Nightline Congo Series, Part 1

(OC) In this region, it’s sometimes referred to as the first African World War. We had planned to tell you that story the week of September 11th. Our own tragedy caused us to delay this series. That, after all, was the day when 3,000 people died in the World Trade Center alone. In the Congo, almost that many people have died each and every day for more than three years now. That is the story we will tell you this week.

(VO) This is how we’re accustomed to seeing are our war dead, laid out in neat cemetery rows. Here in the Congo, though, where this many people die of war-related injury, disease or starvation every day, cemeteries are an exception. Take a look down there. What do you see? We know that hundreds of thousands of Congolese have been driven by war into the jungles, and that they die there of malnutrition and cholera and malaria. Can we see them? Not from up here. But down there, there are no roads to drive. And down there are the armies from a half dozen or more neighboring nations and at least three different rebel groups making the river so dangerous that no one dares to travel by boat. You would think that finding the evidence of two and a half million Congolese who have died over the past four years would be easy. But they are not lying by the side of the road. And life, hard as it is in the Congo, is a distraction. But perhaps if we follow the living, they will help us understand what happened to the dead.

They call these homemade scooters chikudus. In Goma, where the refugees from Rwanda came by the hundreds of thousands seven years ago, young men come swooping down rough inclines, carrying lumber or produce or bundles of bamboo strapped to their chikudus. But there is a hard logic to the value of a man’s labor, better illustrated, perhaps, by the effort required to push one of these scooters loaded with 400 or 500 pounds of produce up a hill. If there are many men, but not much work to be done, the price of labor is very cheap, indeed. This is what it takes to earn a dollar or two a day. This is what marks the line between starvation and survival in the Congo. So there was absolutely no way when 900,000 Hutu refugees flooded this town back in 1994, there was no way that Goma could carry the load.

BRENDA BARTON Fifty thousand people died within the first month.

TED KOPPEL (VO) Brenda Barton was here in ’94. She’s a Canadian working now, as she did then, for the United Nations’ World Food Program.

BRENDA BARTON To the humanitarian agencies, our job was simply to try and save them in that moment.

TED KOPPEL We had the sense that the vast preponderance of the refugees were innocent people and there were maybe a few of the killers among them. Do you have any idea what the numbers were?

BRENDA BARTON I don’t think anyone still really knows what the numbers are. There’s been numbers that have been bandied around, but perhaps it was one tenth of the population maximum. So one tenth of 900,000 people—million people...

TED KOPPEL And So you’re talking about 90,000 killers in that group?

BRENDA BARTON Yes. Which is a huge number. It was clear there was no political will to go in and break up those camps. And humanitarian agencies, we couldn’t individually make a decision that people should be disarmed and go in there and try and take their arms away from them. That had to come from Western powers. That had to come from the developed world. And there was no political will.

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