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Centenary meeting: ‘Help Congo victims’

by Bill Bowder

EXACTLY a century after Archbishop Randall Davidson appeared in a packed Albert Hall in London to demand an end to mass killings and slavery in the Congo, the Archbishop of Canterbury told protesters last week that little had changed for the better in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

“We must acknowledge our part in this collective failure. The time has come to act to end this nightmare of violence and cruelty, including the most appalling sexual violence against women and children,” Dr Williams said, in a message to a meeting held in the Albert Hall’s basement.

The event marked the centenary of the Great Congo Debate of 19 November 1909, when Archbishop Davidson had condemned the “great wrong” perpetrated against the people of the Congo: “If that wrong be allowed to continue, by whomsoever carried out, we shall be answerable to God and man for its continuance.”

In his statement, Dr Williams said that it was with “a burden of shame” that they now read those words. “It is impossible to look at the situation in the DRC without the most profound distress.”

A Human Rights Watch report given to those present said that the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which had co-ordinated work on sexual violence in Congo, had reported that 15,996 new cases of sexual violence were registered in 2008, of which 65 per cent were against children: the majority adolescent girls, and “an estimated ten per cent of victims were less than ten years old”.

The report said that the war that ended in 2003 had left an estimated 5.4 million people dead, but warfare continued in the eastern Congo and the war against women, a “fem­icide” that was fought out “on their bodies”, had never ended, despite recent rape laws.

Lynne Franks, who chairs the action group that called the meeting, V-Day UK, said that 100 years on “we hear of the worst examples of rape and violence against women and girls that the world has ever known.” Gov­ern­ments, the business community, religious leaders, and NGOs must work together to end the violence, which was also perpetrated against men.

Eve Ensler, who is V-Day’s founder, and the author of The Vagina Monologues, described her reaction when first she heard about “the rape mines of the world” in the DRC. “I will never be the same again. I don’t want to be the same again.”

She said that the hospitals were always full of women who had been raped, many raped with guns, many gang-raped. Their insides had been left torn open, bleeding, and so damaged that they were no longer continent. One young girl, whom no one would hug after she had been raped because they feared she would pee on them, had sat on her lap. “She immediately peed on me. It was an act of grace, a baptism. I felt I would do, from that moment, everything I could to help them. I don’t understand why it has taken the UN 12 years to stop this conflict.”

Women could take back their country, Ms Ensler said. “It is up to all of us to stop being polite. The way things change is through outrage. Other­wise we will not penetrate this apathy, fear, and denial.”

The broadcaster Sandy Toksvig, who chaired the meeting, said that the DCR had a popula­tion roughly the size of Britain’s. “How many know that a world war has occurred in Africa? And we have not paid attention. There are seven foreign armies and 5.2 million killed. I knew these things and I was not motivated to do anything until I heard Eve speak.

“Now we need to do something about it. A hundred years ago people came to this hall to do something about it. Let us draw a line in the sand,” Ms Toksvig said.

Christine Deschryver, the director of the City of Joy, who had been “on the front line” in the fight to protect women for 12 years, said that Human Rights Watch, whose members travelled around the Congo, told the truth. If the UN monitoring force continued to allow what was happening, it “will be responsible for crimes committed in DRC”.

Ms Deschryver said that she no longer believed in politicians. “A woman’s revolution is the only solution — not with guns: don’t be afraid. The revolution will have to start here. . . Our revolution centre would be ‘the City of Joy’ in Bukavu, which would be ready around May next year. Modelled on a traditional village, it would liberate, counsel, educate, and train future women leaders . . . to turn their pain into power. . . The revolution must start in your minds,” she said.

The Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Michael Scott-Joynt, said that the protest 100 years ago had been supported by, among many others, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Roger Casement, but had been discouraged by the Government in case it gave ammunition to the Kaiser against Belgium before the First World War. Now the media had lost interest because the horror had gone on for so long.

The Bishop, who visited the DRC in the summer, spoke of a Mothers’ Union meeting where a quarter of the 200 women present met because they had been raped, “and that was not a front line area.” War and refugees were in so many places. There was corruption, the pillaging of raw materials, and slave labour run by the military.

He said that the UK was a significant donor of aid, and that its support for the continuing war in the DRC was regarded as doing more harm than good.

V-Day can be con­tacted on 020 7431 7227.

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