Who is Congo?

By — May 1, 2012

We know that victims of wartime rape are not just victims, or even survivors. They are mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, teachers, advocates, cooks, helpers, and dreamers. Their lives are not just about the crime that was committed against them. They live like you and me—earning money, supporting their family, and dealing with daily crises, large and small.

But the stories that surround these people in all their guises are the ones that aren’t mentioned most of the time when war in Congo is covered: the mundane, everyday-living stories. The stories of Congolese people doing important things. The stories that a video storytelling series called “I Am Congo,” launched today by Raise Hope for Congo, an initiative of the Enough Project, is trying to tell.

“I Am Congo” offers a chance to view a fuller story of the country and its people than what we usually see. The series’ five short films are personal accounts of Congolose men and women that give an inside look at the people and culture—as well as the conflict. The project points to juxtapositions: “natural beauty collides with decay; humanity struggles against a constant drumbeat of war; brave community leaders overcome personal tragedies to fight the status quo of corruption and conflict.”

One powerful video spotlights a lawyer named Denise Sitwala, whose mission is to provide justice for the everyday survivors of rape, the country’s desperate scourge.

“What motivates me?” asks Siwatula in the film. “Well, I think it’s the worries and care that I have towards all of these people that have been hurt.” So far, she has handled 27 rape cases in coordination with an advocacy group called Synergie, mostly at the local or provincial level, and has won seven convictions in the past year. A few others organizations, such as the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative and the UN Peacekeeping Mission MONUSCO, are also trying to prosecute perpetrators of rape.

As one of a few female law graduates out of a class of 100, Siwatula has become a rare gift to women rape survivors in the Congo, as many lawyers do not focus on these cases, of which there are so, so many.

Sexualized violence has been used as a weapon of war in the Congo since the outbreak of conflict in 1998. The reasons behind this form of violence are plentiful. Women Under Siege has found that in Congo specifically, soldiers rape women to humiliate and intimidate communities, terminate pregnancies, control natural resources, increase food insecurity, keep civilians quiet, avoid violence from superiors, express frustration and anger, and retaliate. As a country rife with conflict over mineral wealth, women in communities in close proximity to mines and other resources are often targeted for rape as a way to make that community submit in order to gain control over the resources. Additionally, many Mai Mai militia members believe raping women will provide them with “magic power” and will fortify them for battle. Some also believe Satan provokes them to rape.

In addition to Siwatula’s profile, the project includes films on Fidel Bafilemba, an activist who works with the Enough Project as a field researcher; Dominque Bikaba, a conservationist and executive director of Strong Roots, an organization that focuses on conservation and sustainable development among indigenous communities in eastern Congo; Amani Matabaro, a community builder and founder of Action Kivu, who also works with the Enough Project; and Petna Ndaliko, an artist and co-founder of arts education and youth-mentoring group Yole Africa.

At times, the situation for survivors and those affected by rape in Congo may seem hopeless. “A lot of times, perpetrators are put in jail and either the facilities are falling apart and they can just leave, or there’s so much corruption in the system that they can just bribe their way out,” says Chloe Christman, the Raise Hope for Congo campaign’s assistant manager.

Corruption and a lack of justice leads to impunity, making those who continue to fight to fix the country all the more admirable in their perseverance. “Some policemen, some prosecutors, minimize sexual violence,” Siwatula says in the film. “They say, ‘Oh, you with your sexual violence cases....’ Sometimes they frown on us as if we have become a burden.”

The stories go from mocking to horrific. Specifically in the DRC, victims who publicly come forward are often re-raped in revenge. Researchers at the Enough Project report that women and girls who report rape “have even had their mouths cut off so that they won’t tell again.”

But the campaign organizers and Sitwatula somehow maintain hope. By displaying daily Congolese life, the campaign aspires to be a new entry-point into helping the world better understand the magnitude of the issues that surround sexualized violence in conflict.

As Siwatula says in her profile, “Even if we do face some difficulties, we hold onto the hope that someday, things will work out.”

For ways to lend your voice for peace in the DRC, visit www.raisehopeforcongo.org/actionOr you can join the campaign in advocating for companies to invest in legitimate mining in eastern Congo—where rape is rampant—by sending a message to targeted tech companies.