Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Peace-Time Mortality in the Congo, Several Sources to Blame

5.4 million people have died in the Congo since a Rwandan and Ugandan-backed rebellion began in the region in 1998 to challenge the regime of Laurent-Désiré Kabila. Kabila, who had only recently overthrown the government of Mobutu Sese Seko, found himself in the middle of an intense state of turmoil as the aforementioned rebels fought against his allied troops from other Sub-Saharan African nations including Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad, and the Sudan. Despite several cease-fires and peace accords that went into effect throughout the course of the war, the eastern region of the country remained a hotbed of violence, culminating in the assassination of Kabila.

Though the war finally ended in 2003, the effects continue to greatly affect the Congolese, painting a grim picture of their future that all too closely resembles their colonial past, with a reliance upon Western aid for recovery. According to an article in today's issue of the New York Times, long term recovery is the last of the worries for the Congolese. In fact, the high mortality rate of the nation's population is at the forefront of its problems must be addressed in the immediate future. Hunger, disease, lack of medical resources are contributors to the deaths of the estimated 45,000 people who die each month in the Congo, and, quite surprisingly, the mortality rate in some regions, including central Congo has actually grown in the past few years as a result. As many international non-governmental organizations focused their energy and resources on the eastern region, other areas that had experienced less conflict suffered greatly from isolation and economic ruin.

In Biblical terms, the Congo could be considered the Job of Sub-Saharan Africa. The nation has had little time to improve its conditions as it's all too often the site of political conflict. It endured decades of colonialism under Belgian rule, a military dictatorship under Mobutu, and a continued rape of its natural resources (primarily its enormous mineral wealth of diamonds, gold, copper, and uranium). Nearly half of the Congolese who have lost their lives in the aftermath of the war have been its children, with babies dying from malaria, dysentery, measles, and typhoid as the population has such limited access to proper immunization for its young. And just this past Monday, as the United States paused to honor late civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Congo finally reached a peace agreement with the militia armies that had continued to fight in the east, even after the official end of the war.

Yet in light of all this turmoil and a rapidly decreasing population, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. The population studies for the Congo remain inconclusive as citizenship is difficult to determine in many cases due to the large influx of Rwandan and Sudanese refugees who fled their native countries during heated conflict and largely as a result of never actually having an official number for the Congolese population in the past, meaning that the mortality rate, though incredibly high, may be having slightly less of on an impact than originally thought. A representative from Doctors Without Borders also reported that mobile phone coverage had increased over the years in the Congo, vastly improving communication between organizations and families, and, in turn, resulting in more immediate aid where it's needed most. Though the situation remains dire, organizations working to ameliorate suffering throughout the region have not given up and continue to work hard to help those who are living to stay strong despite the bleak future predicted for the Congo.

To read more about the history of the Congo, check out the book King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild

To learn more about Doctors Without Borders, their field reporting and aid in the Congo, and how you can donate, click here.

- Wendi Muse

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