Africa’s World War

June 14, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

THE RWANDA-BURUNDI BORDER

Speciose Kabagwira lost another baby last week. It was the end of her 12th pregnancy, and the infant was stillborn on delivery.

It was her fifth stillbirth or miscarriage. And of her seven children born alive, four have died.

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  1. ne 14, 2007
    Op-Ed Columnist
    By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

    THE RWANDA-BURUNDI BORDER

    Speciose Kabagwira lost another baby last week. It was the end of her 12th pregnancy, and the infant was stillborn on delivery.

    It was her fifth stillbirth or miscarriage. And of her seven children born alive, four have died.

    At one level, what killed her children and cost her those pregnancies was a combination of poverty and pathetic health care. But hovering in the background is another of Africa’s great killers: civil conflict and instability.

    Earlier this year, I held a “win-a-trip contest” to choose a student and a teacher to take with me on a reporting trip to Africa. Now I’m taking the winners to the Great Lakes region here in Central Africa partly because it underscores the vast human cost when we in the West allow conflicts to fester in forgotten parts of the world.

    On our two-week trip, the winners — Leana Wen, a medical student from Washington University, and Will Okun, a high school teacher in Chicago — will travel with me through Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Will and Leana are blogging and video blogging at http://www.nytimes.com/twofortheroad.)

    Since the Rwandan genocide began in 1994, at least five million people have died in the Great Lakes region in what is sometimes called Africa’s first world war. In the Congo, those deaths are still piling up.

    Leana, Will and I visited the Catholic church yesterday in Nyamata, in Southern Rwanda, where hundreds and hundreds of terrified Tutsis were butchered in 1994 after they took shelter there.

    Most numbing are the bloodstains on one section in the back of the church. That is where the attackers gathered babies and bashed them against the wall. Below the church is a crypt with endless rows of skulls and other bones of the victims — a monument to the shameful refusal of Western powers to get involved in African genocides.

    The Rwandan bloodbath was over quickly, and Rwanda is now peaceful and booming, but the turmoil is still enveloping families like Ms. Kabagwira’s. We found her in an encampment of 2,000 Rwandans, all of whom who had fled tribal violence to Tanzania — but who were driven back last year by rampaging Tanzanians.

    Now Ms. Kabagwira is living in a makeshift hut, in an area where water is inadequate, soil is poor and the nearest hospital is a one-hour bus ride away. She says she might have been able to save her baby last week if she had gone to the hospital earlier, but she couldn’t pay the $1.20 bus fare.

    So how do we help people like Ms. Kabagwira? Some excellent answers are found in the best book on international affairs so far this year: Paul Collier’s “The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It.”

    Mr. Collier, a former research director of the World Bank, notes that when the G-8 countries talk about helping Africa, they overwhelmingly focus just on foreign aid. Sure, aid has a role to play, but it’s pointless to build clinics when rebel groups are running around burning towns and shooting doctors.

    One essential kind of help that the West can provide — but one that is rarely talked about — is Western military assistance in squashing rebellions, genocides and civil wars, or in protecting good governments from insurrections. The average civil war costs $64 billion, yet could often be suppressed in its early stages for very modest sums. The British military intervention in Sierra Leone easily ended a savage war and was enthusiastically welcomed by local people — and, as a financial investment, achieved benefits worth 30 times the cost.

    Josh Ruxin, a Columbia University public health expert living in Rwanda, notes that a modest Western force could have stopped the genocide in 1994 — or, afterward, rooted out Hutu extremists who fled to Congo and dragged that country into a civil war that has cost millions of lives.

    “Had an international force come in and rounded them up, that would have been the biggest life-saving measure in modern history,” he said.

    So it’s time for the G-8 countries to conceive of foreign aid more broadly — not just to build hospitals and schools, but also to work with the African Union to provide security in areas that have been ravaged by rebellion and war. A starting point would be a serious effort to confront genocide in Darfur — and at least an international force to prop up Chad and Central African Republic, rather than allow Africa to tumble into its second world war.


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