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WITNESS

Posted: 10/01/08 03:09 PM ET

I just got off the plane from a whirlwind trip to Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). My colleague Bukeni Waruzi and I, along with a Congolese activist, the Senegalese musician Youssou N'Dour, and a young woman living with HIV from the eastern DRC, hit the streets of Kinshasa with the goal of raising awareness about the impact that HIV/ AIDS is having on the country, particularly the war-ravaged east.

Bukeni and I work for a human rights organization called WITNESS that empowers people to use video to document human rights violations in their communities and affect positive change. WITNESS has been working with a local organization in the eastern DRC, called AJEDI-Ka. Together we produced a video titled Awaiting Tomorrow, which tells the story of 3 people infected with HIV in the region. The video advocates for government support for increased medical care for people living with HIV/AIDS in the country and ultimately, to help prevent the spread of the disease.

When we hear about the DRC -- if we hear about it -- it is invariably about the decade-long war there that has killed nearly 5 million people -- mostly women and children in what many refer to as Africa's World War.

But it's not just guns killing people in the DRC. Over 1.3 million people -- that's almost the entire population of Manhattan* -- are living with HIV/AIDS. Even more astonishing is the reality that 95% of the people with HIV/AIDS in the DRC do not have access to life-saving medication.

One of our fellow travelers to Kinshasa was Mauwa Magozi and her 4-year-old son. Mauwa is featured in Awaiting Tomorrow, and is a young HIV positive woman struggling with the lack of access to medical care, anti-retroviral medication (ARVs) as well as the stigmatization and discrimination that come along the disease. Some believe that HIV/AIDS statistics are much higher and possibly at pandemic levels in eastern DRC, due to the ongoing conflict between the army and the rebels resulting in rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls. (Eve Ensler has done an incredible job of bringing attention to violence perpetrated against women and girls in the Congo at V-Day.

Youssou N'Dour joined Mauwa and her son, Neuilly Apendeki from AJEDI-Ka, Bukeni and me on a tour of Kinshasa's General Hospital. The lead doctor there explained the difficulties in getting ARVs and other critical treatment and also told us that approximately one out of four patients in this hospital is HIV positive.

As difficult as things were in Kinshasa's main hospital, Mauwa and Neuilly reminded us that in the war-torn East, the few health clinics that do operate, lack even basic medical resources and are inaccessible to most of the population.

Dismaying statistics and disheartening stories. But Youssou, Mauwa, Neuilly, Bukeni -- who is originally from the eastern DRC -- and me, were there to advocate concrete actions that the government could and should take such as: free and accessible HIV/AIDS testing throughout the whole country, free ARVs, medical care - including home based care, nutritional and psychological support, and other basic needs to ensure that prevalence rates are reduced.

We were able to accomplish a lot in the week we were in Kinshasa:

• With Youssou's help, we all met with DRC's Minister of Health and delivered a letter from Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu to President Joseph Kabila. The letter outlines steps to address the HIV/AIDS crisis in the country and urges the government to learn from the mistakes that South Africa has made with regard to fighting this disease. Read the full letter here [PDF].

• With AJEDI-Ka's leadership, we convened 18 organizations that will continue to keep pressure on the government -- ensuring they follow through with their promises.

• We secured a commitment from the DRC Minister of Justice and Human Rights to use Awaiting Tomorrow, to advocate for greater support addressing HIV/AIDS issues in the country, as well as to sensitize people to the issue.

In his letter [PDF], Archbishop Tutu highlighted the urgency of this health crisis. Which is where you and I come in. Please join me in supporting the DRC's government to take all necessary measures to guarantee the rights of persons living with HIV/AIDS. These campaign objectives are outlined above and are further promised to the world's citizens through the Millennium Development Goals.

Today, as the 63rd UN General Assembly closes, we have an unprecendented opportunity to raise our voices in support of those courageous individuals struggling with an uncertain future in the DRC. In fact, President Kabila was not able to attend the General Assembly this year due to a recent escalation of attacks in eastern DRC. Please watch Awaiting Tomorrow and sign this petition urging President Kabila to make combating HIV/AIDS in his country a priority.


* Current population of Manhattan is over 1.6 million people according to the 2007 US Census http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manhattan

Read more about our trip here.

About WITNESS: WITNESS uses video and online technologies to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations. We empower people to transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice, promoting public engagement and policy change.