The past week ended a series of talks and events dedicated to raising awareness regarding the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
What is happening in DR Congo is mind-blowing and many people would not believe that this can happen in the 21st century. But it is happening, and the fact that it is so hard to believe is very much due to the lack of awareness and media coverage. When one does hear something about Congo, it is likely that it is:
5.4 million people died since the beginning of the conflict (this figure is probably around 7 million now, since the first statistic is from 2007 )or
worst place in the world to be a woman or a girl or
the worst humanitarian crisis in the world
All these are true, but there is actually a lot more to be told about the conflict in Congo. While I learned a lot from the awesome speakers that came on campus, I actually had to go and get more background myself in order to better understand what is happening. I think I should mention that, although I have an idea, a full-length course is probably needed in order to get a full grasp of all the players and interests involved in the Congo conflict.
The DR Congo is a country very rich in minerals, which, because of its underdevelopment, made it very prone to exploitation. Mineral exploitation started under Belgian colonialism, continued after their independence, and is still going on today. Unfortunately, the illegal exploitation of minerals on the black market has not lead only to corruption. There have always been many conflicts of interests that spurred and used violence as means of intimidation and gaining control.
The most recent conflict (the one which is still going on) started around 1994 when the Rwandan war/genocide ended. At that time, Hutu rebels operating under the name FDLR: Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, fled from Rwanda into neighboring Eastern Congo to escape arrest and prosecution. Since then, they have been terrorizing the local population in Eastern Congo. They kill and mutilate, and use rape and sexual violence in order to dehumanize the locals and gain control over them. In this context they create, it becomes easy for them to both obtain money from the people, as well to control the minerals market.
Using this tactic, the FDLR have successfully terrorized Eastern Congo for 15 years now.
So, let me go on about what I learned from the people who came to talk.
Laura Heaton is a young woman who is currently editor and writer for the Enough blog, as part of the Enough Project. Before this, she did various field consultancy work in Rwanda and Eastern Congo. I thought it was great that such a young person was so knowledgeable and so actively involved in this issue. Laura talked mostly about conflict minerals and what Enough is doing. As I mentioned, the minerals exploited are a big part of the reason for the conflict. More to it, however, we are all contributing to these conflict as end consumers of electronic devices. Four metals coming from Congo: Gold, Tungsten, Tin, and Tantalum are used in cellphones, laptops and other such electric devices. Since the minerals are exported multiple times to many countries before they are put into the final products, their exact source is hard to trace and the electronics companies don't really bother to do it. So, whenever we're buying a new phone, we're all buying a piece of fuel to the bloody Congo conflict. What the Enough Project is trying to do through their program Raise Hope for Congo, is to stop the use of such conflict minerals, by advocating the banning of imports into the US under any form.
For a very short and sweet video explaining this, go here.
Dr. Lee Ann De Reus, professor at PennState Altoona, is an activist-scholar, who actually worked with women at the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Congo for her research project. The Panzi Hospital is one of the few places in Congo that successfully treats women survivors of sexual violence and they have perfected techniques for the surgical repair of fistulas (talk about need teaches you!). Dr. De Reus interviewed 30 women, all survivors of sexual violence and shared with us some of her findings.
Women and girls of any age are raped, usually gang raped and raped with various objects that cause many internal injuries, the worst being fistula and death. Women are raped in their homes, in front of their children, families and neighbors. They are raped in the fields where they work. They are taken as slaves in the rebels' settlements and kept there. Some manage to run, some are killed, some just die due to injuries or diseases. However, despite all the horror they have to go through, the women see themselves as survivors, rather than victims. They say that they have the power to get over whatever happened to them and badly want to return to their lives as much as possible. Many suffer from the stigma of their societies and many cannot go back to working the fields due to their injuries. Most of them, though, talked of hope and forgiveness. Everybody in the audience, including Dr. De Reus, thought that it was outrageous that 29/30 women said that they were willing to forgive their attackers and let them be judged by God. They just wanted peace and they wanted the conflict to be over. I also found it very surprising that the women did not quite know what was actually going on in terms of why the conflict was happening and why they were raped.
All of the women, however, said that they shared their story with Dr. De Reus so that she passes it on and tells the world about what is happening...
Finally, Lisa Shannon came and talked to us. She is a young activist who founded Run for Congo Women and basically completely changed her life to dedicate it to the cause of Congo women. She has an impressive story about how she started from scratch and just went on and on despite all the obstacles. She started off by training long to do a 30 mile run, at the end of which she raised $28,000. Despite this being a pretty big success, it did not all come easy to her. She did runs with 1 persons and had no support when she went to Congo the first time by herself. At Lafayette, she spoke to a group of 10-15 people who showed up on a Friday afternoon. We thought it was lame, but she was pleased. She, as well as the other speakers, insisted that they would talk to anyone, no matter how many or how few. She emphasized repeatedly that the secret of her success was exactly that she did wait for other people to follow. She moved on by herself and people started following her more and more. First she ran alone, than with one person, now with hundreds. First she went to Congo alone, with no backing, now she is supported by Women for Women International and Enough.
I think Lisa Shannon, as well as Laura Heaton, Lee Ann De Reus and many other activists, are great references for anyone, but especially for two groups of people. First, those who say: "One can't really do anything to actually matter"... well, obviously you can! Second, for those that start all enthusiastic and then, for some reasons, just get caught into various things and lost grip. I'm in no place to criticize everyone, but I encountered plenty of such people.
Conclusion: People in Eastern Congo need help and this conflict needs to end. Unfortunately, the Congolese can't do it by themselves, but we can help! And please do help! Be a responsible consumer. Donate any amount if you can! Support a Congolese woman! And just speak! Let others know about what is going on!