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Stop Texting, to Save Lives in Africa

by Jeffrey Allen

WASHINGTON- Activists asked cell phone users to stop texting for one hour on Wednesday -- not to save energy or focus on the road, but to call attention to one of the deadliest and most underreported conflicts in the world.

What's the Story?

The so-called "Cell Out" campaign is part of Congo Week, a series of actions being held worldwide between Oct. 18 and 24 to call attention to what many believe is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world -- the ongoing war over resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Coltan, a mineral needed for many electronic devices, including cellular telephones, is at the center of the conflict in the DRC, which the United Nations has called the deadliest conflict anywhere since World War II.

Africa Action, a Washington, DC-based group pressing the U.S. government to more actively support peace and prosperity in Africa, is among the groups calling on its supporters to turn off their phones for an hour, suggesting they change their voicemail messages to inform callers about the link between cell phones and the carnage in the DRC. [» Read more from Africa Action about the "Cell Out" Campaign below.]

"Congo Week" is organized by the Washington, DC-based Friends of the Congo organization to raise awareness about the ongoing conflict, which they say has been largely ignored by the international media -- and as a result little is being done to help stem the violence.

Over 70 events have been registered on the Congo Week Web site, including film festivals in New York and the DRC, a cell phone drive in Baltimore, a dance workshop in San Francisco, and public presentations on college campuses from Miami, Florida to Portland, Oregon. Activists are also participating in over three dozen countries.

The Worst Humanitarian Crisis in the World

Sexual violence in the DRC has been labeled "the worst in the world" and has increasingly been used as a tactic of the brutal war between the Congolese army and various rebel groups, explains the humanitarian news agency Inter Press Service (IPS).

Since the war began in 1998, scores of women and girls have been raped as armed groups use sexual violence to tear apart families, spread disease, and weaken communities that might oppose them, notes the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in a video report posted to OneWorld TV, OneWorld.net's video sharing platform. Many men in Congo feel humiliated when their wives are raped and they worry about diseases like HIV, so women are often doubly victimized -- first by their rapists and then by their husbands, who reject them.

Dr. Denis Mukwege, director and founder of a hospital in Bukavu, DRC, believes the women raped since the conflict began over a decade ago could number somewhere around half a million. This is far higher than the United Nations estimates of 200,000-300,000 victims, Mukwege told IPS.

Since the fighting began, some 4 million people have died from violence, hunger, and disease and 2.5 million have been made homeless, estimates the poverty alleviation organization Oxfam International.

A fragile ceasefire between rebel groups and the Congolese government was declared upon the signing of the Goma peace agreement in January 2008. But in the second half of the year, fighting resumed between the Congolese army and the forces of renegade general Laurent Nkunda and other armed groups, notes Human Rights Watch.

The roots of the conflict date back to the end of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, "when the leaders of the Hutu regime that carried out those killings were defeated" and fled to neighboring Congo, explains CBC News.

A New U.S. Policy on Sudan

While over a thousand people a day continue to die as a result of the war in the DRC, the conflict to the north in Sudan is getting top billing -- both in the U.S. media and at the White House. Top U.S. officials announced a new Sudan policy this week, saying that a system of incentives and disincentives -- based on verifiable measures of progress -- will be instituted to help end the conflict and human rights abuses, promote democratic institutions, and ensure that international terrorists do not operate in Sudan.

U.S.-based peace groups have mostly met the new policy with cautious optimism.

"Africa Action welcomes the administration's policy that addresses Darfur and all Sudan, and appears to be results driven," the group said in a statement, but also expressed concern that incentives not be based solely on Khartoum's cooperation in anti-terror efforts, but rather be focused on the pursuit of peace and justice for the Sudanese people. [» Read more from Africa Action.]

Refugees International applauded the plan for allocating funds and equipment to the resource-strapped international peacekeeping force in Sudan, and also for promising to support fair elections in the country. But the group bemoaned a continuing lack of attention to the needs of the country's massive number of displaced people. [» Read more from Refugees International.]

The Save Darfur Coalition, which consists of nearly 200 faith-based, advocacy, and humanitarian groups, said the success of the plan will depend on the level of follow-through by U.S. officials -- and especially President Barack Obama --  in the coming months and years, adding that Obama should make Sudan a priority during his discussions with Chinese officials next month. [» Read more from the Save Darfur Coalition.]

China is considered to have the most leverage over Sudan's leadership, as it is the primary purchaser of the country's oil.

Several groups said they want to see a clear set of benchmarks the administration will use to effectively measure progress on ending human rights violations and ensuring accountability for war crimes.

While media reports have indicated that violence in the Darfur region of Sudan has abated in recent months, the situation is far from stable and Sudanese citizens continue to face abuse and attack, says Human Rights Watch.

A recent report from the international humanitarian watchdog group documented government censorship, harassment of human rights organizations, arbitrary arrests of opposition leaders, and government air and ground attacks on villages in Darfur as recently as mid-September. Some 1,200 people have also been killed in inter-ethnic violence in the southern part of the country this year, the report noted, stressing the need for global pressure on Sudan's government to end the conflict and abuses. [» Read more from Human Rights Watch.]

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