The conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the biggest war you've never heard about. With 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.
Nearly all the war's victims are civilians and half of them are children under the age of five. Hundreds of thousands of women of all ages are being systematically gang raped and mutilated, their bodies serving as the main theater of war in many areas. Up to thirty percent of rape victims have been infected by HIV. But women are also taking the lead in informing the world of their country’s plight and seeking justice for the war’s victims. And yet, this effort claims a high price.
On September 8, Congolese radio reporter Delphie Namuto was just preparing a broadcast on conditions at an army base outside the town of Bakuvu in South Kivu province on the border with Rwanda when she received this Swahili-language text message on her cell phone: “You have a bad habit of interfering in what does not concern you to show that you are untouchable. Now, some of you will die so that you shut up. We’ve just been authorized to start with Kadi, then Kamuntu, then Namuto: a bullet to the head.”
What could have motivated this threat against Namuto and two of her female colleagues? Namuto regularly reports on women’s issues, particularly rape. That is her job. Namuto’s employer, Radio Okapi, is a Congolese station sponsored by the United Nations that works together with Hirondelle, a Swiss media organization that operates in crisis zones. “If I say an officer raped a woman, the military is cross,” she told the press service Women's eNews. “If I say a cop raped a girl, the police feel unhappy. They think broadcasts lead to arrests.”
This is only one of numerous death threats these three women have received in recent years. Her colleague, Jolly Kamuntu, who, like Namuto, is a member of the South Kivu Women Media Association (see video below), has been threatened repeatedly. Today, eight months pregnant, she is living in an unguarded house entirely without police protection.
Bukavu, in the mineral-rich east of the DRC, has been the focus of much of the country’s violence. The Committee to Protect Journalists regards it as one of Africa’s most dangerous places for journalists to operate. Since 2007, three male radio reporters have been killed in Bukavu, two of them from Radio Okapi. Their killers have never been found.
But what is all this about anyway? The so-called Second Congo War, which has been raging since 1998, has involved seven foreign armies and scores of local militias. Despite a formal peace treaty signed in 2002, the war continues in the east. Most of the fighting is now occurring between the rebels of the Forces démocratiques pour la libération du Rwanda (FDLR), who fled their home country in the wake of the 1994 genocide, and the Forces armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC), which have been joined by Rwandan forces.
The war is largely fueled by the messy aftermath of the Rwandan tragedy, ethnic conflicts inside the DRC itself, and above all the mining interests in the region, as multinational mining companies trade with local rebel and militia groups who use rape as a weapon of war. “The actors of sexual violence are always the same,” Jolly Kamuntu says. “Rwandan Hutu refugees, undisciplined elements of the Congolese army, copycat civilians.” All sides have been using rape – or “sexual terrorism,” as some observers call it – to destroy society by crushing women, humiliating men, spreading HIV/AIDS, and hopelessly blurring bloodlines. According to the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, up to seventy percent of women and girls have been raped in some regions of eastern Congo. The vast UN contingent in the country has proved of little help. In fact, in some areas the over 20,000 UN "peacekeepers" have been the worst offenders of all.
Rape victims are essentially raped a second time by their own societies, since sexual assault results in a lifetime of shunning. In fact, talking about sex is such a taboo in Congo – and the status of women is so low – that the government did not even classify rape as a crime until 2006. The atrocities committed over the past eleven years of fighting surpass belief. Victims have been burned with gasoline and have had rifles shoved up their vaginas. Militiamen regularly cut "trophies" off of women's bodies and display them in their huts. In some cases, women have been forced to eat their own children before being gang raped and then killed by soldiers.
The bleakness of Congo’s present is exceeded only by the nightmare of its past. King Leopold of Belgium formally assumed control of the vast Congo river basin at the Berlin Congress of 1885 and made a vast fortune from the mining and rubber business, as Congolese resources fueled the Second Industrial Revolution. Belgian agents and their local allies terrorized the population into compliance and regularly cut off the limbs of African workers who failed to deliver. Some ten million Congolese – around half the country’s population – may have perished under Belgian rule. It is no coincidence that author Joseph Conrad used the colony as the backdrop for his novel Heart of Darkness in 1899.
In 1960 the Brussels government decided against using force to maintain direct control of the Congo and to protect the interests of the large companies operating there. Belgium’s sudden surrender to nationalist forces helped fragment the country along ethnic and regional lines. Democratic and social reforms never had a chance and Congo's first elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was deposed after just ten weeks and later murdered by Congolese forces working with American and Belgian intelligence agencies. The brutal and corrupt Mobuto regime seized power in 1965, once more with American and Belgian assistance, and essentially operated Congo as a quasi-colonial state for the benefit of multinational corporations. Mobuto personally embezzled at least $5 billion of his nation's wealth for his own purposes.
Doomed Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba
Today Congo still represents the developed world’s dark side – the collective bad conscience of our brave new global community. Trade in such “blood minerals” as coltan, which is used to manufacture our cell phones and laptop computers, copper, cobalt, gold, diamonds, and uranium drives the conflict. The consequences can be felt the world over. For example, the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki used uranium from the Congo, as do much of the world’s present-day atomic arsenal and nuclear power plants. The militias systematically employ sexual slavery, slaughter and starve victims, and recruit child soldiers as part of a broader, systemic effort to secure access to mining sites and insure a steady flow of captive labor, from whose toil the rest of us profit every minute of our lives.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighted the plight of Congolese rape victims during her recent visit to the country and promised millions of dollars in American assistance. But despite a brief flurry of media attention, the Congolese War has scarcely penetrated our popular consciousness. So the next time you turn on your cell phone - or even switch on a light bulb in your house – spare a thought for the women of the DRC, who are dying by the hundreds every single day so that you can read articles like this one online, and join the activists of South Kivu Province in breaking the global conspiracy of silence we have all created around them.