The orange fulminator continues to hog the limelight with his pyrotechnics but the real world keeps breaking through our state of thrall from time to time—with a bomb blast in Mogadishu, Somalia, or Sehwan, Pakistan—to remind us of what we have forgotten. Libya is still in freefall, Syria continues to be ground zero for the Arab world and the Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo) for the third decade remains at the mercy of rapacious warlords, politicians and foreign peacekeeping forces who take their pick of the spoils from its mineral and forest resources. For most of us these places are so remote from our attention that they might as well not exist.
It’s worth noting, however, that Sana’a, capital of Yemen, is about the same distance from New Delhi as Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital. Right now, Yemen is the scene of a sectarian war of annihilation that has laid waste to the country. The official death toll of 16,000 since 2015 is small compared to Syria but the aid agency Oxfam estimates that more than 10 million Yemenis (population 24 million) don’t have enough to eat. Some 13 million have no access to clean water. About 2.4 million are internally displaced and tens of thousands have fled to neighbouring countries, straining local resources and stirring up resentments. The United Nations has the figures but little else that is helpful, not even mediators who might help end the fighting. Is there any hope of peace? There are no serious efforts underfoot.
Congo may have the record for the longest running full scale civil war following the 1997 ouster of its president for life Mobutu Sese Seko, who ran a kleptocracy with American blessings. Since then, the country has been repeatedly overrun by a toxic combination of multinational regional forces, opportunists and criminals who have plundered its vast forest reserves and other resources. Even UN peacekeeping troops are accused of being nothing more than “tourists in helicopters”, while the massacres continue.
The civil war has led to over five million deaths, mostly due to disease and famine. About half the dead were children under five. One report says about 400,000 women are raped in the DRC every year. Innumerable villages have been destroyed and some three million people are internally displaced. These figures are tentative as unsettled conditions make data collection a risky business. And no one knows the extent of the economic plunder, which includes diamonds, copper, tantalum, tin and other rare minerals, valued at roughly $24 trillion. The world media rarely follows the story. The heart of Africa could have been its greatest treasure; instead it is a chamber of horrors.
These are not instances in isolation. Other places such as South Sudan, Somalia, Myanmar, Chechnya and Colombia, to name a few, are racked by periodic violence. Myanmar’s government, for instance, seems engaged in the genocide of its Rohingya Muslim minority. The violence and persecution are systemic. Both Asean and the UN have debated the subject but limited themselves to pious resolutions. Indeed, they seem embarrassed to bring it up though allegations of Israeli killings of Palestinians are debated in obsessive detail at international forums.
A civil war is the most difficult of problems because it is the result of hatreds too deep-seated to resolve in civilised discourse. The Chechen insurgency is over two centuries old in its various avatars and there is absolutely no hope of a good outcome. Atrocity continues to be answered with atrocity. The only reason it hasn’t infected the larger neighbourhood is its remote Caucasian location. An idea of what it takes to stop a civil war can be had from the fact that the Balkan crisis took more than a decade, thousands of troops, the NATO carpet bombing of Belgrade and strong backing from both the US and the European Union to sort out. Even today, tensions remain though open war is unlikely.
If individual memories are fleeting institutions are built to remember as much as to find a way out of intractable situations. But none of the major multinational organisations have the muscle or the endurance. The abject failures in Africa, Asia and Latin America tell a tale of criminal ineffectiveness. Collective amnesia doesn’t help; the dead will keep piling up unless the people behind the various acronyms stir out of their comfort zones. But given their record of an obsession with the ceremonial, the annual conferences, reports and confabulations, the real world is a road too hard to tread.
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