Friday, April 25, 2008

A Sad World Malaria Day

World Malaria Day draws attention to a disease that kills a million people, mostly children, every year around the globe. While great strides have been made in some places, mainly through the distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets and other preventive measures, children in the Democratic Republic of Congo remain highly vulnerable.

According to the World Health Organization, less than 1% of DRC children under five years of age sleep under protective nets. This results in most of them suffering six to ten malaria-related fever incidents per year. The disease also accounts for 45% of childhood mortality, which overall runs to 20%. In short, malaria kills nearly one in ten children in the Congo every year.

As Valerie Grey learns in Heart of Diamonds, continuous armed conflict in the country is responsible for many of these deaths. Medical supplies can’t be distributed when roads, railroads, and airstrips have been destroyed. Treatment can’t be delivered by medical personnel who have been chased from their clinics and hospitals. People driven from their homes, plagued by malnutrition, inadequate shelter, and lack of sanitary facilities are weak and less capable of warding off disease. War creates a breeding ground for death by malaria just as surely as swamps full of stagnant water breed anopheles mosquitoes.

Although the intensity of conflict has decreased since the truce of 2003 and democratic elections of 2006, millions of displaced persons still struggle to survive and hot spots remain in the eastern and western provinces. Collapsed infrastructure has severely weakened the health system in the DRC, and the strengthening process is a slow one.

The DRC, unfortunately, has little to celebrate this World Malaria Day.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Huge Diamond Tragedy

The big news in the diamond market last week was that global auction house Sotheby's failed to hammer off a 72.22-carat, "D" flawless white diamond at its Hong Kong sale. The large diamond which had a pre-sale estimate of $10-12 million, but attracted a final bid of only $9.24 million, according to Sotheby's press officer Rhonda Yung.

It's a crying shame Sotheby's couldn't persuade a buyer to bid more than $9.24 million for the pretty sparkler. Perhaps the benighted bidder, having failed to meet the undisclosed reserve price, might care to spend that sum on something worthwhile, like the well-being of the people who were exploited to find such baubles. I don't know if the rock came from one of the diamond mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the per capita annual income is less than $1 per day in that troubled nation, which means the disappointed buyer's tidy $9 mil would support more than 30,000 people for a year.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Botswana Proves A Point

Not all African governments are as intransigently harmful as Robert Mugabe's in Zimbabwe. Just next door, Botswana recently transferred power from the democratically-elected Festus Mogae to his party's new leader, Ian Khama, demonstrating that African government does not have to be synonymous with tyranny.

Botswana also demonstrates that natural resources do not have to inevitably fall into the hands of the strongest strong man or the most rapacious ruler. Her diamond mines, discovered a year after the country achieved independence in 1967, make Botswana the world's largest diamond producer. But they are operated through a partnership between the state and the DeBeers Group that provides 60% of the government's revenues.

Those monies, in turn, go not into a despot's foreign bank account or to pay for private armies, but rather into places where government funds can do the most good: education, health care, public works, and a working justice system. The mines also provide jobs for thousands of Botswanans whose wages ripple throughout the economy, raising the standards of living for all.

Botswana is no Utopia, but it has the highest GDP per capita forecast in sub-Saharan Africa, $8,453, according to global investment banking group UBS. Botswana is also ranked as the continent's least corrupt country by Transparency International. The country has reduced the mother-to-child transmission rate for HIV from 40% of all live births to a mere 4% today.

Botswana proves the point that nations of Africa can prosper once they throw off the bonds of strongman tyranny.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Urgently Must See TV

One of the themes of Heart of Diamonds is the effect of rape on the women of the Congo, but my fiction is only a shadow of the outrageous reality. To see the real story, watch Lisa Jackson’s horrific yet uplifting documentary, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, airing Tuesday, April 8 on HBO.

If you can’t watch the program, read the filmmaker’s testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary on April 1. Her words, along with those of Karin Wachter of the International Rescue Committee, Dr. Kelly Dawn Askin of the Open Society Justice Initiative, and Dr. Denis Mukwege, Director of the Panzi General Referral Hospital in the DRC, tell a story of a literal crime against humanity whose scope is almost beyond comprehension.

The crime is rape, which has become a true weapon of mass destruction in what has been rightly called the Third World War, the conflict in the Congo which has claimed five million lives—ten times the number of lives lost in Darfur, to make a shameful comparison.

Statistics can’t express the truth of rape, although hundreds of thousands of women and girls, from one-year-old babies to 80-year-old grandmeres, have been assaulted, abused, enslaved, and tortured in the Congo. Much of the truth, in the form of first-person narratives, is told in the documentary. Following are some chilling stories from Lisa Jackson’s testimony that also tell the real truth of rape:

Veranda is 35 years old and has survived two attacks; she was first raped by Rwandese militia -the Interahamwe group -and again by thieves dressed in Congolese Army uniforms.

Safi lives in the hills above Bunyakiri and was raped at age 11 while her home was being looted by soldiers. Her huge eyes still have a slightly stunned look as she tells me that when she grows up she hopes to be a nun.

Maria Namafu was 70 years old when she was raped by three soldiers. When she told them “I am an old woman” they said “you’re not too old for us.”

Faida was kidnapped from her home in Bunyakiri, enslaved and raped repeatedly by Interahamwe soldiers. She died from the resulting infections in 2007.

Compounding the crime is the near total lack of coverage by media around the world. We can only hope that this documentary will lift the blanket of silence that has been covering this shameful blight on humanity.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Snake of Zimbabwe

It appears as of this writing that the election in Zimbabwe has produced the worst possible result. With the state-run newspaper, The Herald, reporting that no candidate has secured a majority, it looks like the country is headed for a run-off vote that could easily spark Kenyan-type violence as Mugabe’s supporters try to squash the opposition one more time.

While it’s possible that forcing a run-off is simply Robert Mugabe’s way to buy more time to negotiate with Morgan Tsvangirai to arrange a graceful exit, such a move would not be in character for a man who views every challenge to his power as a personal humiliation.

Then there are Mugabe’s supporters in ZANU-PF. They have little or no incentive to see him replaced and, while there have been reports that the party is showing signs of disunity, the odds of “the old man” getting tossed out by his own people are not positive. Why would they, when to denounce him would be to endanger their own prosperity? It was Mugabe, after all, who awarded them ownership of the white-owned corporate farms that were supposedly confiscated for the people of the country. It was Mugabe who made sure they received the cars, homes, tractors, and even food that the rest of the country could only dream of.

Just weeks before the election, Mugabe’s government ruled that all business enterprises in the country must be majority owned by native Zimbabweans, thus threatening to do the same thing to the nation’s mining and manufacturing industry as it did to agriculture. The likely new owners? His supporters, of course.

We should also keep in mind that the head of a snake is but a small part of the whole. Even if Robert Mugabe is replaced, a great deal of the body will still be writhing on the ground.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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