The Congo Is In The News Again, But What I Really Want Is A Vacation

This column originally appeared on Palo Alto Patch.

Like most around town, we’re headed off on vacation soon. I have a long to-do list including:

  • Stop delivery of the mail and newspaper
  • Take the dog to the vet
  • Get my hair cut
  • Hire someone to feed the cat
  • Buy sun block
  • Worry about the Congo

Child Soldiers of the Congo
from http://www.studentsforthecongo.com

Yep, you read that right, the Congo. You remember, that’s the place where five million men, women, and children have died over the past fifteen years as a result of the country’s ongoing civil conflict. The place once called the “rape capital of the world.” The place where, in 2009, a United Nations brokered peace treaty was supposed to have ended the infighting. The very same place where said peace treaty gave accused war criminal, Bosco Ntaganda, his very own seat at the negotiations.

Now, General Bosco Ntaganda has decided to mutiny and is busy kidnapping young boys to build his army. Soon we’ll be hearing again about the vicious rapes of young women and girls, the beheadings, the senseless murders, the list goes on. 

As I spend my day shopping for a bathing suit, I’m trying to figure out how to make sense of this ongoing tragedy.  Where does the chaos and violence and assaults and fundamental violation of everything we know to be right about the human condition fit into my suburban life?

And therein lies the problem. It is hard for the vast majority of us Americans to conceive of the horror of what it means to be living right now in the Democratic Republic of Congo or the rest of central Africa, for that matter.

I can’t imagine it and wouldn’t presume to, but I need someway to wrap my arms around what is happening to my fellow humans. And so I try…

I close my eyes and imagine my eighteen and thirteen year old sons watching a movie. Suddenly, a group of soldiers armed with machine guns and machetes charge into the theatre. The line up the boys, fifty in all, and march them into the hills. The boys are tired, hungry, scared. Soon, they are forced to learn how to use weapons, to raid the near-by towns for food, money, and other “recruits”. Soon, they are killers just like their captors.

Meanwhile at home, there is banging on the front door. A group of soldiers, boys not much older than mine, force themselves into the house. They find my sixteen year old daughter and take turns raping her using their guns, their knives, their fists. I can’t stop them. And I wonder, can anyone?

It’s a horror scene worse than anything Hollywood could make up. And yet, these scenarios are based on real events reported in just the last few months by Human Rights Watch and other organizations. Since late April, more than 200,000 Congolese have fled their homes to escape the fighting and violence.

It is so hard to conceive of, and at some point, it’s almost easier to ignore. Pretend it’s not my problem. Focus on the things I can control, like how much SPF is enough to protect my children from future sun damage.

I imagine there were those during World War II who responded similarly to the Holocaust. Think about it. Living day to day in the United States in the late 1930s and early 1940s, how could it have been possible to imagine that half way around the world some crazed maniac was actually rounding up a group of people for mass murder?

Not so hard for my mother who spent her early years hiding in a basement near a Fjord in Norway as the Germans and Allies bombed her hometown, whose relatives were rounded up and sent to prison camps for aiding Jews, whose family was forced to rebuild everything when it was all, finally, over.

How could my father, who was busy roping calfs and playing Cowboys and Indians in Albuquerque, New Mexico imagine what his future wife was living through?  He couldn’t, partly because he was too young and partly because he was simply busy living the life he was born into.

But these days, we know better. We know what happens in all parts of the globe matters to everyone of us. We have no real excuse for sitting back and cloaking ourselves in denial.

Earlier this year, the NGO Invisible Children brought the chaos that is life in Northern Congo to our attention with their documentary, Kony 2012. My children and I watched transfixed as we learned the story of Jacob Acaya, the young boy forced to see and perform horrific acts against humanity. It motivated us to learn more, share what we knew, lobby our government officials, and help raise money.

We need the same campaign (minus the irresponsible antics and questionable motivations of IC’s founders) to help us see that Ntaganda is every bit the monster Kony is. According to a recently report by the Human Rights Watch, Ntaganda has kidnapped nearly 150 boys in the past two months alone, boys whose mothers are crying for them, searching for them, asking the world for help to find them.  (!).

And who knows how many acts of sexual violence can be attributed to his latest mutiny. Those reports have yet to be put on record.

The tragedy is that until just a few months ago, Ntaganda could have been brought to justice. In 2006, the International Criminal Court put out a warrant the arrest for Ntaganda accusing him of war crimes. However, according to Anneke Van Woudenberg, Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, he has spent the last few years living quite comfortably in Eastern Congo, playing tennis with dignitaries and dining at top restaurants “all within full view of Congelese government officials, UN peace keepers, and foreign diplomats”.

The Democratic Republic of Congo represents the United Nations’ largest and most expensive “peace-keeping” mission with over $8 billion dollars spent since 1999. There are nearly 22,000 uniformed personnel on the ground, but surprisingly few deaths to date. Only 161 “peace keepers” have died there. I guess that’s the good news.

Now, suddenly, the United Nations is eager to arrest him. Too little, too late. It’s enough to make you cynical. Enough to make you think that if the powers that be can’t do anything, what then can you?

I don’t have the answer, but at the very least, I can try to be informed. As I learned from my parents, it is best to not let the details of our lives distract us from our responsibility to humanity. In this day and age, it will be particularly hard to defend our denial and ignorance and lack of action to our children.

So I sat down with Human Rights Watch Africa expert, Anneke Van Woudenberg to ask her to help me understand the issues in the Congo and what we can do about it. You can listen to our interview here.

Also, for an accessible and comprehensive overview of the conflict, read this Wall Street Journal article by Christopher Rhoads.

As for next week, my vacation may not be the much needed break I had hoped, but perhaps that is as it should be.

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