Report: Congo's War and Aftermath Have Killed 5.4 Million

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By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

JOHANNESBURG, Jan. 22 -- Death rates in Congo remain far higher than elsewhere in Africa despite years of relative peace and elections that were designed to bring stability to the beleaguered nation, according to a report released Tuesday by the International Rescue Committee.

From January 2006 to April 2007, sporadic conflict and related effects such as closure of clinics and disruption of food supplies caused the deaths of approximately 727,000 people, the group estimated.

The report is the latest of several detailed surveys by the humanitarian aid group showing that since the outbreak of war in 1998, Congo has experienced one of the world's deadliest crises. The group estimates that the conflict and its aftermath have led to the deaths of 5.4 million people, more than 8 percent of the country's population of 66 million.

Instability in the central African nation continued to take a huge toll even as violent deaths declined after war officially ended with a peace agreement in 2002. The biggest killers today are preventable or treatable maladies such as malaria, diarrhea and respiratory illnesses, made far more serious by a shortage of medical care in the chaotic postwar environment.

"It may be formally at peace, but it's not in practice entirely at peace," said Richard Brennan, one of the report's authors.

The report showed a modest decline in recent years in mortality in eastern Congo, the country's most dangerous region, mainly in areas where intensified peacekeeping operations by the United Nations had allowed for improved humanitarian assistance. But worsening conditions elsewhere in Congo meant there was little overall change in national death rates. Ongoing skirmishes, meanwhile, continue to hinder rebuilding in several areas.

The report's release came as 14 militia groups and the Congolese government were meeting in the eastern city of Goma to try to complete a regional peace deal. Observers had hoped such a deal would end the intermittent fighting that began in 2006 soon after an election gave a democratic mandate to President Joseph Kabila, who was installed in power in 2001 after the assassination of his father.

But more conflict followed, leading to the exile of Congo's most prominent opposition leader, Jean-Pierre Bemba. Fighting in the lawless east also intensified as the government tried to finish off the rebel group led by Laurent Nkunda, a renegade general.

"We have not yet seen this country turn a corner," said Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch, who was attending the peace conference in Goma. "Despite lots of hopes and optimism, this has not happened."

The peace agreement, negotiated under intense pressure from the United States and other countries, would include a cease-fire as well as deals to integrate various militia groups into the national army. An amnesty would apply to people who committed acts of war, though not crimes against humanity.

The report by the International Rescue Committee says violent deaths amounted to only one out of every 250 fatalities in Congo in the survey period, January 2006 to April 2007. The rest were due to disease and malnutrition made more widespread by postwar instability.

The group's methodology is to scientifically determine how many people died in Congo and how many would have died in a typical African country of the same population over a given period. It attributes the excess in Congo to the war.

Teams of workers interviewed 14,000 randomly selected residents in dozens of separate zones about recent deaths in their homes. To reach one village selected randomly by a computer, Brennan said, surveyors had to travel five hours by four-wheel-drive truck and an hour by boat before hiking for two more hours up a hillside. Researchers calculated the mortality rates for the surveyed zones and extrapolated results for the entire nation.

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