Author’s note: The aid group Invisible Children, whose work is featured in this 2011 post, has launched a very effective viral video and Twitter campaign (#Kony2012) aimed at mustering support for the international military campaign to hunt and capture or kill Joseph Kony, the leader of the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group hiding out in Congo and Central African Republic. I will discuss the wisdom of Invisible Children’s campaign in coming days.
In February 2006, an army of rapists descended on Duru, a farming community of 5,000 in eastern Congo. They called themselves, without a trace of irony, the “Lord’s Resistance Army.”
Twenty-three years ago in neighboring Uganda, under firebrand founder Joseph Kony, the LRA fought to establish a bizarre voodoo-Christian theocracy in the country’s impoverished, neglected north. Soundly defeated by the Ugandan army in 2006, the LRA fled westward into the thickly forested, poorly governed border region of Congo, Sudan, and Central African Republic. There, the rebels have lost all touch with their politics and fight only to survive. To eat, they murder farmers and pillage their fields. To keep up their numbers, they kidnap and brainwash little boys. For recreation, they catch and keep girls.
The first LRA attack on Duru in 2006 was a near miss. The rebels raided a few outlying farms, taking what they could carry and leaving behind several traumatized women. A month later, the Forces Armees de la Republique Democratique du Congo (FARDC) arrived to “protect” the town from LRA attacks. That’s when the real trouble started. As they often do when they garrison in a new town, the Congolese soldiers began raping Duru’s women and girls. It was the beginning of another episode in Congo’s long history of mass sexual violence. The army and police, rebel groups such as the LRA, and, increasingly, private citizens, commit tens of thousands of violent rapes every year — though in fact, no one knows the exact number, as most victims cannot or do not seek treatment or justice from Congo’s dilapidated hospitals and corrupt courts.
Congo is the “rape capital of the world,” according to the United Nations. The problem has gotten so bad that it might very well result in the ground-up “reversal of a society’s norms and values,” according to a recent report from Harvard University and the aid group Oxfam International. As bad as life is now for Congo’s 35 million women and girls, it would be worse if the country totally collapsed. Such a breakdown would also be a disaster for a region struggling to emerge from 50 years of war and, frankly, for the developed world — the U.S. included. Congo isn’t just some jungle backwater; it’s roughly the size of Western Europe, sharing borders with 10 other countries. Underneath its tropical forest lie substantial reserves of uranium, tungsten, tin, tantalum, gold, and other valuable minerals.
The Obama administration also has a strong emotional connection to Congo. Over a year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed to bring American power to bear in helping reform the country’s culture of rape. The tools she favors fall into a category known in Beltway circles as “smart power” — military intervention that focuses on training, construction, and humanitarian work while taking pains to avoid violence. After all, many of Congo’s modern-day problems are due, in part, to decades of armed intervention by the Belgians and other colonial powers that undermined the development of functional and accountable government.