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Date: Thu, 11 Feb 1999 22:59:56 PST
From: "Emelyne Bahanda" <emelyne@hotmail.com>
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Subject: [BRC-ALL] Brazzaville's vanished thousands
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Brazzaville's vanished thousands

By Bienvenu Mundala and Thomas Hirenee Atenga, Johannesburg, 2 February 1999

More than 100 000 people fled from Brazzaville in mid-December when fighting flared once again -- and aid workers have no idea what happened to them.

TENS of thousands of people are still unaccounted for weeks after being displaced from Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo, by renewed fighting there.

According to international humanitarian groups working in Congo, there has been no word on the some 100,000 to 150,000 people displaced by the fighting, which started in mid-December.

"We have absolutely no news of them. We don't know if they are dead or hiding in villages," Eric Laroche, representative of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Congo-Brazzaville told journalists late last month.

Laroche said while on a visit to Kinshasa, capital of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is just across the River Congo from Brazzaville, that the displaced people whom humanitarian organisations had lost track of were those who had fled at the start of fighting in Brazzaville and its southern suburbs. The combats have pitted forces loyal to President Denis Sassou Nguesso against the Ninjas, a militia that supports ex-prime minister Bernard Kolelas.

Kolelas has lived in exile since Nguesso seized power in October 1997, after winning a five-month civil war and ousting then president Pascal Lissouba.

The Ninjas, who control the Pool region just south of Brazzaville, had infiltrated the capital's southern suburbs late last year. The regular army reacted on Dec. 15 with an offensive against these areas. With the help of the Cobras, the president's militia, and the Angolan army - which helped Sassou win the 1997 civil war - the army has been pounding neigbourhoods and villages south of the capital.

Human rights groups charged at a mid-January meeting in Paris, France, that atrocities were being committed in Brazzaville but little international attention was being focussed on that.

"Information reaching my organisation shows that the unrest, aggression and massive human rights abuses now being perpetrated in Congo ... are becoming, especially in Brazzaville, organised killings," said Jean Fino of the International Federation of Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (FIACAT).

Michel Forst, director of Amnesty International's French chapter, said "...there is no doubt that there has been a large-scale massacre that justifies the fears of those who speak of genocide".

Participants quoted diplomatic and military sources as saying that youths aged 15 and above had been systematically killed.

Some weeks before, the Observatoire Congolais des Droits de l'Homme (OCDH), the main human rights body in Congo, had issued a petition against ethnic cleansing in the Central African nation. "The tragedy in Congo-Brazzaville is a real planned genocide undertaken and carried out by the self-proclaimed regime in Brazzaville," the OCDH had said.

Hence the mass flight from the Congolese capital. The displacees had fled southward, according to Laroche. "They left in bunches," he said. "They were seen in various places in the beginning and then, since then, we don't know where they are any more."

Also missing are about 20 percent of the local staff of UN agencies in Brazzaville.

According to Laroche, the "lost persons" include women in a very weak state, children suffering from kwashiorkor and elderly people. "Wherever these people are, we know they are suffering," he said. "They have to be taken care of. The problem is that there has been no news of them. Nobody is able to tell us where they are, what they are doing and the state they are in."

The UNICEF official said the humanitarian organisations had asked the Brazzaville authorities in vain to help them locate the displaced persons. "There is something which is really curious," he said, adding that, "there is a right, there are humanitarian principles that govern people who are displaced. These are UN principles accepted by all states. For the moment, these principles are not being respected."

The issue is compounded by the fact that the humanitarian agencies do not have the means to go and provide assistance for those who need it. "We have no solution for these 100,000 to 150,000 people lost in the south and we are not alone in this," said Laroche. "We don't know what to do. We don't have the means to do anything."

Southern Congo is the stronghold of Kolelas' Ninjas and the Lissouba's Cocoyes militia. These groups, which stepped up their attacks and acts of sabotage in the southern regions of the Pool, Niari and Lekoumou, are now being tracked down by government forces and as they comb various areas in the south, people have been fleeing them en masse.

Some displacees walked to the economic capital, Pointe Noire, a distance of more than 500 kms. Others got lost in the extensive Mayombe forest in southern Congo. Others were blocked by fighting which went on for weeks at Dolisie, a town along the railway linking Brazzaville and Pointe Noire, between the regular army and Cocoye militias.

The fighting in and near Brazzaville has killed 1,000 to 1,500 people, according to official figures, but humanitarian agencies say the death toll is twice as high. -- IPS/Misa, February 3, 1999.

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