Since the 1990s, armed groups have come and gone in the eastern DRC, leaving human tragedy in their wake. Millions have died and many thousands have been raped. And there’s no end in sight. UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow says the latest conflict involving M23 rebels is just another chapter in the region’s brutal history.
American actress Mia Farrow has seen some of Africa’s worst humanitarian crises, such as Darfur, as well as the DRC. She visited eastern Congo earlier this year.
“The people are traumatized from now decades of being attacked. The people are on the run,” she said.
It didn’t used to be that way.
“You have to imagine the setting, arguably the most beautiful country on Earth, with its mountains and fertile land and wealth of minerals. You put a seed in the ground there and it grows. And the people told me about the old days when they farmed and they had more than enough of everything. They would bring it to market and trade, and people lived very well. And they had their land and plenty to eat,” she said.
But after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, elements of those responsible fled into what was then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The region began to change as armed groups proliferated and competed. One of the more well-known of recent years is the Lord’s Resistance Army that originated in Uganda. Its leaders are wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Farrow said, “By 1998, there was an all-out war going on. And, as we know, it depended on who you listened to – five million is, I believe, the U.N. statistic of who’ve been killed. Others say seven million. Anyway you look at it, millions upon millions of civilians have perished since 1998.”
Rape is used frequently as a weapon of war in the eastern DRC. Farrow told the story of one woman.
“She talked of an ordinary morning. Her children were getting ready to go to school. Her husband was going out to the field. Militia entered her home, killed her husband and her children in front of her, raped her with a bayonet. Then pounded her legs to pulp and left her that way. She is now in one of the centers there where she is being helped minimally. She is in excruciating pain all the time. She can’t walk. She’s incontinent, rejected by what was left of her family,” she said.
She said that woman represents countless others.
“I visited with UNICEF a group that was on the run – displaced people – and they said every night militia came around five o’clock and raped people. And most recently, the night before, a one-month-old child had been raped. You go to one of the few health clinics that haven’t been plundered there – the fistula surgery is ongoing day and night,” she said.
Fistula is often associated with obstructed and prolonged childbirth. A hole or fistula forms between the birth passage and the bladder or rectum. The woman becomes incontinent and may be shunned by her family and community. Fistula is also caused by rape and is often accompanied by other physical and psychological trauma. Sometimes surgery cannot repair the damage.
As a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Farrow said she’s very concerned about the children of the DRC.
“Wherever you have vulnerable groups you have recruitment by militia – both boys and girls taken -- girls for sex slaves, boys to be used in combat -- and large numbers of children who had been separated from their parents. I spoke to a little boy in a center for child soldiers that had escaped or been captured. And most of them didn’t want to talk. But one little boy, after a lot of prodding, just burst into tears and said he missed his mom,” she said.
She also visited Bukavu in South Kivu Province, where there are many mines. The area is rich in minerals that people take advantage of everyday.
“They have children down in the mines because they’re just holes. They’re not like mines that have to pass any standard. They just dig holes and put children in the mines. The mines are forever collapsing, and children spend long backbreaking days pulling the stuff out that we all have in our cellphones – coltan, and tin or cassiterite, as well as diamond and gold,” she said.
She added that rebel groups use these mines to fund their operations.
“It’s said that these militias are also responsible for the greatest killing of elephants we’ve ever seen this year. But my immediate concern is the children. Though if you say elephants are being killed, you know, ironically people sometimes rally for elephants more quickly than for children,” she said.
Mia Farrow said some may argue it’s almost impossible to solve the DRC’s problems because they’re so enormous, and the country is remote. However, she says since so many around the world benefit from the country’s resources, they also have a responsibility to think about Congo’s people -- and demand action from their elected officials.
Remember that woman who watched her family killed by rebels and who was raped and brutally beaten? She’s in a UNICEF-sponsored home with other rape victims. They support themselves by raising their own food and selling crafts – and they teach other victims how to survive.