The World's Forgotten War

Congo_781.jpg

A version of this article appears in the current issue of RELEVANT Magazine. 

The deadliest conflict since World War II rages today. 

This war has claimed “the same number of lives as having a 9/11 every single day for 360 days, the genocide that struck Rwanda in 1994, the ethnic cleansing that overwhelmed Bosnia in the mid-1990’s, the genocide that took place in Darfur, the number of people killed in the great tsunami that struck Asia in 2004, and the number of people who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—all combined and then doubled.”(1) These numbers are astonishing, yet most Americans have never heard them. 

This war the world has forgotten—being fought today in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—has claimed nearly six million lives.

And that’s not all. By the end of 2012, an additional 2.4 million Congolese had been driven from their homes and forced to seek shelter with desperately poor relatives or in makeshift local camps where entire families lived in hovels built of sticks and tarps. Nearly half a million more Congolese sought asylum in neighboring countries, but usually fared no better than those in the camps.  Most of the displaced people were subsistence farmers who had fed their families from the produce of Congo’s rich soil. Now they were running for their lives, and everything they left behind—homes, crops, schools and churches—was destroyed by the ruthless rebels.

I first heard about this conflict in an NPR news report in 2008.  As if the number of dead and displaced people weren’t enough, I learned this: that a major weapon of war in the DRC is rape. Rebel fighters say it’s cheaper to rape a woman than waste a bullet. Women in eastern Congo don’t talk about “if” they’ll be raped, but “when.” Their mothers and sisters and friends have been gang-raped, or raped with tree branches and gun barrels and worse. This is the tragic story of 1,100 women who are raped every day in the DRC, according to the American Journal of Public Health. Many experts consider the sexual violence in the DRC to be the worst in the world and the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time.

I learned from the news report that the DRC is the second largest country in Africa, equal to the size of the entire US east of the Mississippi, with a population of 71 million. Formerly called Belgian Congo and then Zaire, the country has a tragic history of colonialism, greed and exploitation. The current highly complex conflict, which at times has involved the armies of nine countries and has been called “Africa’s World War,” continues to be impacted by ethnic hostilities, regional politics and greed.

Before that radio program, I had never heard of the war in Congo.  But once I knew, I couldn’t sit back and do nothing.   Twice since hearing that story I’ve traveled to Eastern Congo—the epicenter of fighting—with World Relief, a Christian humanitarian organization.  I discovered a tragedy worse than I’d imagined.  But I also discovered the most powerful positive force in the world: hope.

In a concrete church building in the town of Rutshuru, my friends and I listened while eleven women told their stories.  All had been raped and brutalized; some had watched their husbands murdered and their daughters raped. They ranged from eight years old to almost sixty. What empowered them to speak was that they had been lovingly cared for by Congolese counselors trained by World Relief.

One by one the women stood and spoke.  We wept with them.  We knelt and prayed for them.  We had lunch with them.  And at the end, my friend Christine photographed them.  While she took dozens of photos of each woman she told them how beautiful they were, that we would not forget them, and that we would tell their stories, as they had asked us to do. 

Something magic happened that day. We discovered the healing power that is unleashed when stories are told and heard. We experienced the beautiful, mutual transformation that occurs when people connect soul to soul across culture and language and differing life experiences.  The day was profound, shattering and uplifting all at once. 

On another day in Rutshuru we met with local church leaders who have created “Village Peace Committees” to help resolve local conflicts.  In a country where there is no rule of law, these church leaders have become the only trusted system of justice that vulnerable people can turn to.  Never have I seen the local church “being the church” the way I saw it in the DRC.

I did not write this article to inform you. I wrote it to call you to action. 

The DRC needs our government to lead the international community in working for peace in the Congo. Find out how you can challenge Congress to do that here.

The vulnerable Congolese also need emergency food, shelter and medical care.  Right now you can donate $10 to World Relief Congo by texting CONGO to 505-55. 

And finally, please pray for peace in the DRC.  I am an activist, but I know that human activism is no match for the pain of Congo. To inspire your prayers and to learn more about Congo, visit tenforcongo.com, a grassroots movement devoted to peace in the DRC. 

One of the women in Rutshuru said, “Thank you for coming. You have reminded us that we are still human.” Another said, “You have shown us that God is still thinking of us.”

Please use your voice and your action to echo that message of hope.