I have been to the Kivu provinces in eastern Congo many times over the past five years. From outward appearances, it seems that life here has not changed much since my first visit. A never-ending parade of rebel groups continues to kill, rape and enslave civilians as they vie for control of Congo’s vast mineral wealth. The government at best is wholly ineffective in protecting the civilian population, and at worst is complicit, corrupt and kleptocratic. Whether the biggest threat is the M23 Rebel group, the CNDP, the FDLR, the LRA, the Mai Mai militia, the ADF or one of the other groups involved in Congo conflicts is less important than the fact that there is no peace for the millions of people living in the Kivus. The violence caused by these armed groups is unspeakably brutal and has ripped apart the lives of the Congolese, many of whom have been left broken, isolated, bereft and yearning to have their country restored to wholeness.
On each of our trips to Congo we meet with partners of our group, Jewish World Watch, with whom we implement an array of projects to serve the populations most impacted by the years of unrelenting violence. The most adversely impacted members of Congolese society are the women. Hundreds of thousands of rapes of been perpetrated by the various armed groups. The women and girls, who are often repeatedly raped by “conventional” means as well as by bayonets and other foreign objects, are then rejected by their husbands and families and forced to leave their villages. Homeless, impoverished, often terribly disabled as a result of the rapes, the women wander the countryside or the villages in search of a shelter or a program through which they can repair their broken bodies and begin to make a plan for their future. That plan often involves the conflicting complexity of caring for a baby conceived by rape.
Another population which continues to be severely impacted by the violence in Congo are children. Tens of thousands have been stolen by the various armed groups and forced to become killers. We recently met a little boy who was barely a teen, liberated last month after having been kidnapped when he was 6. He told us he was given an assault rifle and a uniform the day he was abducted, and by the next day and for the next 7 years, he was killing for his abductors. On this trip, as on others, we met young girls who are 13 or 14 years old who were stolen into service by a militia to serve as sex slaves. A young teen we recently met was liberated within the last 90 days and is pregnant with the baby of rape.
Living in the same compound as the liberated female child “soldiers” were 100 babies who were either abandoned or orphaned just within the last several months by the conflicts.
It is undeniable: Things are still terrible in Congo. But while outwardly life appears to be unchanged, there are many signs which indicate that there is some hope for a systemic change which could alter the course of violence and destruction which has defined Congo for the last many, many years. There is a burgeoning of innovative projects which address core issues, such as the huge power gap between men and women in Congolese society. Other new ideas work on the development of strategies to peacefully resolve conflicts. The most innovative projects are working with young children to build a society in which people aspire towards innovation, collaboration and gender equity. Empowerment of women is key to building the new Congo, and there are many projects which seek to advance the educational opportunities of girls, who so often are either burdened with extraordinary chores or married off, like chattel, in exchange for goats.
In addition to programs which will help to develop new cultural norms in Congo, it is essential that the out-of-control stealing of Congo’s mineral wealth be addressed. Of course Rwanda and Uganda are guilty actors, as militias acting in their behalf have wreaked havoc in the Kivus, causing much of the violence and mineral theft. But the problem transcends the immediate region of Congo and spans all oceans. It is widely believed that Congolese leaders, for their own personal gain, have entered into huge mineral deals with China from which the people of Congo are receiving no benefit. Further, the consumer demands of Americans cannot be ignored in this equation. Every one of our digital devices is made with minerals which were illicitly mined in Congo. JWW, together with other American activist organizations, have successfully urged Congress and the Obama Administration to require mineral audits by electronics manufacturers so that, ultimately, consumers would know if a product was made with conflict minerals. However, the SEC has stalled in developing appropriate regulations, and powerful business lobbies have sued to block implementation or enforcement.
The bottom line is that we all bear responsibility to help resolve Congo’s problems. Some people (hopefully, a growing number!) feel a sense of inherent responsibility for women who are brutally abused, for children who are stolen in their youth and forced to kill for militias, for babies orphaned by war. After all, isn’t that sense of morality what was meant when, after the Holocaust, we coined the phrase, “Never Again”? Doesn’t that mean that never again will the world be silent in the face of mass atrocity and genocide?
For those who do not feel morally responsible, perhaps knowing that your cell phone, camera and laptop contain Congolese conflict minerals will inspire you to become more informed about and engaged in this struggle. The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In a free society, few are guilty, but all are responsible.” Go to our website and take responsibility by taking action. Anyone and everyone can make a difference.
This is the first of a series on the Congo.
Janice Kamenir-Reznik is coFounder and president of Jewish World Watch (JWW), which fights against genocide and mass atrocities worldwide. JWW’s work is currently focused on the ongoing crises in Sudan and Congo. Janice is currently traveling along with fellow JWW Board Members Diana Buckhantz and Diane Kabat to Congo’s eastern provinces to meet with JWW’s on-the-ground project partners, to participate in the dedication of JWW’s Chambucha Rape and Crisis Center, and to work with survivors of Congo’s decades-long conflict to build innovative new partnerships and projects.
Photograph (courtesy of Janice Kamenir-Reznik) of some of the 200 women in a rural south Kivu province village who are part of an economic development/women’s empowerment project funded by JWW and Women for Women International. They learn basic numeracy, literacy and business skills in addition to animal husbandry.