I just returned from Cambodia, a place that has been close to my heart for 30 years now, all the more because my wife and I had the privilege of hosting Cambodian refugees in our home as they fled from the horrible genocide of the late 70s. I had the chance to visit the strangely horrific torture center known as Tol Sleng, outside of which was an unforgettable sign, a monument to resilient entrepreneurialism, whatever else we might say about it:"AFTER VISITING TUOL SLENG MUSEUM, DO NOT MISS YOUR CHANCE TO BUY HANDMADE SILK PRODUCTS MADE BY POLIO AND LANDMINE ARTISANS."
In the coming days, I plan to watch The Killing Fields again, now that I've seen in person some of the scenes from the movie. All this brings to mind the killing (and raping) fields of today in Eastern Congo.
Too few Americans are aware of the sickening and continuing epidemic of violence and rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Too few are keeping track of the Congo's mounting death toll over the past 14 years: more than 5 million dead from killing, displacement and associated chaos. Lynne Hybels' recent Sojourners article detailed some ways local churches and groups like World Relief are aiding the victims, but by and large Congo's plight remains as marginal to social, ethical and political agendas today as Cambodia and Rwanda were in the past. So what can those of us do who know and love Congolese people? We have to speak up and interrupt the regularly scheduled broadcasts of fake news with a public interest message from reality.
Congo is rich in minerals but, as Lynne Hybels says, has "suffered from an ongoing civil war that is fueled by greed and corruption and inflamed by outside forces that exploit the DRC's natural resources a the expense of the people." The natural resources include timber, gold, diamonds, copper and the raw materials that go into an assortment of electronic devices sold throughout the world. Militias, with outside backing, fight for control of the mineral rich areas and, in doing so, terrorize local populations particularly using rape as a weapon and making the country "the worst place on Earth to be a woman."
The Congolese army, which has strangely incorporated former militiamen in their troops, offers little protection, or worse undisciplined troops also attack civilians. UN peacekeeping troops in the Eastern Congo, some 18,000 strong, have not been able to stop the rapes.
The "outside forces" who have a vested interest in Congo's conflict minerals seem to have concluded that rape and civilian deaths go a long with the territory. Little pressure comes from American consumers, including religious folk, who don't know or care where the raw materials for their jewelry and electronic gadgets come from, so why should manufacturers care? So despite the needed efforts of groups like the Enough Project to make conflict minerals' supply chain more transparent, the sad story of Congo continues to unravel.
Reports indicate that illicit profits being made in the Congo don't just come from the sale of minerals. There is also money to be made by selling weapons to the militias. Another business line is air freighting conflict minerals out of the country to middlemen who sell them up the supply chain. Private military companies surely prosper by protecting the lucrative mining interests in the Congo.
Also under-reported in the media is the meddling role of other countries in the Congo, particularly Rwanda and Uganda -- countries whose leaders have strong ties to the U.S. military. A recent UN study, more than 550 pages long, underscores Rwanda's destructive actions in the Congo through their support of militia groups active in the mineral trade. It accuses Rwandan forces of committing atrocities against Hutu refugees in Congo in the 1990s -- in some cases mass killings that could constitute genocide if ever brought to an international court. The Kagame regime in Rwanda is fiercely denying the accusations.
Sadly, except for a few outspoken individuals like Lynne Hybels and Tom Austin, Christians in the U.S. haven't said much about the Congo, even though most of those suffering and dying there are fellow Christians. Rick Warren, who has done so much to help survivors recover from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and has adopted it as a "purpose-driven" nation, continues to show public support for Rwanda's president. If Rick and others like him were to invest more of their social and spiritual capital on behalf of the Congo, they could perhaps help turn the tide. And each of us can play a part.
It's a complex web. Women and girls are raped by rogue militias. These militias are financed in large part by the illicit minerals trade. Regional leaders supported by the US are implicated both in the illicit minerals trade and in the funding and arming of rogue militias. And the whole corrupt system prospers each time one of us buys a laptop or mobile phone or video game system containing conflict minerals.
Since we're all implicated, and since we're all connected, and since the West was silent when Cambodia and Rwanda descended into hell, doesn't it make sense for more and more of us to be sure that we're watching what's happening in the Congo? Shouldn't we raise our voices for needed change in Congo-related foreign and economic policy? And shouldn't we all support greater transparency in the minerals trade, opposing "dirty computers" and "conflict mobile phones" just as we have opposed "blood diamonds" since the 1990s?