Sasha Lezhnev and John Prendergast
Special to CNN
Last year, the bus in which a young Congolese woman we met named Mary was riding was stopped by a militia. "They wanted to all have me, to rape me," she related haltingly to us. "I told them no, and then they took off my shirt and beat me. I have terrible marks now."
Mary's story is similar to hundreds of thousands of women's experiences in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where rape is routinely "deployed" as a weapon of war by the armed groups fighting over a nation that has some of the richest nonpetroleum natural resource deposits in the world.
Congo holds the numbing distinction of being home to the deadliest war in the world since World War II - with more than 5.4 million people killed during the past 15 years.
"This war is caused by the minerals," Mary told us. "Those [armed groups] control the minerals. I hear that they are used in mobile phones. ... If you talk to Obama or the phone companies, tell them what happens here."
Program Note: Tune in tonight for an exclusive AC360º dispatch to watch Anderson Cooper's full report on the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
from Oxfam International
The five-year war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which involved the armies of five other countries, officially ended in 2003 and democratic elections were held in 2006. However, fighting involving a plethora of armed groups continues, especially in the east of this mineral-rich country. Throughout all this conflict it is the civilians who continue to suffer the most.
The DRC has the world's largest peacekeeping force, totaling some 17,000 personnel. But they struggle to maintain security in a country the size of Western Europe with a population of 60 million.
Fighting was fuelled by the DRC’s tremendous mineral resources and by the flow of small arms into the country.
– Humanitarian crisis –
Since the war started in 1997, an estimated 4 million people have died from violence, hunger and disease as a result of the conflict, and 2.5 million have been made homeless – 1.5 million displaced within the DRC’s borders and one million forced to flee to neighboring countries.
The young girl whispered in a hushed tone. She looked down as she spoke, only glancing up from her dark round eyes every now and then. She wanted to tell more, but she was too ashamed. She was just 9 years old when, she says, Congolese soldiers gang-raped her on her way to school.
"These two soldiers nabbed her, put a bag over her head and pulled her into the bushes. She explains it as, 'They got me,' " says Sherrlyn Borkgren, who spent a month in the Democratic Republic of the Congo late last year.
Borkgren, a wedding photographer and freelance journalist, traveled to the war-torn region of eastern Congo after being awarded the ShootQ Grant, a $10,000 award to free photographers from everyday life to pursue a project that raises awareness of an important global issue.
Borkgren pauses when she speaks of meeting the girl. "She was obviously very traumatized to repeat this out loud, and I don't think she had repeated it to anyone." The young girl lied to her about her age when they first spoke.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought an offer of help Tuesday for victims, especially victims of sexual violence, of Africa's longest war, a regional conflict that's dragged on for more than a decade.
Clinton on Monday delivered a blunt message to Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito of the Democratic Republic of Congo when he hosted a dinner in her honor.
"There must be an end to widespread financial corruption and abuses of human rights and women's rights," she said. "There must be an improvement in governance and the respect for the rule of law."
She also called for "changes in the business climate, changes in the rules and regulations that involve contracts and the protection of property" to promote foreign investment.
Special to CNN
I write today on behalf of countless V-Day activists worldwide, and in solidarity with my many Congolese sisters and brothers who demand justice and an end to rape and war.
It is my hope that these words and those of others will break the silence and break open a sea of action to move Congolese women toward peace, safety and freedom.
My play, "The Vagina Monologues," opened my eyes to the world inside this world. Everywhere I traveled with it scores of women lined up to tell me of their rapes, incest, beatings, mutilations. It was because of this that over 11 years ago we launched V-Day, a worldwide movement to end violence against women and girls.
The movement has spread like wildfire to 130 countries, raising $70 million. I have visited and revisited the rape mines of the world, from defined war zones like Bosnia, Afghanistan and Haiti to the domestic battlegrounds in colleges and communities throughout North America, Europe and the world. My in-box - and heart - have been jammed with stories every hour of every day for over a decade.
The picture of the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo has grown tragically familiar: a region with great natural wealth, riven by war, racked with hunger and traumatized by a long history of colonial abuse, postcolonial kleptocracy and plunder. In the past 10 years alone, millions have died here, and more die each day as a result of the conflict. Most die not from war wounds but from starvation or disease. A lack of infrastructure means there is little medical care in the cities and none in rural communities, so any infection can be a death sentence. The most vulnerable suffer the worst. One in five children in Congo will die before reaching the age of 5 — and will do so out of sight of the world, in places that camera crews cannot reach, deep in a vast landscape and concealed under a canopy of bucolic jungle.
It is common in the West to read about African lives in grim statistical terms, so we've become inured to these huge numbers of deaths. Making matters worse, the conflict in Congo is often seen as a hopelessly byzantine African tribal war, encouraging the damning notion that nothing will ever change. This, of course, creates a sense of hopelessness — and nothing cuts down on humanitarian, foreign and development assistance so much as the jaded diminution of hope. The nation most in need of investment gets the least by the cruel logic that it is the most broken. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that ultimately fosters indifference in the guise of wisdom. (See pictures of the fallout in the Congo by James Nachtwey.)
That should not be the case in Congo.
I've been traveling to Congo since 2007 to learn. TIME has agreed to publish my amateur journalism on the merits of this urgent crisis and on my good luck with photographers. James Nachtwey, the world's finest war photographer, accompanied me on one of my trips, and his extraordinary work fills the following pages.
Editor's Note: Andre Heller worked as a logistics coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in the North Kivu region of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He returned from the DRC in October, after working there for 14 months. Andre reflects here on his time in the DRC on the occasion of the launch of Condition: Critical, a multimedia project produced by Doctors Without Borders that shares testimonies of people whose lives are filled with violence, displacement, and hopes for the future.
Doctors Without Borders
It took about 24 hours for me to realize I was going to stay quite a while longer than the three months I originally signed up for. I would have stayed longer than 14 were I not so tired. I’d never seen a place with such beautiful terrain, fertile ground, and lively people. One of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever been in my life. The sad reality of North Kivu is that constant fighting, displacement, and human suffering are as much a part of the landscape as the volcanoes around you. An area this war torn doesn’t leave one wondering if people are OK or not. You know there’s something wrong. It got under my skin and I didn’t want to leave.
When you watch this multimedia feature (Condition: Critical), imagine that for each person that gives their personal testimony, there are 125,000 you have not yet heard.
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
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