Heart of Darkness: International Relief

International relief is getting to more of the population of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2001 than in previous years, but many Congolese still remain out of aid agencies' reach, dying of starvation and preventable diseases.

Following a United Nations-monitored cease-fire earlier this year, it has become safer to travel by river, and aid organizations have been able to deliver food and clean water to civilians. But aid has been slow in coming and is not easily distributed, given the lack of roads and continued fighting among various rebel groups.

"Logistically speaking, I don't think you can imagine a worse place to be operating: no roads, no good coordination, even within areas controlled by the same political force," says Les Roberts, who directs health policy for the nonprofit International Rescue Committee in Congo. The situation is especially severe in eastern Congo, where there are few relief agencies serving more people that have been displaced by rebel fighting.

"The security situation is so very fluid," said Tim McRae, Congo desk officer at the United States Agency for International Development in Washington. "Once there's an attack, that area really becomes off limits."

Agencies also face obstacles outside of Congo.

"The shortage is funding now," says Roberts. "A year ago I would have said the limiting factor is security."

The United Nations, for example, sought $121 million in aid for Congo this year; thus far it has received less than 60 percent of that amount.

Relief groups like the U.N.'s World Food Program have received food from donors, but lack the funds to pay for the planes to deliver it. Relief flights to rebel-controlled eastern Congo were stopped in July because of lack of money.

No Health Care for Many

However, the United Nations has managed to get fuel and food to civilians in rebel-controlled areas by chartering barges on the Congo River, which spans the huge country from the government-controlled capital Kinshasa in the west to the rebel-controlled areas in the east. River traffic had been blocked for nearly three years until June, when the first United Nations barge reached the eastern city of Kisangani.

Various U.N. estimates suggest that between 37 percent and 75 percent of the Congolese population has no access to health care of any kind. The World Health Organization and UNICEF have estimated that $350 million a year is needed for Congo's decrepit health infrastructure just to begin reversing spiraling mortality rates. The situation is compounded by the lack of data about the suffering.

"To get reliable numbers about the Congo is notoriously difficult," says Oliver Ulich, humanitarian affairs officer for the U.N. Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "If you don't have access to certain areas, you don't know how many people there are."

One thing is certain. Many people dying in eastern Congo are dying from preventable diseases. Malaria is one of the main killers, but there have been outbreaks of polio, whooping cough, even bubonic plague. A common sentiment echoed by various agencies is that only when peace returns can they begin to hope for a solution to Congo's suffering.

"The population is growing weaker and weaker each month," says Michael Despines, IRC's director for eastern Congo. "Even though aid is increasing slightly, it's still insignificant compared to the needs."