Violence continues in Congo

Marketplace Staff Jul 24, 2006

TESS VIGELAND: This Sunday the Democratic Republic of Congo will hold its first multi-party election in more than 40 years. The vote is meant to mark the end of fighting that began in the late 1990s. Thousands of rebels still cling to power in eastern Congo. Battles ahead of the elections have displaced entire communities, Congo’s death toll — estimated around four million — continues to rise. The biggest killer isn’t bullets, but the disruption to the local economy. Correspondent Suzanne Marmion reports from the town of in eastern Congo.

SUZANNE MARMION: Roadside markets in Africa are boisterous affairs . . . like this one near Kiwanja. Women fan yellow bananas on the ground for 100 Congolese francs.

But farther up the road, trade begins to dry up. On a street of nearly deserted stores, bored kids watch in silence while a lone man repairs old and battered radios.

Trade is sparse because just a few miles from here, rebels have been raping and looting for weeks on end. It’s too dangerous to travel on the road with food and goods for the market. And most production has come to a halt anyway.

About 750 families now shelter two miles to the south in Kiwanja. Behind a church, they’ve built this makeshift campsite with dozens of tents made out of plastic bags and banana leaves. One of those sheltering here is Floribert Kumbali. He used to be a farmer. He explains through a translator how his village enjoyed a lull in the fighting last year. It provided a rare window of prosperity.

FLORIBERT KUMBALI [interpreter]: We found really we got peace. We could also go to the field. We produced a lot. All of us became fat. All of us, really, we became really wealthy.

Then, in January, the rebels came to town. They stole everything. They forced Kumbali to carry his own looted food and belongings for them. He and the other farmers were banned from their fields, and the soldiers began raping the men’s wives and daughters.

Recent violence throughout this province called North Kivu has driven 180,000 people from their homes and jobs. Some observers believe rebels are digging in ahead of the election. Meanwhile UN peacekeepers and government troops have staged raids on some militias to try to secure the country before polling day. That’s displaced hundreds of other families.

Patrick Lavand’homme with the UN’s humanitarian affairs office for North Kivu says people have lost their livelihoods at a crucial time.

PATRICK LAVAND’HOMME: They’ve left their fields at this period which is the harvest period. It’s going to be difficult for them to access the field due to the insecurity and be able to collect all their crops, and it might have a medium-term effect.

That medium-term effect is hungry and weakened people easily falling prey to cholera, diarrhea, even plague as they live with rats in the bush. These diseases are what’s made Congo’s struggle the deadliest since World War II. The United Nations says more than 1,000 people a day are still dying here.

At the camp behind the church, Floribert Kumbali scoops some dried corn into a plastic cup to measure out the day’s ration.

Kumbali says his wife and five children have had to learn the tricks of survival, like drinking a lot of water to help them feel full.

He says he used to be somebody, somebody who could produce his own harvest and take care of his own life. His family was the one to help others. “Now,” he says, “we’ve become beggars.”

In Kiwanja, Congo, I’m Suzanne Marmion for Marketplace.

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