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For Congo's Mothers, Unceasing Loss

The remnants of Belgian rule can be seen dimly amid the decay. One stolid but underused building still says "Poste/Posterijen," French and Flemish words marking the former post office. Rows of palm trees and unused electrical poles still line the wide, though no longer paved, boulevards.

The ethnically charged wars of the past decade, ignited by the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, finished off what remained of Shabunda's economic vitality.

Nsimenya Kinyama holds her new son, not yet named because his father is traveling. Congo's war, ended by a 2002 accord, " has made us poor," she said. "It has brought hunger, and it has given us a hard life." (Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)

_____War in the Shadows_____
Interactive Primer: Nine audio chapters trace the history of a decade of conflict in the Congo.

Soldiers from a hodgepodge of armed groups stole goats, pigs and chickens and emptied the fields of cassava, rice and other vegetables. They also chased townspeople into the forest, making it impossible for many to resume planting or reach doctors. Starving people ate their seeds and emptied ponds and rivers of fish.

Meanwhile, the lush equatorial jungle reclaimed roadways, reducing them to narrow, muddy footpaths. Shabunda's access to the rest of Congo closed off.

Along the way, children began dying in numbers matched by few places on Earth.

Mpala Kikuni bore four children, all now dead. Her year-old daughter was in the hospital with a high fever when rebel attacks forced the doctors and nurses to evacuate. Her 19-year-old son was killed by a grenade as he fled from a soldier.

"It's very painful for me," said Kikuni, who did not know her age but appeared to be about 40. "In all my life, I don't have a living child."

Another mother, Zamwana Mutuza, 52, lost her teenage son Alfonce when the family was fleeing from soldiers and tried to cross the swift-moving Ulindi River at night. His body was never found.

"It went with the river," Mutuza said. Of her 12 children, six are dead. "My children would have lived if there had been peace."

In a culture where a woman's most important function is to bear and raise children, such deaths take an especially severe toll, causing not only grief but also loss of stature in the community. Grown sons and daughters also are counted on to provide support for aging parents in a society with few pensions, savings accounts or other safety nets.

One 30-year-old woman, Godeliva Madelena, said she had given birth to 11 children, including one last month. Six were dead, mostly from severe malnutrition that swelled their legs and made their hair yellow and thin. The condition is preventable by adding protein to a child's diet, and it is treatable with basic medical care.

"I have been very sad," Madelena said wearily. "I deliver and they die. What I would like to do now is take a rest."

For Kinyama, the course of the wars that have devastated the region can be traced in the grave sites of her children.

One is buried in Shabunda. Four are in her home village 30 miles away. A sixth, wrapped in cloth instead of a coffin, is near one of the family's grass-covered hideouts, deep in the equatorial forest. She marked each grave by planting flowers but has not returned since.

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