The four and a half year war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has taken more lives than any other since World War II and is the deadliest documented conflict in African history, says the International Rescue Committee.
A mortality study released today by the IRC estimates that since August 1998, when the war erupted, through November 2002 when the survey was completed, at least 3.3 million people died in excess of what would normally be expected during this time.
"This is a humanitarian catastrophe of horrid and shocking proportions," says George Rupp, president of the IRC. "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."
Improved access and security in 2002 enabled the IRC to measure mortality among 9.3 million people in 10 districts in the war-decimated east, and 31.2 million in 10 western districts, greatly expanding on two previous IRC studies in eastern provinces conducted in 2000 and 2001.
According to the IRC's findings, an estimated 30,000 excess deaths have occurred every month in this ongoing-conflict. The vast majority, some 85 percent, have been from easily treatable diseases and malnutrition, linked to displacement and the collapse of much of the country's health system and economy. With poor or no access to basic health care, the smallest children have died at disproportionately high rates. In three of the ten health zones IRC teams visited in the east, more than half the children were dead before the age of two.
But the IRC's research found some cause for hope. While people continued to die at an extraordinary rate, death from violence in the east dropped by 90 percent compared to the previous three years of the war, and overall mortality also declined significantly.
The IRC believes a number of positive developments have contributed to greater stability and the decline in excess mortality. Peace talks in South Africa have led to the withdrawal of most foreign forces, as well as a framework for implementing a peace accord and developing a government of reconciliation. And some 5,500 UN observers have taken up position in the country. This environment of improved security enabled humanitarian aid organizations like the IRC to expand emergency health services and infrastructure support programs, particularly in previously inaccessible areas.
However, the peace process is in danger. There are new outbreaks of fighting in northeastern Ituri, and Uganda has reoccupied areas of the province. Meanwhile, Rwanda, which withdrew its forces last October, is threatening to reinvade, and militias that perpetrated the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, still lurk in the forests of eastern Congo.
"Unless there is rapid and bold international investment in strengthening this peace process, all that has been gained in Congo could be lost," said George Rupp. "We hope the findings in this report compel the international community to take action."
The International Rescue Committee urges a diplomatic and humanitarian response in proportion to the magnitude of this crisis:
- The fighting must come to an end. The IRC supports and encourages rapid implementation of the peace accords. Regional governments must end their backing of militia groups, and support the formation of a transitional government. The international community needs to demand and verify the departure of all foreign troops and insist that armed groups and militias cease attacks on civilian populations. And it is vital that the mandate and resources of the UN peacekeeping mission be enhanced to ensure compliance of all parties in the conflict.
- Humanitarian needs must be met. With the world's attention on the Middle East, a war with the highest mortality in more than half a century goes largely unnoticed. We urge donor nations to provide emergency assistance and reconstruction support at a level proportional to need. We urge warring parties to agree to an immediate ceasefire and permit the safe delivery of humanitarian aid.
- The root causes of war must be addressed. Local and ethnic conflicts threaten to undo any peace accord in the region. The IRC believes the facilitators of the Congolese peace process should increase support to local initiatives to resolve ongoing disputes. In addition, exploitation of Congo's natural resources by local and regional actors continues to fuel violence. The international community should document violations and impose punitive measures on those involved in illegal exploitation. Finally, the IRC urges increased international resolve to find viable solutions to the security concerns of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The disarmament and demobilization of Rwandan Hutu fighters in Congo should be a priority.