Since the 1990s, violence in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has cost six million lives, making this the deadliest conflict since World War II.
According to Jeffrey Gettleman, East African Bureau Chief for the New York Times, “Few people in recent memory have suffered as long, and on such a horrifying scale, as the Congolese. Where else are men, women, and children slaughtered by the hundreds, year after year, sometimes so deep in the jungle that it takes weeks for the truth to come out? Where else are hundreds of thousands of women raped and just about nobody punished?”
So why, ask Congolese human rights activists, has the world taken so little notice? It’s a good question.
To bring attention to the situation, Congolese expatriates in New Hampshire organized the state’s first observance of Congo Week recently. They began with a march in Manchester on October 19 and then organized a remarkable forum at the NH Technical Institute (NHTI) in Concord on October 21.
According to Friends of the Congo,Congo Week “commemorates the millions of lives lost in the Congo conflict while celebrating the enormous human and natural potential that exists in the country.” Hundreds of colleges and universities around the globe have participated since the first Congo Week in 2008.
It took a lot of work to bring Congo Week to New Hampshire. Addy Simwerayi, a student at Southern NH University, got things started. Claude Lompufu Bongambe and the Cultural Exchange Club at the New Hampshire Technical Institute (NHTI) worked with Addy to produce the event there. The forum was attended by NHTI students and staff, as well as an impressive group of African expatriates. Addy and Claude both spoke at the forum. In addition, Helene Simwerayi (Addy’s mother) testified powerfully about the suffering of women in eastern Congo. She and her husband Hubert Simwerayi were human rights activists in Goma, Congo, before being forced by death threats to come to the US.
BACKGROUND ON CONFLICT IN EASTERN CONGO
The most recent period of violence in eastern Congo began after the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when defeated Hutu forces fled into eastern Congo and launched raids back into Rwanda. This brought retaliation by the Rwandan government, which invaded Congo and also sponsored Congolese Tutsi militia groups. Uganda dispatched armed forces to Congo, too. UN peacekeepers intervened. Still the fighting continued. Throughout eastern Congo, many armed groups arose, spread havoc, and disappeared, only to be replaced by new militias besieging the region.
The fight for control of the region’s rich natural resources has been a major factor in the fighting. Competing armies have sought to control resource extraction to enrich themselves and to fund their wars. Eastern Congo is rich in gold, as well as tin, tungsten, and tantalum, the “3Ts”. Tantalum, extracted from the mineral coltan, is a key input in smart phones and other high-end electronics.
Through it all, millions of Congolese civilians have suffered horribly. Warring forces, including the DRC’s own army, have committed massive human rights abuses. Rape and mutilation of women have been used by competing armies to terrorize and destabilize entire communities. Children have been forcibly inducted into combatant groups as soldiers or for sexual exploitation. With armies raging across the region, people have fled their villages, often making it impossible to grow crops and leading to widespread starvation.
Nicole Audette, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, explained how violence against civilians has been used by armed forces to take control of territory. ”Army and rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo have long used sexual and gender-based violence…as a weapon of war. Rape, sexual enslavement, and torture are inflicted on women, children, and men to manipulate group psychologies and weaken social networks by instilling fear, distrust, and shame at multiple levels of a community.”
At various points during the conflict, combatants in eastern Congo have signed peace agreements, most of them short-lived. The most recent agreement was signed with the M23 rebel group in 2013. The UN now has over 20,000 peacekeeping troops in eastern Congo, more than anywhere else in the world. Still the killing continues. As of summer 2014, according to the Wall Street Journal, “dozens of … rebel groups and militia continue to stalk the country’s lawless jungles, vying for control of lucrative mining regions and farmlands.”
It has now been a generation since the current reign of terror began in eastern Congo. Congolese human rights activists say that until the underlying causes are addressed, new armies will continue to spring up and the violence will continue.
WHAT WE CAN DO
Addy, Claude, and Helene have asked us to pay attention to Congo and act to end the violence. Given the scale of the carnage afflicting the region, we can’t get away with pleading “compassion fatigue.” Here are three actions we can take.
Avoid products made with conflict minerals
The only truly conflict-free cellphone is the Fairphone. Fairphone makers have sworn off conflict minerals as well as labor exploitation. The Fairphone is available in Europe but unfortunately not yet in the US.
However, there are still actions we can take. Section 1502 of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act requires corporations to report on whether they use conflict minerals from eastern Congo. After a contentious implementation process, Section 1502 appears to be having a significant impact by making it less profitable to buy or sell tantalum, tin, or tungsten. Unfortunately, trade in conflict gold has not abated. But according to a recent report by the Enough Project, the number of “3-T” mining projects exploited by armed groups has decreased. In addition, a number of corporations are now sourcing minerals from conflict-free mines in Congo. All of Intel’s microprocessors are now conflict-free. And Apple is using only conflict-free tantalum.
The behavior of other companies is less encouraging. I have a Samsung phone, and according to Samsung’s Investor Relations Department, “Samsung Electronics encourages its suppliers that work with non-certified smelters to shift their sourcing to certified smelters.” “Encourages?” That’s a pretty toothless approach. These corporations should hear from us. You can send a message to your cellphone maker through the Hope for Africa website.
Section 1502, by the way, is being challenged in the courts by the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. I haven’t been able to find a recent update on the status of the case.
It’s also worth noting that resource extraction companies tend to exploit workers and destroy the environment even when not involved in armed conflict. So the struggle will continue even if the conflict minerals phenomenon disappears.
Pay attention to US policy
Overtly, the US does not appear to be a primary culprit in Congo. It’s less clear what is going on behind the scenes. Some believe that the Western corporations and governments, including the US, use competing armies as proxy forces to take control of the Congo’s rich resources. For a fictionalized account of international jockeying for power in eastern Congo, see John LeCarre’s The Mission Song. (No, not The Constant Gardener. That one’s set in Kenya.)
Whatever the case, US policy does matter.
Congolese human rights activists urge full implementation of PL 109-456, sponsored by then-Senator Barack Obama and passed in 2006. The intent of the law is to stop Rwandan and Ugandan military action in Congo, including their support for proxy armies. Section 105 of the law authorizes the Secretary of State to withdraw most kinds of foreign assistance from nations “taking actions to destabilize the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” Groups including Friends of the Congo pressured the Secretary of State to fully implement this requirement. In June 2012 the State Department did call on Rwanda to stop supporting armed groups in the Congo. You can keep up the pressure by signing Change.org’s petition or gathering signatures on Friends of the Congo’s postcard messages to Secretary Kerry.
It’s not just rebel and foreign armies that are responsible for rape, mutilation, forced recruitment of child soldiers, and deaths in eastern Congo. The DRC army itself has committed many atrocities. President Joseph Kabila has neither rid his army of abuses nor implemented a truly democratic government in Congo. Several speakers at New Hampshire’s Congo Week attested that many Congolese have been murdered for speaking out against government abuses. The US gives hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Congo annually. Most of it is for humanitarian purposes, but some funds are given to strengthen democratic forces, professionalize the armed forces, and reduce trade in conflict minerals. Whether these funds improve the situation or merely prop up anti-democratic forces is a topic of controversy. The US has pressured President Kabila to respect the nation’s constitution by stepping down in 2016 and allowing democratic election of a successor. It is unclear whether he will do so.
Support groups working for peace and nonviolence Congo
Here are a few organizations to consider. Several have New Hampshire ties.
This is a key group organizing for democracy and an end to violence in Congo. In addition to sponsoring Congo Week every year, Friends of the Congo runs the Kimpa Vita Institute, an annual leadership training week for young Congolese expatriates. For the past two years, they have held the event at World Fellowship Center in Conway, NH.
This organization helps victims of violence recover and begin new lives. Claude Lompufu is a student at NH Technical Institute and helped organize New Hampshire’s first Congo Week this year.
These Quaker teams have been active in Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Kenya. It’s not clear whether they are active in Congo currently, but they do valuable work in the region.
At its hospital in Goma, eastern Congo, HEAL Africa offers medical care and holistic recovery services to rape victims, many of whom have been abandoned by their families. HEAL Africa, which is a Christian group, also works for community development and empowerment of women.
This Washington, DC-based group focuses on advocacy and activism to combat crimes against humanity in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, and the Central African Republic. It has been very active in the campaign against conflict minerals from Congo.
Your comments and corrections are welcome.
But let’s give Congo Week organizers the last word. Here are excerpts from a poem composed by Jean-Claude Assantha for the observance of Congo Week at the NH Technical Institute in Concord.
Oh! Congo, Country at the heart of Africa,
Till when will your people be without Peace?
Till when will the suffering end?
Oh! Congo, pity, pity, pity! Give us the peace.
Break the silence.