Adam Sloan meets Johann Hari, The Independent writer, and discusses his experiences covering the war in Congo
It is the most deadly conflict since the Second World War, raging across nine countries and causing four million deaths. Yet weeks will go by and the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo barely gets a mention in the media. For years eastern Congo has effectively been outside central government control. Congo, a country the size of Western Europe, has seen hundreds of thousands of children orphaned since 1994. Every day, women are kidnapped by militias, and rape is used as a weapon of war.
Last week I travelled down to London to meet Johann Hari, the 27 year old columnist for the Independent, author and playwright who last month visited Congo to see for himself why the war has continued and to listen to the voices of the women and children who are most affected by the continuing violence. I met with Hari, a left-leaning journalist and member of the Labour Party, in his trendy Brick Lane apartment.
As well as writing for the Independent, Hari has contributed to the New York Times, Le Monde and The Guardian, won the 2003 Young Journalist of the Year award and been the youngest ever person to be nominated for the Orwell Prize for political writing. Hari famously described religion as “organised superstition” and has been labelled “fat” by the Dalai Lama as well as being called a “c***” by Busted.
Hari visited Congo along with a fact-finding mission from the Labour Party that also included his friend, ex-MP and York graduate Oona King. Hari was particulary interested in the consequences of the conflict for Congolese women. Hari visited a “rape clinic, the only rape clinic in Eastern Congo, where there were dozens of women who had been gang raped and shot in the vagina.” This is an increasingly common occurrence in Congo. Rather than fighting each other, the militias are trying to destroy the other side’s moral by fighting their women; “sexual violence is now absolutely endemic as a tool of war in Congo,” said Hari.
Hari also visited a hospital run by Denis Mukwege, whom he described as “the Oskar Schindler” of the Congolese. For many years Dr. Mukwege was not allowed to treat rape victims, so he ran his hospital in secret. “He had a three year old girl brought in where, as he put it, ‘everything had been shot away’, and the father committed suicide because he couldn’t cope with it.” Hari described how Dr Mukwege saw an old woman who had been gang raped in front of her sons-in-law.” The relationship between a mother and her son-in-law is a very holy one in Congo, “she just said ‘don’t feed me, I want to die, I can never go back.’” The women that make it to Dr. Mukwege’s hospital are, of course, the lucky ones. Most women are just left to die.
So why have things ended up like this? Why does this war that officially ended in 2003, with the Lusaka peace accords, continue to destroy so many lives? The answer is probably sitting right in front of you, in your computer, in your iPod and in your mobile phone. All of these electronic devices contain a metal called coltan, 80% of known supplies of which lie under Congo.
The official story of how the war started centres around the tiny mountain state of Rwanda. After the 1994 genocide, many of its perpetrators it fled across the border into Congo. What is said to have happened is the Rwandan forces then went across the border to capture them. Other countries then invaded as a countervailing force resulting in what former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Africa’s first world war.
The UN panel of experts set up to look into the causes of the war discovered a more sinister story. What it found was that Rwanda did not invade to go after the perpetrators of the genocide, but to seize the mineral resources of Congo and sell them on to us in the West. Due to the increasing popularity of mobile phones and PlayStations, the price of coltan has boomed This made it much more attractive for Rwanda and the other international armies and militias to go into Congo and take it. “As Oona King puts it, kids in Congo were being sent down mines to die so that kids in Europe and America could kill imaginary aliens in their living room.”
Hari and King visited an orphanage just outside the capital, Kinshasa; “we were told this was one of the best orphanages in Congo. When we arrived, the first room we went into, the children were just lying on the gloor covered in s***, and flies and vomit. They said this was where the Aids babies go.”
“One boy was just rocking back and forward, we asked, ‘what is wrong with this kid?’ They said, ‘he’s been like that since he arrived here.’ We asked what his name was and they said ‘he doesn’t have a name.’”
It is not only Congo’s physical landscape that is in ruins, but its psychological one too. Stories of witchcraft have been around for a long time in Congo, but now as a consequence of the war, people have started accusing children of being witches; “in the orphanage we saw a child who they called ‘Fidel’, who had his penis cut off by his parents because they thought he was a witch. I went to one of the evangelical churches promoting this idea of witchcraft in a place called Bukavu. I met a 14-year-old girl who was accused of being a witch. She said that her grandmother had came to her in her sleep, and forced her to eat an evil doughnut, and this had meant she had killed her baby sister.” At this point of the interview Hari paused for a while and said, “if Britain had 4 million people murdered, and the rest of us displaced from our homes, living in terror and gang raped, we would start to believe some pretty crazy things too.”
For more information visit:
Web page of the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Visit this website to find out more about the Independent columnist, author and playwrite.