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Conflict Casts Long, Lethal Shadow in Eastern Congo

In a region plagued by conflict, disease and hunger have become deadly enemies for the displaced people of eastern Congo.

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By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 2, 2009

WALIKALE, Congo -- Death came quietly for Bahanuzi Mihigo.

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Unconscious from a soaring fever, his body full of infection, the 36-year-old farmer lay under a white hospital tent in this tiny village, a place that floats like an island in a vast sea of roadless jungle.

It was a cool evening, and the fighting that had chased Mihigo from his home was far away now. Still, its aftermath surrounded him in the tent, where ants crawled up the wooden posts of beds occupied by others weak or dying from their own jungle odysseys: three babies listless with malaria; a woman wheezing from tuberculosis; another with a raging infection ballooning her left arm.

Justin Balaluka, Mihigo's friend, sat with him into the night, noticing how he had changed. He looked old, exhausted. Just before 11 p.m., Mihigo trembled slightly and, as Balaluka put it, "lost the spirit."

Though doctors listed the cause of death as suspected typhoid fever, Balaluka, 26, who fled through the jungle for weeks with Mihigo, named another.

"I blame the war," he said.

By some estimates, at least 5 million Congolese have died in more than a decade of conflict touched off by the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, which sent a flood of militiamen across the border into mineral-rich eastern Congo. Although the conflict has surged, receded and changed over time -- at some points involving eight countries and at others breaking into smaller conflicts among a mess of armed groups -- the cumulative death toll in eastern Congo is the largest since World War II.

For the most part, though, people in eastern Congo have not died in a blaze of bullets or in large-scale massacres. More often, the conflict has set off a chain reaction of less spectacular consequences that begins with fleeing through an unforgiving jungle and ends with a death such as Mihigo's. In eastern Congo, people die from malaria and diarrhea, from untreated infections and measles, from falling off rickety bridges and slipping down slopes, from hunger and from drinking dirty water in the hope of surviving one more day.

Arguably, people die because of the wider social impact of the conflict. Entire villages have been scattered across hundreds of miles, atomizing extended family networks that people depend upon in difficult times. The conflict has overwhelmed already-dysfunctional government hospitals and left roads rutted and overgrown, isolating people in villages like Walikale from help.

At the moment, the conflict in eastern Congo is surging once again. Since January, at least half a million people have fled a U.N.-backed Congolese army operation targeting Rwandan rebels, which Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to discuss in a visit to Congo this month. The rebels are retaliating against villagers with whom they have lived for years.

In early May, one of those attacks ravaged the village of Busurungi, where Mihigo lived with his wife and three children, about 75 miles from here. In many ways, the story of his death -- pieced together from interviews with neighbors, doctors and nurses who treated him -- begins there.

Despite the occasional menace of rebels who lived in the village, Mihigo led a relatively healthy life. He ate decently, drank from spring water taps and could go to a local health clinic for basic medicine. He was known as one who shared what he had, and as a mentor to young men tempted to take up the AK-47.


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