An estimated 3.3 million people have died during the last four and a half years as a result of the bloody war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to a report issued Tuesday by a relief group.
The International Rescue Committee report said that about 85% of the deaths were from hunger and disease brought on by the chaotic fighting in the central African nation.
“This is by far the greatest documented ongoing humanitarian crisis in the world,” a senior official with the rescue committee, Michael Despines, told the Forward. Despines headed the committee’s operations in eastern Congo until last December.
The committee reported that the war in the Congo is the deadliest since World War II and the bloodiest in African history. The warring parties announced a peace treaty last week, but the next day, according to the United Nations, more than 950 people were killed in the province of Ituri in some of the bloodiest massacres since the war began.
“This is a humanitarian catastrophe of horrid and shocking proportions,” said George Rupp, the committee’s president. “The worst mortality projections in the event of a lengthy war in Iraq, and the death toll from all the recent wars in the Balkans don’t even come close. Yet, the crisis has received scant attention from international donors and the media.”
The committee’s chairman emeritus is Wall Street banker John Whitehead, who served as a deputy secretary of state in the Reagan administration.
Among the atrocities committed in 2002 are massacres of civilians, burning of entire villages, dismemberments and mutilations, rapes, cannibalism and the forcible recruitment of children as soldiers, according to a recent State Department report.
The war has also resulted in the collapse of the country’s healthcare system and economy, resulting in mass deaths due to treatable diseases and malnutrition, according to the rescue committee. The committee said that in several eastern regions of the country, where the fighting has been concentrated, more than half of all children die before the age of 2. In one region the proportion is two-thirds.
The war began in August 1998 when Rwandan and Ugandan troops invaded Congo seeking to help overthrow then-president Laurent Kabila, whom they accused of supporting insurgents fighting their governments. The war drew in the armies of six nearby countries at one point, and has involved numerous militias and rebel groups, leaving Congo awash in inter-ethnic bloodshed and vicious fighting over the country’s natural resources that has pitted even the armies of erstwhile allies Rwanda and Uganda against each other.
The situation in the Congo has improved considerably during the last year, according to the International Rescue Committee, with many of the foreign troops having withdrawn from the country. Peace talks in South Africa ended last week with an agreement to form a multi-party government headed by the incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, son of Laurent, who was assassinated two years ago.
The mortality rate in 2002 from acts of violence in war-ravaged eastern Congo represented a 90% decrease from previous committee survey findings. Still, the committee said, the peace process “is in danger.” The committee cited new outbreaks of fighting in the northeast, the reentry of Ugandan forces into the region, threats by Rwanda to re-invade and the fact that the militias that perpetrated the 1994 Rwandan genocide are still present in eastern Congo.
With the world preoccupied with the war in Iraq, however, news of the killings in Ituri and the International Rescue Committee’s latest report were buried on the inside pages of major newspapers.
The committee’s report was based on surveys of more than 2,600 households conducted between September 2002 and November 2002 in the Congo. The committee said that, in fact, its estimate of 3.3 million dead is approximate. The true number could range between 3 million and 4.7 million.
The committee was founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein to help people facing Nazi persecution. Today, it provides humanitarian relief in strife-torn countries around the globe and assists in the resettlement of refugees.