Forgotten tragedies

The rain fell for half an hour from a giant showerhead hovering over Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). From the comfort of a house, rain in tropical Africa is spectacular, even magic. But for the thousands displaced Congolese sitting out the storm in their 24-square-foot, wood stick and banana leaf huts, the pouring adds insult to their existing woes.

The displaced have been in some of these camps since 2006, but the bulk of that population came in the second half of 2007 to escape the fighting in the Masisi and Rutshuru areas west and north of Goma. They are about 800,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in northeastern Congo today. According to a recent epidemiologic survey, 5.4 million Congolese, nearly seven times the death toll of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, have died in this war.

Goma is a land of volcanoes. In 2002, the Nyiragongo volcano erupted, adding a fresh layer of lava on which the IDP camps are built. Unlike the human waves fleeing the Rwanda Genocide in 1994, the current IDP population built up over several months of displacements. The humanitarian organizations had time to establish emergency water points, latrines, showers, rubbish pits, and communal infrastructures. When one cholera outbreak started last October, that existing infrastructure, along with reinforcing hygiene practices and communities' responses, quickly ended the outbreak.

Rutshuru, a town north of Goma, used to be one of the major farming regions of Congo, but today it cannot feed itself. Those who can farm see their harvests rot for lack of buyers or stolen by fighters. But for most farmers, without land, seeds and farming tools, it is not possible to grow their own food. Local landowners charge up to $10 per harvest for a 50-square-yard plot and one of the three or four bags a typical lot yields. If the farmer harvests less than a bag, she still owes one to the landowner. Ironically, these farmers depend on other farmers' surpluses, grown thousands of miles away, to survive.

Although some organizations run Children Safe Spaces, children, particularly males, have nothing much to do. Only 35 percent of children living in urban areas go to school in DRC. In the camps, very few &

those whose parents have some money to pay for the fee, uniform, and supplies &

attend local schools. These children have no economic future but farming, which will increase pressure on the land, or joining, willingly or forcibly, the multitude of fighting groups.

North Kivu seems to be in a destructive loop. The 2008 peace conference may have been the historic opportunity it needed to find peace. But if and when the weapons fall silent, DRC will need a visionary leader to make the hard choices. One will be land reform to end the current form of indenture, and the other will be a massive, sustained investment in education. Without these reforms, peace will continue to elude this land of volcanoes and magic tropical rains.

worked for 15 years in humanitarian operations and recently returned from setting up an operation in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for the Portland-based organization Mercy Corps. He lived in Ashland in the '80s and started working in humanitarian operations in 1991. Jacquot moved back to Ashland in 2007.

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