Citizens, Monitors Pin Hopes on Congo's Elections The Democratic Republic of Congo is preparing for its first democratic elections since 1960. Western nations are spending $400 million to help the polling go smoothly. The United Nations has dispatched 17,000 troops -- its biggest peacekeeping mission in the world -- to help stabilize the vast country.
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Citizens, Monitors Pin Hopes on Congo's Elections

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Citizens, Monitors Pin Hopes on Congo's Elections

Citizens, Monitors Pin Hopes on Congo's Elections

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Later this month, the Democratic Republic of Congo holds its first democratic elections since 1960. The Congo has been devastated by decades of corrupt rule under Mobutu Sese Seko and a civil war that threatened to destabilize all of Central Africa.

The civil war officially ended in 2002, but fighting continues in the eastern part of the country.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from the troubled South Kivu province.

JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:

The village of Chambucha is less than 70 miles from the provincial capital, Bukavu, but the drive takes all day in a 4x4. The dilapidated road cuts through towering bamboo forests and lush tropical mountains. Along one portion of the road, densely forested slopes rise sharply on either side of the dirt track.

For years, various rebel groups have used this gauntlet to ambush cars. The area around Chambucha is now controlled by the Interhamway, Hutu rebels who fled into the Congo after orchestrating the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

At the Chambucha hospital, dozens of women have brought their malnourished children to a feeding center.

(Soundbite of foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of babies crying)

BEAUBIEN: Twenty-eight-year-old Mpenda Sikajua(ph) says earlier this year she fled fighting between the Interhamway and the Congolese army. Before coming here, she says she spent four months hiding in the forest with her three children.

(Soundbite of foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: My family lost everything when the clashes erupted, Sikajua says. Their hut was looted. Their fields went untended, and now they only have the clothes they're wearing.

The conflict in this part of the Congo has killed some 4 million people since 1998. Most of those deaths have been as a result of disease and starvation. A doctor at the hospital says, without help, Sikajua's two youngest children, three-year-old Sarif(ph) and three-month-old Nyota(ph), probably also would have perished.

But the help in Chambucha is meager. The government provides nothing to the public hospital: no salaries, no drugs, no bandages. The nutrition program is funded by the International Medical Corps, but they're the only aid group working in the area.

Despite the numerous problems facing Sikajua, she plans to vote in this month's national election.

(Soundbite of foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Before the war, we had everything, she says. We ate well, and we were healthy.

She believes the election will bring peace, and she'll be able to go home.

Western nations are spending $400 million on Congo's elections, also in the hope that they'll bring peace. In addition, the United Nations has deployed its largest peacekeeping mission in the world: 17,000 troops to the DRC to try to stabilize the country.

While the peacekeepers have been effective in some areas, they haven't yet reached places such as Chambucha.

Christian Alimasi with the Independent Electoral Commission in Bukavu says fighting won't disrupt this month's election.

In December, the Congo held a nationwide referendum on a new constitution. In the days before the vote, the Interhamway went on an offensive in the western part of the province.

Mr. CHRISTIAN ALIMASI: (Speaking foreign language)

BEAUBIEN: When the armed groups attacked, Alamassi says, the people fled, with the voting materials, to another area. Despite the attacks, the voting continued. Alamassi adds, however, that he is concerned about what could happen after the election.

The current government is a coalition of some of the country's most powerful rebel groups. In the 2002 peace deal, they agreed to give up their insurgencies for slots in the national government. These groups have little appeal nationwide and are likely to have significantly less power after the upcoming elections.

Mr. ALIMASI: (Speaking foreign language)

BEAUBIEN: It's the people who are now voting, Alamassi says, and some groups may be unhappy with the results of the election and may try to do something, even take up arms.

But the Congo has a legitimacy crisis, he says. And this election is an attempt to do something important for the country.

The lack of a legitimate functioning government in the Congo - first, under Mobutu Sese Seko, and then during the civil war - has allowed corruption to flourish, infrastructure to collapse, and life expectancy rates to drop dramatically. A child born in the Congo, is 50 times more likely to die before her 5th birthday than if she was born in the U.S. or Europe.

(Soundbite of car horn)

BEAUBIEN: Despite Congo's problems, many Congolese say the election will be a turning point for the nation.

Ali Balumay(ph) has a small, dimly lit shop called Maison Mon Ami near the central market in Bukavu.

Mr. ALI BALUMAY: (Speaking foreign language)

BEAUBIEN: We have a big problem with electricity here, Balumay says. There's no power in Bukavu.

Balumay sells men's shirts, liquor, transistor radios - whatever he you can buy Cheaply in Kampala and Dubai, he imports here.

Mr. BALUMAY: (Speaking foreign language)

BEAUBIEN: The problems begin when the goods arrive here in Congo, he says. The authorities demand tax. They harass us a lot. Balumay, who's 32 years old, has never cast a ballot in an election. In fact, there's never been a democratic election in the Congo in his entire lifetime.

He says he's excited about voting, and he hopes that under an elected government the constant demands for bribes by soldiers, government officials and police will come to an end and the process of rebuilding this shattered country can begin.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Bukavu.

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