- While the little attention on African affairs in the international community now is focused on the crisis in Congo Kinshasa (DRC), the humanitarian crisis in neighbouring Congo Brazzaville is "completely ignored", frustrated aid workers say. Close to 100,000 people remain internally displaced in the country, which is also home to more than 100,000 refugees.
The US-based humanitarian group Refugees International (RI) yesterday published "a reminder" to the international community on behalf of the civilian population of Congo Brazzaville, which still are going through a grave humanitarian crisis. The group regrets the country's crisis is "completely ignored" by the international community.
According to figures released by the US Committee for Refugees (USCR), approximately 30,000 citizens of the Congo were refugees or asylum seekers by the end of 2001. Though exact figures are not yet available, continued violence suggests the number rose in 2002.
Additionally, close to 100,000 people remain internally displaced in the country, which is also home to more than 100,000 regional refugees. Violence in the country has claimed more than 20,000 lives, and reports of rape and sexual assault are widespread.
The Congo has also been plagued by bouts of temporary displacement, during which tens of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of people, have fled their homes for short periods of time due to local unrest. The combined effects of conflict and displacement have devastated the country's economy. USCR estimates that 70 percent of all residents in the country's two largest cities live at or below the poverty line, and 40 percent of the country's half-million school-age children do not attend school.
Also in jeopardy, according to Refugees International (RI), is the country's health system, tested most recently by an outbreak of the Ebola virus. An estimated 60 percent of all health centres remain closed and humanitarian organisations report severe shortages of drugs and other medical supplies. Maternal mortality in the country is at 890-900 per 100,000 live births, and infant mortality stands at 82 for every 100,000 live births.
The Congo, with a population of 3 million, rarely receives media attention. "Therefore, serious, long-standing humanitarian problems, resulting from conflict and ethnic violence, have gone mostly unnoticed," RI notes.
Moreover, Congo Brazzaville is often confused with its larger and even more conflicted neighbour, Congo Kinshasa (DRC). "Thus, the Congo is a neglected corner of the massive regional conflict and humanitarian crisis in the Congo Basin of Central Africa," RI concludes.
The Congo therefore was "an example of a country in which few global economic or political interests are at stake." Despite the Congo's offshore oil resources, the conflict in the country has attracted little external involvement, "perhaps because disruption on the mainland has little effect on oil extraction taking place some 30-50 miles off the country's coast," the US group analyses.
- Thus, any external engagement in mediating the conflict and responding to the needs of the population would have to be grounded in humanitarian motives, RI concludes, with an indirect reference to current world politics affairs.
The most recent outbreak of violence in Congo Brazzaville flared in April, despite a 17 March peace agreement. Focused in the Congo's central Pool region, combat between government forces and "Ninja" rebels, militant supporters of former presidential candidate Bernard Kolelas, is estimated to have displaced approximately 150,000 civilians, or 60% of the population in that area.
- In the shadow of events in the Middle East, however, the resurgence of violence has gone largely unreported and appeals from UNICEF and the Red Cross remain grossly under-funded, RI laments. "In 2002, only 14 percent of UNICEF's overall appeal, and only 27 percent of the organisation's Flash Appeal for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from the Pool region received funding. Figures from the Red Cross were equally dismal."
- Without the funding needed to carry out operations, it has been virtually impossible for humanitarian organisations to meet the needs of the Congo's displaced and other needy people, the group says.
As they struggled to provide basic health and nutrition to the population, programs in areas such as child protection and women's development were scaled back or eliminated. "The wide shortfall of funding is having a major impact on the efforts of UNICEF and its partners on wider coverage of project beneficiaries including the expansion of activities to other needy and underserved areas," UNICEF reported in January 2003.
The situation only worsened following the surge in violence this spring. Poor security and a lack of infrastructure continue to impede efforts to reach the country's most vulnerable.
Recent weeks have offered signs that violence in the Congo may be waning, but sustaining peace in the ravaged country will be a challenge of considerable measure. Promised amnesty and reintegration, demobilised "Ninjas" are already complaining that they have yet to receive tools or seeds for farming.
- Many "Ninjas" have refused to relinquish their arms until the promised items are delivered, Marni Zelnick of RI warns from Brazzaville. "If efforts are not made to quickly rehabilitate the country's infrastructure and support micro-development projects, this fragile window for peace may close."
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