Corporate Complicity in Congo's War

By Kathleen Kern
[This article first appeared in Tikkun magazine, March/April 2006 and is reprinted by permission.]


Goma's hospital compound has a tent for rape victims awaiting surgery and one for women recovering from surgery. In the pre-op area, I held a month-old girl who was fascinated by the dim electric light hanging from the ridgepole. She arched her back and waved her arms, straining to encounter her exciting new world and oblivious of the atrocity that had created her life.

The mother told me her baby's name was Esther. Clasping her breasts, she said she had no milk. She did not tell me what operation she was waiting for. Perhaps her rapist(s) had caused a fistula, penetrating the wall between her rectum and vagina with penises, guns, or machetes. Hundreds of other injuries are possible. We had seen pictures of women shot in the vagina, who had had salt rubbed in their eyes until they were blind (and thus could not identify their assailants), who had been burned, or had limbs amputated after their rapes.

Since 1996, nearly four million people have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from a conflict that has involved several rebel armies, the militaries of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Namibia, Angola, and their proxy militias. These armed groups and the official Congolese army have shifted alliances, split apart and regrouped under other names, but they all have important aspects in common: they target civilians and they all use rape as a weapon of war. Rape as a Weapon of War

For many Congolese women, rape is only the beginning of their trauma. A quarter to a third of the women contract HIV from their assailants, and they are often raped in front of their husbands and children. The husbands or husbands' families then view the women as "contaminated,"even when they do not contract a disease, and drive them and their children out of the village. Sometimes they tell the women that they may stay if they kill children born as a result of the rape. Those not killed often become street children (a phenomenon unknown before 1996, several Congolese told us).

Deprived of their social supports, women become prostitutes or burden-bearers to feed themselves and their children. In every community we visited, we saw women bent double, carrying loads of produce or building materials supported by straps that cut deep grooves into their foreheads.

Congolese churches and civic groups have attempted to provide medical care, counseling, and job training for the rape survivors, but they are overwhelmed by the staggering numbers of raped and displaced women. The UN Fund for Women and human rights groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped since 1998, although because of the social stigma, the vast majority of rapes go unreported. The head of a women's organization in Bukavu told us that in 2004 a small grant from the Danish Lutheran church had enabled her to help 1,200 women who had been raped in the area. She had to stop the program when funds ran out, and now lacks the means even to document the rapes.

The use of rape as a weapon of war has had broader ramifications for the people of eastern Congo. Since armed groups often attack women when they are working in the fields, many women are afraid to leave their homes. Thus, in fertile lands with a year-round growing season, people in the country are beginning to go hungry. Growing Civilian Violence

Violence perpetrated by armed groups has also led to an increase in violence among the civilian population. "Something in our society is unhinging," Jeanne, the head of the Protestant Women's Society of North Kivu told us. Her organization documents stories of rape and sexual assault of a ferocity and frequency unheard of before the war(s). She told us of girls‹some as young as eighteen months‹raped by neighbors, brothers, taxi drivers, and teachers. Her organization has responded by training 36,000 children to resist rapes and teaching parents never to let their daughters go anywhere alone or be alone with a man, even a teacher.

Some stories haunt her. One young woman delivered a stillborn baby the day after her three-year-old child had died. She was too weak to move when five armed men entered the house and her husband fled. They gang-raped her with the cadaver of the stillborn in the room. She needed five operations and will never have children. The husband married someone else.

Then there was the girl raped by two brothers and their father. When her mother saw she was pregnant, she sent her daughter to the men who had raped her, saying it was their job to take care of her. "She is mentally ill now and cannot stand to be touched," Jeanne told us. "We can't bring a case against the rapists because she has stopped speaking. She is in a deplorable state."

After relating these stories, Jeanne paused and said, "You can get sick yourself." The West's Role

Telling stories like these can do damage. For too long, people in the One-Third world have known about Africa chiefly through "famine pornography" and atrocities such as the Rwandan genocide. As a result, Westerners have stereotyped Africa as a continent of savages. The story that Westerners need to hear, however, is that the atrocities committed in Congo are being funded, at least indirectly, by large Western corporations. There is a direct relationship between the suffering of women in Congo and the prices we pay for cell phones and laptops here in the United States.

The director of a woman's organization in Goma told us that if we wanted Westerners to understand the roots of violence in Congo, we ought to publicize how Western countries are facilitating and profiting from Congo's misery by dumping weapons into the country. "We are treated like the wastebasket of the world," she said. A representative of the human rights organization COHDO spoke to our delegation of an "Anglophone conspiracy" by the United States, United Kingdom, and South Africa to keep distributing arms to militias and armies. By doing so, he said, they keep the region destabilized, and thus open to the exploitation of its resources.

According to most of the people we spoke to, these resources are perhaps the key ingredient to understanding Congo's misery. The country has rich deposits of diamonds, gold, cobalt, timber, and other natural resources. It also contains 85 percent of the world's coltan ore. Tantalum, an element derived from this ore, is essential to the manufacture of laptop computers and cell phones.

If the Congo were at peace and able to hold democratic elections, its citizens might gain control over its resources, either by claiming national ownership (as Iran and Venezuela do with their oil) or by regulating the multinational companies that seek to profit from those resources. The violent atmosphere, however, makes it impossible for the Congolese government to challenge corruption within or to exert any authority over multinationals seeking profits. It is thus in the interest of the multinational companies to keep the Congo at war. Intentional Destabilization

And this intentional destabilization is precisely what has been happening. A panel of experts set up by the UN Security Council in 2000 issued a series of reports over the next few years describing how networks of high-level politicians from Congo and neighboring countries, military officers, and business people collaborated with various rebel groups to fuel violence in order to gain control over Congo's resources. For example, in 2002 the UN panel noted that as much as 60 to 70 percent of coltan in eastern Congo was mined under the surveillance of the Rwandan military, using the forced labor of Rwandan prisoners.

A 2003 follow-up report by the panel listed eighty-five multinational companies that had profited from the war in Congo, including six U.S.-owned companies: Cabot Corporation, Eagle Wings Resources International (a subsidiary of Trinitech International), Kemet Electronics Corporation, OM Group, and Vishay Sprague. With the exception of Belgium, few governments in countries where these corporations are based have made an attempt to hold these corporations accountable for the contributions they made to the violence in Congo.

For example, after the UN panel of ex perts reported on corporations pillaging Congo's resources in October 2002, Ambassador Richard S. Wil liam son (U.S. Alternative Representative for Special Political Affairs to the UN) told the UN Security Council that the "United States Government will look into the allegations against these [American] companies and take appropriate measures." However, Friends of the Earth (FOE), which had been following up on the panel's allegations against the American companies, noted in October 2003 that "to date, the Bush administration has placed a greater emphasis on exonerating U.S. companies than on undertaking a meaningful examination into how U.S. companies might have contributed to the conflict in [Democratic Republic of Congo] via supply chains."

The panel of experts' final report in October 2003 said that no further investigation was required into the activities of Cabot, Eagle Wings, and the OM Group, who had protested their appearance on the list of eighty-five corporations. However, the report clearly stated that the resolution of this issue should not be interpreted as absolution. The panel's earlier findings about the contribution that these corporations had made to violence in Congo stood.

Because of the inaction of the American government regarding the behavior of the corporations involved, FOE and the U.K.-based group Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) filed a complaint with the U.S. State Department on August 4, 2004 against Cabot, Eagle Wings Resources, International, and OM Group, Inc. According to Colleen Freeman, who works with RAID, Wesley S. Scholz, from the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs in the U.S. State Department, declined to investigate the companies further, citing the Panel's conclusion that the issues involving the U.S. companies were resolved. However, in January 2005 he notified the three companies that FOE and RAID still had issues they wished to discuss and offered to facilitate an informal dialogue between the two organizations and the corporations. When RAID contacted Scholz in September 2005 to follow up, he said that the companies had confirmed receiving his letter, but did not respond.

By failing to act, the U.S. and other Western governments have sent a troubling message: Corporations are not responsible for ensuring that their purchase of natural resources does not finance weapons and human rights abuses in the Two-Thirds world. There is a thin but clear link between money that flows to the militias from corporations interested in protecting their claim to the Congo's resources, and the militias' ability to recruit new soldiers and to continue attacking villagers. Unless the corporate plunder of the Congo is stopped, the terror‹and the rapes‹will continue. What We Can Do

The organization I work for, Christian Peacemaker Teams, places teams in areas where an international presence might deter violence. After we described how our presence has been valuable in Colombia, the West Bank, Iraq, and North America, most of the Congolese we talked to said that a team of volunteers in the countryside‹where most of the violence happens‹would probably be raped and killed along with the villagers we would intend to protect. Indeed, the only action that most Congolese requested of us was to pray, tell their stories, and to send to Congo more Westerners, especially women, who could publicize what was happening in their country.

To those in Congo trying to create change, one of the most discouraging aspects of their work is the feeling that their efforts happen in a vacuum, that no one outside Africa cares about what happens in eastern Congo. The challenge for North Americans, then, is to look beyond the mainstream media and make a commitment to educating themselves about the war and plunder in Congo, to bring what they learn before their friends, congregations and legislators, and to proclaim that the lives of baby Esther and her mother matter.

Kathleen Kern has worked with Christian Peacemaker Teams since 1993, serving on assignments in Haiti, the West Bank, Chiapas, and Colombia. Her novel, Where Such Unmaking Reigns, based on her experiences in the West Bank, was selected as a finalist for Barbara Kingsolver's 2002 Bellwether Prize.