TERENCE SMITH: Once a year for the last seven years, Doctors Without Borders, a medical assistance group that operates in more than 70 countries, has released a list of what it calls the ten most underreported humanitarian stories of the year.
Joining us to talk about this year's list is Nicolas de Torrente, the executive director. Welcome to the broadcast.
TERENCE SMITH: Can you tell me -- you mentioned at the very top of your list the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And tell me what the situation is there, why it's on the list, and why it's been on the list for several years.
NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Thanks for having me, Terry.
The purpose of the list is to really draw attention to situations where there's -- we feel there's a glaring mismatch between the -- what our field teams see in terms of human suffering, human despair on the ground that they're trying to address through medical work, and the level of international attention, media attention and coverage to the issue.
And I think the Congo is one of the countries where this mismatch is the most pronounced because the situation in the Congo is extremely grim and has been extremely grim for years now for the population there. The war in the Congo has -- there have been efforts to try to bring it to a close.
There have been peace negotiations. There's a transitional government installed in Kinshasa, the capital. But in this country that's about the size of western Europe, this is not translated into any meaningful improvement in the quality of life -- and I mean the very basic quality of life for people. Access to medical services is inexistent in most of the country.
Militias and armed groups continue to operate with impunity. Just a couple weeks ago, 100,000 people were displaced by soldiers moving into an area that was contested between two groups that are supposed to be in the same government together. So this is really -- the daily reality of life for people in the Congo is extremely grim, extremely brutal, and there's really not much that's being done to try to change that.
TERENCE SMITH: What would explain, in your view, the relative lack of coverage of the story of that magnitude?
NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Well, there seems to be an implicit assumption that people are not that interested in this kind of story, and, therefore, the media in general does not tend to put -- invest the resources necessary to try to cover this story, these kinds of stories.
Admittedly, these are difficult stories to cover. The Congo is a huge place with a very -- for instance, with lot of variation between different parts of the country. It's insecure. The issues are complex. It's not that simple to try to convey what is happening there.
But at the same time, there's not much effort to try to overcome that... those obstacles because the assumption is that, well, you know, people are not interested about what's going on there. It's just an ongoing African conflict, and, you know, there's nothing much to be done about it.
And I think that's the assumption that we have to challenge because, in fact, a lot of people are interested -- in the United States, in particular -- about what's going on outside national borders.
And there are connections between what happens anywhere in the world and our life here in this country.
TERENCE SMITH: Another country on your list is Colombia, and that, too, like the Congo, has been on your list for six years. Now, there, there is substantial American involvement and quite a bit of money measured in the billions invested, and yet you find ... what aspect of it is not getting covered in your view?
NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: We're looking really at the humanitarian dimensions, the human dimensions of these crises. So there has been, of course, attention to the situation in Colombia, but the attention has really been focused on the drug production and trade, the role -- the destabilizing role, as it's presented, of rebel groups in the country.
But what is not being shown is how Colombians are really trapped -- in many parts of the country -- trapped between the government, between the paramilitary groups, between the rebel groups with no way to escape and very little access to essential services and a constant suspicion that they may be helping or associated with the other side.
This is resulting in high levels of violence in the countryside in certain ... in the shanty towns of big cities like Bogotá where people have been displaced to, and that human side of things is what is not being shown and not being reported on.
TERENCE SMITH: We can't go through all ten of them, but there is another humanitarian crisis or aspect to a story-- North Korea-- that you have on the list, that is generally covered in terms of the growing nuclear threat.
NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Well, yes. It's a little bit like Colombia. There are aspects of the situation in North Korea that are covered, obviously, the nuclear threat and the regional security issues around the Korean peninsula.
But again, what is the daily life of people in north... for people in North Korea? What is the plight of people who are trying to escape North Korea and become refugees in China? What is happening in terms of the crackdown on Chinese groups and Korean groups that are trying to help these refugees, not only the refugees themselves?
This is what's not being covered. And the situation inside North Korea remains extremely severe for the majority of the population there.
TERENCE SMITH: Chechnya is on your list, and yet that's a story that is covered periodically. Same question, really: What aspect of it is not getting covered?
NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Well, what's happened in Chechnya over the past year or so is that people have been pressured to return to the country from -- who had been displaced in neighboring republics -- in Dagestan and especially in Ingushetia, which are two neighboring republics.
They've been pressured to return under the pretense of normalization inside the country. And although the situation has improved a little bit inside, the level of assistance and the level of -- again, the services to the population, the basic security -- security is a very important thing for people.
It remains very, you know, very tense inside the country, and that has not been... again, it's... the plight which we're concerned about is the plight of ordinary people and the basic necessities of life. Are they safe in their homes? Are they able to have access to medical services? Do they have sufficient food? And that aspect of things is really what is not being shown. It's not being mentioned when there are fleeting mentions in the news about these countries.
Chechnya, it's all about the, you know, terrorist attacks in and around the country, not about the plight of the population.
TERENCE SMITH: Another entry on your list of underreported stories is not a country but a disease: Tuberculosis. Now, many people consider that a cured disease. They think it's largely eradicated. And yet that is not the case.
NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Yes. I mean, it looks like a disease of a bygone era. But, you know, the early 20th century, when we have this image of people in sanatoriums in alpine resorts in Europe, not at all.
The TB is mounting -- there's a surge in the number of TB cases and deaths associated with TB in particular, linked as well to the HIV pandemic and AIDS pandemic. Coinfection between AIDS and TB, that is really not being reported.
And what we are feeling here is that the lack of attention to the disease itself means that there is not much investment in improving the tools that doctors have at their disposal to fight TB. And we're really fighting TB with one hand or even two hands to hide behind our back. The diagnostic tools to detect the disease, it's over a century old. There have been no new innovative TB drugs for decades.
This is a completely neglected disease, although the number of people that are affected by it in today's world in the 21st century continues to rise.
TERENCE SMITH: We should note in closing here that you also mention the situations in northern Uganda, in Somalia, Burundi, Ethiopia and Liberia. Let's hope they get some more attention in the year ahead. Nicolas de Torrente, thank you very much for joining us.
NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Thank you very much, Terry, for having me.