Africa Lifelines: Two U.S. Senators Want Their Country to Get More Involved to Help End a War That Has Killed 4 Million

Another 1,000 die daily

Goma, Congo – Militiamen from neighboring Rwanda barged into her
mud-brick hut at night. They stabbed and sliced Farijika Nzigire’s
husband to death. Then five men raped her. They burned the hut and
left her beaten and bloody.

Now, a year later, a baby girl, Ajibu, tugs at Nzigire’s tattered
shirt. “I don’t know who her father is,” she said looking down,
trying to coax milk from her depleted body here at a hospital in
eastern Congo.

Nzigire, 22, is part of a forgotten exodus, thousands of ragged
gang-raped women and other victims staggering from forests where
atrocities happen every day.

Nearly 4 million people have died in a war that began around 1998.
U.S. officials estimate 1,000 more die each day across a
Europe-sized area.

Such is the suffering that two U.S. senators who visited Goma this
month – Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill. – want the
United States to get more involved. Brownback said he’s working on
legislation, with help from Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., that would
send $200 million to $300 million a year to Congo for basic needs
such as access to safe water.

Brownback said his visit also has inspired a broader initiative to
overhaul U.S. Africa policy. He proposed designating an “Africa
aid czar” in the State Department as part of an overhaul that
would shore up scattershot aid efforts, aligning projects more
closely with African self-help efforts.

“We’re the most powerful nation on Earth, and yet we’ve got this
number of deaths taking place daily that are preventable,”
Brownback said. “We have a responsibility to do what we can to

West pushes for elections

U.S. and European government officials say they’ve been trying to
help stabilize Congo – Africa’s third-most-populous country with 60
million people, a fourth the size of the United States – by
encouraging elections.

But no U.S. or European troops participate in United Nations
peacekeeping work. A U.N. Security Council deadline for disarming
militias passed at the end of September – and the killing

“The tragedy is certainly apparent to everyone,” said Christopher
Davis, spokesman at the U.S. embassy in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital.
“Our feeling is the U.N., with the 17,000 contingent it has in
Congo, is quite capable of helping the Congolese army do what it
needs to do to bring these militias under control.”

Most urgently for Nzigire, she leaks urine because the rapes
ruptured her vagina. Congolese doctors at the hospital planned to
perform reconstructive surgery.

Despicable war tactic

Gang rapes have become a war tactic. Tens of thousands of women
suffer from the ruptures known as fistula – once a rare injury
associated with traumatic births but common now in Congo.

A private U.S.-based group, Doctors On Call for Service, has funded
more than 150 fistula-repair surgeries in Goma, a former Belgian
colonial town that Denver Post journalists visited in September.

“I don’t feel like a normal person,” Nzigire said. “I feel my
heart beating hard, fast. I try to sleep. …The war is still

In 1998, Congo became the battleground for six nations in a war
that killed 50,000 people, and 4 million more died from
conflict-induced hunger and disease – the most deaths from a
conflict since World War II.

A peace deal in 2003 recognized warring factions and scheduled
elections. U.N. peacekeepers deployed to towns. But violence in
Congo’s hinterlands – mostly roadless, lacking electricity and
phone lines – repeatedly has prevented those elections.

Violence also blocks international aid crews from reaching forests
where thousands of women and children are stranded, said Carla
Martinez, operations chief for Doctors Without Borders’ 35-member
team, inside a fortified compound.Much of the killing and raping is
done by rebels from Rwanda who fled after the genocide in 1994 when
Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, seized power. The rebels
re-organized inside Congo at French-run U.N. refugee camps.

Parliamentarians from Uganda, Congo and Rwanda met recently,
calling for expulsion of the Rwandan rebels. Kagame has refused to
take them back. The United States backs Kagame’s authoritarian

U.S. diplomats say they help organize meetings in the region
without taking part. The United States currently gives no bilateral
aid to Congo, but contributes about $100 million a year to
international relief operations.

Businesses buy security

Amid the killing, foreign-financed mining companies still extract
gold, diamonds and coltan, an ore used in cellphones and laptop
computers, because the companies can afford private security forces
to hold off armed factions and “mai-mai” bandits. A U.S. company,
Phoenix-based Phelps Dodge Corp., last month began a copper and
cobalt mining project in southern Congo.

Meanwhile, warlords target subsistence-farming villagers like
Nzigire and her husband.

U.N. reports this year referred to atrocities nobody has been able
to investigate fully, including an incident in which militiamen
allegedly grilled bodies on a spit and boiled two girls alive as
their mother watched.

Here behind blue metal gates, Dr. Flory Cirimwami, 29, a surgeon,
described incidents he’d learned of through patients south of Goma
near Bukavu. Militiamen buried a girl up to her neck after raping
her, tortured an 80-year-old woman, and sexually assaulted two
women with knives, boots and sticks after raping them, Cirimwami

“The misery of people here is unbelievable, unimaginable. … I
always feel the cry of helpless people here as a heavy burden for

Global policy experts increasingly raise concerns about instability
in Africa as terrorism spreads and African oil production grows. A
recent report from the Council on Foreign Relations think tank
calls for new U.S. efforts to integrate Africa into the world
economy by removing trade barriers.

“The United States cannot afford to let another decade go by
without effective solutions,” the CFR task force said, “and
Africa deserves better.”