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Sherrlyn Borkgren/ShootQ/Genesis Photos

Congo sorrow

Africa | Revived fighting leaves many more displaced people to suffer from disease and starvation

Issue: "'To stay is to be killed'," Nov. 29, 2008

The big picture from the Democratic Republic of Congo since August is gruesome: mass rapes, children forced to become soldiers, 250,000 people displaced, 500,000 in desperate need of food, water, or shelter, according to World Relief, with numbers changing daily. Photojournalists like Sherrlyn Borkgren capture the individual misery of a 16-year-old named Beda: "I have no father," wept Beda minutes after her father died from a gunshot wound in the kidney. He was hit by a stray bullet Nov. 9 as he walked down the street.

The largest UN peacekeeping force in the world -17,000 strong, with 3,000 more possibly to join them-patrols this East African country, but a struggle over Congo's vast mineral resources contributes to the absence of peace.

Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda has said he is seeking protection for local Tutsis from an influx of Rwandan Hutus after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. About five million people died from 1998 to 2003 during what started as a civil war and eventually involved nine nations, yet sporadic fighting continues. Rebel leader Nkunda recently agreed to peace talks with Congo president Joseph Kabila, though rebel forces have broken a ceasefire, and Nkunda has agreed to open transportation for relief organizations.

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Relief groups evacuated the country at the beginning of November. Several days later, groups like World Relief returned to less violence than expected but more uncertainty in the strategically important city of Goma, which is the capital of the embattled North Kivu province and where much of the violence that led to brutal civil war 10 years ago began. World Relief estimates many of the 250,000 displaced people are taking refuge in Congo's extensive forests, according to Paul Rebman: "Some of them are walking towards Uganda, Rwanda. A few have shown up in Goma, but at any point it could become a conflict zone."

Warren Cooper, a physician who works with Samaritan's Purse in Goma, said the organization provides resources to displaced people and tries to improve hygiene in camps outside where clean water is impossible to find and disease, especially cholera, is spreading rapidly. Cooper also works in civilian and military hospitals in Goma and says that most of the patients, including many children, suffer from gunshot wounds.

Goma would be a prize for the rebel forces as capital of North Kivu, but the city is experiencing a period of calm as both sides strategize their next move. Cooper reported on Nov. 17 that rebel troops were within six kilometers of the city, though an attack on UN forces in the city could be unwise for the rebels militarily and politically.

Goma is tense, awaiting a possible rebel attack as skirmishes continue outside the city. When aid workers outside the city tried to teach refugees how to purify the nearby river water to halt the spread of diseases like cholera, fighting broke out. Photojournalist Borkgren said she saw young men sharpening sticks into spears.

The UN base in Kiwanja, a town north of Goma, has barred the gates to about 15,000 refugees seeking help, according to HEAL Africa workers. The displaced Congolese have gathered around the base and are living without food or much water, but Cooper said confidence in UN forces is low. UN troops, with permission to use lethal force to keep what peace there is, so far have not engaged in rebel-government battles.
For day-to-day updates on the situation in Goma, see Sherrlyn Borkgren's blog.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

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