America yawns as Africa burns

International | Will the gospel of peace penetrate a violent, war-torn continent?

Issue: "Building a better boycott," Oct. 4, 1997

In a month of important deaths, former Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko died nearly unnoticed. His was another real-life parable. In 30 years of rule over Zaire, Mobutu skimmed for himself the fat of the country's mining resources and cruised the Congo in a yacht while the masses sank further into poverty and the country's infrastructure rotted. He died friendless in Morocco after a lengthy battle with cancer, his riches drained by his lifestyle and his mining interests in the hands of Laurent Kabila, the rebel leader who now rules what has been named the Democratic Republic of Congo.

News of Mobutu's death was received like a lot of other news from Africa-with indifference. "The general U.S. public is ready to dump Africa," missionary Karl Dortzbach complained to WORLD. Meanwhile, missionary activity and Christian-based relief work across the continent's seething middle-from war-torn Sierra Leone to the riotous coast of Kenya-continues apart from North American apathy.

To Africans, it appeared that missions do matter, as 35,000 gathered in Congo last week to attend memorial services for Noah Garaway, an Israeli-American killed in a plane crash Sept. 12. Many of the mourners walked two days in order to attend. Mr. Garaway, Rwanda country director for Arizona-based Food for the Hungry, was among 22 church and religious leaders killed when their chartered plane crashed in the Minembwe mountains of Congo while trying to land. The men were on their way to a meeting in Fizi, Congo, meant to bring together warring factions from Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo (formerly Zaire) in a mission-based effort to bring peace to the region.

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Peace still proves elusive in Sierra Leone, where Nigerian-led rebels continue to shell parts of the small West African nation. According to one missionary, who out of concern for his safety asked that he not be identified, heavy mortar fell on shanty houses in the east end of Freetown, killing an estimated 55 people in one episode last week.

Nearby Liberia survived its own spate of violence last spring and remains "remarkably stable" after July elections, according to World Relief African Director David Van Vuuren. Humanitarian work is just beginning again, including community development and a significant amount of counseling. Children, in particular, were traumatized by the brutality of fighting in April and May.

Fighting in Algeria continues to set records. A massacre last week outside Algiers, the capital, resulted in 85 deaths, according to officials; 200, according to eyewitnesses. In the same week 53 civilians were killed in an early-morning raid on a village south of Algiers. These are topped only by an Aug. 30 massacre which resulted in the deaths of 300 civilians (many of whom were decapitated). This was just one more bloody day among thousands since 1992, when the government canceled elections that would have given power to the radical Islamic Front.

Despite claims from President Liamine Zeroual that "terrorism is living its last hours in Algeria," recent episodes of violence suggest a shift in this civil war. The government has reportedly armed a "peasant militia" of 150,000 who carry out attacks that are blamed on the Armed Islamic Group and other guerrillas.

In Uganda, "normal" is never a term to be trusted. A World Harvest mission compound that came under attack in June was beginning its return to standard operating procedure. But earlier this month, rebels again attacked the area near Bundibugyo. Refugees have congregated there since previous rebel incursions. Missionary Paul Leary estimated that 25 refugees were killed in the morning attack when their shelters were mistaken for army barracks.

Since the June fighting between rebels and government soldiers, roads and bridges had been repaired and a water pipe project neared completion, clearing the way for relief organizations to deliver supplies to the remote area 150 miles west of Kampala, the capital. World Harvest has reached agreement with the U.N.'s World Food Program to distribute food in the area, if roadways can be kept open and the rebel gunfire kept at bay.

Student riots have tapered off in Nairobi, but coastal areas of Kenya continue to be the seat of discontent with the government of President Daniel arap Moi. More than 50 people have been killed in recent violence there. Reform proposals, being pushed in part by a coalition of churches, blunted a call for riots last week, but opposition leaders are asking the president to step aside before year-end elections. Leaders of the church coalition, according to missionary Mr. Dortzbach, have told Mr. arap Moi that reforms must go forward. "This is like two sides of the ocean standing together," said Mr. Dortzbach. "The coalition has kept liberal churches from just politicizing, and it's helped evangelical churches recognize that being saved has consequences."


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