Activists Slam World's "Grotesque Indifference" to DR Congo

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Inter Press Service

Activists Slam World's "Grotesque Indifference" to DR Congo

by
Stephen Leahy

Children who have been abandoned or orphaned by war eat dinner at the Don Bosco center in Goma in eastern Congo, in this November 20, 2008 file photo. More than five million people have died, most from lack of access to food or basic health, during a decade of fighting and upheaval in Congo, according to aid agencies. This makes Congo's enduring conflict the deadliest since World War Two. (REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly/Files)

TORONTO, Canada - International
lust for the enormous mineral and resource riches of the Democratic
Republic of the Congo (DRC) abetted by international indifference has
turned much of country into a colossal "rape mine" where more than
300,000 women and girls have been brutalised, say activists.

"Rape
is being used as a deliberate tool to control people and territory,"
said Eve Ensler, a celebrated U.S. playwright and founder of V-Day, a
global movement in 120 countries to end violence against women and
girls.

"The rapes are systematic, horrific and often involve bands of
rebels infected with HIV/AIDS," Ensler, who recently returned from the
DRC, told IPS.

Ensler was in Toronto to help raise funds for the Panzi
Hospital in the DRC's South Kivu Province where many rape victims are
brought. Once a maternity hospital, Panzi Hospital now provides free
care and refuge to 3,500 victims of sexual violence each year. Denis
Mukwege leads a team of six surgeons who routinely work 18-hour days to
repair women's extensive internal injuries.

Hundreds of women and children were raped yesterday, hundreds
more today. This is an economic war that uses terror as its main weapon
to ensure warlords and their bands control regions where international
companies mine for valuable metals like tin, silver and coltan, or
extract lumber and diamonds, Ensler said.

Coltan is a rare and extremely valuable metal used in cell
phones, DVD players, computers, digital cameras, video games, vehicle
air bags, and more. It has long been implicated as both the source of
funding and primary cause of the ongoing conflict and extraordinary
violence against women.

"A friend mapped the locations of the mass rapes in the DRC and they correspond to coltan mining regions," she said.

This "blood coltan" -- akin to blood diamonds -- generates
billions of dollars of sales every year for electronics manufacturers
in rich countries and brings hundreds of millions of dollars to rebels
and others who control the coltan-producing regions. Coltan is also
produced in other countries, and the DRC's "blood coltan" is often
transported to those countries to give it a sheen of conflict-free
provenance.

Over five million people have been killed in the ongoing war
following the overthrow of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. The
United Nations' largest-ever peacekeeping force of 17,000 has been in
the DRC since 2000. However, it is a vast country the size of Western
Europe, and with few roads.

Last Jan. 22, rebel groups signed a peace treaty with an
ineffective DRC government accused of corruption and complicit in the
rape of women. Despite the treaty, thousands of women and young girls
in the eastern Congo have been raped this year in the region that
borders Rwanda and Uganda where coltan and other minerals are found.
Large-scale fighting resumed in July, forcing hundreds of thousands to
flee their homes.

"The failure of the international community has created a
catastrophe in the DRC," said Stephen Lewis, former U.N. special envoy
for AIDS in Africa and founder of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, a
charity that supports 300 grassroots projects in Africa. Headquartered
in Toronto, the foundation is a financial supporter of the Panzi
Hospital.

Last June, the U.N. Security Council, chaired by U.S.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, passed Security Council Resolution
1820 condemning the use of sexual violence against women and girls in
conflict and post-conflict situations.

Lewis told IPS that while the resolution was an unprecedented
agreement by the world community, "not a thing has happened since then.
It is as if the world exalted in the fine words of the resolution and
then let its intent die."

He is also critical of the U.N. secretary-general's special
envoy to the region, Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president of
Nigeria, who is meeting rebel and government leaders but who has not
met with the women of the Congo. Women must be brought to the table,
Lewis said. They were also excluded during the previous peace
negotiations.

"We have to stop the raping or the war will never end," he said.

The U.N. Security Council recently voted to send an extra 3,000
peacekeepers to eastern Congo to help protect civilians affected by the
fighting. By most accounts, that effort will fall far short. "With
50,000 U.N. peacekeepers, the women of the DRC could be protected,"
said Lewis.

Three years ago, the global community agreed it has a
responsibility to protect people when a government is unable or
unwilling to protect its own citizens from the worst violations of
human rights. However, there has been widespread failure to live up to
that commitment, which Lewis characterises as "an appalling and
grotesque indifference by the world community".

Lewis, a Canadian, is especially outraged that Canada -- which
championed the "responsibility to protect" principle -- has been
"completely and utterly silent on the DRC".

However, he is hopeful that the present Canadian government
modeled on the Bush neo-conservative administration will be brought
down next week and a centre-left coalition government will bring a
strong Canadian voice in support of ending the violence against women
in the DRC.

The new U.S. government headed by President-elect Barack Obama
could also be a very powerful force for change. "I see a real gleam of
light at last," said Lewis.

The violence and conflict in the DRC will not be easy to
resolve, but is no harder than some of the other global issues like
HIV/AIDS, he said.

Both Lewis and Ensler have been involved in efforts in the DRC
to change things for women. Some 90 forums were held in the eastern
Congo last September where women spoke out about the violence and rape.
"No one talks about rape, there is a social stigma where the victims
are shunned," said Ensler.

A new village for rape victims Ensler calls the "City of Joy"
is being built near the Panzi Hospital. She envisions it as leadership
centre where rape survivors support and learn from each other, and then
teach others that the larger community is responsible for rape, not the
women.

"The Congo's greatest resource is its brilliant and resilient
women and girls," she said. "With a little international support, these
generous and amazing women can turn this horrific situation around."

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