I was hoping to have an uplifting, empowering story for my second post in an effort to show that I am not only going to focus on the tragic and heart wrenching but also on stories of empowerment and triumph. That plan was crushed when, at about 12:30 a.m. September 8th, I went onto the BBC News website and saw this headline: “UN Peacekeepers ‘Failed’ DR Congo Rape Victims.” I should note that by 2:30 p.m. that afternoon, the story was no where to be found on BBC’s site without conducting a search.
Many of you are likely aware of the conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo). Many of you may also know that an epidemic of mass rape and attacks against women and girls has ensued as the fighting has worn on. In 2009 alone, the UN reported 8,300 rapes in Congo’s conflict region and admitted that this number is likely higher, as many attacks go unreported. The UN has gone so far as to declare Congo the most dangerous place on Earth to be a woman or girl.
Democratic Republic of Congo is a country with a complicated and war-torn past. It is geographically large – about the size of Europe – and incredibly wealthy with naturally occurring resources such as diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, and zinc. Congo is also rich in coltan which is used in cell phones and other mobile electronics. However, without a government capable of channeling this wealth for the benefit of its citizens, its riches have gone untapped and caused more harm than good. In lieu of reiterating the entire history here, I will direct you to Q&A: DR Congo Conflict on the BBC’s website that explains it in more detail.
Here is what we do need to know. Much of the current conflict in Congo can be traced back to the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda that was fought, in very simplistic terms, between the Hutu and the Tutsi ethnic groups. When the Tutsis overthrew the Hutus and seized control of government, thousands of Hutus fled the country into Congo for fear of reprisal. Among them, were many of the Hutus who were responsible for the genocide. They allied themselves with the Congolese government in power at the time and began to attack Tutsis who had lived in Congo for generations. The Tutsis eventually overthrew the Congolese government and renamed the country: what was then known as Zaire is present day DR Congo.
The Tutsi-installed president, Laurent Kabila, was unable to oust the Hutus and Rwanda sent in a new force to take over. Kabila then called on more neighbors for help, among them Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. A war ensued among these countries on Congolese land for the next five years, killing more than five million. The war was declared over in 2003 but massive unrest remains in the eastern part of the country, in particular North and South Kivu. In 2008, the Rwandan government joined forces with the Congolese government troops and UN peacekeepers to combat the Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in these provinces.
The “Recent” News
This is where Congo is today. Reports of vicious killings and rapes from rebels and government troops have been popping up on the news ticker for years and continue to occasionally make headlines. The UN’s involvement in the region is not new. It has been there for 10 years as a peacekeeping force and is shouldered with the responsibility of monitoring the movements of the FDLR and helping the government protect civilians in its projected path.
When reports of more mass rapes came to the UN’s attention in July and August, Atul Khare, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, was sent to Congo by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, to investigate. Khare reported a total of over 500 rapes in the Uvira area and other villages in North and South Kivu. In the village of Miki, Khare was told of 74 attacks, 21 of which were against children aged seven to 15. Khare reported that all of the women in another village, Kiluma, may have been systematically raped. Khare and the UN’s special envoy on sexual violence, Margot Wallstrom, suggested that the FDLR rebel chiefs might be among those responsible for the organized rapes.
“While the primary responsibility for protection of civilians lies with the state … clearly we have also failed,” said Khare.
“Our actions were not adequate, resulting in unacceptable brutalisation of the population of the villages in the area. We must do better.”
It is clear that there is much we and, I might venture to say, the UN do not know about what is really happening on the ground in Congo. What no one will contest is that women and children are being attacked daily and neither our government nor other world leaders are doing enough to intervene.
What You Can Do
Write to your congress person. Write to the president. Demand that they lead efforts to establish peace. One voice is not enough; many voices speaking together can be loud enough to spark change. Also visit Raise Hope for Congo, a campaign of the Enough Project, that has outlined a plan for bringing peace in Congo.