[Originally published in The Juilliard Journal, May 2009]
It would be difficult in 650 words to describe in detail the worst humanitarian crisis since the Holocaust. It would be nearly impossible to offer even the most meager account of the brutal internal conflicts in a region where children tote automatic weapons as agents of warring rebel factions, where rape is one of the most powerful methods of subjugation and control, and where an inventory of the world’s most devastating diseases has ravaged much of the population. Such are matters to which any number of words can do little justice, yet which cannot continue to be ignored, particularly by those of us who unknowingly benefit from the atrocities.
As many as 5.4 million people have perished in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.) in the past decade, but the roots of the suffering date back much further. In the late 19th century, Congo held host to some of the most depraved acts of colonialism in history at the hands of King Leopold II of Belgium, whose genocidal and exploitative policies were only dismantled following a worldwide outcry of protest and concern. The suffering and disenfranchisement of the indigenous population continued under Belgian rule through 1960, when Congo won independence, only to be cast as an unfortunate player in the nasty arena of Cold War politics. Under the banner of “anti-communism,” the United States supported a kleptocratic regime which, for more than 20 years, continued to repress the native inhabitants of Congo (then known as Zaire) through the embezzlement of international aid packages and the plundering of natural resources.
In the 1990s, Congo found itself the unfortunate host of a pair of bloody civil wars born in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. As the country became inundated with tribal warfare, the humanitarian disaster intensified. The ethnic Hutu/Tutsi conflicts engendering the Rwandan civil war have morphed into a ruthless battle over Congo’s abundant natural resources. Rebel warlords utilize rape, torture, and famine to fracture entire communities of helpless Congolese natives, creating ideal conditions for the plundering of such valuable minerals as gold, cassiterite (tin ore), and coltan, a metallic ore crucial to the production of cell phones and laptops. These “blood minerals” are effectively stolen from the indigenous people and traded up through intermediary business agents, eventually landing in the hands of foreign multinational investors. As has been a consistent theme in Congo's history, the poor and helpless suffer for the profit of the privileged and powerful.
In the words of the late Edward Said, the noted humanist and scholar, “Every situation ... contains a contest between a powerful system of interests, on the one hand, and, on the other, less powerful interests threatened with frustration, silence, incorporation, or extinction by the powerful.” This certainly pertains to the crisis in the D.R.C., although it’s hardly a “contest.” The 45,000 people who die every month in eastern Congo don’t stand much of a chance against the powerful interests profiting from the country’s paralyzing instability. The silencing of the victims is perpetuated by the Western news media, themselves large business conglomerates with a vested interest in framing issues in such a way that avoids posing a serious threat to corporate power. The unconscionable human rights abuses in the D.R.C., then, are treated as “benign terror,” to borrow a term from Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman—that is, such horrific acts are fueled by the global business agenda and thus are best kept remote from public concern.
If real change is to occur in the D.R.C., it will begin with widespread activism and pressuring of the profit-oriented systems of power that tacitly support the continual suffering of the Congolese people. As privileged members of a respected artistic community, we have a unique opportunity to spread awareness among those whose lives we consistently affect. Solidarity and compassion can engender the courage and willingness to fight for the victims of violence and oppression in eastern Congo. It is a worthy struggle, but one which will only succeed through patience and active participation.