With global media attention focused on the revolutions in the Arab world, it's all the more important to shine some light on other news stories that refuse to go away, as much as we would like them to. These unphotogenic events include the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The vast DRC is a festering wound in Central Africa. As I wrote in this space back in 2009, “[w]ith at least six million dead and up to 1,500 new victims added each day, along with untold millions of injured and displaced, it represents the bloodiest conflict since the Second World War and rivals the Holocaust in terms of sheer cruelty. The difference is that it didn't happen seventy years ago. It's happening right this minute.” The situation has improved little since I wrote those words. In some areas, it has even grown worse.
According to IRIN News, mass rape as a weapon of war is on the increase in South Kivu region in the eastern part of the country, with more than 200 men, women, and children being treated for rape by the aid organization Médecins sans Frontières since January 1. On just four days in February, at least 56 persons were raped in the villages of Misisi/Milimba, and Bwala/Ibindi. “The survivors told MSF they were taken hostage, undressed and tied up with ropes. Women, men, and children were systematically beaten and raped. All their belongings were stolen.” Local officials and aid workers have not seen anything like this since the high point of the Congolese civil war in the 1990s.
Who is behind these attacks? In Congo, it seems there's nothing new under the sun. MSF suspects men from the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération de Rwanda (FDLR), an organization implicated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide that has been operating in the eastern DRC ever since. The FDLR and the Mai Mai rebels have been blamed for at least 3,000 reported rapes in 2010 and for more than 300 perpetrated in the Walikale region over a three-day period last August.
Child soldiers in the DRC
Why do the rebels treat civilians this way? According to Maurizio Giuliano of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Kinshasa, "[t]his is not about opportunistic rape, …it is a strategy. In this kind of attack, it is not only women that are targeted, but their families and the whole community.” In fact, local warlords require a terrorized population to maintain their own power and ensure a cheap labor force for the multinational mining operations in the region.
In 2007 the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative estimated that “as many as 70% of girls and women [in some regions of the eastern DRC] between the ages of ten and thirty have been raped or sexually mutilated. The uncommonly brutal nature of the crimes leads to a host of health problems for the survivor.”
But the problem in South Kivu and elsewhere in Africa is not just the prevalence of marauding soldiers, but a society where women lack agency, particularly in times of war and social unrest. “Blurred lines of ‘consent’ add to women’s vulnerability,” says Claudia Rodriguez, humanitarian affairs officer at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the region. “In some areas of South Kivu a woman is the property of her husband’s family or becomes property of the community if her husband leaves or dies. Any man in the extended family or in the community can have access to her without the woman being able to refuse. The notion of consent is non-existent and therefore cases are not reported as violations. Other factors inhibiting reporting of such crimes include shame and the fear of being rejected and stigmatised.”
Rape makes this situation even worse. As Katie Thomas, an Australian-based psychologist specializing in trauma, writes in Forced Migration Review: “Women and girls who have experienced sexual violence have learned that the world is not safe for females. While an ethnic or national enemy can be avoided in a post-conflict scenario, it is not possible to avoid all males. Even though a woman or girl may be able to acknowledge intellectually that the men in her community may not pose a threat to her, she must still cope with fear and traumatic memories as she interacts with men on a daily basis. This can have a significant impact on her capacity to deal with those in her community.” In the meantime, local human rights activists are regularly threatened with violence and murder.
Congo's sorrows go back at least as far as the age of King Leopold and Joseph Conrad, when perhaps ten million Congolese were essentially worked and starved to death during the so-called scramble for Africa to meet Europe's insatiable demand for rubber and other precious raw materials. But the exploitation never ended. Today, “blood minerals” such as uranium for nuclear power plants and coltan for computers and cell phones continue to fuel an endless civil war. Sixty-four percent of the earth’s coltan reserves are located in the DRC, and I think it's safe to say that people today pay even less thought to the origin of the coltan in their iPhones than 19th-century Whites paid to the provenance of the cotton in their underwear. The human consequences of this lack of curiosity, however, are largely the same.
Gray gold... The blood mineral coltan
Events like those in South Kivu are likely to continue until we start asking how many people had to be raped and murdered in order to get the latest high tech toy into our hands.
Click here to learn about the initiative Stop Raping Our Greatest Resource – Power to Women and Girls of DRC.