Finding hope among the ashes


Rebuilding: Some say the cooperative efforts to recover from a devastating volcanic eruption might help lead Congo out of civil war.

February 01, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

In the black lava that has formed a wall of rock through the port city of Goma, relief workers and experts hope to find a silver lining - the beginning of an end to the long and bloody civil war that has ravaged the Democratic Republic of Congo far longer than the volcanic eruption.

Some who have watched and worked in Africa's third-largest country for years say the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo Jan. 17 might prompt new cooperation in what has seemed an irreconcilable dispute among rebels, government forces and ethnic factions.

Others say not even natural disaster can stop the conflict.

In human terms, the toll of four years of fighting has dwarfed the volcanic eruption, killing an estimated 2.5 million Congolese from violence and disease, compared to the natural disaster's 47.

But it is the flow of lava - which left 60,000 to 100,000 of Goma's 400,000 residents homeless - that has captured the world's attention.

`There is nothing left'

"It was amazing to see the level of destruction," David Snyder, an emergency information officer for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, says from Nairobi, where he traveled after spending about a week in Goma.

"I've been to hurricanes. Generally people can collect the boards that were blown away and rebuild the house. In this situation, there is nothing left to rebuild from."

The lava's only blessing was that it came slowly, first oozing from the mountain - 12 miles north of Goma - at 9:30 a.m.

A river of fire followed residents as they fled, consuming tiny homes with tin roofs and gutting half the downtown business district. That part of town now is divided in two by a 10-foot-tall wall of rock the color of dark chocolate, Snyder says. Many of the houses that were not destroyed had been looted by the time residents returned.

Working with a local relief agency, CRS has been distributing rations of beans, maize, cooking oil and corn soy blend to the displaced, as well as blankets, collapsible canteens, plastic sheeting and soap. The organization's workers also are helping Goma's people fashion makeshift schools and clinics.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson has called on the United States to expand its aid package drastically - to $1 million a day - to make up for what he calls a long history of ignoring the Congo's plight. The U.S. government had spent $4.3 million on the disaster as of Monday, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Fifteen other donors have pledged $23 million.

Long before the volcano erupted, the people of Goma - separated from Rwanda by Lake Kivu - had suffered poverty, displacement and disease.

When the Hutu majority in Rwanda launched a campaign of genocide against the Tutsis eight years ago, an estimated 1 million refugees streamed into Goma, many of them Hutus who feared reprisals once the Tutsis gained control of Rwanda.

The conflict spreads

The latest conflict flared in 1998, when Rwanda and Uganda sent in troops against the country's president, Laurent Kabila. The troops supported Congolese rebels trying to overthrow him. Rwanda and Uganda said they were concerned about the security of their borders.

The rebel coalition, the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), has its headquarters in Goma.

After Kabila was assassinated last year, his son, Joseph, assumed the presidency and began to negotiate an end to the war. A U.N.-monitored cease-fire took hold last March, but conditions have remained unstable and public services primitive.

"The people there have suffered so many tragedies," says Paul Montacute, director of Baptist World Aid, which has been working to rebuild a Baptist hospital destroyed by the river of lava. "They've moved this way and that way. ... They deserve a more peaceful environment."

`An encouraging thing'

George Ayittey, a professor of economics at American University and a native of Ghana, says that in the culture of the region, the volcanic eruption would be interpreted as "the wrath of the ancestors. It will put some kind of pressure on these governments that have been fighting in the Congo to bring some peace."

Practically speaking, he says: "It will be very difficult for these armies to keep fighting when the international community has mounted a humanitarian effort. It's just negative PR."

But I. William Zartman, an expert on sub-Saharan Africa and a professor at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, does not expect cooperation to be far-reaching or long-lasting.

"It'll take more than a volcano to get the Congolese mess back in order," Zartman says. "I don't think it's going to be the kind of galvanizing event that will get us all hand in hand to shovel away the lava."

Kevin Hartigan, CRS's regional director for central Africa, sees a glimmer of hope for an easing of the conflict: The Rwandan and Congolese governments have been providing aid to victims of the eruption.

"There's a little bit of cutting through animosities to accommodate the disaster, which is an encouraging thing," Hartigan says.

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