WASHINGTON - While the international media spotlight remains fixed on the war in Iraq, another war waged thousands of miles away in Central Africa has killed more people than any conflict since World War II, according to a report released this week by a major U.S.-based refugee advocacy group.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has completed a mortality study that estimates the number of dead caused by the five-year-old war in the Democratic Republic of Congo at more than 3.3 million, the largest toll of any conflict in recorded African history.
"This is a humanitarian catastrophe of horrid and shocking proportions," said George Rupp, IRC's president. "The worst mortality projections in the event of a lengthy war in Iraq, and the death toll from all the recent wars in the Balkans don't even come close."
"Yet the crisis has received scant attention from international donors and the media," he added.
The study was released on the heels of reports of a massacre of as many as 1,000 members of the Hema ethnic group in the northeastern province of Ituri, the cockpit of serious inter-ethnic warfare in a part of the country that has been occupied by Ugandan troops who first intervened on the side of a rebel army in 1998. Subsequent reports by United Nations monitors, however, put the number slain by Lendu attackers in the latest round of killing at between 150-300 with hundreds more wounded.
Still, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello, declared in Geneva Tuesday that those responsible should be considered for prosecution by the new International Criminal Court (ICC), which has just been constituted in the Hague to try cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
"The perpetrators of these atrocities will be placed under the spotlight and will be obliged to answer for their actions," he said. Uganda has denied any involvement by its troops, despite their presence in the region.
The latest massacres, which occurred last week in some 15 villages, came just a day after a peace agreement between the government of President Joseph Kabila, several rebel and opposition groups, and representatives of civil society. Among other provisions, it authorizes Kabila to remain as president for two years, after which new elections would be held at all levels in the DRC.
The latest massacres, however, have underlined the limited relevance of the 19-month-old peace process to the many civil and ethnic conflicts that continue to roil much of the country, especially in the northeast.
On Wednesday South African President Thabo Mbeki hosted a meeting of leaders from the Great Lakes region, including Kabila, the heads of government of Rwanda and Uganda--which have both intervened in the war--and Tanzania. Diplomats were hoping to persuade Rwanda, which withdrew its forces late last year, against following through on recent threats to re-enter the country and take Ugandan forces with which it was previously allied.
Of the more than three million people killed in the DRC, according to the IRC report, only about ten percent died violently; the rest were victims of starvation and disease resulting from the activities of the various armed groups, which, in addition to forces from Uganda and Rwanda, also included troops from Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Angola, as well as the DRC army, Rwandan Hutu rebel groups, and a variety of indigenous ethnic and political groups and militias.
Millions were forced to flee from their homes and live in the wild, with no access to medical care or regular food or cooking supplies. The vast majority perished from easily treatable diseases and malnutrition; young children were the least likely to survive. In three of ten health zones visited by IRC research teams, more than half the children had died before reaching the age of two.
The IRC stressed that there has been significant improvement in the situation over the past year, compared to the three years before that. It found that the death rate related to the war fell by 90 percent last year, mainly due to the withdrawal of most of the foreign forces and the deployment of some 5,500 UN observers to monitor the situation. As a result, relief organizations like the IRC have been able to expand their reach into previously inaccessible areas.
But progress remains fragile, as last week's massacres demonstrate. "Unless there is rapid and bold international investment in strengthening this peace process, all that has been gained in Congo could be lost," Rupp said. "We hope the findings in this report compel the international community to take action."
Copyright 2003 OneWorld.net