The Global Persecution of Women
Democratic Republic of the Congo
“Lydia Polgreen, “War’s Chaos steals Congo’s young by the millions,.” New York Times, 30 July 2006.
Children die here from the same ailments that needlessly kill children all over Africa — malaria, diarrhea, measles, malnutrition — but on a vast and cataclysmic scale.
The child mortality rate here in the most volatile eastern provinces is almost twice that of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, which already has the world’s highest rate, according to the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit organization that has documented the death toll here in a series of detailed mortality studies from 1998 to 2004.
Though Congo’s civil war supposedly ended four years ago, and the nation’s first democratic elections in more than four decades are scheduled for Sunday, the fighting and chaos here continue to kill about 1,250 people each day, mostly from hunger and disease. In all, nearly four million people have died as a result of the conflict since 1998, almost half of them children under the age of 5, according to the International Rescue Committee.
The stakes in the election are highest for those far too young to vote, but even the most optimistic candidates and international observers say there is little chance that the voting will stop the dying anytime soon. In a report released in July, Unicef described the death toll in Congo as a "tsunami of death every six months."
"It is fair to say that the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been the deadliest for children in the past 60 years," said Richard Brennan, health director of the International Rescue Committee. "No other conflict has had the same levels of excess mortality, and children have borne a disproportionate degree of this burden."
About 30,000 children have been forced into militias, while untold thousands of girls have been raped, according to the Unicef report. Children labor under toxic conditions in gold and diamond mines. Orphans choke the streets of Kinshasa, the capital, bedraggled platoons in Congo’s vast army of want.
At the hospital here in the troubled province of North Kivu near the Rwandan border, where villages have been ravaged by war, the burden on children is on grim, daily display. One 2-year-old boy, Amuri, struggled to breathe on a hospital bed while doctors and nurses went through the motions — attaching one of the hospital’s scarce pulse-oximeters to his tiny index finger, placing an oxygen mask over his gasping mouth. But they knew it was too late.
A few moments later, Amuri’s eyes rolled back in his head, his chest stilled and he was dead. …
His mother, Maria Cheusi, realized that her son’s life had slipped away. He was the third child she would bury.
"Mama, mama," she cried, collapsing to her knees in a contorted pose. "My only son, my only son."
This is how the crisis in Congo kills, with the most banal weapons: a gantlet of hunger and disease that, here in the country’s unstable east, kills one in four children before the age of 5. The day Amuri died of measles, a boy sick with a treatable respiratory infection died, and so did an infant with tetanus, another easily preventable disease. The day before, it was malnutrition and malaria that stole two young lives.
Mothers come to the Rutshuru Hospital to give birth, only to return later, sometimes walking for days from distant villages, bearing children weakened by hunger and disease. But too often, as in Amuri’s case, they simply waited too long, kept from health care by a complex web of violence and poverty that binds them to their villages, far from help.
Mothers and children here are caught in a conflict that started in 1996, when a rebel group backed by Rwanda and Uganda invaded. In 1997, they overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko, the longtime dictator of Congo, which he had renamed Zaire. The rebels then fell out with their benefactors in 1998, setting off a sprawling war that became the deadliest conflict since World War II and continues in scattered pockets throughout the east, despite a peace accord that was negotiated four years ago.
The consequence is that a child dies in Congo almost every two minutes, mostly from preventable causes.
The Global Persecution of Women