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Understanding the Unimaginable

By Aaron Blevins, 8/18/2011

NCJW Hosts Panel on Violence Against Congolese Women


Like the minerals they extract from the ground, rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been prying the souls from Congolese men and women.

Mamie Kabongolo, of E.L.CO.S., said six million people died in the Congo from 1997 to 2003 as the result of ongoing violence. (photo by Aaron Blevins)

That was the story told Tuesday, when the National Council of Jewish Women, Los Angeles, hosted a panel discussion about the ongoing struggle in eastern Congo and the efforts to bring a sense of normalcy back to the area.

“What we’re doing (now) is very little compared to what the reality is,” one of the guests, Odiane Lokako, said through a translator. “We don’t want to be in a movie. We want this to end.”

Lokako is a former Miss Congo who founded E.L.CO.S., a French acronym that translates to “Together Let’s Fight Against HIV/AIDS.”

Mamie Kabongolo, of E.L.CO.S., said the Congo has a population of 70 million people, and between 1997 and 2003, six million died as a result of the tragedies that are occurring in her country. She said that, following a regime change during that time, groups of rebels grappled for the vacant power seat “by creating fear.” They began to attack villages, seeking to mine minerals such as tin, tantalum and tungsten, which are used to create everyday electronics such as cell phones and computers, Kabongolo said.

“Our riches have become a curse for us,” she said. “The rebels understand (they are) like diamonds, like gold.”

In order to generate fear in the villagers, the rebels rape the women — sometimes the elderly and children, Kabongolo said. She said they mutilate the women’s genitals and, in some cases, rape the boys and men as well.

“It’s just horrible what’s going on in the Congo,” Kabongolo said.

Like Lokako, Kabongolo moved out of the Congo to pursue a career but felt obliged to return and help her country. Although philanthropic organizations offer some resources, she said awareness of the conflict must be raised to another level.

“The voice of the people is the strongest one,” Kabongolo said.

Jewish World Watch, a non-profit organization that fights genocides and mass tragedies, is one of the organizations operating in that area of Africa. Its executive director, Fred Kramer, said there is a correlation between sexual violence and countries with such unrest.

“The sexual violence is literally being used as a weapon of war,” he said.

With the unrest being the result of a wide variety of factors, the rest of the world must step up to put a stop to the dilemma, Kramer said. He said the U.S. should send a “special envoy,” which would allow for centralized decision-making, as opposed to an ambassador system. Kramer said he understands why America would be reluctant to do so, but Jewish World Watch doesn’t see any other way to end the violence.

“This is a situation like no other in the world,” he said.

Another organization in the Congo is the International Medical Corps (IMC). Margaret Aguirre, director of global communications for IMC, told the audience about the medical care required for the Congolese and further explained the graphic situation in eastern Congo.

“He doesn’t necessarily want to kill her,” she said of the rebels. “He wants to ruin her. He wants to rip her soul out.”

Aguirre briefly referenced stories of sexual violence using firearms and said the rebels sometimes force the woman’s family to watch. She said this results in widespread physical and psychological harm.

“The medical issues alone are enormous,” Aguirre said.

She added that the sexual violence is seeping into civilian life as well. Aguirre told a story of a husband who raped his wife simply because they were arguing. She said it is similar to the Holocaust in that civilians are beginning to mimic the actions of soldiers.

“We have a responsibility as human beings to not sit and watch,” Aguirre said, adding that at one point, 250 rapes were reported in Congo over a four-day period. “It’s inconceivable — these kinds of numbers.”

Ending the violence, though, will take a commitment from other counties, she said.

“It has to be everything at once. It has to be a holistic approach.”

West Hollywood City Councilman John Heilman, the moderator for the panel discussion, challenged the audience to get involved. Information on how to contact local Congress representatives and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were provided at the event.

“The confluence of those horrors should really cause us to act,” Heilman said.

Kramer said people should lobby for a timely implementation of section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, which would require companies to disclose whether their products contain “conflict minerals.” They should also ask Clinton to appoint a special envoy to the Congo, he said.

After the event, Jules Boyele, president of the Congolese Community of Southern California, said having such conversations in the U.S. and educating people about the issues in the Congo is very helpful. He said it shows that no country is truly alone. The issues ongoing in Congo have an effect on the U.S., and likewise, the U.S. economy can impact countries thousands of miles away, Boyele said.

“It’s human life,” he added.



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