Politics of the prize

What do cellphones, laptops, iPods and PlayStations have to do with mass violence against women?
Politics of the prize 

by Najma Sadeque

What do cellphones, laptops, digital cameras, iPods and PlayStations have to do with sexualized violence against women and even small girls? Plenty. An essential and rare mineral for these is coltan, most of the world’s supply lying in the Democratic Republic of Congo.Resource-rich South countries – whether agricultural or mineral or both, have a common problem. They attract unwanted attention. They suffered colonization. With independence, local elites, feudals or warlords with acquired western tastes, took over and became the local colonizers, allowed to line their pockets so long as smooth transfer of resources abroad continued, and concentrated in the hands of multinationals.Some colonizers were relatively less oppressive than others, considering it easier to rule when locals were allowed to fulfill their main needs, rather than through brute force alone. The track record of British exploitation of South Asia pales into insignificance compared to the Congo nightmare. Unlike its current backwardness, Congo was once a sophisticated civilization with a civil service before the Portugese fell on it 500 years ago. Slavery followed; some four million slaves were shipped to America on British ships.Congo is huge, the size of western Europe — 2.34 million square kilometers. It should have been the world’s richest country, its natural resources are estimated worth 24 trillion dollars, largely untapped, of diamonds, cobalt, petroleum, gold, silver, uranium, zinc, copper, 30% of the world’s diamond reserves and 80% of the world’s coltan. But its foreign exploiters disallowed economic and political development so as to monopolize wealth for themselves. There are hardly any worthwhile roads or railways; healthcare and education is almost non-existent.

All this brings to mind the chilling parallel of Baluchistan, rich in minerals including gold and oil, barely developed while its gas supplies enriched the rest of the country before it got some out of its own, people impoverished, and for some time, foreign interests and local disgruntled people vying for control.

When Congo finally achieved independence in 1960, it was without a functioning bureaucracy — not a single Congolese lawyer, economist, engineer or doctor among them. All but three of the pre-independence 5000 civil service posts were manned by foreigners. The industrialized nations propped up weak or corrupt leaders.

Bedeviled by armed militants battling for power over resources, it engulfed eight more African countries and 25 rebel armies, all wanting a share of the pie. Its economy has been described as based on “plunder, racketeering and criminal cartels with worldwide connections.”

Slavery, trafficking, child labour (for mining), and the phenomenon of child soldiers emerged. Over 5 million died, half a million women raped and brutalized. Congo’s is a chilling, mind-numbing horror story unparalleled elsewhere. Clearly, warring as a way of life brings out the worst in men.

The US classifies coltan as a strategic mineral, and heightened conflicts coincided when Sony Playstations hit global markets. So many intermediaries lie between suppliers and foreign purchasers, it’s almost impossible to ascertain routes and identities.

Enters Dr. Denis Mukwege: The scene:1996 Shocked by the extreme sufferings of Congolese women in childbirth, he specialized in obstetrics and gynaecology. After hospitals where he worked were twice destroyed by civil war, international aid organizations helped him found the Panzi hospital. Half of its 450 beds are reserved for women victims.

Since 1999, the UN has kept its largest peace-keeping forces – some 20,000 on the ground. But it has largely failed its task of protecting civilians or containing mass gang rapes. Since then, Mukwege was confronted with the most cruel and sadistic sexualised violence. Attacks didn’t end with rape, but continued with mutilation with knives, bullets or chemicals. The most horrible and heartbreaking experiences were of women successfully treated, but raped again, their reproductive organs rendered beyond repair. To date, he and his colleagues have treated some 50,000 worst-case women victims. The psychological and surgical challenges are overwhelming. They are rehabilitated, taught new skills, given psychological counseling.

Mugabwe describes it best himself. “These weren’t just violent acts of war, but part of a strategy. You had situations where multiple people were raped at the same time, publicly – a whole village might be raped during the night. In doing this, they hurt not just the victims but the whole community, which they forced to watch. The result of this strategy is that people are forced to flee their villages, abandon their fields, their resources, everything.”

“In reality, this conflict is not about ethnicity — it is a territorial conflict about mineral resources. Without the political will the situation will not change. These underlying problems cannot be solved through my work. …. This will be the destruction of the Congolese people. If you destroy enough wombs, there will be no children.”

Outraged, and knowing nothing would stop unless the international community took direct responsibility and action, he began to tour, addressing parliamentarians and institutions. In September last year, he spoke at the UN General Assembly, demanding prosecution of rape as a tool of war and terror pursued for the past 16 years. For his troubles, an assassination attempt was made on him and his family, and they were forced to flee to Europe.

But the women wanted him back. They protested and raised funds for his flight back to home. They promised to ensure his security: groups of 20 women volunteers would take turns to guard him in shifts around the clock. Touched, Mukwege returned in January this year to cheering crowds. He now lives and works day and night at the Panzi Hospital, still saving women’s bodies and lives. It leads in gynecology, obstetrics, internal medicine and reconstructive surgery.

Mukwege was a front-runner for the Nobel Peace Prize this year. He didn’t get it. It would have glaringly highlighted the role of certain countries which were complicit, as well as the silence of the corporate media. Instead the prize went to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – which critics say was premature since its only claim to fame was persuading weaker countries to eschew chemical weapons, but dared not challenge the US, Israel and Egypt which continue to hold the largest remaining lethal stocks, and doesn’t discourage other lethal weapons. Interestingly, the prize coincided with the organisation’s mopping-up operations in Syria.

Maybe the plans for Baluchistan are not so inhuman, but other prospects still make one shudder.

This article was published in The Nation –  October 30, 2013
http://www.nation.com.pk/pakistan-news-newspaper-daily-english-online/columns/30-Oct-2013/politics-of-the-prize

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About denebsumbul

Documentarian, Activist, Journalist, Photographer, Capacity Trainer
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