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Clinton Describes Plan to Fight Sexual Violence in Congo (The New York Times)

Originally published in:
The New York Times

Published: August 11, 2009

GOMA, Congo — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton unveiled a $17 million plan on Tuesday to fight the widespread sexual violence in eastern Congo, a problem she said was “evil in its basest form.”

Speaking during an unprecedented visit by an American secretary of state to Goma, in the epicenter of Congo’s war-torn east, she said the American government would help train gynecologists, supply rape victims with video cameras to document violence and send military engineers to help train Congolese police officers to crack down on rapists.

“This problem is too big for one country to solve alone,” she said at a round-table meeting here with doctors and human rights advocates.

“I’m not here to leave a business card, but I can’t wave a magic wand either,” she said when human rights workers pressed her for concrete assistance.

Eastern Congo has been awash in bloodshed for more than a decade, and it is now going through another horrific period. Recent Congo-Rwanda military operations along the volatile border have provoked revenge attacks and driven more than 500,000 people from their homes. Dozens of villages of have been burned, hundreds of villagers massacred and countless women raped. Since 1998, more than five million people throughout the in Congo are estimated to have died, and hundreds of thousands of women sexually assaulted. Rapes of men have begun to increase as well.

Mrs. Clinton came here, she said, to shine a light on the civilian deaths and endemic sexual violence, and to call on the government of Congo, whose own soldiers have been implicated in many of the abuses, to do a better job of protecting its own people.

“We are very concerned about civilian casualties: deaths and rapes and other injuries from military action,” she said at a news conference at the governor’s mansion here along the shores of Lake Kivu after a meeting with President Joseph Kabila and other officials.

“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.”

After meeting with the officials, Mrs. Clinton and her entourage drove to the displaced persons camp on the city’s outskirts, where 18,000 people camp on a lava field left behind by a devastating volcanic eruption several years ago. She toured the camp for about 15 minutes, during which she was surrounded by hundreds of people forced to leave their villages by the violence.

One woman, Chantal Mapendo, 32, came up to Mrs. Clinton and told her how she had been living for three years with her six children in the camp and that it was dangerous for her to go out to look for food, because women were often raped doing so. “Our life is very bad,” she said.

“I just met with President Kabila and told him we want to help you return home,” Mrs. Clinton told her.

Mrs. Clinton also met with local aid workers who told her about the horrors in the area, including the rape of an 8-year-old boy on Monday.

Human rights officials describe a certain “Congo fatigue” now creeping in among those trying to solve the conflict there. So many approaches have been tried — a billion-dollar-a-year United Nations peacekeeping mission; extensive disarmament programs; several regional peace treaties; and high-level diplomat visits like this — but nothing seems to work. It is still an intensely predatory conflict, driven by a mix of ethnic, commercial, nationalist and criminal interests.

From the beginning of the war in the mid-1990s, sexual violence has been a persistent expression of the lawlessness and instability. Many hope Mrs. Clinton’s visit can help change this.

“Congo suffers from a deadly attention deficit disorder,” said John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, an anti-genocide group. The fact Mrs. Clinton is here, especially in Goma, “is a major signal that the deadliest war in the world just shot up a few slots in the pecking order.”

But Mrs. Clinton, he said, must go beyond the sexual violence issue and the photo opportunities with Congolese’s victims to address the conflict’s root causes, especially the illicit mineral trade in coltan, which is used in laptops and cellphones, as well as illegal dealings in gold and other minerals.

“The U.S. should work with the electronics industry to trace audit and certify this trade, and pressure neighboring states like Rwanda to stop smuggling,” Mr. Prendergast said. “Like with the blood diamonds that fuel wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Angola, until the economic driver for conflict is addressed, there is no chance for peace.”

Mrs. Clinton spoke about what she called “conflict minerals” and said that the world must do more to keep profits from them “from ending up in the hands of those who fuel the violence.”

She also said she had pressed Mr. Kabila to ensure the prosecution of five senior officers in the Congolese military who have recently been accused of rape. Congo’s army is notoriously undisciplined, but Mrs. Clinton said that she believed that with training and regular, adequate pay, their behavior could improve.

She said she wanted to see a “new era” of cooperation with Congo and that she spoke with Mr. Kabila about enhancing military cooperation to “professionalize” the Congolese Army. She added that the United States would send a team of legal, financial and technical to help Congo with its governance issues.

Mrs. Clinton left Goma late Tuesday to returning to Kinshasa, the capital, on a United Nations flight. From there, she planned to fly to Nigeria, the fifth stop on her seven-nation African tour.

Jeffrey Gettleman reported from Goma, Congo, and Sharon Otterman from New York.