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Crisis in the Congo

Increased fighting between warring factions in the Democratic Republic of Congo has left an estimated 1.8 million people homeless, a crisis the UN has named one of the world's worst.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Still to come on the NewsHour tonight: the growing crisis in Congo and Zbigniew Brzezinski on the pope. Terence Smith has our report on the Congo.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    It's among the deadliest places in the world: The Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa. Over the past six years, nearly four million people have been killed, most by disease and malnutrition, others by war and ethnic violence. Another 1.8 million are displaced, according to United Nations reports. The U.N.'s top aid official earlier this month labeled Congo as the world's worst humanitarian crisis, outranking trouble spots like the Darfur region in the Sudan, and the tsunami disaster.

    Speaking at a Geneva conference two weeks ago, Jan Egeland said: "Measured in human lives lost, I think that Congo is the number one problem in the world today." Egeland added that the number of casualties amounts to: "…a tsunami every month, year in and year out, for the last six years…"

    The Congo is Africa's third largest country, with its richest deposits of gold. Diamonds and other minerals are also plentiful. But Congo's resources have helped fuel a long history of corruption, ethnic violence, and most recently, a five-year civil war. The country is bordered by nine other African nations, several of which have intervened in the fighting, resulting in Africa's first continent-wide war.

    A former Belgian colony once known as Zaire, the Congo has a population of 54 million. Up to 20 different armed groups are currently vying for power. President Joseph Kabila has proven unable to govern since taking office after his father's assassination in 2001.

    A 16,000-person-strong UN peacekeeping force has tried unsuccessfully to maintain the fragile peace settlement reached in 2003, and to protect villagers in eastern Congo from nearly daily militia attacks. Women and children especially fall victim to machete attacks and rape.

  • A CONGOLESE WOMAN:

    There is no security. People are plundering. They are doing what they call "pillage"– they are pillaging.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Survivors are forced to take refuge in squalid camps where disease and lack of clean water claim more lives. Children make up nearly 80 percent of the population in the camps, and nearly 20 of them die daily, according to UN reports. Meanwhile, investigators have concluded that soldiers in the UN peacekeeping army, the largest deployed anywhere in the world, have sexually assaulted and exploited women and girls in the region repeatedly.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    For more on the humanitarian crisis in Congo, I'm joined by Dr. Rowan Gillies, international president of Doctors Without Borders. He recently spent a month in eastern Congo. Dr. Gillies, welcome. Tell us where you were– you were there working as a surgeon– and perhaps what you encountered.

  • DR. ROWAN GILLIES:

    Yes, I was working in Bunia town, in which we have 150-bed surgical hospital that responds mainly to emergency needs. So responding both to civilian needs, but also the results of the war, whether it be machete wounds or gunshot wounds; in addition, obstetric problems.

    It's very, actually, difficult for civilians to get to obstetric care, so they've actually walked for three or four days as… to get some help and to get a cesarean section. So it was quite a varied program we have there.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    And what was the situation on the ground in terms of where you were working and the military situation around you?

  • DR. ROWAN GILLIES:

    Well, it was very unstable. In Bunia town itself, it's reasonably stable during the day and the evening. But outside, it's not very safe for civilians. In addition to that, there's an underlying level of violence which in many ways is appalling. We have women coming to us who have been raped.

    About thirty to forty women per week have been coming to us with… telling us they've been raped. And the majority have been raped by two or more perpetrators. The majority of rapes have been… involved weapons, whether it be again machetes or guns; it's quite an horrific story, and it's not just when there's fighting. Often you see an increase in rape when there's… at the time of fighting, but this is even during the times of supposed peace. So there's a widespread level of violence, and it's a grave concern.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    And these rapes are being attributed to the different militias that are fighting there?

  • DR. ROWAN GILLIES:

    Yes. We don't go into exactly which militia or which people are involved because we have a very confidential process. But certainly the women do tell us that they are militias that are involved with these various acts.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    And are they… are these rapes, as far as you can tell, weapons of war and intimidation, or is it just lawlessness?

  • DR. ROWAN GILLIES:

    I wouldn't… I'd actually describe it as worse than used as weapon of war, because there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of purpose. It seems to be very generalized and not just against one group or another. It's quite generalized. It is also in the civilian population. So I wouldn't describe it as that, no.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Give us some sense of the magnitude of the problem in Eastern Congo, compared perhaps to Darfur, about which we tend to hear more, or some of the other areas that you've worked in.

  • DR. ROWAN GILLIES:

    It's very difficult to quantify. It's very… also very difficult to know exactly what's happening to the civilians because the area I was in was in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. And it's a bit like a leopard skin in security terms. There are patches where it's safe for some people but not for others, and other patches otherwise.

    We're really not sure what is going on in the bush. We certainly have come across groups of people up near Lake Albert, where there's between eight and ten thousand, groups of eight to ten thousand people who have escaped the fighting, only to go into very cramped and poor- sanitation situations. And we have a high level of diarrhea in some of those places and also quite a high level of malnutrition in some of these areas. So to actually quantify it is difficult. But what we see, we think may be the tip of the iceberg, and we're not sure.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    But in any event, I take it the scale is enormous?

  • DR. ROWAN GILLIES:

    The scale is enormous. And it's a problem that has been going on for many years. It tends to rise up at times. But I'll give you an example. We've been there in Bunia for about 20 months, and we've had a regular number of women who have been raped coming over that time, about 2,500 women over that time. So that gives you an idea of not just the size of the problem at a snapshot, but the continuous, the chronic nature of the problem as well.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Well, it certainly sounds endemic to the situation, and basically out of control.

  • DR. ROWAN GILLIES:

    To a degree. I mean, I think it's the result of basically the civilians… the damage to the civilians and the suffering of the civilians is the end product of whatever is happening in the war. There are many, many motives and many political movements going on in the area. But the people who always suffer at the end are the civilians who either suffer from direct violence, i.e., through the rape or the shooting, or a more indirect form of violence; they get displaced. They can have no longer access to their crops, and they have problems with either food or sanitation.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    What was the situation for you and your colleagues among Doctors Without Borders? You said that the security situation was somewhat stable during the day but less so at night. Were you able to stay there where you were working? What precautions did you have to take?

  • DR. ROWAN GILLIES:

    We have a curfew even in Bunia town. Not all organizations do. However, we're very careful. We're on the outskirts of town. If we have an emergency operation to do, we do go to the hospital, which is a little bit out of town, but we're very careful at nighttime.

    In addition, the problem is getting access to the different groups of people. And in many ways it's not so much about the safety for us as humanitarian workers, but it's the safety of the civilians. If the civilians are in fear of their lives, whether it's from direct violence or from rape, it's an insecure environment. An insecure environment brings its own problems.

    We're certainly… in some of the camps where there are eight or ten thousand people, we're not prepared to stay overnight. One area we are, in [unintelligible] we can, but in many other places we can't stay overnight, so we have to retreat each evening.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Tell us about some of the individual cases that you encountered that might reflect on the larger problem.

  • DR. ROWAN GILLIES:

    Yeah. Well, I had a young child, a six-year-old child who had been beaten with a machete. And he came with his grandfather, who had his arm pretty much cut off with a machete. And they told a story of being attacked. They ran away from a village that was being attacked by an armed group. And as they were running away… they were with their family of ten. They were the only two to survive. The others were macheted… were macheted to death.

    This is just one story, and the idea of someone taking a machete to a six-year-old child is a very disturbing concept. And it really makes you concerned about where things are going and what's going to happen in the future for these people.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    This is a difficult question, but what more can the world do — the outside world — to try to stabilize that situation?

  • DR. ROWAN GILLIES:

    Well, there are some attempts to try to stabilize the situation. And the situation in April 2003, April-May 2003, when there was massive violence in Bunia town, is not happening at the moment. So there have been some steps. However there's a long way to go, and our figures certainly suggest that.

    I don't really have a solution. I'm not… certainly our organization doesn't give political solutions. However we do think there's a requirement for one. And whatever solution there is, the civilians must be at the center of any decision taken. Whether it's a military or political solution, often in these solutions the civilians are put to one side and their interests are not taken into account. And that's our concern as a medical organization, at Doctors Without Borders: That we look after our patients. These people have been our patients. And we must keep the spotlight on them whilst all the political and military ramifications happen over the next few weeks, few months, and the next few years.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    All right. Dr. Rowan Gillies, thank you very much.

  • DR. ROWAN GILLIES:

    It's a pleasure.

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