The refugee count keeps climbing in the Democratic Republic of Congo as fighting between the Congolese army and rebel warlord Laurent Nkunda drives more and more people from their homes. Recent tallies by the United Nations add more than 250,000 people to the rolls of displaced persons, bringing the total to over a million.
Numbers are only part of the story, of course. It’s highly likely that a huge percentage of these people will eventually become casualties, killed by starvation and disease, dying of despair. I wrote about the plight of refugees in the Congo in this passage from Heart of Diamonds:
“That is Ogastine,” Frannie explained quietly. “She was raped by seven men in front of her husband and children. One of them used a plantain to humiliate her even more.” Bobby turned the camera on Frannie, who ignored it and kept on talking. “She had to take her children and go live in the hills when her husband kicked her out.”
“Why did he do that?” Valierie asked.
“He was sure she had contracted a disease from the men who raped her, so he didn’t want anything to do with her anymore. Her children all died in the bush. There were three of them.”
As Frannie told Ogastine’s story, Valerie felt the anguish draw around her like a dark curtain. She mentally pushed it back so she could focus on Frannie and the story. “How did her children die?” she asked gently.
“I don’t know for sure, but probably from what you and I would consider a minor disease. It could have been just a simple infection. Like most of these kids, they were probably under-fed to start with. Weak. That means just about any medical problem becomes life threatening. The massacres and battle get press coverage, but nobody ever reports on how many people die from the real effects of civil war. Disruption of the food supply and lack of medical care kill a lot more people than bullets. More than five million have died in the Congo since 1998. The shame is, almost all of them die from treatable diseases like malaria and diarrhea, aggravated by living in a permanent war zone.”