I entered the Congo for the first time via the border that separates it from Burundi. We had taken a paved road to the border crossing in Burundi. The asphalt turned to dust, and then we were on the Congo side.
I surveyed the landscape all along the road to Bukavu, capital of South Kivu. It traverses the Ruzizi plain and the steep slopes of the mountains that constitute Congo’s natural border with Rwanda. It’s a paradise. The Congo seemed like the heart of the world to me.
Eastern Congo has everything going for it: a mild climate for people that is well suited for agriculture, endless space for raising cattle, a hydrolic system, perfect sunlight for sustainable and clean energy, rich soil and enormous wealth underground, and people. While this country has unlimited potential for stable and durable development, the population is among the world's poorest. Two years following my arrival, this paradox continues to shock me. Between extreme wealth and poverty, what is missing?
In looking at all the actors and actions invested in the political, economic and social “development” of the region, the absurdities pop out at you. The question on everyone's lips, especially those of the Congolese is this: "Why, after so many years of humanitarian aid, financial investment, and the strategies of international programs, is the Congo is still not developed?"
There’s the lack of security and poor sanitation and social infrastructure. And the Congolese people continue to suffer. I think of the millions of eastern Congolese, cut off from the major cities and centers of power, living in huts with no running water or electricity, no access to health care or to education.
Behind this naive observation, people have an answer, but dare not say it. Human rights are not a random text among international or “expert” recommendations. They’re a reminder to those who have forgotten it: that people have inherent dignity by virtue of being human, that cannot be taken away. Dignity requires a guarantee of the right to food, drink, shelter, health care and above all, security. Can we live or survive in daily fear of physical suffering or death? Can we assure dignity in a climate of constant fear? In an atmosphere of fear, the Congolese people dare not demand their dignity.
On May 11 in Bukavu, South Kivu, DRC, I helped organize the launch of the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender-based Violence with the Nobel Women’s Initiative and others. We invited everyone: local associations across the province, victims, police, doctors, lawyers, judges, nurses, psychosocial workers. We didn’t know who would respond: a dozen or hundreds? Access to Bukavu is difficult for those who come from afar. What’s more, everyone is tired of yet another campaign—more speeches, more funding requests, more calls for help, and then what?
At 3pm, we start the meeting. A psychosocial worker speaks, followed by two lawyers and a doctor. The room starts to fill up. More and more people arrive until the room is bursting.
Then a woman takes the floor and speaks in Swahili to bear witness to the atrocity inflicted on her. She describes the agony, the disgraceful acts committed against her by three men for three days until she finally escaped. How her baby died during her flight. How she crossed the forest and found a health center. Some months later, she tells us, her pregnant belly is diabolical to her.
Must we hear this testimony? If we don’t listen, who will? If we don’t respond to her voice and those of hundreds more women hidden through misery, fear, and stigma, who will?
When she finishes her testimony, we call on participants to join the Campaign. Hands are raised. "Why this campaign? What will happen next?"
We reply that there are tools to put an end to this violence right here in this room today. An unexpected discussion ensues. Lawyers, doctors, victims, community organizations, those known and unknown—all want to express themselves. Everyone wants to convey their deep desire to unload their buried burdens. Hands shoot up. In the room, we have professionals who take care of victims of sexual violence. It’s absurd to realize that this has become a profession! Everyone is united: It’s about time to stop treating only the consequences of the country’s condition, but also to address the causes. And technical, human, and financial resources are here in Congo. The solutions will not come from those who are responsible for the problems, but of necessity, from those who suffer from them.
The key word is launched: Let’s work together, we Congolese, each according to our means, in a coordinated manner to eliminate the causes of the violence so that we no longer have to treat the consequences!
While the dignity of millions of people is being sacrificed to the strategic interests of others, the people gathered in this room know that the solution will not come from outside. The future is here, in their hands.
Something is being born here. The mood changes from anger, to hope and resolution. No one will walk out of here today and forget what was said. No one wants to leave, thinking that this woman risked her life a second time to speak to this gathering for nothing! Everyone signs the Pledge for the Campaign and proposes a next meeting.
That same evening and the next morning the phone rings again and again. Individuals and organizations across the province are asking, "What can we do? We work in this area or that area and we want to participate.”
One thing is certain: there is strength in unity.