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Photos from Congo Panel and benefit concert by Joe Rudko/The AS Review

Story by Kelly Sullivan/The AS Review

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is perhaps one of the most devastating and controversial global issues of our generation. However, coverage of the Congolese people’s suffering is often minimal, if not altogether absent from national media outlets. The reality is that nearly 6 million have died in Congo since 1997, a death toll comparable to the Holocaust.

From Oct. 17-23,Western was one of over 200 public venues worldwide to host Congo Week, an annual event dedicated to illuminating the political and social factors that have contributed to the situation in the African country.

The event was put together by Western’s Political Science Association, along with the local chapter of Friends of the Congo, an advocacy organization started by African refugees build connections around the globe in support of the Congo. The event included educational films, a panel of local experts and a benefit concert.

The Congo is incredibly rich in tungsten, tin and tantalum. These minerals account for 75 percent of the country’s exports, said Lacy Cunningham, a Western graduate and panel speaker.

The “Three T’s” are in almost every electronic device American consumers use on a daily basis, Cunningham said.
Cell phones, laptops, TVs, DVD players and airplanes are some of the products which require these minerals. In the last decade, electronics companies have been able to easily exploit the country.

Pointing out the connections between Western nations’ economies and the conditions for laborers in the Congo was crucial to Congo week, said Jacob Caggiano, coordinator for FOC.

“There has to be a level of understanding to be able to do the right thing,” Caggiano said.

History of the Conflict
When Congo gained independence in 1960 from Belgium, the brutality of colonial control left a lasting scar on the region. Decades of colonialism in the region led various attempts to build a stable government, none of which were able to provide protection to the people of Congo.

“The seeds of instability were planted far before their independence,” said panel speaker Babafemi Akinrinade, an assistant professor at Fairhaven College.

By 1997, turbulent conditions in neighboring Rwanda and Uganda flooded over into Congo, and one year later contention between large numbers of ethnic groups, including rebel forces in Congo, came to a boiling point.

Impact of the Fighting

At the panel, anthropology professor Kathleen Young described the horrors that women and children are forced to endure. Rape has become so normalized that people just assume it will happen, Young said.

Due to residual effects of corporal punishment during Belgian control, “rape occurs within a context of mutilation,” Young said. Used as a weapon of war, rape victims’ limbs are often amputated during or after an attack. Many victims are left without a hand or leg.

“What we think rape is, is not what you’re thinking about,” said Young. “This is a completely different situation.”
During raids by rebel fighters, young boys are often taken from their villages and turned into soldiers.

Young said that boys are often given various drugs to enhance their performance as fighters. One method is to inject child fighters with a mixture of cocaine and gun powder called a “brownie.” The world may be witnessing the dismemberment of the country due to the conflict, said Vernon Johnson, political science professor. Johnson said the borders of many African countries are seen as representing European colonialism. Some African leaders believe war is necessary to redefine borders of some countries because they do not properly encompass the differing ethnic groups and cultures.

“The challenges of Congo are the greatest we’ve ever faced,” said Johnson.

Since the atrocities in the Congo occur on a daily basis, and the politics of the conflict are so tangled and intertwined, no one is exactly sure what to do to solve the crisis.

Paul Barkley is the executive director of the Slum Doctor Programme, which works to combat the growing AIDS epidemic in Africa. He said during the panel that the people of Congo are going to have to demand health care, better working conditions, education and protection.