Repairing our broken world: Stories from the Congo

A mother of five was robbed and raped by a village pastor; when her husband heard of the rape he abandoned the family, as did the victim’s parents.  A nurse who works in a hospital specializing in the care of rape victims was abducted, assaulted and left for dead, probably as part of a  campaign to intimidate the hospital's medical director who has become a global advocate against the rape of Congo’s women and who himself was the target of a recent assassination attempt.  A 14 year old boy was heroically retrieved from the jungle, having been forced into militia service since his abduction some seven years ago; after spending every day for the past seven years killing with his AK47, he is hoping to reunite with his family, be accepted back into his village and just be allowed to “live in peace”.  Nine female babies were raped by bayonets — two died and the other six are fighting to survive.

These are just a few of the stories I heard and the people I met this week on my fourth visit in as many years for Jewish World Watch (JWW) to the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  I am currently at the airport in Goma waiting for the plane that will take me on the first leg of my 36-hour journey back home to Los Angeles.  My head is spinning with thoughts and feelings about what I witnessed this week.  The stories are almost unbearable to hear, and the extent of the depravity and barbarism shock me anew with every visit.

As I sit and listen to the horrible stories and wonder how human beings can commit such vile acts, I always find myself remembering Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis’ words—“Godliness is found in the response to evil.” If that is the case, as ironic as it might sound when referring to one of the most violent places on earth, Godliness abounds in Congo.  The most amazing work being done in Congo is being done by a panoply of non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), some of them founded and run by local Congolese, and others run by international non-profits.  JWW has found its partners here, mostly with local organizations, with the exception of our partnership with International Medical Corps with whom we just completed building the Chambucha Rape and Trauma Center. (more below).

[Related: Violence in Eastern Congo is our problem]

Since my first trip to Congo, I have seen important changes in the nature of the services provided by our partner NGOs.  Where once the programs were limited to relief and service, they now include components addressing the core societal issues — the cultural values and social mores — that lie behind the conflict plaguing Congo.  It is a tall order to produce change in a country that is essentially a failed state; Congo is teeming with corruption; it is continuously being invaded by foreign militias nad has a military that arms but does not train or pay its soldiers. It also has huge a huge problem of gender inequity, which leads to horrific violence against women.  But, those who are bravely taking the first steps towards addressing Congo’s complex problems must be supported, or the chances of their success will be severely thwarted. 

Women survivors of gbv at Chambucha

This past week our JWW team visited 11 different projects. One of them is a series of local gender-based-violence community leadership councils through which local leaders, with the counsel of skilled staff, are charged with addressing the violence against women, the attitudes towards rape victims and the overall issue of severe gender imbalance in their communities.

We met with all of the members of one of the local councils; many of the council members shared stories of very personal transformations, such as the admission by one of the men that he was shocked to learn during a council session that forcing his wife to have sex was a form of rape.  This notion had never occurred to him, and he vowed to stop that practice.   

At a transit house for liberated child soldiers and sex slaves, we met with a young woman, Maryam, 22, whom I had met on a prior visit, several years ago, not long after her liberation. When we first met, Maryam spoke almost inaudibly, never making eye contact; I remember her telling me of her dream to become a lawyer so she could help to develop a system of accountability in Congo by advocating for other girls who had been abused like her.  This past week I cried when Maryam told me that thanks to this amazing organization in Bukavu, which housed her (and her daughter of rape) and which paid for her education, she is now almost finished with law school and is looking forward to studying for their equivalent of our bar exam.  She plans to work for one of several NGOs that are trying to have rape victims testify in court despite the grave dangers associated with doing so.

One key purpose of my current JWW trip, which I took with fellow board members Diana Buckhantz and Diane Kabat, was to help dedicate our largest and newest project in Congo, the Chambucha Rape and Trauma Center.  The Chambucha Center is located in a very remote village, which required a treacherous four-hour drive each way from Bukavu that we had to complete in one day due to security concerns in the region.    JWW built the center, which serves a regional population of 29,000 women, in partnership with International Medical Corp, and the Center not only provides all forms of rape trauma care, including surgical repair of fistula, and contains a well-equipped maternity ward, it also houses a comprehensive gender-based violence clinic that offers women's economic and social empowerment programs.  The Center has instituted programs designed for the entire population of the region that are intended to shift cultural mores away from violence against women and towards gender equality.  The quality and scope of services provided at the Chambucha Medical Center makes it the finest of any rurally based medical facility in all of Congo.

The Chambucha Women's rape and trauma center

Congo is a country that must emerge after hundreds of years of exploitation by foreign as well as domestic powers. For years, King Leopold of Belgium held Congo as his own private property, depleting the country of its massive rubber resources and murdering millions. Since independence in 1960, Congo has endured a succession of either cruel or weak — but always corrupt and kleptocratic — heads of state.  The countries surrounding Congo, most notably Uganda and Rwanda, have invaded eastern Congo, raping, murdering and pillaging, as their proxy armies continue to steal Congo’s minerals. Minerals that, by all rights, should have made Congo one of the richest countries in the world.  Against this backdrop, are Congo's women and children, who have been targeted by all of the various militias, factions, power seekers, and authorities at all levels, for the greatest abuse and exploitation.  Human Rights Watch has repeatedly named Congo the most dangerous place on earth to be a woman.

[Related: New violence in the Congo: Having a conscience means working overtime]

The problems are extreme in Congo, and the solutions are complex and will take years to achieve.  The work Jewish World Watch and others are undertaking in Congo is a critical part of the tapestry of services and funders making a significant impact towards planting seeds of justice and reform.  What makes our work truly unique is that via Jewish World Watch, the voice of the Los Angeles Jewish Community is also making a resounding impact in Washington D.C.  The recent appointment of former Senator Russ Feingold as the new U.S. special representative for the ongoing crisis in Congo, is just one example of the impact of our advocacy, and a victory for which our community can claim partial credit.

As I board my plane, I am thinking about all of the people I met this past week and about their sad and painful stories — the babies and the nurse recovering from last week’s brutality, the young teen just liberated from years of forced “service”, and the hundreds of others who have similarly suffered.  Rather than feeling overwhelmed by their painful stories, I rely on the ancient wisdom of the Talmud, which teaches us that we are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it (Pirke Avot 2:21).  Together we will perform the other ancient mandate– to repair our broken world.

Janice Kamenir-Reznik is coFounder and president of Jewish World Watch (JWW), which fights against genocide and mass atrocities worldwide. JWW’s work is currently focused on the ongoing crises in Sudan and Congo. Janice is currently traveling along with fellow JWW Board Members Diana Buckhantz and Diane Kabat to Congo’s eastern provinces to meet with JWW’s on-the-ground project partners, to participate in the dedication of JWW’s Chambucha Rape and Crisis Center, and to work with survivors of Congo’s decades-long conflict to build innovative new partnerships and projects.

Violence in Eastern Congo is our problem

We’re staring down the barrel of another full-scale war in Congo. The M23 rebellion, launched in March 2012, last week stormed and seized Goma, a crucial town in eastern Congo. The M23 rebels already had been responsible for the displacement of more than half a million civilians — another 60,000 civilians have been newly displaced in the last week alone. While it might appear that the M23 rebels are retreating to the outskirts of Goma, they have made it clear that they will continue to administer and control Goma until their demands are met. 

The success of the siege is likely due in part to the support of the rebels by outside influences, namely elements within the Rwandan and Ugandan governments and militaries. The last time Congo saw this level of foreign incursion, the chain of events that followed led to the deaths of 5.4 million innocent civilians. This is what the beginning of horror looks like.

On the surface it may seem that our political leaders and the international community may be responding quickly to the crisis. But the reaction by both the Obama administration and the United Nations Security Council threatens to rehash old, failed “solutions” that set Congo on the path to repeat its cycle of violence. In particular, our political officials seem to be pursuing a policy of accommodation and protection of Rwanda, to the detriment of the development of sustainable solutions in Congo. 

Guilt over past horrors — the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in particular — might be clouding the judgment of the very people with the power to change international policies towards Congo.  U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, along with her former boss, President Bill Clinton, has carried the burden of inaction in Rwanda since those fateful 100 days that saw the murder of more than 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis. And that guilt has translated into consistent support for and protection of Rwanda’s leader, President Paul Kagame, credited with ending the genocide and restoring security to Rwanda. 

But our protection of Rwanda and its leadership can go no further. While advocates have long suspected Rwanda’s complicity in the exploitation of Congolese minerals and its support of proxy militias in Congo, we now have proof: two separate U.N. Group of Experts reports on Congo published this year have pointed to significant support to the M23 rebels by Rwanda and Uganda. The latest report, leaked earlier this month, named Gen. James Kabarebe, the Rwandan Minister of Defense, as sitting at the top of the M23’s chain of command.  

Despite this clear evidence, the Obama administration’s own statement condemning the M23 rebels, while swift, failed to call out Rwanda or Uganda for their role in the crisis. And the U.N. Security Council resolution passed last week similarly failed to explicitly name Rwanda or Uganda as supporting the M23 or expand targeted sanctions against Rwandan and Ugandan officials despite evidence that they had violated the arms embargo in eastern Congo. Rwanda and Uganda were, by all accounts, protected in the Security Council by the U.S. mission.  

Rwanda receives nearly 45 percent of its budget from Western donor countries like the United States — roughly $1 billion in aid annually. That is a lot of leverage that we could be using to bring about constructive negotiations that lead to long-term, regional solutions to this conflict. Instead, we are frittering away our political capital. 

The U.S. government must change tack and immediately: 1) push the U.N. mission in Congo to protect civilians against rape and pillage; 2) through the U.N. Security Council, expand targeted sanctions against all officials and parties that are blocking peace — from M23, Rwanda, Congo and Uganda; and 3) immediately appoint a special envoy to work with an African Union-/U.N.-appointed mediator to begin a real peace process that addresses both the immediate crisis and the underlying longer-term economic and political interests of the parties.

We bystanders should feel guilty for our silence and inaction during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.  But the value of guilt is limited to its power to inform and shape future behaviors. When President Obama was Sen. Obama, he wrote and passed a single bill: the Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006. Ending the crisis in Congo was important to him then; it must return to his list of priorities now. He, and all members of his administration, must not signal to Congo’s invaders that the United States will continue an acquiescent policy moving forward.

Janice Kamenir-Reznik is co-founder and president of Jewish World Watch.

New violence in the Congo: Having a conscience means working overtime

With rockets raining down on Israel, it’s hard to focus on anything else. Our families, our friends, our compatriots are under attack, and our hearts ache for them. But Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, who co-founded Jewish World Watch, reminds us that the needs of our own families and communities do not preclude us from caring for others who are unknown and far away, as well. The base question – should I care for Israel or for civilians under attack in Congo (or Sudan, or wherever genocide and mass atrocities rear their ugly heads) – is a false choice. The question might present as “either/or,” but the Jewish response to an “either/or” question, is “both/and.”  There is no question that people with a conscience are required to work overtime.  We are concerned and work for Israel’s security and safety, and we do not stand idly by when atrocities are being committed against targeted populations in a place like eastern Congo.  This week, I was supposed to travel to Darfuri Refugee Camps to visit our newest Solar Cooker Project installation and to Eastern Congo to visit our newest project, a Women’s Rape and Crisis Center in a remote area in Eastern Congo where the systematic gang rapes of women abound.  While we will travel to the Darfuri camp (stay tuned for our blogs…), we cannot go to Congo this week, as fighting with rebel troops, the M23, escalates. The United Nations has accused the M23 of recruiting child soldiers, as well as arbitrary executions and rape, according to a report to be released on Nov. 23.

Violence is not a new phenomenon in Congo.  Congo is a country enormously rich in natural resources, but instead of enabling the country and its inhabitants to prosper, the resource grab of militias and rogue groups from surrounding countries and of rebel groups from within Congo itself, has caused millions of deaths and has made Congo the rape capital of the world.  Weak leadership, porous and uncontrolled borders, and pervasive lawlessness conspire to impoverish and enslave the Congolese people, with primary impacts on the women and the children.  But this week, even for a country prone to unrest, there has been a dramatic and alarming surge in the violence, particularly in Eastern Congo.

The M23 rebellion, which launched in March of this year with the likely backing of both Rwanda and Uganda, reached the outskirts of the main city of Goma in North Kivu province late Sunday night. The battle continued on Monday.  In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the rebels stormed and seized Goma, home to 1 million Congolese civilians. This is the largest take-over by rebels in eastern Congo since 2003. The M23 rebels, since March of this year, had already displaced more than half a million civilians in North Kivu province. Just in the last few days, another 60,000 have been newly displaced. The last time we saw this level of violence and foreign incursion in Congo we lost 5.4 million innocent lives. This is what the beginning of horror looks like.  

These disheartening events underscore the purpose of and need for an organization like Jewish World Watch.  As the violence in Eastern Congo surged, Jewish World Watch led the effort to shine a light on the region.  Shining a light on injustices and atrocities in the world is a critical step in the arduous process of bringing about peace and minimizing violence against targeted civilian populations.  Our Jewish community has a particularly strong and resonant voice in this work based upon our experiences in the Holocaust.   We know what it feels like to be isolated and abandoned, and therefore, Jewish World Watch is now at the forefront of the coalition seeking de-escalation of this brutal attack in Congo.

We ask you to join us in speaking out for the people of Congo. The United States government can help end the crisis. Now, more than ever, it’s time to for us to show leadership. We need to encourage the White House to take action against this rebellion and to protect the civilians of Congo.

Send this letter to Denis R. McDonough, the White House’s Deputy National Security Advisor, and ask him to take action against the M23 incursion and for the people of eastern Congo.

We are all working overtime this week…