Congo Connect‘s I dream of Congo exhibition is shown in London till the end of February. A panel discussion on Valentine’s day held amidst the images centered around the ongoing violence with a focus on the mass rape of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The discussion aimed to show hope by bringing the voices of Congolese women to the London audience. Further to that the event raised the questions for me whether these issues can be presented in a balanced manner or whether NGOs and activists need to simplify in order to get their message across.
Judith Wanga, Tatiana Giraud, Noella Coursaris Musunka, Shana Mongwanga and Nicola York brought insight into the situation in DRC currently and a call to action to play your part in making sure the stories of women do not go unheard. The five women on stage shared their personal stories and involvement in the quest to stop the rape of millions of women and children in the Eastern parts of the DRC. The message of all panelists was: Speak out about what you have heard tonight because together we can make a difference.
Judith Wanga spoke about her recent trip to the Congo, where she was asked by the BBC to make a documentary. She can tell her story better than I ever could, therefore please read further in her own words here in the Guardian. Judith is a very inspirational speaker advocating that no story is too dark to tell. Rape is terrible and we must talk about it, with our friends, with our families. She especially highlighted the responsibility of the press in putting pressure on politicians and the governments of the world to step in and change a situation that has been going on for too long.
Shana Mongwanga is a Congolese actress and activist, who recently produced the documentary Congo – a common cause from London to Bukavu. The no-budget short film was created by Congolese women and shows their fight to end the war in Eastern DRC. Shana was approached by the women who felt misrepresented in the Western media. Reporters come and go for the past 20 years and their situation does not change, they give interviews, their pictures are taken and they are still raped. Their conclusion is that those foreign reporters are not portraying them right and thus they asked Shana to help them do it themselves. The film has been selected for the short film corner of the Cannes Film Festival.
Judith and Shana spoke from their heart and told the audience about their own experiences. Both did not politicise, blame or generalise.
Sadly, another speaker of the night did all three of those things. Tatiana Giraud, founder of the TG Foundation brought with her the “voices of three Congolese women collected in the field”. She then used the women’s voices for her own purpose. Two of the three women (the audience sadly never found out what the third one had to say) asked the international community to put pressure on the Rwandan government to stop funding the M23 rebels. Tatiana used this to start a 15 minute rant against Kagame and the UK government for still supporting Rwanda with aid. Whereas I certainly do not want to deny Kagame’s role in the surge of recent fightings, his long term manipulation and involvement confirmed by UN reports I do want to point out why I have severe problems with Giraud’s talk. Ms Giraud not only blamed Kagame for the entire civil war and moreover problematically connected the arrival of Hutu militias in 1998 with the start of the rapes she also missed out crucial parts of the story that would have painted a more balanced picture.
What she should have said as well is:
1. The main reason for the ongoing war is the Congolese Government’s failure to work. Full stop. The Gov of the DRC fails to control the roaming Hutu militias in the East, failed to pacify the area and still fails to establish a working governmental apparatus to implement some sort of control of their vast country. See an the opinion of the Enough-project.
2. Kagame is the president of Rwanda, thus his first concern is the security of Rwanda. In light of its history, Kagame is driven by the fear that radical anti-Rwandese militias are arming themselves in the lawless areas of the Eastern Congo right next to his border and destabilise his tiny country through raids and attacks. See here for a political analysis by the International Crisis Group
3. Calling on Cameron and co to punish Kagame for “protecting” his country (just to be clear again I don’t support his means!) when the US, the UN and the UK have a long long history in violating the sovereignty of other countries and supporting various rebel movements is just another example of Western hypocrisy. If I would be Kagame I would remind them all of Afghanistan, Libya, Nicaragua, Iran and countless other countries and tell them to clean their own backyards first before coming to patronise me.
4. The “international community” itself has contributed many times to the exacerbation of the situation and has not succeeded in helping the Congolese Government. The assassination of Lumumba wasn’t helping, Operation Turquoise in Rwanda wasn’t helping, the vast refugee cities in the Eastern DRC that sheltered many genocidaires was also rather counterproductive and the underfunded MONUSCO mission is pretty much failing as well.
Many NGOs believe in the need to simplify messages. It is not necessary to call the mass rape of the women a genocide as one of the panelists did. Rape is rape and rape as a weapon of war is bad enough. Genocide is a very specific legal term coined by Rafael Lemkin and modeled after the Holocaust. It simply does not apply in this situation for a multitude of reasons. Yet that still means that the atrocities committed in the Congo warrant that the UN steps up and finally fulfils its responsibility to protect mandate to end this conflict.
A joint effort between the international community and the Congolese people is necessary. The best suggestion in this direction came from Shana Mongwanga. She rightly questioned the last Congolese elections in 2011 and denounced the flawed top-down process with millions of dollars lost to corruption.She urged the EU and other donor countries to finally fulfil their promises to fund local elections. Combined with capacity building initiatives local elections offer an avenue for women to represent their needs and wishes on local government level. Empowered female education officers, development officers or female district commissioners could bring about tangible change on the local level achieved from the bottom up and pave the way for a true and representative democracy.
And this is what I took away from this evening. The women in the Congo are on the receiving end of unthinkable violence, political gridlock, a clueless international community and a government that doesn’t give a damn about them. Congo Connect’s exhibition, Women for Women international’s event and the tireless campaigns of the panelists and most of the members in the audience who truly and passionately care about these issues do at least their bit to make them visible. We probably can’t fund MONUSCO adequately, make the large corporations stop buy “blood minerals”, prevent governments to sell weapons and make the rebels and soldiers stop raping. But what we can do today is speak out and make sure that we all show solidarity and do not get tired and frustrated by slow progress and a contradictory reality.
The exhibition – a mix of images and texts – features work taken by professional and amateur photographers from the DRC and abroad continues to the end of February in London before moving to other cities. The photos are magnificent. The exhibition is enriched by various poems, which are well chosen, powerful and touching, for example JJ Bola’s Not just another war.
Oh and if this is not enough for anyone reading this blog. Women for Women International, Congo Connect, Denis Mukwege’s Panzi Hospital and other NGOs would be happy for more support. Please read more on their respective homepages or articles.
Photos (apart from the first one) are mine taken during the exhibition.