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V-Day's Congo Director in meeting with Hillary Clinton in Congo - Read New York Times coverage


Originally published in:
The New York Times
08/12/2009

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/12/world/africa/12diplo.html?_r=1

GOMA, Congo - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton came face to face with the consequences of the brutality in eastern Congo on Tuesday afternoon when she met a Congolese woman who had been gang-raped while she was eight months pregnant.

The fetus died, Mrs. Clinton said, the woman was gravely injured and since there was no hospital nearby, villagers stuffed the woman's wound with grass to keep her from bleeding to death.

"I've been in a lot of very difficult and terrible settings," Mrs. Clinton said later. "And I was just overwhelmed by what I saw."

"It is almost impossible to describe the level of suffering," she said. Eastern Congo's rape epidemic, she added, "is just horrific."

Mrs. Clinton used her unprecedented visit - she is the first secretary of state to venture into the war zone here - to unveil a $17 million plan to fight Congo's stunning levels of sexual violence, a problem she called "evil in its basest form."

She announced that the American government would train doctors, supply rape victims with video cameras to document violence, send American military engineers to help build facilities and train Congolese police officers, especially female police officers, to crack down on rapists.

"This problem is too big for one country to solve alone," Mrs. Clinton said after meeting with Congo's president, Joseph Kabila. Her visit was part of a seven-nation Africa tour intended to strengthen relations with strategic African countries and to use American influence to stop Africa's wars.

Eastern Congo is home to the worst war on the continent right now, an intensely predatory conflict driven by a mix of ethnic, commercial, nationalist and criminal interests, in which various armed groups often vent their rage against women. The United Nations calls Congo the rape capital of the world and says hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in the past decade. Nothing so far - not 18,000 peacekeepers, not various regional peace treaties, not other high-level diplomatic visits - have stemmed the violence.

Recent Congo-Rwanda military operations along the volatile border may be making things worse. The operations have spawned revenge attacks that have driven more than 500,000 people from their homes. Dozens of villages of have been burned. Hundreds of villagers have been massacred. And countless women, and recently many men, have been raped. Often the rapists are Congolese soldiers.

Mrs. Clinton said she urged the Congolese government to do a better job of protecting its own people and to prosecute offenders in the Congolese military, which is notorious as one of the least disciplined, poorest paid armies anywhere.

"I spoke at length with President Kabila about the steps needed to be taken to protect civilians," she said. "We believe there should be no impunity for the sexual and gender based violence, and there must be arrests and punishment because that runs counter to peace."

Mrs. Clinton also addressed some of the conflict's root causes, including Congo's illicit mineral trade. In the words of Congo's foreign minister, who also met with Mrs. Clinton on Tuesday, the country, with its rich trove of diamonds, gold, copper, tin, coltan and other minerals, is a "geological scandal."

But Congo's mines are often the unlawful prize of armed groups, and Mrs. Clinton said the world needed to take more steps to regulate the mineral trade to make sure the profits do not end up "in the hands of those who fuel the violence."

After the official meetings, Mrs. Clinton and her heavily guarded entourage toured a refugee camp on the outskirts of Goma where 18,000 people are camped out on a field of volcanic rock. One of the first people she met was an aid worker who rattled off the problems: malaria, diarrhea, hunger, difficulties breathing because of all the dust, and of course, constant insecurity. The aid worker told Mrs. Clinton that an 8-year-old boy who had strayed out of the camp was raped the other day.

"Really?" Mrs. Clinton asked.

"Really," he answered.

Then she met Chantal Mapendo, mother of six, who stepped forward from the corridors of long drawn faces that had instantly formed to look at the important white lady with all the sunglassed security guards. Mrs. Clinton visited the camp for 20 minutes. Mrs. Mapendo, whose home area has been plagued by fighting, has been living here for three years.

"Our life is very bad," Mrs. Mapendo said. "We get raped when we go out and look for food. We want to leave this place and go home."

Mrs. Clinton nodded. "Thank you for talking with me," she replied. "I just met with President Kabila and told him we want to help you return home."

After the camp, she spoke with two rape survivors, including the woman who lost her fetus and nearly bled to death in the bush. Mrs. Clinton then talked with a group of doctors and advocates who specialize in treating victims of sexual violence. Many said they felt abandoned.

"Children are killed, women are raped and the world closes its eyes," said one woman.

Another called Congo the "soft belly" of Africa, a huge, rugged place with a notoriously inept army that has become a magnet for all the rogue groups in Africa.

A third woman, Christine Schuler-DeSchryver, a well-known anti-rape activist, vented about all the empty promises from the stream of high-ranking visitors who have recently come to eastern Congo, "one more important than the next."

"In the end, all we got was a pile of business cards," she said.

She pressed Mrs. Clinton to do more to end the criminally-controlled mineral trade.

"Madame Secretary," she said, "we want you to be our spokesperson, our voice."

After five hours on the ground in Goma, Mrs. Clinton climbed back on the plane, this time bound for Nigeria. She seemed drained.

"It was an incredibly emotional experience," she said.