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January 31, 2010

Orphaned, Raped and Ignored-Nicholas Kristof reporting from Congo

Sometimes I wish eastern Congo could suffer an earthquake or a tsunami, so that it might finally get the attention it needs. The barbaric civil war being waged here is the most lethal conflict since World War II and has claimed at least 30 times as many lives as the Haiti earthquake. Yet no humanitarian crisis generates so little attention per million corpses, or such a pathetic international response.

That's why I'm here in the lovely, lush and threatening hills west of Lake Kivu, where militias rape, mutilate and kill civilians with a savagery that is almost incomprehensible. I'm talking to a 9-year-old girl, Chance Tombola, an orphan whose eyes are luminous with fear. For Chance, the war arrived one evening last May when armed soldiers from an extremist Hutu militia - remnants of those who committed the Rwandan genocide - burst into her home. They killed her parents in front of her. Chance ran away, but the soldiers seized her two sisters, ages 6 and 12, and carried them away into the forest, presumably to be turned into "wives" of soldiers. No one has seen Chance's sisters since.

Chance moved in with her aunt and uncle and their two teenage daughters. Two months later, the same militia invaded the aunt's house and held everyone at gunpoint. Chance says she recognized some of the soldiers as the same ones who had killed her parents. This time, no one could escape. The soldiers first shot her uncle, and then, as the terrified family members sobbed, they pulled out a large knife.

"They sliced his belly so that the intestines fell out" said his widow, Jeanne Birengenyi, 34, Chance's aunt. "Then they cut his heart out and showed it to me." The soldiers continued to mutilate the body, while others began to rape Jeanne.

"One takes a leg, one takes the other leg" Jeanne said dully. "Others grab the arms while one just starts raping. They don't care if children are watching." Chance added softly: "There were six who raped her. One raped me, too." The soldiers left Jeanne and Chance, tightly tied up, and marched off into the forest with Jeanne's two daughters as prisoners. One daughter is 14, the other 16, and they have not been heard from since.

"They kill, they rape, burn houses and take people's belongings" Jeanne said. "When they come with their guns, i'ss as if they have a project to eliminate the local population."

A peer-reviewed study <http://www.theirc.org/special-reports/congo-forgotten-crisis> found that 5.4 million people had already died in this war as of April 2007, and hundreds of thousands more have died as the situation has deteriorated since then. A catastrophically planned military offensive last year, backed by the governments of Congo and Rwanda as well as the United Nations force here, made some headway against Hutu militias but also led to increased predation on civilians from all sides.

This is a pointless war - now a dozen years old - driven by warlords, greed for minerals, ethnic tensions and complete impunity. While there is plenty of fault to go around, Rwanda has long played a particularly troubling role in many ways, including support for one of the militias. Rwanda's government is dazzlingly successful at home, but next door in Congo, it appears complicit in war crimes.

Jeanne and Chance contracted sexually transmitted diseases. Like other survivors in areas that are accessible, they receive help from the International Rescue Committee, but Chance still suffers pain when she urinates.

It takes astonishing courage for Jeanne and Chance to tell their stories (including in a video posted with the on-line version of this column). I'll be reporting more from eastern Congo in the coming days, hoping that the fortitude of survivors like them can inspire world leaders to step forward to stop this slaughter. It's time to show the same compassion toward Congo that we have toward Haiti.
And from Nick's blog
There are of course many problems in the world, many demands on our conscience. But the Congo war seems to me particularly important because of the death toll (already 5.4 million as of April 2007); the savagery or rape and mutilation directed at civilians; and the prospect that some pressure and heavy diplomacy could resolve it. Moreover, without that pressure and diplomacy, it will continue unabated for years to come. I do think that the news media have dropped the ball on this one, but that may reflect the new media realities in which television reporting in particular from abroad just falls off the map.

I was last in Congo in 2007, and so it was dispiriting to see that while some parts of Congo are better off, the situation has worsened in the Kivus. Last year was a particularly bad year, because of the catastrophic military offensive, and more than 1 million people were newly displaced in 2009 in the Kivus alone. With 45,000 people dying unnecessarily every month, this should be a priority. I'll talk more in later columns about what is to be done, but here's a preview: pressure on Rwanda, pressure on Congo's president, pressure on the Congolese minerals that finance conflict, and efforts to professionalize Congo's army and end the impunity for rape and murder. Your thoughts?

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