The Second Congolese War has been dubbed the deadliest conflict since World War II, yet mainstream media outlets in the United States and abroad have virtually ignored it.
The questions that this international ignorance raises are disturbing and confusing. Why is it that the global community continues to ignore Africa? It seems to be part of a developing pattern of an inability to connect with poor black people. In the United States, it is easy to say that those on the bottom have a chance to move up. But when do people draw the line and come to terms with the actuality that for some people there is no way out?
The time to draw that line is now. Americans are lucky enough to live in a prosperous and free country, and sometimes it is easy to take it for granted. The out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude that citizens of the United States tend to have toward Africa is deplorable at the least. I am not arguing, as some may, that Americans should feel guilty for the amount of privilege that they have. Rather, I am urging those in the position to affect change to do so.
In order to digest the impact of the Second Congolese War, one must examine a number of alarming figures. The largest source of statistics regarding the war comes from a mortality survey carried out by the International Rescue Committee in 2002 and published in The Lancet, a British medical journal. The survey estimated that the number of casualties is approximately 3.8 million.
To put that in perspective, 937,000 are estimated to have died in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, 400,000 are estimated to have died in Darfur, and while official estimates are difficult to come by, The Lancet estimates the total civilian death toll in Iraq is near 98,000.
“In a matter of six years, the world lost a population equivalent to the entire country of Ireland or the city of Los Angeles,” IRC Health Director Dr. Rick Brennan said in a report on the committee’s Web site.
The duration of the conflict has had a considerable effect on children and pregnant women, mostly due to the lack of availability of medical care.
“Children under 5 years of age accounted for 45 percent of all deaths, although they represent less than 20 percent of the population,” Brennan said in the report.
According to The Lancet, many deaths also stem from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Approximately one in every 15 women dies from complications in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – compared to only one in every 5,600 in the United States.
Rape is a common occurrence in the conflict, and women are often raped in front of their families. The women’s husbands and families often subsequently reject them. Additionally, many women are raped so violently they are unable to reproduce afterward. This practice is an attempt at population control. In October 2004, human rights group Amnesty International reported that 40,000 cases of rape were reported over the previous six years in the area.
Aid workers have limited access to many of the areas ravaged by the conflict. Only women who receive medical treatment are recorded. Because of this, aid workers estimate the actual number of rape victims is much higher.
So how did this tragedy come about? The conflict has its roots in the Rwandan crisis of 1994. Following the Rwandan genocide, many members of the Hutu tribe, Rwanda’s largest ethnic group, took refuge in the forests of what was then Zaire. Shortly thereafter, members of the extremist Hutu militia known as the Interahamwe took power, propped up by members of the former Rwandan military.
The Rwandan army pursued the Hutus and, discovering the riches of the region, became reluctant to withdraw. Neighboring countries on all sides were drawn into the conflict, and the Congolese nation became split between warring factions.
In a very poor country, a member of the military represents a significant investment of capital. Because of this, the nations involved were reluctant to risk their troops in open combat and instead opted to fight their battles with groups of untrained militiamen.
These militiamen widely used rape as a weapon and took part in widespread ethnic cleansing and pillaging of natural resources.
In 2002, Rwanda and the DRC signed a peace agreement that aimed to remove 20,000 Rwandan troops and dismantle the Interahamwe. The conflict and violence continued despite the peace accord.
On Dec. 17, 2002, the International Crisis Group released a report that outlined how Rwandan aggression threatened to roll back the strides made by the peace talks. On Jan. 25, 2005, the United Nations reported that Uganda and Rwanda were continuing to arm insurgent groups in eastern DRC.
Despite the slow and lumbering pace of progress, the DRC has ratified a constitution and democratic elections are scheduled for June 18. The United Nations has entered the DRC in an effort to aid in maintaining peace for the upcoming elections. Thus far, the United Nations has received minimal support from the native Congolese army, experiencing mutiny and attacks from the very people it is trying to help.
As a result of the continuing violence, more than 30,000 people die every month from easily preventable and treatable diseases such as diarrhea, malaria and measles, according to the IRC’s latest mortality study.
However, there is hope. The survey shows that deaths from infectious diseases and malnutrition have dropped dramatically.
Despite the fact that the war in Congo is the deadliest conflict since World War II, according to the IRC, world humanitarian response in 2004 totaled $188 million.
It is difficult to understand why the world considers some atrocities more tragic than others.
For instance, the death toll from the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan stands at slightly more than 73,000 people. A month into the disaster, donor nations had pledged slightly more than a quarter of the $550 million the United Nations said it needs to deliver emergency relief.
It seems as though the wars in the Congo would be impossible to ignore if one were to look at the number of those who have died. But the amount of support given to this war-torn nation speaks volumes of the apathy shown by the global community.
The IRC has proposed bill S.2125, which if passed would increase U.S. aid to the DRC by 25 percent and recommend that the U.N. Security Council strengthen its peacekeeping forces. The IRC encourages individuals to write to their senators regarding the bill and have included a template letter on its Web site.
“U.S. support for Congo is critically important right now and could make the difference between war and peace, untimely death or survival,” the IRC states on its Web site.The bill and template letter can be viewed at http://ga3.org/campaign/drcongobill. The DRC needs all the help it can get.
We are living in turbulent, loud, terrifying times. At some moments the global situations that continue to arise may seem too much for one to bear, but it is important not to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms. It is true that the death toll for this war is unimaginable, but it is important to know that it is real. It is happening – people are dying and suffering as you read this. Instead of disconnecting yourself from these horrible atrocities, accept them and let the despair they carry encompass you. Do not be overwhelmed. Ground yourself in reality and combine passion with privilege in an effort to give the hopeless some kind of hope.