Tomorrow there will be a further protest in London over the re-election of Kabila in dubious circumstances. This follows on from a week of protests including 143 arrests at a similar protest on Saturday. Protests against the elections results have occurred in a number of major cities and indeed it was chancing on one in Glasgow which piqued my interest in the country. Since coming across the demo on Saturday, I’ve been reading up on the Congo, its history, the current conflict and our complicity in it…and its horrifying. With five million deaths and half a million rapes in a country with a similar number of residents to the UK – it is the equivalent of the population of Scotland being decimated and every woman in Glasgow raped.
Yet it is massively under-reported. Mainstream news reports in the Western press coalesce around isolated incidents of brutality with little context or narration beyond a shrugging of the shoulders of the savagery of the natives. But what would be the reaction if an atrocity like those common in the Congo happened in the Home Counties. A new short film explores exactly that. Based on a true story of a woman called Masika, it tells the tale of the day that the soldiers came to call. The film is called “Unwatchable” for a reason: it is not for those with a weak constitution. After watching the film, I listened to Masika tell the complete story in her own words, and it transpires that the film is a substantial sanitisation of her actual ordeal.
Immediately after watching this, I read a report on Indymedia on the Congolese protest on Saturday. After viewing such an upsetting account of just one of the the atrocities which are commonplace within the country, the disparity between the Congo and the UK was brought home to me with a bang. It would appear that trouble broke out at the protest, with a small number becoming violent including the throwing of bottles and in one case violently pushing a middle aged member of a carol singing group, raising money for a cancer charity. Now, I’m not suggesting that chucking bottles and pushing carol singers is right, but having watched the unwatchable, the sheer bathos and horrible smugness of white middle-class Westerners obviously progressive enough to read Indymedia suggesting that the woman’s life was in danger and upset at the ruination of the festive spirit after a pleasant afternoon at West End shows made me feel nauseous. Given the atrocities being committed in their motherland with hardly a cheep from the Western media; it is hardly surprising that the Congolese diaspora are more than a little pissed off.
The situation of those who do manage to escape the torture, rape and genocide going on in the Congo, probably quite a number who made up that protest, is precarious. People are routinely repatriated back from the UK with the government suggesting that internal migration can keep them safe. Yet the position of those returning who are known to have attempted to escape, returning in handcuffs for interview on arrival with the documentation which details their mistreatment being passed to the Congolese authorities. Right now, a young woman named Sandra – 16 years old and alone – who fled the Congo two years ago is facing deportation. With no resources, no contact with her family and never having even visited Kinshasa, she is in considerable danger if returned. Not that we would ever find out what happens to her if she was. The UK government does not track the outcomes of people that it deports – tautologically claiming that it only deports people who are in no danger and therefore do not require ongoing monitoring, despite the mere fact of claiming asylum marks them out to the Congolese authorities. Yet this is clearly not the case. Justice First tracked 17 adults and 9 children who had been forcibly deported:
- Two disappeared
- Nine were arrested and imprisoned
- Thirteen were tortured, including four who were sexually assaulted or raped
- Six children were imprisoned, three separate from their mothers
- Six paid bribes either to prevent their detention or gain their release
The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory over forgetting
Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
History never looks like history while you are in the midst of it – yet the history which is is being created in the Congo right now is an ongoing trajectory of European exploitation and brutalisation. The areas now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the site of the former Kingdom of Kongo where a matrilineal, semi-nomadic yet well-resourced civilization existed prior to the appearance of the white colonisers in the mid nineteenth century. Tales are told of the arrival of the white man, how hails of arrows were no match for his firepower, and how like in the Americas they dazzled the natives with trinkets, technology and above all, guns. Initially the indigenous peoples found them fascinating believing them to be the spirits of their long dead and much revered ancestors; within a generation of first contact they would find themselves enslaved, brutalised and exploited.
Under the Berlin Treaty of 1885, the Congo became the private fiefdom of King Leopold. During his rule, the automobile industry was in the ascendancy and demand for rubber to make tyres increased massively. The rubber industry presided over some of the worst human rights abuses ever known with the population of the Congo halved and shortages in the rubber quotas demanded paid for in human hands.
This is not ancient history – there are people alive today whose grandparents would have lived their lives one-handed through their tardiness at collecting rubber as a child.
Although changing to administration by the Belgian government, colonial rule continued in the Congo until 1960, with the election of Patrice Lumumba, a pan-Africanist, dedicated to uniting the differing ethnic interests within the area and hostile to the colonial exploitation of the country’s natural resources. Within 6 months he was dead – assassinated by a collusion of the CIA and the Belgian authorities. After five years of instability a stooge dictator was eventually installed by the US government, who amassed a $5bn personal fortune through the appropriation of the wealth of the country in collusion with Western interests. His overthrow in 1997, led to the Great War of Africa. (Never heard it before? Me neither – the deadliest conflict since World War 2, involving 8 nations and 25 armed groups, yet scantily reported in the West.) This time it was not the automobile industry fueling the conflict, but the emergent technology industry, reliant on Coltan – a mineral primarily found in the Congo.
It is a cruel irony that the technology which enables me to find out all this information about the Congo, write this post and email in support of Sandra fuels the epidemic of torture, murder and rape engulfing the country. It is a further irony, that in the days of mass communication made possible by such technology, enabling citizen journalists to document stories which the mainstream press ignores, the £77 average annual wage of the Congo does not stretch to purchase technologies dependent on the country’s resources.
While we may wring our hands at the atrocities of King Leopold, protected by the perspective offered by the passing of time, and forgive those early motorists who colluded in the maiming of little children, for they knew not what was done in their name, we have no excuses now. The torture, genocide and rape that continues in the Congo is driven by our use of technology, the profits that are to be made from the industry and the callousness with which we view Congolese citizens.