9 March, 2005 London (Reuters) by Ruth Gidley
Brutal conflicts in Congo, Uganda and Sudan are the world's three biggest "forgotten emergencies", each dwarfing the toll of the Asian tsunami but attracting scant media interest, a new Reuters AlertNet poll of experts shows.
War in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country two-thirds the size of Western Europe, has claimed at least 10 times as many lives as the December tsunami yet remains almost unheard of outside of Africa, key players in the aid world said.
"It's the worst humanitarian tragedy since the Holocaust," John O'Shea, chief executive of Irish relief agency GOAL, told AlertNet. "The greatest example on the planet of man's inhumanity to man."
AlertNet asked 102 humanitarian professionals, media personalities, academics and policymakers which "forgotten" crises they would urge the media to focus on in 2005.
Answers came back from across the spectrum, from royal connections, acting stars and a Nobel prize winner, as well as various U.N. agencies and dozens of NGOs.
Many experts accused the Western media of routinely ignoring emergencies in countries of low geopolitical importance for big powers despite the enormous scale of suffering.
"One television news producer we met in the U.S. summed up the situation since spring 2003 this way: 'Look, we've got three foreign news priorities these days: Iraq, Iraq, Iraq,'" said Gareth Evans, president of Belgian think tank Crisis Group.
Almost half of those polled -- including U.N. relief coordinator Jan Egeland and U.S. leftwing intellectual Noam Chomsky -- nominated Congo, citing the brutality of an ugly, tangled war that has killed 3.8 million people since 1998, according to the International Rescue Committee.
’AFRICA’S WORLD WAR’
"It’s Africa’s First World War," said British journalist Jon Snow, news anchorman for Channel 4 television.
The details of northern Uganda’s hidden war - the silver prize-winner in the AlertNet ranking - are even more sensational.
Ninety-five percent of the population in the conflict zone have been uprooted, and some 25,000 children have been abducted to fight as soldiers and sex slaves.
Rural children who live in the rural danger zone are called "night commuters" because they take refuge at night in the relative safety of cities to escape abduction by the cult-like Lord’s Resistance Army, which has waged a bloody 18-year insurgency. Eighty percent of its troops are estimated to be children.
"Like many people, I didn't have any idea of the scale of this conflict," said British Hollywood star Helen Mirren, who travelled to Uganda with relief agency Oxfam. "Nearly two million people have been made homeless and hundreds of thousands more have been killed."
The experts' third most neglected emergency was Sudan, where four million people have yet to go home after Africa's longest-running civil war in the south and atrocities in the western Darfur region have raised the spectre of genocide.
"Darfur has slipped from the front pages, but the situation there is again going from terrible to being absolutely horrendous," U.N. relief coordinator Jan Egeland said.
Africa featured heavily in the top 10, taking half the top spots, but news coverage outside the region is minimal.
"Africa experiences the devastating effect of two tsunamis every month", said Amy Slorach, appeal coordinator for British nongovernmental relief agency Tearfund.
West Africa’s wars encompass Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone, briefly infamous for the large numbers of civilian amputees who lost their arms and legs to crazed soldiers’ machetes.
AlertNet left it up to respondents how to define emergencies, and quite a few chose health disasters, with HIV/AIDS voted number four in the poll.
The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund voted for women survivors of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, who are now dying as a consequence of being raped by HIV-positive attackers.
"The genocide happened 10 years ago, but its legacy continues to destroy lives today," said Lucinda MacPherson, the Fund’s senior press and communications officer.
Other infectious diseases – tuberculosis and malaria in particular – made number 10 in the poll. Malaria kills an African child every 30 seconds, while tuberculosis kills about 2 million a year worldwide.
Two Latin American crises ranked high in the survey. Colombia – where nearly 3 million people have fled their homes because of violence that has been raging since 1948 -- was voted into sixth place
Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, was number nine. The Caribbean nation is wracked with an ongoing political crisis, and U.N. troops have failed to quell the violence.
Conflict in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya, number seven in the AlertNet survey, has been simmering since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and at least 13,000 Russian troops.
Nepal’s insurgency – which has toppled into a crisis since the king sacked the government in early February – was voted number eight on the list.
Crisis Group’s Evans called it "the deadliest conflict in Asia, with some 10,000 killed over the past few years".
Food shortages in Africa – especially in Eritrea and Zimbabwe – featured in the survey responses, but narrowly missed the top 10.
"More people die every year of causes related to hunger and malnutrition than the total number who die of AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined," said James Morris, chief executive of the U.N. World Food Programme.
"Of the 10 million people who die each year from hunger and malnutrition, just 8 percent die in the kind of emergencies we hear about on the evening news."
Annabel Brown of Community Aid Abroad – the Australian Oxfam -- told AlertNet: "Natural disasters capture the attention of the world, but it is the manmade crisis situations -- resulting in part from the disparities and injustices in the world – that rich countries should continue to be aware of and forced to take some responsibility for."
Noam Chomsky chose Congo and Colombia, Haiti and the Israel-Palestine conflict, but also nominated a series of low-profile emergencies. The MIT professor chose to highlight West Papua, natural disasters and child labour in Nicaragua, displacement of Turkish Kurds, and horrifying conditions in rural India and China.
The Asian Development Bank’s vice president, Geert van der Linden, voted for human trafficking.
Other organisations – such as Médecins sans Frontieres and the United Nations -- have tried to bring global attention to neglected emergencies.
Northern Uganda took the number one slot in the MSF Top 10 Most Underreported Stories of 2004
Uganda also tops the United Nations’ "10 stories the world should hear more about".
"The attention span of most media on most stories is way too short," said Jody Williams, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 1997 for her work with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
"The media should do a much better job educating itself – and then the public – on the root causes of 'emergencies'," she said.