12/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What the World Must Know About the Congo

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.