The tragedy of the other Congo - A forgotten war's victims

This article first appeared in the International Herald Tribune on February 13, 2004.

Brazzaville, Congo - His yellow eyes were having trouble focusing. A lollipop lolled in the corner of his mouth. He was about 17 years old and stoned. The necklace of purple thread and the machine gun slung over his back identified him as a Ninja fighter at this checkpoint on the road between Brazzaville, Congo's capital, and the town of Kinkala.

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In Pool and Brazzaville, the war became one of ethnic punishment, with devastating humanitarian results. By 1999, the United Nations estimated, more than a quarter of Congo's population had been forced to flee their homes, and one-third of the displaced women had been raped.

Congo - the other Congo - lies across the Congo River from the much larger and more infamous Democratic Republic of Congo. Like its neighbour to the south, Congo has been devastated by civil wars and unrest for the past decade. Unlike its neighbor, Congo rarely makes the headlines in the West, although these wars have been a humanitarian catastrophe for the average Congolese. This fertile country, once considered one of the most developed in sub-Saharan Africa, is in ruins.

The country's main east-west artery is a prime example. It takes six hours for a four-wheel-drive vehicle to lurch along the 60-kilometer (40-mile) stretch of Highway 1 from Brazzaville to Kinkala, capital of Pool Province - and it is not just the 10 army and rebel checkpoints that make the trip take so long. Since 1985 the government has allowed the road to decay, and now it is riddled by crevasses up to 30 meters (100 feet) wide and craters that swallow vehicles whole.

Pool Province has been the main battleground and its people have been the main targets of the war. Congo's president, Daniel Sassou-Nguesso, comes from the north of the country. Pool Province, in the south, is the most heavily populated and fertile part of the country, and home to the main political opposition. The wars started after elections in 1992 when the vote split along ethnic lines and Sassou-Nguesso lost power.

Different armed factions - Ninjas, Cobras, Cocoyes - fought throughout the country, although they avoided the petroleum infrastructure which brings in 90 percent of Congo's hard currency. But in Pool and Brazzaville, the war became one of ethnic punishment, with devastating humanitarian results. By 1999, the United Nations estimated, more than a quarter of Congo's population had been forced to flee their homes, and one-third of the displaced women had been raped.

For 12 months during 2002 and 2003, the army sealed off Pool from the outside world and undertook a military campaign. The result was another surge of internally displaced people and the destruction of homes, hospitals, churches and schools.

A truce was signed in 2003, but neither the government nor the opposition Ninjas have been able to agree on a plan to disarm and reintegrate the fighters. Checkpoints remain throughout the province, and extortion by men with guns remains the norm for people who risk a trip on the roads. The Wild West flavor is reinforced by the 'noms de guerre' that fighters adopt - the head Ninja in one village is Tex Wheeler.

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The survivors of this conflict have endured unbearable suffering. People have seen family members killed and raped. People have fled to the forest and spent a year in hiding - and the survivors have straggled back to find their villages destroyed. Health centers and schools were targeted during the fighting. Teachers, doctors and nurses fled, and only some have returned.

In the spring of last year, a medical team from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was finally able to enter Pool. The health of the inhabitants was deplorable, with high levels of malnutrition among the survivors. Many towns and villages have less than half the number of people they had when the wars began. Years of violence, extortion, pillaging and rape are breaking traditional social structures.

The survivors of this conflict have endured unbearable suffering. People have seen family members killed and raped. People have fled to the forest and spent a year in hiding - and the survivors have straggled back to find their villages destroyed. Health centers and schools were targeted during the fighting. Teachers, doctors and nurses fled, and only some have returned.

"This is a lost generation," an MSF nurse said, once the yellow-eyed Ninja had let us pass.

"Schools haven't been open for seven years, and when little kids see their big brothers with guns slung over their shoulders they think that's what they want to do when they grow up. And without any real peace process, how will the Ninjas disarm? I was stopped by one up in Yangui who said to me, 'How can I give up my gun? Where would I go? If I go to my village they don't want to see me - they know I'm a Ninja. And if I go to Brazzaville, I'm dead meat.'"

At the end of 2003, The Economist wrote that "security has been restored to the troubled Pool region." Out-and-out fighting may have stopped, but life holds little security for Pool's people. The schools remain closed, the only free medical service is provided by international agencies, the stalemate continues, the checkpoints stay up, the United Nations presence stays small. This is the reality here in the other Congo, the Congo the world has forgotten.

The writer is executive director of MSF Canada.