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Humanitarian Crisis Worsens as Washington Fuels Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Democracy Now! interviews James North, a veteran reporter on Africa, to explain what's really behind the fighting that has displaced tens of thousands in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Refugees from Democratic Republic of Congo at the border village of Busanza November 2, 2008 in Kisoro, Uganda.
Photo Credit: Sam DCruz /


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the massive humanitarian crisis unfolding in Central Africa, where fighting has displaced tens of thousands in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rebels in Congo believed to be backed by Rwanda postponed their departure Friday from the key eastern city of Goma by 48 hours for "logistical reasons," defying for a second time an ultimatum set by neighboring African countries and backed by Western diplomats. The move marks their second defiance of a demand by African leaders for them to retreat.

Last week, the World Food Program suspended its distribution over security concerns, but it has now resumed activity in several refugee camps across the Congo. This is Wolfram Herfurth of the World Food Program.

WOLFRAM HERFURTH: Today we are assisting in 12 sites some 80,000 people with a three-day ration of maize-meal powders, oil and salt. They are all war-displaced population. Some of them are going home to their origin in Rutshuru. Others are forced still to stay in the camps.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Meanwhile, many who fled their homes amidst the fighting are looking to return, but thousands are still living in camps as the conflict drags on.

MUNAZO ROSSET: [translated] The most important thing for us is peace. We want to go back to our homes, because we grow our own food and do not depend on anyone. The food is too little here, and we are meant to share it for three days.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on the conflict and what’s driving it, I spoke Thursday with veteran reporter James North, who’s covered Africa for almost four decades, contributing writer to The Nation, where his latest  piece is called "Washington’s Role in the Renewed Violence in DR Congo." I asked him about the situation on the ground.

JAMES NORTH: Most of the fighting so far is taking place in the eastern Congo, the city of Goma, which borders Rwanda. I’m glad you highlighted at the beginning the humanitarian crisis, because it’s one of the greatest humanitarian crises anywhere in the world since the end of World War II. Some five million people have died since 1998 when serious fighting broke out again in the region. This is not a—this figure is not a guess. It’s not a wild guess or a rough estimate. It’s based on surveys by groups like the International Rescue Committee, who have actually done house-to-house surveys. What they did was they went and asked—in thousand different households, they asked mothers, "Who died in your family? Which children died? Which grandparents died?" And they were able to create a model of trying to make this kind of estimate. So when we say five million people died, we’re not exaggerating here.

Now, the recent upsurge in fighting, which really began actually back in April or May and not in the last week or so as the mainstream media has belatedly discovered—in the latest upsurge, another 500,000 people are fleeing. I think it’s important to keep in mind that when we see these photographs, as you showed, of refugees, that many of these people will die. Of these five million people—

AMY GOODMAN: And five million since when?

JAMES NORTH: 1998, 1998.

AMY GOODMAN: Five million.

JAMES NORTH: If this crisis were happening anywhere else in the world outside of Central Africa, there would be an army of correspondents, and there would be a lot more attention from the world community than it’s getting in Congo and in Central Africa.

And what’s important to recognize is that most of these people who died did not die from gunshot wounds or what have you. Under 5 percent died that way. Most of them died because Congo is already the poorest country in the world. People—70 percent of the people are already malnourished. Disease is part of the normal landscape there. And so, when fighting breaks out, what happens is that these people run for their lives. And so, when you see in the refugee camp, as you just—as you just showed, when you see people like that, some of those people will be dead—the weaker ones, the younger ones, the older ones.

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