Conscience and the Congo

The life and times of a troubled nation and a doctor who's tried to heal it

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The Congo may be in trouble again, in spite of a massive international effort to once again set it on a straight course, this time through elections.

Dan Simpson, a retired U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (

Ruled and looted until it gained independence from Belgium tn 1960, the Congo's primary problem has been repeated efforts on the part of its disparate population to break away from the bulk of the country.

The Congo is as big as the United States east of the Mississippi with a population of 60 million. It has many tribal groupings, including the Bakongo, Baluba, Balunda, Ngwandi and Banyamulenge.

Virtually every corner of the country has some source of wealth -- copper, cobalt, coltan, gold, zinc, oil, timber, hydroelectric power or agriculture -- so there is frequently a motive other than ethnic identity behind efforts to split.

The Congo also is awash in arms after intermittent warfare since independence, but with especial intensity since 1996 when it blew up in rebellion against longtime dictator and American protege Mobutu Sese Seko.

The latest Congolese and international attempt to create political stability and a foundation for economic development are this year's elections.

The first round, held July 30, involved 33 presidential candidates and many more contenders for other offices. The presidential field was boiled down to two candidates, who faced each other in a runoff Oct. 29.

One was Joseph Kabila, the son of Laurent Kabila, who overthrew Mr. Mobutu in 1997. The older Kabila was assassinated in 2001. His son, unelected, succeeded him.

The other final contender was Jean-Pierre Bemba, son of a mixed-race business family, with a somewhat rapscallion background that included gun running in the 1990s.

Both men maintain personal militias. Adding to the problem, Mr. Kabila's main support is in the east of the country, where Kiswahili is the lingua franca. Mr. Bemba's is in the west and the capital, Kinshasa, where Lingala is more widely spoken.

Mr. Kabila won the first round of presidential elections, but with less than 50 percent of the votes. He won the second round, and thus the presidency, with 58 percent to Mr. Bemba's 42 percent. Turnout was 65 percent.

The elections cost $500 million and 17,600 United Nations peacekeepers were in place to keep the peace and assure the integrity of the voting. But Mr. Bemba, the loser, has so far resisted the results of the elections, charging fraud. His supporters trashed Congo's Supreme Court building last week. Mr. Kabila is scheduled to be sworn in as president Dec. 10.

Who knows who's right. But Congo is important, and not only because of its size and wealth. It also borders on nine countries, some of which have severe problems of their own, notably Sudan, Uganda, the Central African Republic and Rwanda. The world has no choice but to care what happens to the Congo.

One American who has been deeply interested in the Congo for the past 46 years, Dr. William T. Close, has written a new book, "Beyond the Storm: Treating the Powerless and the Powerful in Mobutu's Congo/Zaire." It provides a succinct, fascinating account of the place and the evolution of his own involvement in it.

I first met Dr. Close in 1995 when I was named U.S. ambassador to what was then Zaire. He called me, introduced himself and quickly threw together in Washington a luncheon of America's few cognoscenti on the place.

Dr. Close had first gone to pre-independence Congo in 1960 to serve as a doctor for the religious nongovernment organization Moral Re-Armament. As the place came unstuck at independence and virtually all of the Belgian medical personnel fled the country, leaving the untrained Congolese to run the hospitals and clinics and provide medical care, Dr. Close's services and his willingness to stay there under the gun became exponentially rarer and vitally needed.

He eventually became chief medical officer to the Congolese National Army and personal physician to its chief -- and later president -- Joseph Desire Mobutu, who became Mobutu Sese Seko. To catch the anomaly of an American like Bill Close playing that role, it is probably also useful to note that he is the father of actress Glenn Close and from New England.

Dr. Close stuck with Mr. Mobutu for 16 years, until the dictator's shameless looting of the country's resources and Dr. Close's needling of him on the subject led to a sharp parting of the ways in 1976.

Dr. Close's involvement in the Congo has continued to turn on work he began when he had access to Mr. Mobutu. He developed and continues to support, in collaboration with a distinguished Congolese physician, Dr. Malonga Miatudila, Mama Yemo hospital in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, a city with an estimated population of 7 million.

When I was there in 1996, when the end of the Mobutu regime was in sight, with Laurent Kabila's forces marching across the country toward Kinshasa, Dr. Close was there also, presenting new equipment to Mama Yemo Hospital. I remember thinking, "Is this stuff going to survive the pillaging that will undoubtedly accompany the fall of Kinshasa?" (It did, but that's a story for another day.)

As well as a chronicle of a critical period in one of Africa's most interesting and important countries, "Beyond the Storm" includes fascinating vignettes, including insights into the character of Mr. Mobutu. He was, after all, the only Congolese leader so far to give the country decades of peace and unity, never mind the means and the high price incurred.

Dr. Close's book gives us, for example, Mr. Mobutu at his mother's deathbed, where her last words were to exhort him to love his people, at a time when he was only exploiting them.

Dr. Closes's days as a Wyoming Rocky Mountain doctor -- his career from 1976 to date, a period when he also wrote four books and remained a persistent, informed advocate of a positive U.S. role in achieving peace and justice in the Congo -- is quite something also. The medical side of the book has informative touches, too, such as a graphic description of an embalmment in difficult circumstances.

Dr. Close also was involved in dealing with an early outbreak in the Congo of the deadly hemorrhagic fever, Ebola. The photos in the book are rich history, poignant, warm and sometimes scary.

"Beyond the Storm" is a great read. Bill Close's life is a rich, spicy example of service to mankind, in Africa and in the American West.


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