"I cannot go back, I
did not kill, but I cannot go home. They will kill me. You do not know these
people." Her eyes are a sickly white, indicative of severe anemia, and her skin
is scaly and pale. Jeanine’s baby daughter, Agathe, suckles at the dry leathery
flap that was once a healthy breast, full of the life-giving milk, but is now as
dry as flour.
Agathe’s head is bigger than her tiny, wizened and severely malnourished body.
Her days are clearly numbered. Marie, an African nurse with a charity
organization, tells me it is a miracle the little one is still alive. She and
her mother, Jeanine, are part of the hundreds of thousands of starving Hutus at
Tingitingi refugee camp in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It
may soon be overrun by the rebels. Jeanine’s body is weak and wracked by
fever. I pick up Agathe. She is as light as a dry twig, and I can barely hear
her tiny heart beating,
"Anyway, it does not really matter anymore," continues Jeanine, She tries to
laugh, but goes into a paroxysm of coughing that leaves her wizened body gasping
for breath. Spittle dribbles down the left corner of her mouth. She raises a
shaking stick-like arm and wipes it off with the edge of her shuka. "You see
… I have to choose between three enemies. There is the hunger which is
killing me slowly. Then there are the rebels and then the Interahamwe. If one
does not get me, the others surely will," she says.
Another woman who lost five children in the long trek from Bukavu in December is
frightened of the Interahamwe, the dreaded Hutu militia that forced many of them
to flee deeper into DRC at the point of a gun. Many of the refugees cannot talk
out of fear of being killed. Others like Jeanne, are simply too ill to care.
The killers are known but no one wants to point them out. Here, far away from
the air-conditioned conference rooms in Nairobi and Cape Town where peace talks
are being held, aid workers come face to face with the real tragedy of the
conflict. Here are a people truly caught between the proverbial rock and a hard
All around me are
shadows of what were once healthy human people. Women and children. The stench
of death is strong, coupled with the rancid odor of unwashed bodies and human
waste. This is a living hell. The long, narrow tents are packed with a mass of
humanity, either lying down or sitting up. One of the most striking things is
the silence. From the moment I open the flap of the tent, it is like walking
into a grave. With many of the aid organizations pulling out ahead of the rebel
advance, food stocks are low. Sometimes one meal of maize porridge without
sugar is all the refugees can look forward to.
Death comes steadily
and quietly here, and it has shape and form. It is visible in the sightless,
hungry eyes that roll over you and then look away, not really seeing you. They
are empty eyes devoid of feeling, of pain. Grave digging is a regular sight.
Often it is the babies that go first and then their mothers. For them death is
a welcome relief from a life without hope.
Jean-Pierre (I suspect
it is not his real name) sits behind a tent, looking at the leafy jungle just a
few meters away. He is a surly looking individual. He is dressed in a black
checkered shirt and grimy blue jeans. His dirty feet are encased in makeshift
rubber sandals. Sometimes he just rambles on to himself. "He will come soon,"
he says. I ask him who is talking about. "Kabila will come through there," he
says, and I follow his eyes staring fixedly at the green bushes. "We are
tired. We cannot run anymore." So they fear Kabila. But they cannot run
anymore because they are too weak and sick. Hunger is evident all around. It
is there in the skeletons with distended bellies, jutting cheekbones and
The aid workers
are the heroes and heroines. They work with dedication in what many would be
quick to point out is a hopeless cause. Their hands are guided by a belief in
the right to life. It is not for them to judge, but to save. But for how
long? Even as they struggle with the meager resources available, the rumble of
approaching war draws closer with each sunset. The politicians talk. The
soldiers fight. And the people die.