Sometimes a story comes over the wires that is so astonishing, so hard to conceive, that it stops us cold.
Such was the case yesterday afternoon when we spotted a Reuters report headlined “Thousands escape rape, murder on floating islands” among the lead group of stories atop CNN.com.
“Thousands of civilians have taken refuge on floating islands in the lakes of Congo’s Katanga province to escape rape and murder by government and militia fighters, a top U.N. humanitarian official said on Thursday,” Reuters’ David Lewis reported from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Some 120,000 people have fled their homes in the remote Mitwaba area, where hundreds of women have been raped during fighting between the army and former pro-government militiamen that U.N. peacekeepers are unable to control, he added.”
As the country staggers toward elections nearly three years after the official end of its civil war, “fighting continues in Katanga and elsewhere in the lawless east, where minerals are plentiful and gunmen continue to roam,” Reuters reported. The UN official, Daniel Augstburger, “said many people had taken refuge on islands formed by clumps of papyrus plants floating on lakes in Katanga’s Upemba National Park.” In a region of “systemic sexual violence,” Augstburger said, “it is the only place they feel safe.”
The population is being terrorized both by “rag-tag fighters known as Mai Mai who anoint themselves with potions they believe make them invincible” and by ill-disciplined soldiers from the Congo’s dubiously trustworthy army, according to Reuters.
The humanitarian crisis in the Congo — “which has been called the deadliest since World War II and has killed an estimated 4 million people since 1998” — is generally overlooked, but the news of people fleeing to live on water would seem to mark a startling new level of desperation.
Unless you were conspicuously looking for it, however, you likely did not find the story in the nation’s leading newspapers today. The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Chicago Tribune (which sometimes reprints Reuters stories used in the Times) did not pick it up. The Washington Post deemed Reuters’ news worthy of three paragraphs in its world briefing. And the New York Times chose to run a small item concerning an accusation by a minister in Sudan that President Bush (and not he) should be in trouble with the U.N. “for impeding peace in Darfur” in its world briefing, but did not mention the Congo in its print edition. Online, however, the Times published the floating islands story in full.
Yes, there is a lot of bad news to cover in Africa, and newspapers must make judgment calls. Today, to give two examples, the New York Times published a staff-written story on Danish-cartoon-related rioting in Nigeria that has killed over 100 people, and a Los Angeles Times correspondent covered the tense presidential vote in Uganda. But the stark tale of displaced thousands that Reuters tells, in our humble opinion, merits more attention than it was given.
Papers didn’t even have to do any heavy lifting on this story: Reuters did that for them. But the piece easily could have been slotted onto their Web sites, as the New York Times, Boston Globe, ABC News and the Jackson (Wy.) News-Tribune all did, thus informing a few more readers about a dark corner of the world. One reason news organizations have Web sites, after all, is to extend their reach.
NPR seems to know that. In fact, it beat Reuters to the story, airing a report Monday on All Things Considered after Jason Beaubien traveled seven hours by motorboat up the Congo River to talk to those who have taken refuge on the floating islands. In his story, posted on NPR’s site along with a map and photos, Beaubien narrates in remarkably measured tones the violence surrounding the lake’s refugees: