Guest Post: Congo Conflict

Posted on November 13, 2008 by



James Olsen is a good friend of mine. His assessment of the current situation in the Congo helps focus us on what’s really going on in the world around us. – Dane


congo_basin_countries2It’s the season for political activism and there is simply no crisis demanding greater action, no crisis of a more immediate or wrenching nature than the crisis in The Democratic Republic of the Congo. I want to claim that nothing ought to move us more than this current crisis. There’s nothing I feel more passionate about or which I think stands as a greater sign of our damnation than this issue. I cannot begin to describe the absolute nausea I feel on account of the events there. And in a sort of desperate desire to spread my nausea to others I’m writing you this letter.

I also feel appropriately shamed by my own lack of action. It’s not now as reports begin to trickle out into the media that I first learned of this crisis. Sitting in a graduate course over five years ago I heard a professor from Johns Hopkins speak who had just returned from doing work for the International Rescue Committee in the Congo. I remember his resigned and despairing account in the wake of a personal crusade to raise awareness, speaking at the UN, speaking with major government officials and media sources all over the world. He had utterly failed to raise awareness, and the distraction of the Iraq war forced the IRC to redistribute its resources. Next to nothing was done then to assist the Congo. It was an epiphany moment for me as I begin to realize the extent and seriousness, the very reality of the conflict. I would like to say that his pictures and personal stories of the conflict changed me, but it’s hard to reconcile this fact with my inaction.

drc_children_congolese_child_soldiers_congo_child_fighters90211445_stdI suspect that many who read this letter, like most of our country (and most of the world) may be puzzled by what I’ve said so far. Sure there’s conflict in the Congo, but is it really so bad? Have we missed something in the news? The reality is, the news has missed what’s newsworthy. The International Rescue Committee recently released the most comprehensive survey to date of what has happened in the last decade (an update on the research the professor from Hopkins had done). You can read some of the results here. One would think that the largest armed conflict since WWII would get more news. One would think that the greatest humanitarian disaster of the past several decades would get more news. One would think that the most systematic use of rape and sexual torture as a tool of war would get more news. 5.4 million people have died as a result of the conflict since 1998, most of these children, most of these in an easily preventable manner. There are some 45,000 people dying per month (about 1500 per day in a country of approximately 66 million) from disease, starvation and violence on account of this conflict in the Congo right now.

It feels wrong to use numbers to describe the conflict. The fact is, these numbers are far bigger than we can digest; it’s like trying to imagine a 1000-sided figure. I ought to use one of the common place stories, like that of Vumi. She was a 9-month pregnant 16 year old girl who was taken and gang raped by four soldiers. Shoving sticks and other objects into her vagina aborted the baby and left her with a permanently wrecked body. I’m not sure that enumerating such stories, however, is much better than giving facts and figures. Both are too horrific for us to properly digest.

congo_kids_congolese_children_children_of_congoIt took years for Darfur (a smaller, shorter-length conflict) to become a household name. I’ll leave it to others to analyze why the Congo, a significantly worse scenario in terms of sheer numbers, brutality and protraction of violence has yet to be noticed. But Darfur is known now, and while our personal and governmental efforts there fall far short of what one could honestly call a humanitarian response, we have mobilized some support and unquestionably made an impact. This impact only came about, however, as the general public became aware of events. I’m quite optimistic about our society’s capacity for compassion and assistance once we actually recognize the seriousness of a situation. Today, on Veterans Day, thinking of the last crisis of this nature, WWII, reminds us all that we were tragically late in mobilizing in defense of the 6 million Jews and countless others who died. We’re now ten years and 5.4 million deaths overdue on becoming aware of and acting on the crisis in the Congo.

Our humanity, not simply our politics or religion, ought to play a key role in evaluating the personal attention and response that each of us gives to this crisis. However isolationist you may be, the sheer volume and intensity of the suffering makes inaction the grossest of moral violations. The sad reality is that we’re not simply inactive—the natural resources we zealously extract from the Congo without thought of the crisis has significantly contributed to sustaining the conflict. It’s difficult to know exactly what to do in the face of such horrors. One thing we must do is weep together with the Congolese. If we were all American on 9/11, surely we’re all Congolese now. We must make this issue of greater concern than the current state of our finances. Let the vitality of our economy be of instrumental use in doing good, rather than the reverse. God bless you to be aware, to be nauseated, to make the greatest cry of lamentation our generation has seen, to act, and to demand action of others.

Posted in: Politics