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Saturday, 11 December, 1999, 19:21 GMT
Congo Brazzaville's hidden war

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By Mark Doyle in Brazzaville

Deep in the jungle of the Congo River basin, far from the eyes of most of the world, a largely forgotten African war is being fought.

It's in the west African state of Congo Brazzaville and at least half-a-million people have been made homeless by a conflict, which has until now been hidden in the dense forests.

Congo Brazzaville was named after the Congo River and the 19th century French explorer, Pierre Brazza, the first European to reach this part of the great African waterway.

A lot has changed since 1880 when Mr Brazza arrived in these parts. But some features remain, as they always have.

Just upstream from modern day Brazzaville city are the huge "cataracts" - rocks which, for millenia, have stopped river boats passing this point.

The water rushes over and around the fearsome cataracts in a boiling confusion.

The rocks are the reason why Brazzaville first grew here. This is the last navigable point up the river after boats have entered from the Atlantic.

Across the great water is another city, another crop of modern-day skyscrapers. Pierre Brazza's rival, the British explorer Henry Morton Stanley, mythologised through his search for Livingstone, reached the far shore, establishing a trading post that was to become the town of Leopoldville.

Weaponry

Relatively recently, in the historical scheme of things, this town was renamed Kinshasa, and it's now the capital of Congo Brazzaville's huge southern neighbour, the so-called 'Democratic' Republic of Congo.

The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is relatively well known, so I stayed on Pierre Brazza's side of the water, in the country called Congo Brazzaville, to look for the victims of a forgotten conflict.

When Brazza and Stanley were racing to colonise Africa, the pestilential west coast was known as the White Man's Grave.

Of course, history is written by the winners, and in reality, far more black people died in those days than white.

But these days matters have certainly moved on and the huge influx of modern weaponry into this region has made it, very definitely, a black man's grave.

I drove into the jungle outside Brazzaville in the company of government soldiers. They rode with shotguns in case of possible rebels.

Abandoned villages

We didn't see any rebels, but during several hours driving we didn't see any people either. Village after village was abandoned in a huge radius outside the capital. It's been like this for over a year.

I could tell because the tropical mango trees were heavy with fruit. There were no people to harvest them.

The population had at first fled the rebels who were trying to overthrow the government. Then, the people fled the government soldiers, as they cleansed the area of insurgents.

By almost all accounts the government soldiers and the rebels committed an equal number of attrocities against civilians. In fact, those in government used to be the rebels, and vice versa.

The current military president, General Denis Sassou Nguesso, ousted an elected leader, Pascal Lissouba, a few years ago. Now Lissouba's followers are fighting in the bush.

Power is a fragile thing in Congo Brazzaville, and the general failure of the political class to settle their differences in a civilised way has brought a heavy price.

Rape

So how about that suffering? How much can one take in? I could describe the refugee camps full of hungry, diseased people. I could relate the stories of the many women that I spoke to who had been raped, with impunity, by soldiers or rebels.

I could talk of the estimated half a million hungry people hiding in the jungle from the armed men. I could repeat the appeals from the few aid agencies working in Congo Brazzaville for more money, food and medicines.

But, for me, just one image remains. A teenage boy in a refugee camp in Brazzaville city had just seen his mother die, exhausted and diseased before her time by her odyssey in the jungle.

Her body was wrapped and put on a stretcher. But the heartbroken boy didn't want to accompany his mother on her final journey to the mortuary. He didn't have the money, the equivalent of about 5, to pay the mortuary fees.

The political class of Congo Brazzaville has failed its people, turning the country into a Black Man's Grave.

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See also:
17 Nov 99 |  Africa
Treaty amid anarchy in Congo-Brazzaville
14 Nov 99 |  Africa
Exclusive: Africa's forgotten war revealed
15 Nov 99 |  Africa
Brazzaville soldiers kill returning refugees
16 Nov 99 |  Africa
Congo: 'Rapist soldiers will be punished'

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