Congo's Poor Lose Last Possessions

Tens of thousands of refugees displaced by fighting in eastern Congo are desperate for food rations and other international aid.
SOURCE: | By Gene Thorp - The Washington Post - November 15, 2008
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 15, 2008

NYONGERA, Congo, Nov. 14 -- It was her favorite dress, a pretty, long one with a wild pattern of colorful flowers. By her calculation, Anastazi Mahano saved five years for the small luxury, keeping the dress from the mud that stains everything here brown, wearing it only for weddings and Sunday church.

When rebel fighting engulfed this area recently, she padlocked it inside her mud-walled house and fled empty-handed, along with thousands of others, into the rolling green hills. Arriving back home Wednesday, however, she found the padlock smashed and her belongings looted -- perhaps by unpaid rebels, or unpaid government soldiers, or even neighbors more desperate than she.

"It took me a long time to buy that dress," Mahano said as she surveyed her wrecked house. "It was my special clothing. I'm so brokenhearted."

As panicked thousands have abandoned villages across eastern Congo in recent months, the scale of looting that has followed has been massive, a crime reflecting the predatory culture pervading Congo since the Belgian colonizers perfected it decades ago.

The millions of minor thefts may pale in comparison to the more professional looting of eastern Congo's vast mineral wealth, which is helping to finance the conflict. Collectively, though, the thieving soldiers have set back an already economically marginal population by years, if not decades, making it even harder to reverse the effects of a conflict that threatens to destabilize the entire Central African region.

Renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda, a Tutsi rebel leader with close ties to neighboring Rwanda, has said he has begun fighting again to protect the region's minority Tutsis from Hutu militias that fled to eastern Congo after Rwanda's 1994 genocide. He vowed recently to "liberate" all of Congo.

Eastern Congo has been the epicenter of two civil wars in the past decade, and the most recent fighting has left the provincial capital of Goma encircled and displaced tens of thousands of Congolese.

As the rebels advance, the nature of the looting here indicates how desperate Congo has become. Humiliated, retreating government soldiers, hungry rebels and other opportunists have wrestled chickens and cellphones from fleeing villagers and smashed the doors and windows of abandoned homes, making off with mattresses, goats, pots, clothes, radios and TVs.

The road that leads north from Goma has become a long, pathetic tableau of government soldiers leaning in doorways or in front of houses they now occupy.

A bit farther north, rebels have set up a roadblock where trucks heading to Goma heaped high with cabbages, charcoal and other goods must pay an astounding $500 tax or be turned back. Some drivers park there for days before managing, somehow, to get the money.

The impact of the predation is difficult to calculate. Person by person, though, it has been catastrophic economically and, in a way, morally, as Congolese have watched their painstakingly earned savings and possessions carried off by drunk soldiers with guns.

"I have lost my appetite," said Jean-Marie Kabale Kapitula, 42, describing his devastation when he found two of his three saws stolen, along with three goats and his only pig, belongings representing years of work.

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