“This is a humanitarian catastrophe of horrid and shocking proportions. The conflict has cost more lives than any other since World War II and the death toll from all the recent wars in the Balkans doesn’t even come close.” -George Rupp, president of the International Rescue Committee, speaking about the current conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
DRC at a Glance:
Duration of conflict: 4.5 years Related deaths since 1998: 4.7 million Years since last general election: 43 Outside countries involved militarily: at least 5 Documented atrocities confirmed by the UN so far: rape, murder, deliberate maiming, torture, forced cannibalism, child recruitment into militias.
I have stopped turning on the television news and started reading more press outside of the mainstream. Escaping incessant coverage of one war and its aftermath only leads to a gruesome kind of variety: the world is full of sideshow conflicts. Many of them rage in Africa, under the radar of international coverage or even humanitarian aid. It becomes difficult when living, as Rian Malan has written, in “a doomed city on a damned continent”, not to see the rhetoric of the Iraq war from all sides as somehow hypocritical by omission.
The civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has claimed 4.7 million lives since it started in 1998. UN investigations into reports of atrocities in Eastern Congo have found that rebels against Mobutu Sese Seko killed and ate Pygmies, a small tribe of about 600,000 native to the area, on a significant scale. Prisoners were forced to eat pieces of their own bodies while others were forced to eat their comrades’ flesh. As early as 1996, government troops sent to subdue rebel forces in the east systematically raped women and girls in villages along the way with impunity. Civilian men were indiscriminately killed and maimed. Years later, the militias and militaries involved are many, and they are all accused of war crimes regardless of their affiliation.
Although a political settlement among the various warring factions was just signed in Sun City, South Africa, it is not the first push for peace. Other recent tries have ended in failure, and the country’s acting president did not even attend this latest signing. Zimbabwe, Uganda, Rwanda, Angola, and Namibia have all had troops involved in the conflict. Rwanda, threatened by the continued existence of Hutu militia in Congo, is unapologetically talking about jumping back in before the ink in Sun City has had a chance to dry. Guns outlast peace agreements.
In 1976, Robert Mugabe said, “Our votes must go together with our guns. After all, any vote we shall have, shall have been the product of the gun.” He was certainly right that votes and guns often go hand in hand, which is probably the only reason he still retains power in Zimbabwe in 2003. As the opposition Movement for Democratic Change grows stronger, his tactics are becoming more brutal. In South Africa, we hear reports of political opponents’ torture by electric shock, widespread rape, and six million people condemned to starvation. The man credited with freeing Zimbabwe from colonial oppression has turned his own revolution on its head: now he is the villain in the crosshairs. While the world’s gaze is transfixed elsewhere, a true grassroots struggle for democracy is at war with an aging but very violent soldier fighting for glory that has long since passed.
Every day in South Africa 600 people die of Aids. The ANC government’s minister of health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, refers publicly to “HIV and Aids” but never to “HIV/Aids” because she still refuses to acknowledge the connection between the virus and the disease. Instead of providing the cheap and available medication that could help people survive and live without stigma, the government talks about the medicinal uses of olive oil and the importance of diet while the death toll continues to rise.
Zackie Achmat, the head of the well-organized Treatment Action Campaign, is something akin to this war’s revolutionary leader. Openly HIV-positive, he refuses to take anti-retrovirals on principle until they are available free through the national health system. He was locked up seven times by the old regime for fighting apartheid, but he is prepared to go back to jail under the watchful eye of the ANC government if that’s what it takes to help Aids sufferers. Of this irony, he says, “it’s like fighting against your own parents.” Ignorance is a powerful weapon, but so is courage.
Last year I lost a friend in battle. She had been trying to get out of a bad relationship for about five years. One day after months of counseling she went to the magistrate’s court in downtown Johannesburg and braved the jeering clerks. She walked out with a protection order against the man who had been physically and sexually abusing her since one week after their first date. The next day, he went to the poverty-stricken area where she had taken shelter. There were no security guards, no fences, no gates, and no streetlights to illuminate his approach. He walked right up and shot her, again and again. She died. The police have not arrested him. I quit counseling survivors of domestic violence and rape and started training police. This war is quiet, with no discernible beginning and no visible end.
Two American visitors came to Joburg last week, an old Harvard friend who has just finished 27 months in the Peace Corps in Zambia and one of his colleagues. On our way to dinner, a car started dangerously tailgating me down a narrow street. As soon as I could, I pulled over to let the car pass. Instead, the driver pulled up next to me. Inside the car was a white male driver, and closest to my window his wife held a baby of perhaps three years on her lap with no seatbelt. The man, in a clear-cut case of road rage, began yelling and accusing me of driving dangerously when he had a baby in the car. I had no idea what he was talking about so I did the respectable thing and tried to de-escalate by putting my hands in full view and remaining silent. When he was finished, I said simply, “I’m sorry, now please move on.” He responded: “I’ll decide when to move on, you stupid bitch. The next time I’ll take you out of that car and give you a good hiding.”
His baby started to cry and his wife looked straight ahead as if in a trance. My de-escalation techniques slipped as I told him not to speak to me that way. Hearing my accent, he ordered my humble car full of American idealists to “piss off back to our own country” (and a few other things that don’t bear repeating). We ended up having a nice dinner anyway.
I forgot all about the man and his rage until I was trying to get to sleep. Eyes wide open in my bed in the dark, I was afraid and I was angry. I pictured the man taking out his anger on his wife and child as he had with me and I felt helpless. I pictured him trying to drag me out of my car and give me a good hiding. The war against fear, intimidation, and hate is a very personal one, and I tune into it daily.
Six days after a Nedbank teller flashed my American passport around a bank branch and announced my presence to a somewhat hostile lunchtime crowd, I chaired a seminar at the Institute for Security Studies on violence against children. Several people from the American embassy showed up to participate and apparently enjoyed it enough to stay afterwards for the lunch. One of my colleagues was telling the bank story with half a mouthful of meat pie when one of the embassy staff overheard it. The following day I received a call about the incident and found myself on the phone with the American regional security officer. (They really liked the seminar! I thought.) The officer asked me to come in and make a statement, but I was ambivalent. Did I really want the United States as an entity to be getting involved in one little incident at the bank? I was over it, wasn’t I?
The US embassy is in Pretoria. I craned my neck checking street numbers to make sure I was headed in the right direction. There was no need to fear missing it, though: it takes up an entire city block and looks like a serious military installation, or a downed invader spacecraft. There is a huge wall around the perimeter, police vehicles stationed at every corner, and strange looking antennae protruding into the sky. Across the street, the Embassy of Mali occupies a charming colonial house with a gate that was swinging half open next to a snoozing guard. The contrast made me feel queasy. The US block exudes a sense of imperial power and brute strength, with its flag sticking out over the blank walls and the anti-tank embankments around the outside. Why did it have to be so walled in? Because someone blew up the last embassy I visited in Nairobi.
It took me half an hour to get through security at the gate. After I had finally been given clearance to enter the compound, I imagined the Darth Vader theme song playing as I walked up a steep stone ramp, past a mirrored outside wall, and finally to the imposing doors of the building itself. I turned over my passport to a uniformed officer and got a badge, then waited for my escort. The structure that houses America’s official presence in South Africa is like a self-contained village. Familiar accents float by as groups of people chat in open spaces, hallways, and a large café area. The meeting itself was rather uneventful: I didn’t know the teller’s name, nor did I want specific reprisals against her. I just wanted someone to make it clear to the bank that customer privacy must be respected. I was assured that my great country would, in no uncertain terms, open up a good old-fashioned can of whoop-ass on the Nedbank corporate headquarters. I was dismissed.
As I gathered my things at security, I noticed that my hands were shaking. I suddenly felt the protection of the powerful in a very personal way—even allowed myself a sense of relief that I am considered important enough to be worthy of regional security attention. But there was also a vague undercurrent of unpleasantness about the whole affair. I thought of the guard sleeping on Mali’s side of the street. Perhaps it was the guilt of being officially counted, and held accountable, in the “for us” column when I know there are innocents in the “against us” ledger who don’t really belong there. (I wondered if my mother, an American who was born in Beirut, would have been afforded the same kind of sympathy. I doubted it.) Maybe it was a feeling of helplessness that even and perhaps especially the most idealistic Americans are targets of hate. I struggle, sometimes blindly, against the idea of a world where war dictates identity and fear is more powerful than peace.
As I write this, I’m at the Stanley Hotel in central Nairobi, Kenya. I’m here for a week doing preliminary work on a project I’m heading for the ISS examining the demand side of the gun market in Kenya. It has always been a dream of mine to stay at the Stanley, a distinguished old colonial relic (“since 1902”) that was frequented by the likes of Hemingway, Denys Finch Hatton, Edward Prince of Wales, and even Clark Gable. Kenya’s first locally brewed beer was served in the bar here in 1923. My first time in Kenya in 1994, when I was teaching in a community school in the rural Western province, I lived in a mud hut frequented by chickens and sometimes a very loud rooster. Delicacies such as live termites were served in my hut, but rather unceremoniously out of an old coffee can.
I remember taking the night bus from Kakamega to Nairobi for the day with a fellow teacher back then. Neither of us had showered or seen a mirror in weeks when we rolled into the Stanley to splurge on breakfast. First, we snuck upstairs to the first floor restaurant bathrooms and marveled at the marble as we washed up in the sinks. (A maid happened in, but we asked her nicely in Swahili to please not kick us out and she just laughed.) Afterwards, we headed down to the Thorn Tree Café and stuffed our faces with waffles, and our bags with extra food for our host families and souvenir napkins and silverware for our villages.
I can admit this now because I’ve become so—well, legitimate—a well-scrubbed paying guest with a suitcase full of respectable clothes. For old times’ sake, I still always pack a flashlight, travel towel, mosquito net, and knife just in case. And not in vain, as it turns out. I needed them during the one unexpected night I had to spend at a different hotel en route to the Stanley, a rowdy brothel with no linens and an overly enthusiastic nocturnal clientele. I can’t seem to outgrow adventure around here.