children will die before turning 5, the organization said. In developed nations such as the United States, the comparable statistic is six deaths for every 1,000, according to the United Nations, which relies on somewhat different statistical methods.

The statistics mirror what mothers and medical personnel report. In a place where women often become pregnant seven or eight times, many say they have buried several children, generally after they died of malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, fever or other ills that rarely kill in places with adequate nutrition and medical care.

These deaths have continued long after the shooting stopped. A peace deal has been in place in eastern Congo since 2002, but the International Rescue Committee survey conducted last year found that 1,000 Congolese a day -- largely children -- were still dying from the indirect consequences of the war.

In total, the group estimated that the war and its aftermath have led to the deaths of nearly 4 million Congolese since 1998.

Instability imperils even those health services that do exist. Armed men last month robbed an office of the French aid group Doctors Without Borders in Kabati, a town in the province north of here, forcing it to temporarily shut down most operations. In Shabunda, a hospital dispute led to the barring of two Doctors Without Borders physicians for several days recently, leaving only one doctor working in a region of 150,000 people.

Limited education, especially for girls, has contributed to the death toll. Many mothers, with little or no formal education, bring their children to the hospital only when they are near death and often after trying traditional potions or enemas to cure them, medical personnel say.

"Ignorance is the biggest disease," said Marisa Osodo, a Kenyan nurse and midwife working here for Doctors Without Borders. Osodo, who previously worked in trouble spots such as southern Sudan and the Congo Republic, said she had never seen death become so commonplace. "Most women have lost at least half of their children," she said.

Shabunda, a riverside town in the border province of South Kivu, decayed after the Belgian colonialists left abruptly in 1960, leaving fewer than 20 university graduates in all of Congo, a country the size of the eastern United States. The population is estimated at about 60 million.

CONTINUED    1 2 3    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company