Fighting Rape in the Congo

The Los Angeles Times
October 23,2010

For more than a decade, rebel soldiers from Rwanda have committed atrocities in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo with almost complete impunity. They kidnap children, murder men and are conducting a strategic campaign of raping and torturing women. In August, the United Nations confirmed that members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, and another militia were responsible for hundreds of rapes in the Walekali region — and rape is a tepid word for the brutal attacks. Victims were mutilated with broken bottles, tree branches and bayonets, and shot in the genitals.

That is why the recent arrest in Paris of Callixte Mbarushimana, the executive secretary of the FDLR, on a warrant from the International Criminal Court charging him with war crimes is momentous. It comes after 18 months of international cooperation by governments that tracked his movements through France, Germany, Congo, Rwanda and other countries. It also comes amid increasing pressure from aid organizations, human rights activists, philanthropists, religious groups and artists to stop the violence and, in particular, the rapes.

Human Rights Watch, the Enough Project, Women for Women International and many other groups, working with Africa-based organizations such as Friends of the Congo, have sustained awareness of a crisis that otherwise would be remote and unseen by much of the world. In Los Angeles, that mission is largely undertaken by Jewish World Watch, founded by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis and Janice Kamenir-Reznik. What started with a few dozen area synagogues has grown into a global coalition including churches, schools and community organizations. The group has partnered with African and Israeli organizations to underwrite the training of Congolese doctors to repair the mutilations of rape victims, create a burn center in eastern Congo and fund a program to teach vocational skills to survivors of the violence.

Increasingly, activism and art have become partners. This month, the group honored Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage before a performance of her searing drama "Ruined," about three Congolese rape survivors living in a brothel. In New York, a series of Congo-related films recently kicked off Congo Week.

The arrest and indictment of one FDLR leader will not halt years of conflict, although State Department officials rightly hope that Mbarushimana's capture will inspire other rebels to lay down their guns. Nor can one play, a handful of films or the work of several charities bring peace to Congo. But taken together, they offer hope.