By Tim Butcher
FIFTEEN HUNDRED people die in the Congo each day as a result of conflict but the world’s attention remains focused elsewhere. Why?
First, there are those who dispute that figure. Outsiders who have never been to the Democratic Republic of Congo (the current name for a country known previously as Zaire, the Belgian Congo and the Congo Free State) question its accuracy. There has not been a single day in post-Saddam Iraq or Taliban-infested Afghanistan when 1,500 souls have perished and, skeptics argue, how could any conflict be worse those.
Having crossed the vast chaotic country astride the Equator – from one side to the other is the distance from London to Moscow - I have to say the toll of 1,500-a-day published by the Lancet, Britain’s leading medical journal, is horribly plausible. They might not all die in combat but they die nonetheless, mostly through avoidable diseases in a failed state so anarchic public health outside large cities has totally collapsed.
In the north of Katanga province I entered the country’s killing fields, walking through savannah scrub where human bones lay so thick on the ground they had not been buried. Later in my trip when I was making my way by pirogue – a hollowed-out tree trunk canoe – down the Congo River, I met a nursing mother whose baby was dying from dehydration, a condition that can be reversed with the simplest of medical care, re-hydration salt solutions. Her eyes were dull with fatalism as she explained the infant was not the first she had lost to disease. And even in supposedly developed cities like Kisangani, the former colonial centre of Stanleyville and model for Conrad’s Inner Station, I was implored by a Congolese river guide to take his 4-year-old son with me. The guide said I would be ``rescuing’’ his son from the Congo.
Second, the world seems reluctant to grasp the heartache of the Congo because the turmoil is so complicated. The violence in the Congo does not lend itself to tidy categorization; it is not `genocide’, although there are occasionally genocidal components; it is not a `crime against humanity’, although some of the systemic sexual violence against women falls into that category; it is not part of the `War on Terror’, although close attention should be paid to the Congo’s poorly-policed uranium mines in Katanga, mines that produced the uranium refined for the bomb used at Hiroshima, and the proximity in nearby east Africa of al-Qa’eda sympathizers.
But policy makers should not be shy of complexity. The multi-layered and multi-faceted nature of turmoil in the Congo can still be brought back to basic principles such as installing and invigorating the rule of law. The country’s government has made one important decision by calling for the International Criminal Court to help bring perpetrators of chaos in the east of the country to justice. This is an important surrender of an African nation’s sovereignty, basically an admission that `We, the Congolese government, need outside help with justice’.
Such an important concession should be vigorously supported by outsiders who could send the personnel, equipment and means to detain the suspects. At present this job falls to a poorly organized and, frankly, unsuitable force of United Nations peacekeepers. If extraordinary rendition is justified anywhere in the world then surely it is against the killers of the eastern Congo.
Third, cynics bleat it was ever thus in the Congo. They are right the country has a long association with bloody violence. The colonial experience of the Congo was one of the most brutal in Africa and the post-colonial period has been an almost perpetual continuum of rebellion, dictatorship, conflict and instability. But it does not follow outsiders should give up on a region. The outside world helped with elections in the DRC two years ago, the first meaningful poll in four decades. The result is a democratically-elected government but more has to be done to entrench the rule of law. Supporters of the main opposition leader in that democratic election clashed after the poll with government gunmen on the streets of the capital, Kinshasa, killing hundreds.
A hundred years ago this November international pressure helped the Congolese when outsiders, including US congressmen, forced the Leopold II, King of the Belgians, to cease his murderous private rule over the Congo and transfer it to the Belgian government as a colony. It was not the end of the Congo’s problems but it was a definite improvement.
It should inspire us today not to give up on a country and those 1,500 souls.
Tim Butcher’s `Blood River – A Journey To Africa’s Broken Heart’, is published October 2008 by Grove Press
Timbo Tim Butcher Middle East Correspondent The Daily Telegraph + 972 54 569 3698 Author of `Blood River - A Journey To Africa's Broken Heart' Richard & Judy Book Club 2008 Sunday Times No1 Bestseller Shortlisted for Samuel Johnson Prize 2008 British Book Awards 2008 `Read of the Year' Runner-Up Watch the film: http://www.britishbookawards.com/bba/movies/bloodriver.html
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