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Back from the brink

By Paolo dell’Oca
For four months a savage civil war raged in Congo-Brazzaville, leaving thousands of dead and wounded and driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. The fighting may have stopped, but the people of Brazzaville now face a new challenge: to rebuild their shattered lives.

Passengers crowd around the gate waiting to board the ferry which, since 28 October, has again begun the shuttle across the river that separates Kinshasa from Brazzaville. Among them are inhabitants of both cities carrying goods to sell on the right bank.

There are many who cross the river each morning to return in the evening with a few extra francs in their pockets. Cars are rare on the ferry, though. “It’s too early,” says a passenger. “The chances of them being stolen are still too great.” The ICRC has decided to take the risk by transporting over a tanker to supply areas of the city deprived of water.

The crossing takes 15 minutes. As we approach the landing stage, we begin to see signs of the damage caused by the conflict, in particular a round 20-storey building riddled with bullet holes. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of windows still intact.

Once on dry land, we begin the customs procedures: the small administrative buildings have not gone unscathed either, and the officials work with meagre means. There are not enough customs forms to go around, but we manage nonetheless. Making do is in fact all that is left for the residents of Brazzaville as they try to rebuild their lives. The streets, empty until only a few days ago, are gradually coming back to life, as people go out to buy or sell essential items. The market, though modest, is back in business: vegetables, fruit and grains are again available, but not everyone can afford them. “Manioc is two or three times more expensive than before,” says one young father who has decided to go home empty-handed.

Petrol and diesel have also become luxury items. Yet there are still cars out and about. “Fuel is sold by the roadside,” says one driver of an “improvised” taxi. “But if you are armed you don’t have to pay.”

It’s obvious that life in Brazzaville after the conflict is not easy. During the last few days of the fighting, almost every quarter was affected. Anyone who could find and pay for transport left with all their belongings, others left everything behind.

Any buildings or houses that survived the shelling were looted. Furniture, beds, kitchen utensils, even doors and windows, disappeared as the conflict intensified. Public facilities, such as health centres, were not spared — almost every single one of the 30 centres scattered about the city will require full rehabilitation. Some were damaged by shells, others looted. Furthermore, many sectors of the city have been deprived of water and electricity supplies. The risk of epidemics is great, not counting the difficulties facing sick people needing care. At the hospital of Makelekele, an almost unconscious man arrives aboard... a wheelbarrow.

In one health post nothing is left of the materials that existed and the interior courtyard has been used as a cemetery. “We couldn’t leave the premises. Bullets were flying all over the place, so we had to bury the dead wherever we found space,” explains a local resident. Thus, men, women and children lie side by side with combatants. The grave of one fallen combatant is marked with the wig he wore. For many this conflict recalled the one in Liberia, with armed men decked out in colourful wigs, women’s boots, sunglasses and mascots to protect them from bullets.

With the war over, the humanitarian community is trying to ensure that the basic structures in the capital continue to function. Hospitals and health centres ravaged by the conflict need to be rehabilitated. Technical and material assistance is also being provided to re-establish water and electricity supplies throughout the city.

Meanwhile, thousands of people remain outside the city, either sheltered by members of their family or in camps for displaced people. Many come to Brazzaville just during the day; the reigning insecurity and effects of the looting explain this phenomenon. For, if some members of the militias have been confined to their barracks, armed men are still roving about the city aboard vehicles loaded with goods of dubious origin... What’s more, it is not uncommon for shots to be fired in and around the city, not to mention the road blocks that often degenerate into fights.

The return of the majority of inhabitants will depend on how conditions of life evolve. Humanitarian organizations are fully aware of this, especially during the rainy period which makes daily life even more difficult. According to a number of observers, Brazzaville can only recover if the militias are disbanded, a regular army is created, basic structures are re-established in the city and national reconciliation is achieved at both the political and civilian levels.

“I lost two children in this war,” says one man who asked us to transport his wife to hospital. “The violence in Congo has to stop.”

The choice of humanity

When fighting erupted in the Congolese capital Brazzaville, shortly before presidential elections were due to take place, ICRC delegate Darcy Christen was on a brief mission to visit the ICRC’s local office there. Federation delegate Abdelhalim Senouci was also in town, staying at the same hotel. Volunteers of the Congolese Red Cross were going about their usual business. Suddenly, on the morning of 5 June they found themselves in the midst of a full-blown conflict.

The conflict, more politically than ethnically motivated, spread like wildfire, with the opposing forces carving the city into two, north and south. The fact that it took place in an urban environment, where the population was dense and entirely reliant on public services such as water and electricity, meant that conditions deteriorated very rapidly.

A group of Red Cross volunteers rallied together to organize first aid. Some 140 volunteers worked day and night. The courage and determination they were to show in carrying out their task was to impress the population... and surprise even the volunteers themselves.

“From the very beginning the Congolese Red Cross volunteers did a truly remarkable job,” says Christen. They carried out such grim tasks as picking up corpses from the streets, as well as evacuating the wounded and distributing food and medicines.”

Michèle Loulendo, a 23-year-old paediatric nurse, was not afraid on several occasions to remind the combatants of their obligations to respect the law of war. Father of three Thibault Ntshibo had to overcome the hostility of terrorized civilians who thought he belonged to the military. Paul Goma, responsible for operations in the northern sector of the city, managed to convince the military to warn the population before launching their final assault on the southern sector, allowing many people to flee safely from the area.

Sadly, despite the end of hostilities, one volunteer was to lose his life and two others were wounded when an armed group fired on an ICRC vehicle in the centre of Brazzaville.

Paolo dell’Oca
Paolo dell’Oca is an ICRC information delegate. He wrote this article in November 1997.

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