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Stop Texting, to Save Lives in Africa

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,'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.


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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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