NEW YORK — The Congolese women were losing their patience.
It’s not just that for more than 10 years they had been watching militia after militia move through their villages. It’s not just that they believed the minerals the militias are after get pushed into pockets and slip easily through the closest borders, in Uganda and Rwanda, and then get sold through middlemen for big money. It’s not even that they believed the presidents of those countries, who have led armies into and out of Congo numerous times in the past, tacitly permit what these women talk about having seen.
It’s that even in New York, across the street from the United Nations, during a meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women — a sort of Davos for global women’s rights — earlier this month, they felt invisible.
There were only six of them there, tasked with representing the situation in a region where some estimate more than 5 million people have died in the last decade. They were near the U.N., but not inside of it: They didn’t have passes to attend the official program, where a formal text meant to help guide the next phase of the global women’s rights movement was being negotiated. Meanwhile, the world has been talking for so long about them — but rarely with them — in heightened human rights rhetoric, but with little to show for it.
It can make a woman like Babunga Nyota wonder: “Is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights really for all people, or is there a different definition for the Congolese people?”
Nyota is the communications director of the Foundation for Congolese Women (FFC, a French acronym), a civil society umbrella group working through local women’s groups in eight provinces in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to what is now Africa’s longest-running violent conflict.
She and her colleagues were in New York not just to speak passionately about justice and peace. They were there to correct double standards they see in that rhetoric, and to do that with finely honed skills: political sophistication, strategic coalition-building, and a sense of responsibility to their communities across Congo.
Leonie Wangibikwa is a rape survivor and the president of a support group for other rape survivors, in Ituri province, along the border with Uganda. She said her story illustrates the cyclical nature of the violence in the DRC: She was raped three times, by three different perpetrators, over a span of years.
“If the M23 wore red, the day before yesterday, they were wearing yellow, and the day before that, black,” said Emerite Tabisha. She wasn’t speaking literally — the M23 rebel group didn’t wear red — but her meaning was clear. “They are coming from the same country. Maybe tomorrow they will be the M28. They [would] have the same support, and the same allies.”
The story of foreign armed interference in Congo, like all stories, has more than one side — and more than one chapter. In 1994, after ending a genocide at home, the Rwandan Patriotic Front marched into Congo, part of an alliance of regional militaries that overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko and installed a new president. In 1998, the war entered a second phase that has never really ended, despite numerous peace agreements.
That second phase starts to feel a little repetitive: In 2008, the U.N. published a report arguing that Rwanda was funding a powerful rebel group in eastern Congo, called the CNDP. The CNDP was eventually disbanded. Then, in 2012, the U.N. published a report arguing that Rwanda was funding a powerful rebel group in eastern Congo, called the M23. In both instances, Rwanda denied the claims.
It’s the M23 and the most recent cycle of violence the group has catalyzed that have been the subject of the latest headlines — and of lauded peace negotiations that have won wide praise from former U.S. senator and current Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region Russ Feingold.
All this, to Congo’s women, is abstraction.
“Who?” asked Julienne Lusenge, the director of the FFC, when Feingold’s name was mentioned at a lunchtime conversation.
They passed around a picture of Feingold: He looked strapping, on a late January hike to visit Congo’s silverback gorillas, in a photo that ran with “the unlikely story of how the former Wisconsin senator made peace in Congo.”
But the picture didn’t help. None of the women had ever seen, or heard of, Feingold. And they didn’t have much faith in the peace deal he helped broker, in December, between the Congolese government and the M23.
“It’s a recess,” Tabisha said. “It’s just a break.”
And it would stay that way, the women agreed, unless the international community got more serious. “If you want to make a casserole, you can catch chicks,” Tabisha said, referring to the presidents of Rwanda and Uganda. “But if you really want to eat, you must capture the hen.”
The hen, in this case, is the international community, and the FFC has clear ideas about what it would like Western nations to do differently.
Liberata Rubumba would start with staunching the flow of weapons into the country.
“We don’t have factories in Congo that manufacture weapons, so where are they coming from?” Rubumba said. “We went to [the capital of] Kinshasa on a lobbying mission, and we were told, ‘It is business. If we don’t sell weapons, how will we develop our own countries?’
“That hurt me,” she continued. “These ambassadors were saying plainly that they must make money off of something that kills our people.”
Josephine Malimukono would speed up the International Criminal Court (ICC) cases. That’s partly about getting into, and out of, the courtroom more quickly: The ICC has indicted seven men for their role in Congo’s violence — one was recently convicted, on all but gender-based violence charges — but three others haven’t had their charges confirmed, and one still remains in Congo, where he leads a militia.
But it’s also about extending the reach of investigations, Malimukono argued. “When it comes to Rwanda, the international community pursues génocidaires in France, in Canada, all over and brings them to justice,” she said. But wherever they are, “Conoglese warlords are left in peace.”
And Tabisha would more effectively force the middlemen out of the mineral trade, says Sud Kivu, who argues that the tin and coltan, critical for electronics, mined in the east are often smuggled out through Rwanda and Uganda, rather than being sold on the market directly. “Our resources are benefitting everyone else, and that’s creating poverty and undermining our social fabric.”
Of course, that’s also not an easy solution. At least $5.5 billion in mineral wealth disappeared when Congo privatized some of its mines at prices lower than their value, a British parliamentarian reported more than two years ago, only to watch the price go back up when private investors sold the miens among themselves — a hint at the amount of wealth likely siphoned off by politicians and their cronies.
“It’s true, we have a problem with corruption in our own government,” Julienne said. “But we’re going to deal with our government; but meanwhile, we want to cut the hands the support the middlemen.”
Perhaps most simply of all, they want a louder voice. They remember that lip service has been paid to women’s involvement in previous peace deals, and that there’s been attention to and funding around the problem of sexual violence, but say they have yet to see the international community take women’s ideas about power and politics seriously.
“You give money to the survivors,” said Lusenge, “but Wangibkwa,” she gestured to her colleague, “she has been raped three times. Why three times? Because you do not deal with the cause. You need medicine, you need support, but there is nothing that is addressing the cycle of violence.”
And that, the women agreed, is symptom of weak political will. Whoever Russ Feingold is, whatever peace deal has sent the M23 out to recess — these women aren’t convinced. What they see has a fundamental flaw hasn’t changed: The voice of ordinary people is missing from the political conversation, they say, because no one has made it a priority.
“We don’t have [Western] allies. If you don’t have a grandfather, who can you be telling, ‘My father is doing this to me?’” said Tabisha. “The civil society groups are definitely not being listened to.”