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Disease, Hunger in Rebel-Held Congo

May 15, 2001

KALEMIE, Congo (AP) _ Alarmed by her young daughter’s peeling skin and deteriorating health, Maria Mwanza carried the girl through the thick Congolese jungle on a grueling, two-week march toward the nearest hospital.

The 125-mile walk was a risk, what with militia allied with the government in Congo’s 2 1/2-year war roaming the jungle, looking for anyone who may support the rebels.

``The situation is dreadful in the village because of attacks by the Mayi Mayi,″ she said, watching a nurse push a feeding tube into the nose of 5-year-old Asha Tabu and then stick a needle in her neck to rehydrate her. ``Children and adults are diseased and malnourished, there is no hospital, no medicines and no help from non-governmental organizations kept away by insecurity in the area.″

Less than 24 hours later, the little girl died. She’s one of the 2.5 million people who have died in rebel-held eastern Congo during the war, according to a survey by the New York-based International Rescue Committee.

``The loss of life is perhaps the worst in Africa in recent decades,″ said Reynold Levy, president of the committee, which published its survey last week. ``The magnitude of suffering is extraordinary.″

The latest information updated and expanded a study conducted last year in eastern Congo which found that 1.7 million people died during the first 22 months of the conflict.

But there are many ways to die in war besides at the end of a gun, or on a land mine. According to the IRC, the overwhelming majority of deaths in eastern Congo were related to disease and malnutrition _ byproducts of a battle that decimated Congo’s health care system and its economy, which was already devastated by successive corrupt regimes bent on looting the country’s vast natural resources.

Lying near Asha Tabu was 15-year-old Mwambalo Issa, suffering from malnutrition and cholera. The diseases have left her the size of a child half her age, with eyes, ribs and joints jutting out from her dehydrated body.

Issa was puzzled by the regular bleeding from her nose and too sick to comprehend that her sister died there two days earlier from malnutrition. Two other siblings have died since her family fled Mayi Mayi attacks on their village some seven months ago.

``I can’t stop this blood from coming out of me,″ she said to anyone who will listen in the room, which was filled with malnourished children lying on mattresses on the floor.

She, too, died hours later at the overcrowded hospital in Kalemie, a small town on the western shore of Lake Tanganyika.

Congo’s war was triggered in August 1998, when Rwanda, Uganda and their Congolese rebel allies took up arms against then-President Laurent Kabila, accusing him of nepotism, warmongering and backing Rwandan and Ugandan rebels who threatened their security.

Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia poured thousands of troops and military hardware into Congo in support of Kabila. Mayi Mayi, who are traditional warriors, also fight.

``We used to live with these people in villages, but they went into the bush to fight the foreign forces,″ said 42-year-old Deogratias Kakinga Salabinje, who abandoned his farm and village after receiving death threats for refusing to join the Mayi Mayi.

Despite renewed momentum in implementing a 1999 cease-fire plan, a fierce guerrilla war still rages deep behind rebel lines, as the Mayi Mayi and Rwandan militias responsible for the 1994 genocide in that country attack the rebels and their backers.

``Some local groups of Mayi Mayi have now degenerated into bands of robbers using the war as a pretext to raid villages and loot property,″ Salabinje said.

Villagers from Tobac, an hour’s drive from Kalemie, remember well the morning they heard the menacing sound of the drumbeat that sometimes precedes Mayi Mayi attacks, resident Kakudji Byobo said.

The villagers fled their homes in fear only to return later and find them looted, with some set on fire because the fighters accused them of supporting the rebels, he said.

They have now rebuilt their lives and about 300 traders trek into Tobac everyday to buy food to sell in Kalemie, said village chief Mukalai Mfaume. But they live in fear the Mayi Mayi will return.

Hardest hit by the war are not those clutching Kalashnikovs in the jungle, but vulnerable children. In some areas, there was an absence of children younger than 2, said epidemiologist Les Roberts, the rescue committee’s director.

He named two districts _ Moba and Kalemie _ where an estimated 75 percent of children born during the war have died or will die before their second birthday.

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