Suffer little children

Juno McEnroe reports from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where fighting has displaced thousands of civilians and threatens to escalate into a full-scale, bloody war.

AID workers believe the Democratic Republic of Congo is facing its third major war, as heavy fighting continues to displace hundreds of thousands of people.

Heavy military and civilian casualties are being treated in hospitals in the eastern part of the country where sporadic armed clashes involving rebels have left villages closed off to medical and aid teams.

Fleeing families are sleeping in refugee camps, churches, schools and on the roadside, as UN peacekeeping forces struggle to keep peace lines between fighting groups.

The charity Oxfam in a statement warns the situation in eastern Congo is rapidly deteriorating and could slide into all-out war.

Outside the region’s capital, Goma, families have fled from the north and are now living in camps in between lava rock fields and banana trees.

Over 100,000 people have been uprooted from their homes since late August when fighting surged between rebels under Laurent Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) and the Congolese army, say Oxfam.

At every quarter mile in the outer city limits, soldiers laze under impromptu shelters made of jungle leaves with their Kalashnikovs in hand.

Above them towers the world’s second most active volcano, Mount Nyiragongo, which in early 2002 spilled out a 50m-wide lava river over Goma that left 120,000 people homeless.

Now a bigger threat has erupted in the region. Some officials are privately saying the country is sleepwalking itself into a third major war.

Since 1998 the country has lost 5.4 million people to conflict and the knock on effects of deadly disease and hunger.

In the mid-1990s, it was the scene of the bloodiest war since the Second World War when neighbouring countries helped depose dictator Joseph Mobutu. In 1998, a second war was waged on the country which continued for four years.

According to Oxfam’s head in the Congo, international leaders must intervene to put a stop to the new wave of fighting.

“The world must act now and call for a ceasefire and solutions to this crisis before it is too late,” said Juliette Prodhan.

Merlin, a British charity dedicated to medical care, have seen cases of malaria and cholera rise significantly at village clinics.

Some of its staff north of Goma were also forced to evacuate this week after being robbed by armed groups.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) says it is carrying out round the clock surgery on the wounded and disease is escalating among fleeing families.

MSF’s country director in the Congo Anne Taylor says current efforts at a peace process are pathetic.

“We are seeing heavy casualties from major conflict and heavy arms. The type of injuries we are seeing are not just someone being shot at. There are gunshot and machine gun wounds . . . but people are loosing their arms and their legs.”

Following a battle north of the town of Rumangabo in the last fortnight, MSF staff took in over 100 wounded military and civilians in 24 hours. “At the moment we are preparing ourselves. We’ve seen conflict and we’ve seen its escalation which is extremely worrying. It’s very hard on the population.

“It’s an international responsibility when families are just trying to live their lives like anyone else in the world and they can’t do it. And it’s not getting better for them, it’s getting worse,” added the MSF official.

“To see the process in the last nine months is quiet pathetic. We saw local armed groups who were prepared to disarm and waited and waited and waited. Nobody came for them and nobody fed them and they finally went back in the bush.

CNDP rebels stole masses of government weapons when they temporarily took control of Rumangabo. Among them was a multi-barrelled anti-aircraft missile, capable of taking out a vehicle from a kilometre away. This recent development is “new and very scary”, a senior UN military official told the Irish Examiner this week.

Senior officials with MONUC, the UN peacekeeping force in the DRC, also say it is becoming increasingly difficult to police borders with Rwanda and Uganda where foreign rebel forces are believed to be entering the country.


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