The conflict in the Congo is a much overlooked atrocity that is claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of people each year. Sexual violence is occurring on a massive scale, destroying lives and tearing families apart. The Congo has the largest peace keeping force in the world with 17,000 UN troops, but, Paul Knipe asks, what is the international community doing to raise awareness?

“My parents died when I was 16. They were killed by rebels. They came in our village and started killing people. Everyone was running from the war and scattering. There was shooting and guns and knives and then suddenly I saw my dad killed with a knife and my mother by a gun.

They were killed by guns and knives and I couldn’t even imagine what had happened and I ran away, just ran away as fast as I could. But then they found me in the bush and they raped me and took me hostage. I lived in the forest for one year before I knew I was pregnant. They were aggressive and violent – they would beat me it seemed all of the time. They wouldn’t leave me alone.

They were using me, sexually abusing me constantly and using me to work for them, until I became paralysed on one side. I couldn’t move and then they had no more use for me, so they abandoned me, they just left me in the bush, alone with no food at all and very pregnant.”

This is Sifa’s story. Now, at the age of 18, she recounts her experience with the rebels from two years before. Hers is one of many; one story from a vast and ever-growing collection.

The situation in the Congo has not changed much in the two years since Sifa was found. In fact, many reports are suggesting that it is getting worse, despite the massive peace-keeping presence and national and international efforts.

Reporting to the Security Council in July, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that at least 200,000 cases of sexual violence had been recorded in eastern Congo since 1996. This is alongside reports of 400 cases of rape in the North Kivu district every month at the moment. But the situation is likely to be worse, with many cases left unreported due to fears of being ostracised and a lack of faith in authority and the justice system. There has also been an increase in the amount of rape between men. In August, the NY Times told the stories of several men who had been raped by rebels. And in a country where homosexuality is taboo, aid workers are struggling to explain the sudden increase; the best answer they’ve come up with is that male rape is yet another way for armed groups to humiliate and demoralise Congolese communities. The Times reported that the male rape cases spanned several hundred miles and possibly included hundreds of victims.

The American Bar Association, which runs a sexual violence legal clinic in Goma, said that more than 10 percent of its cases in June this year were men.

Ending Silence in the West

The facts speak for themselves: Alongside rape, there have been over 5 million deaths, prompting Ed Joyce MP and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Great Lakes Region of Africa to declare this “the most devastating war since the Second World War, and one that few people in the rest of the world know of.” By 2007 there were a reported 45,000 deaths every month. Over 1.2 million people have been made homeless. There are 17,000 UN troops in the Congo, the world’s largest single peacekeeping force, and they’ve been there for seven years. The facts shout out the urgency and gravity of the situation, yet the long and violent conflict has for the most part been overlooked in international media, where awareness around the situation remains low and unclear.

Susan Schulman, Congo activist and photojournalist, has visited the Eastern region of the Congo on several occasions. “It isn’t necessarily about there not being enough coverage; it’s about the coverage continually recycling the same story,” she says. “Developments are confused and the story is not changing. The majority of people globally have no idea what is really going on there at all.”

Accounts like Sifa’s show what is really going on in the Eastern regions. Delving through the Internet reveals other similar stories in print or told on film and it is here that the knock-on effects come to light. Following sexual violence women often find themselves with no one to turn to. They may not break their silence as they would most likely be ostracised by their families and communities. “I think there’s one central fact that allows the continuation of rape: it’s not discussed enough”, says Susan. “This is because rape victims get kicked out of their families. Sometimes they are kicked out with their children, often it’s because their husbands won’t accept them.” She puts this down to the loss of honour, feelings of shame and tribal tensions.

Have Things Been Going on to Raise Awareness?

Well, actually there is. Despite the low television coverage, there is a lot of information on the Web – both shedding light on the situation through firsthand accounts and highlighting the many projects that NGOs are involved with on the ground – and this is positive.

The U.S. has had several celebrity visits to the region, for example Ben Affleck has been to the area twice, and recently Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox and Sheryl Crow lent their support to OmniPeace founder Mary Fanaro and her night to stamp out violence against women and girls of the Congo.

There are also campaigns to raise awareness taking place around the world. Schulman is the driving force behind Congo Now!, an annual week of events that is drawing attention to the crisis. Its aim is to use the Congo’s creativity and cultural energy to highlight the suffering of the Congolese people. The most recent took place in London in May, where it attracted new audiences through its positive stance and cultural focus.

“The concept in my mind was always to interest people in the Congo”, she says. “The Congo used to be king of African music. Everyone loved it. It seemed like everyone enjoyed it.” She’s currently planning the next one, in July next year, where there will be collaboration between Congo and international artists. “My aim is to bring them over here and have them work with their counterparts to develop something spectacular for Congo Now!”

In the Congo itself, NGOs have an increasing amount of initiatives in place to support local people that need it. One example is the UN funded camp for displaced people in North Kivu. The centre in the Mugunga II camp, about 25km west of Goma, is run by the organisation Women for Women International (WWI) which works to rebuild the lives of women affected by conflict. It provides counselling, skills training and literacy courses.

Political Persuasion

In recent months international politics has stepped up its focus on the Congo, thanks, in part, to some high profile visits from US VIPs. In August Secretary of State Hilary Clinton spent two weeks in the Congo generating a lot of international media coverage and her firsthand account has sent shock waves around world. As reported in the Washington Times, she reflected on her time in eastern Congo: “they live in tents, one next to the other, some clinging to life, others hanging onto whatever glimmer of hope remains in a region plagued by years of brutality.”

“Women and girls in particular have been victimised on an unimaginable scale, as sexual and gender based violence has become a tactic of war and has reached epidemic proportions.”

Following her visit and experience she led a UN resolution to create an envoy to help the victims of abuse and to take steps to prosecute the perpetrators. It was passed in the UN headquarters on 30 September and follows Resolution 1820, passed last year, that declared for the first time that sexual violence can constitute war crime.

So after over a decade of relative silence, the international audience, through popular media and political determination, is beginning to act. If it can be sustained it will surely help to bring a resolution to the ongoing conflict in the Congo.

And what about Sifa? She has been left paralysed and without a family, but, like so many of the Congolese people, remains positive: “I was helpless, and hopeless. But the villagers took care of me and washed me with warm water and massaged me and then I felt a little better. I was with them for about 9 months and then we moved from that area to another which was more peaceful. I will have to do some small business to help with the daily living. I don’t know what. The only help I need now is prayer for me.”

For more information the conflict in the Congo please visit www.lucidmagazine.co.uk.

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