As I watched President-elect Barack Obama deliver his victory speech and lay out his philosophy of leadership, I immediately thought of what is possible around the world. It is my hope that the "Yes We Can" motto that inspired millions of Americans will spread to the Congo and its neighboring countries to stop the atrocities fueled by inhumane leadership and sales of arms by Western nations.
Fresh from a two-week visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, I watch on television the escalation of war, one that has already claimed five million lives since 1998. There is deep despair, especially among women and girls, who have already suffered unspeakable violence.
I am Congolese and have lived in the United States for most of my life. As the head of the Africa program at the Global Fund for Women, I help support women's groups in Africa working on development and advancing human rights. But Congo's human rights have been violated for too long and the weak international response makes us wonder whether our lives matter.
Congo's violence will end when the countries rushing to send humanitarian aid after millions of innocent lives have been massacred stop sending and selling weapons to rebel movements in the Congo. Congo's violence will end when African leaders, elected or imposed, stop using these weapons on innocent civilians. Congo's violence will end when the international community refuses to roll out the red carpet to a rebel movement that claims to protect a Tutsi minority in Congo. This rebel army, rather than engaging directly with the Interhamwe that escaped into Congo after committing the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, takes the easier route of terrorizing Congolese civilians that have nothing to do with the Interhamwe. The international community, guilty for just standing by during the Rwandan genocide, continues to be hoodwinked by Rwanda as it arms this rebel movement in neighboring Congo and fuels another genocide.
It is not coincidental that rebel forces armed with sophisticated weapons are in regions where minerals are most abundant. The country has been plundered for more than 100 years by explorers, colonial governments, multinational corporations from every continent, African opportunists, and a small circle of Congolese. Sadly, profits from armed conflict and the exploitation of natural resources in the Congo are more alluring than any human rights agenda. Meanwhile the majority of 66 million Congolese don't have access to food, sanitation, education, transportation, sustainable livelihoods, or justice. Another major problem Congolese face is the U.N.'s slow response to protect them from armed groups. Thousands of Congolese have organized many demonstrations throughout the Congo against the UN Mission for their apparent inaction. When will we see bold action to protect Congolese people, especially women?
I have visited diamond mines and witnessed the slave-like working conditions and the context under which sexual abuse takes place. On the drive, we passed lines of people making the long trek to try their luck to dig for diamonds by hand. We passed rows of densely-packed, dilapidated wooden structures that double as diamond selling counters, homes, and fast-food eateries. We finally arrived at the deep excavations where hundreds of people dig by hand through the silt water working to find a speckle of hope. Women do most of the digging then the sifting is left to the men to find the nuggets to sell. The girls selling food there make about 20 cents a day, and sexual exploitation and trafficking of minors is rampant. There are terms to refer to girls aged 6-8 or 9-15. You can make an order just as easily as you can at McDonald's.
When I think of the women and girls who told us their horrifying experiences of sexual torture, I keep thinking of the modern weapons that make this torture possible, and the origins of these weapons. They are not made in Congo.
I am often asked what can be done to help the Congo. I let them know about the efforts undertaken by women's rights NGOs that are trying to rebuild their country. But these efforts will remain an uphill task as long as Western governments send arms deliveries to the rebel movements and the governments that support them. These efforts will remain in vain as long as the media courts armed rebel leaders that terrorize the people. No change will be made when there is no political will to respect past peace talks and accords. The Congolese people are waiting for a time when we will see action instead of empty proclamations. We know that 5 million deaths constitute a genocide; we are waiting for the rest of the world to agree and act with us.