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Congo in the grip of despair

By Didier Revol

For the third time in seven years, Brazzaville was the scene of horrific clashes at the end of last year and the beginning of this one. As always, the most vulnerable were subjected to the worst abuses. How does the current lull bode for the future?

The Republic of the Congo is slipping deeper into an internal conflict that has turned the lives of its inhabitants, in particular those of the capital Brazzaville, into a living nightmare. Already badly damaged during the fighting in 1997, the city was racked by a new bout of fighting on 17 December 1998. From the next day on, almost all the 200,000 residents of the Bacongo and Makelekele districts fled the widespread looting and brutality. About 25,000 people sought refuge in some 20 churches and more than 30,000 found shelter with friends or relatives.



Daily life: looting, rape, executions

Looting goes on in broad daylight in Brazzaville. The funeral processions of soldiers or militiamen pass by at speed through the devastated streets. Shots ring out sporadically without apparent reason. Whole buildings have been emptied of their regular tenants and taken over by force. Water and electricity supplies are cut off for days on end. Martin Griffiths, coordinator of UN relief operations and future executive director of the Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, said he was “concerned by the permanent state of violence in the Congo, which is keeping donors at bay.” If much was accomplished in the way of reconstruction after the last round of hostilities in 1997, today anguish and anarchy reign. Entire districts have been systematically looted. Rare is there a house that still has windows, tiling or electrical installations.

Rebuilding the city is no easy task. Repairing the infrastructure of a shattered society will take years. As Brazzaville psychologist Pierre-Claver Mabika says: “Violence has become a way of life here. Looters will kill each other for the sake of a television. Children are bound to copy what they have seen.” He continues: “Do we need to resort to violence against our own children to stop this madness?” The deeply-entrenched culture of violence among so many young Congolese has several causes: the brutality of the civil wars in 1993 and 1997, endemic unemployment and the alarming ease with which arms can be obtained. “If the militias don’t want to surrender their arms, it’s because owning a weapon is a fast route to power and wealth.”

As they fled the fighting, the displaced lived through horror. “When your child falls down beside you, you don’t look back, you keep going in the hope that the next bullet isn’t meant for you,” confides one of them. Men were sometimes executed, women raped in front of their families. As part of an assistance programme for rape victims financed by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Pierre-Claver Mabika does the rounds of sites for displaced people. “We will never know the full extent of this phenomenon,” he admits. “But the number of cases are legion. Our help is all the more vital given that we are dealing with women who have been deeply traumatized and who thought at the time that they were going to die.” Most victims suffer serious depression, exacerbated by feelings of shame. They cut themselves off, think everyone in a crowd knows what has happened to them, and constantly relive the scene.

For fear of being ostracized, they keep silent. If they speak out, the rejection by their loved ones can often be extreme. Seventeen-year-old Erna, raped along with three of her friends, confided in her mother and a clergyman when she reached a camp. “You’d have been better off dead,” they replied by way of consolation. “In your opinion, who needs the treatment?” demands the psychologist, who is trying to involve relatives, in particular spouses, in the therapy. “A childless woman fell pregnant after a rape. The husband thinks the child is a monster, the fearsome progeny of several men. He wants to get rid of his wife. I try to put the pieces back together.” Other women, in rare instances, refuse abortion but kill the child after the birth.

A traumatized society

War is the breakdown of the norm. In such a situation, nothing is worthy of respect, and rape is a way of exerting power over another person, of humiliating the vanquished – women, but also their husbands, fathers and brothers, a whole community. In one site for displaced people, several women, seated on motley foam mattresses, express their disgust. One mother sadly laments: “Our own sons are doing this. We’ve had enough. We want peace. Then the government can take care of the widows and orphans.” Another continues: “The soldiers attack four-year-old girls. One of my neighbours was an old woman. Ten men raped her. Who can survive something like that?” No one speaks; they stare into the distance. “Soon there will only be mad people left in this country,” she adds, as if the perpetrators and the victims would one day end up forming the basis of Congolese society. They all express the desire to leave the country, but without money, nothing is possible. “After three years without being able to go to school, my daughter was going to Canada to study, and then the fighting started,” says Victorine, a more well-to-do mother than her friends in misfortune. “We got separated, and now I don’t know where she is. I still risked my life to go back to the house and get her plane ticket and passport.”


Mass displacements

As the expatriate staff of the United Nations and other organizations have been evacuated, the victims are relying, months after the outbreak of hostilities, solely on direct assistance from the Red Cross. The Federation made its delegates and material resources available to the ICRC, to complement and support its operation. As Ulrich Mueller, ICRC head of delegation, points out: “The relationship between the two organizations has been very supportive and constructive, knowing that we need each other in order to work effectively.” Other population movements have since taken place in Brazzaville whenever fighting flares up in the immediate outskirts, swelling the ranks of the displaced in sites where sanitary conditions are deteriorating despite the tireless efforts of volunteers and delegates.

The population wakes almost every day to the sound of gunfire. “The capital hasn’t yet been shelled by heavy artillery,” says one observer. “If that were to happen, there would be a massacre.” Even more worrying, the conflict is spreading to the rest of the country. “It is unlikely that the coastal town of Pointe Noire, with its oil
riches, will be spared, as was the case in 1997,” he adds. The ever-growing influx of displaced people in Brazzaville is worrying Elodie Martel, Federation head of delegation: “With very little means at our disposal, we are striving each day to avoid a catastrophe and to spare the victims an inhuman fate.”

Didier Revol
Didier Revol has been the Federation information delegate based in Nairobi.

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