Wednesday, November 26, 2003

KALIMA, Congo — Even with thousands of rebel fighters lurking in the jungle surrounding this once-prosperous mining town in eastern Congo, Francois Kitembele’s most pressing concern is that not enough people know how to grow tomatoes.

“The tomato sprouts are starting to shrivel from too much sun,” said Mr. Kitembele, Kalima’s mayor. He tells several people to find some sticks and dried palm fronds to make a canopy over the raised plot.

Growing tomatoes and vegetables is a serious pursuit for Mr. Kitembele, who regularly visits the town’s four feeding centers and has seen too many gangly children with swollen stomachs and black hair turning orange from malnutrition. Tens of thousands of Kalima’s residents — more than half of them are children — are nearing starvation after five years of war in a country already devastated by armed conflict.

In many ways, Kalima is a metaphor for the country’s drift into poverty, and it offers a glimpse at its hoped-for reconstruction. Despite having some of Africa’s most fertile soil and vast mineral deposits, the people here, like most other Congolese, are among the continent’s poorest.

Of the estimated 3.5 million people who have died during the conflict, the majority perished from war-induced famine and the diseases that take hold when people’s immune systems are weakened by prolonged hunger. Another half-million displaced people across Congo face severe hunger caused by the ongoing violence.

“The people who live here have benefited least from its mineral wealth,” said Mr. Kitembele. “It is pitiful to see the way we are dying. And we are powerless to get food.”

In rural northeastern Congo, the cradle of the nation’s conflict, farming has become a dangerous occupation. Gangs of rebel soldiers, mostly unpaid and untrained teenagers with machine guns, surround farms and farming villages. They plunder food supplies, livestock and farm tools.

The men are either killed or forced to work in rebel-controlled mines. The women and girls usually are raped, and some are abducted as concubines at military outposts.

Fearing attacks, families in remote, unprotected villages — where most of Congo’s 56 million people live — have sought shelter in larger towns like Kalima and Kindu, about 50 miles west of here, which were already struggling to feed their existing populations.

Some of the displaced are simply trading one risk for another: Sudden death by AK-47 or a slow death by starvation.

“Warlords and militias may have started with nationalist views, but they end up living on top of local populations, taking their harvests, their chickens and cows,” said Robert Dekker, a World Food Program coordinator in Congo.

Since July, about 700 people have been treated for severe malnutrition and 27 of them have died at just one of the feeding centers supported by Merlin, an aid group funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Washington’s foreign-aid arm. Merlin is the only aid group in a region with more than 1.1 million people.

With a lull in the fighting after the country’s main rebel factions signed a power-sharing agreement in July, more people are beginning to filter into feeding centers and hospitals in towns like Kalima.

It is against this backdrop that people are learning to cultivate their own crops, a lost art for many whose fathers and grandfathers gave up farming for more lucrative jobs in nearby Belgian-owned tin mines.

Kalima, like many towns in eastern Congo, is reachable only by bush plane or by foot. Its only connection to the rest of the world is a grassy airstrip five miles away. Instead of bringing emergency food supplies to this starved region, twin-prop cargo planes use the strip to smuggle out gold, diamonds, tin and coltan — a heat-resistant mineral used in small electronics like mobile phones and laptops.

The strip, like the town of Kalima, is controlled by the Rally for Congolese Democracy, known as RCD, one of the armed groups vying for control of the town’s mineral wealth.

The mines made Kalima the financial star of Congo’s Maniema province. From a cleared swath of jungle came the bleached-white houses of Belgian colonialists more than 70 years ago. A Belgian mining company, then called Symaf, built roads, primary schools, hospitals, health centers, and brick duplexes for many of its workers. They built the airstrip and a hydroelectric plant, the region’s only source of electricity.

Mining operations centered on tin-rich cassiterite. Kalima’s miners, which included school-age children and women from the rural poor, made four or five times the average monthly income of most Congolese.

Later, the town flourished with trade in gold and diamonds. Civilian miners numbered about 50,000 during Kalima’s boom years in the 1950s.

Kalima’s population swelled far beyond its capacity to feed itself. But, by then, most residents could afford to buy food brought from outlying villages. The company flew in a dazzling variety of smoked fish, beef fillets and cheeses from bigger cities like Kisangani to the north and Bukavu to the east.

Not long after independence in 1960, the nation’s profligate dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko — a Cold War ally of the United States — began siphoning off much of the town’s mineral wealth for himself. The company started laying off workers. Production fell. World tin prices collapsed in the mid-1990s. More workers were laid off. The workers who remained seldom drew a paycheck.

In the 1990s, the town’s mining interests went through a flurry of buyouts and name changes, finally landing in the hands of Toronto-based Banro Resources Corp., with the Congolese government taking a 7 percent share.

Soon after a coup led by Laurent Kabila toppled Gen. Mobutu’s government in 1997, another wave of rebels — backed by neighboring countries Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi — scrambled into northeastern Congo to control the region’s mineral wealth.

The RCD seized Kalima and, most important, its mines. Analysts for the U.N. Security Council say the RCD has sold most of Kalima’s mining interests to Rwanda, mainly in exchange for weapons.

Rebel commanders live in the houses of former Belgian colonialists, but the town itself, like most of Congo, is nearly devoid of infrastructure.

Kalima has no phones, no cellular network and no Internet hookups. The dirt roads are washed out. Gone are the hospitals and health centers, their supplies looted, their equipment destroyed.

The hydroelectric plant is on the verge of collapse. One of three turbines is down. And the cement casing at the plant’s main water intake, which connects to a dam that holds back 40 million gallons of water, is starting to crumble, the plant’s chief engineer said.

Patrolling Kalima’s ruined streets are camouflage-clad soldiers carrying AK-47s, which are known here jokingly as the Congolese credit card.

There are RCD checkpoints outside of town, small huts where soldiers lounge on split-log benches and occasionally pilfer food from the woven baskets of the women who pass.

Also outside the town are the Mai-Mai fighters, a rival militia made up mostly of forest dwellers.

The people in Kalima are caught in between. They want to rebuild their lives, but skirmishes among rebel groups continue despite the cease-fire agreement, as does the looting of villages already suffering from starvation.

This goes on despite the presence of 10 U.N. military observers in a housing compound at the center of Kalima. U.N. observers and peacekeepers in Congo have been widely criticized for not stopping rebel atrocities against civilians.

It’s a dilemma that pains Congolese President Joseph Kabila, who guides a transitional government that has the potential to put this tattered country on the path of reconstruction or let it slide back into civil war.

“You cannot develop Congo by staying in air-conditioned offices like this. The change must come from within the country. The country’s development has to be the priority of the people,” Mr. Kabila said in an interview at his presidential palace in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital.

Those words have a ring of truth for Mr. Kitembele, the mayor of a town held by rebels who once vowed to topple Mr. Kabila’s government.

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