"The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo" Illuminates and Devastates
Lisa Jackson and I first met when we both began working in television in Washington, DC. It was back during the Watergate era, but that in no way means we're old. Our parents couldn't afford daycare, so we were dropped off at the TV station each day with our nap mats and small plastic Baggies of Cheerios.
I was in charge of publicity and advertising, Lisa was an assistant film editor, soon promoted to editor. In the years since she has become an accomplished, award-winning producer and director of many fine documentary films.
Her latest may be her most compelling and personal. It's called "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo" and premieres on HBO, Tuesday, April 8th, 8 pm, ET and PT (check local listings).
The title comes from the lead sentence of "Women, War and Peace," a 2002 United Nations report that began, "Violence against women in conflict is one of history's great silences." Lisa set out to visit and film several of the theaters of war described in the report but when she made her initial stop in the Democratic Republic of Congo she realized, as she says, that "the first was the worst." She decided to focus on the unimaginable human tragedy in the third largest nation on the African continent.
As underreported as the horrific genocide in Darfur, Somalia, has been, it's front-page, headline news compared to the untold, unbearable and far vaster suffering of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Civil war began there in 1997 and has never really ceased. Further fueled by neighboring rebels from Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, this is the deadliest conflict since World War II, with four million killed in a decade of fighting and an estimated more than 250,000 women and children raped.
In the words of UN Peacekeeper Colonel Roddy Winser, "There is no doubt that rape is a method in this environment to create a continued instability and dominance... This is without question the worst environment that I have seen." Classic British understatement.
The rebels aren't the only ones guilty. Members of Congo's own military are culpable, too, and even some of Winser's 17,000-member United Nations peacekeeping force have been accused of trading milk and eggs for sex with girls as young as ten.
Lisa traveled throughout the eastern part of the country, deep into the bush, to interview many of the women attacked and even some of the rapists themselves -- they justify rape as their right as men and warriors; as an understandable action rising from anger, isolation and deprivation; even, in some cases, as necessary to activate a magic potion that protects them from harm during battle.
It is a story with deep personal significance for Lisa. At the age of 25, back in the days when we both were starting out in television, she was gang raped one night by three men in Washington's fashionable Georgetown. They never were apprehended.
Talking to the women in Congo, Lisa reports that at first, "They didn't believe me, so I showed them the newspaper stories, and a magazine article I'd written about my rape. They asked about the war that was happening in my country. I told them there had been no war in Washington, DC, back then; that any woman could become a victim at any time."
Her story unlocked theirs, and what these women tell her camera is nothing short of "soul-ripping," as Lisa says, so powerful and shocking that, truly, they must be seen and heard in the actual film to be believed. One woman, describing the three years she spent as a sex slave, says, "When we were living in the forest it wasn't just one man. Every soldier can have sex with you. We got pregnant there. We gave birth in the forest, alone, like animals, without food or medicine." Sadly, her story is far from the worst you'll be told in "The Greatest Silence."
Why this human disaster continues is rooted in the Democratic Republic of Congo's past. This is the former Belgian Congo, 19th century fiefdom of Belgium's King Leopold II, who looted it of ivory and rubber, killing half the native population in the process. It remains rich in gold, silver, diamonds, oil, uranium and 80% of the world's supply of coltan, a mineral essential for the manufacture of capacitors used in most consumer electronics.
The rape of Congo is the cover under which smugglers steal a million dollars worth of coltan every day. When I talked to Lisa this week she was in Washington screening "The Greatest Silence" for staff members of the Senate judiciary and foreign relations committees and getting ready to testify the next day before the Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law. She was prepared to tell them that because of the coltan trade, "the blood of Congolese women is on your laptops and in your cellphones."
This resource war and the first world's complicity in it may help explain the United States government's' relative indifference to this crisis, despite the 2006 enactment of legislation -- introduced by Barack Obama and co-sponsored by Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman and Republicans Sam Brownback and James Inhofe, among others -- to "promote relief, security, and democracy in the Democratic Republic of Congo."
Amidst the horror and chaos so vividly depicted in "The Greatest Silence," there are heroes: Dr. Denis Mukwege, medical director of a hospital in the Congolese city of Bukavu, treating women suffering from fistula, a painful and debilitating condition resulting from rape and genital mutilation; Sister Clothilde, a Catholic nun who runs "Mothers of the Parish," a support group for raped women; Major Honorine Munyole of the National Police, a one-woman Special Victims Unit investigating sex crimes.
And Lisa F. Jackson for making this film, a brave and unflinching look at man's inhumanity to woman and child.
In the words of Honorine Munyole, "The woman is the mother of a nation. He who rapes a woman rapes an entire nation."