By Rebecca Feeley, Enough Congo Field Researcher
Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. The crisis here in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo has been in the news lately. Several television shows and magazines have reported on eastern Congo as the “rape capital of the world.” And, in some respects, this is likely true; sexual violence occurs in eastern Congo on a scale seen nowhere else in the world. However, there is a context to this tragedy. Sexual violence is a weapon of war, and if the international community is serious about ending the plight of Congolese women, then it must look beyond the weapon and focus on ending the war itself.
Over the past few years, the international community has tried to give a voice to the victims of unimaginable crimes in eastern Congo. Living here for nearly a year, I have met scores of journalists and film crews who want to focus solely on sexual violence and its devastating consequences. And Congolese women have been remarkably open in sharing their stories, having been promised that increased international awareness would lead to more robust international action. Yet while the Western media has unflinchingly portrayed sexual violence, media reports often tip-toe around the reason why these atrocities occur in eastern Congo: the war itself. Are journalists ill-equipped or intimidated by Congo’s complexities to handle such detail? I certainly hope not.
I recently met a young girl here named Marie. She was kidnapped from her village by armed men and taken as a sex slave. The story of her life in captivity is horrendous, and it is important for the world to know Marie’s suffering and the suffering of tens of thousands of other women just like her. Just as important, however, is the story of the men responsible. Marie was held captive by a Rwandan rebel group called Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda, or FDLR. The FDLR are a messy collective of Rwandan Hutu refugees, former Rwandan Armed Forces, and a Hutu extremist militia called the Interahamwe that fled neighboring Rwanda to eastern Congo in 1994 after slaughtering nearly 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
For the last 14 years, the FDLR has been a destabilizing and threatening presence in both South and North Kivu provinces in eastern Congo. State authority here is often non-existent. In South Kivu, where Marie was abducted, the FDLR controls nearly 55 percent of the province. The FDLR is only one of the many parasitic armed groups (including the Congolese army) that commit appalling atrocities against women, and this violence continues unchecked despite the world’s largest U.N. peacekeeping force. How is this possible? What can we do to rid eastern Congo of the FDLR and demobilize other armed factions so that the Congolese population might finally enjoy some peace and stability? In Enough’s latest report, “Eastern Congo: Beyond Crisis Management, Towards Conflict Resolution,” Colin Thomas-Jensen and I try to answer these questions and suggest steps to secure lasting solutions to the local, national, and international dimensions of this crisis.
Congolese women have been willing to share their most personal and painful memories with the world in the hopes that the world in turn would take the time to learn about the conflict here and work to end it. If we fail to translate the outrage we feel and force policymakers to take effective action, the awareness-raising on sexual violence in eastern Congo seems little more than voyeurism.