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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 October, 2004, 08:49 GMT 09:49 UK
Turning Blair's words into action
By Fergal Keane
BBC world affairs correspondent

During his recent trip to Africa, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair outlined the need to turn the well-meaning words of the international community into positive steps to help a continent beset with problems.

Shelter in eastern DR Congo
Displaced families find shelter after renewed threats of violence

We turned the corner and saw the boy aiming into the trees. A stone whistled through the air.

The branches exploded and a bird - a wood pigeon I think - soared away out of range of the child and his catapult.

I watched the boy stalk from tree to tree. But the other birds had been alerted by the flight of the first.

So the boy wandered across the muddy pathway to the ruins of what I presumed was his home.

He was about 10 years of age, though among the malnourished children of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, it is often difficult to tell. They can look much younger than their years.

It was his face that drew me in - a mixture of mischief in the way he smiled, happy to please an adult, and the desolation which settled on him like coastal fog when he knew you were not looking.

'Small massacre'

Congolese children in a refugee camp after his families fled the fighting in eastern DR Congo
More than 22,000 Congolese, it is thought, have fled eastern DR Congo to refugee camps in Burundi

All around us were ruined mud huts out of which poked burned staves of bamboo.

The boy's house had lost its thatched roof and was in the process of crumbling to earth.

He seemed to be searching for something, rooting in the mulch of mud, burned blankets, melted plastic water cans.

Whatever it was he sought had been lost to the fire, and when I turned away to ask our translator a question, the boy vanished.

He slipped into the thick foliage that surrounds the houses in the village of Lengabo.

Ninety-one homes were destroyed in the raid by militiamen of the Ngiti tribe. Fourteen people were killed. Seven of them were children.

A small massacre.

A paragraph in the pages of the international broadsheet press, inspiring a statement of condemnation from the UN, a handful of arrests, and then the return to the silence, indifference, inertia which has characterised the world's response to the tragedy of DR Congo.

'No action'

How else could we explain why the powerful nations of the world, and - let us not forget - the powerful nations of Africa, why they failed over the years to intervene forcefully and bring the terror of DR Congo to an end?

Map of DR Congo

Between three and four million people dead. Millions more uprooted from their homes.

An epidemic of sexual violence of a kind never seen before in the world.

And through all of this - through the massacre at Nyankunde when 2,000 were butchered around the local hospital, through the killings at Kisangani, the mass rape around Goma, the plunder of DR Congo's resources by her neighbours in Uganda and Rwanda and everybody else who had the muscle - through it all, we heard the obligatory words of indignation but we saw no action.

I mean action to be something that is intended to bring terrible acts to an end - not a moral sticking plaster for those who have the power and the means to intervene, but who lack the will.

Mind you, they seem in no great rush to intervene forcefully in the latest humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur.

Deadlines come and go. The UN accuses Sudan of doing nothing to improve the security situation.

If words could have rescued Africa from violence and poverty, the continent would be paradise on earth by now

George W Bush uses the word "genocide".

Now whether that last assertion proves to be true or not, is hardly the point just now.

We know that as in DR Congo, appalling things are happening, that they continue to happen, that there are parties who have the ability to bring these things to an end - most notably the Sudanese government, which bears the legal responsibility for what happens on its own territory, and rebel groups who have contributed to the instability in the area.

Yet nothing much is done. Or should I say, what is done is only done with painful slowness.

Divide and rule

I spent most of this week travelling with Tony Blair in Africa.

British PM Tony Blair meets members of the Jerusalem Children and Community Development Organisation near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Tony Blair urged the world to turn attention on Africa into action

In Khartoum he met the Sudanese leadership.

The following day I heard him deliver a passionate speech on Africa's future to a meeting of the Africa Commission in Addis Ababa.

He has called the horror of Rwanda, DR Congo and Darfur, a scar on the conscience of the world.

But in its reaction to all of these tragedies, the world - as manifested by the Security Council of the United Nations - has proved divided, its high-flown declarations of principle on human rights undermined by the ruthless dedication to serving national interests of its constituent members.

Mr Blair spoke in Addis Ababa of changing this. And listening to him when he gave his speech, and when I interviewed him on his tour of an Ethiopian village, I did have the sense that he really meant it, that Africa was not a moral pose but a cornerstone of his foreign policy.

But as Tony Blair knows, if words could have rescued Africa from violence and poverty, the continent would be paradise on earth by now. The proof is in our willingness to act... in DR Congo and in Darfur.

For the record, the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan recently asked the UN Security Council to double the size of the 10,000-strong contingent in DR Congo.

The Council gave him half of what he asked for.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 9 October, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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