June 26, 2008 -- Over the last year, I have been traveling to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in an effort to learn more about the country.
I view this as a long and ongoing learning experience to educate myself before making any attempt to advocate or "speak out." My plan has been to explore, watch, listen and find those doing the best work with and on behalf of the people of the DRC, in an effort to give exposure to voices which might not otherwise be heard.
In short, I want to listen before speaking and learn before taking action. The "Nightline" segment airing Thursday June, 26 is an attempt to take the viewer along with me in that process.
It makes sense to be skeptical about celebrity activism. There is always the suspicion that involvement with a cause may be doing more good for the spokesman than he or she is doing for the cause.
I welcome any questions about me and my involvement, but I hope you can separate whatever reservations you may have from what is unimpeachably important about this segment: the plight of eastern Congo.
Anyone familiar with the Congo has heard the mind-numbing statistics: more than four million dead since 1998 (and many more before then), the most killed in any conflict since the Second World War. 1,200 people a day are still dying from conflict and conflict-related causes such as starvation and preventable disease.
The country languished as the second worst on the list of failed states until last year, when it bumped up a few notches (though it still ranks below Iraq and Afghanistan on many indices).
The larger war that was fought in Congo included eight countries; regional fighting and violence still continue and instability, impunity and inhumanity are rampant. There are some parts of the country where two out of every three women have been raped.
Children are still widely used as soldiers if they are boys, and as "wives" to militia soldiers if they are girls. The state exerts little authority over much of the eastern part of the country — it is controlled by at least 22 known armed groups. These elements combine to create an environment, in some parts of the country that more closely resembles the movie "Road Warrior" than a properly secured modern state. Bands of militia groups roam freely and each answer only to their own respective leader, living off the population and offering as payment the "Congolese credit card" — the AK-47.
Because these travesties have happened in relative obscurity — for example, 16 times as many people have died in Congo as have in the terrible ongoing genocide in Darfur, yet far more has been heard about Western Sudan than Central Africa — one goal here is to simply raise awareness. The hope being that a spotlight's glare might help in a place where too much suffering has happened in the dark and also help those who are already hard at work trying to help themselves and their country.
My trip brought me to camps for people displaced from their homes, to rural hospitals, to gold mines, and even to remote operations with the United Nations designed to "sensitize" the most violent and vicious of the foreign-born militia in an effort to encourage them to return to their country of origin. I met with warlords and peacemakers, survivors and aid workers, all in an effort to try and better understand the inner workings of a terribly and yet wonderfully complex place, in the hopes of sharing that understanding with you.
I urge you to watch Thursday's "Nightline" report. I know this place and its people will move you as they have moved me. I do not believe that we live in boxes, separated from one another by imagined boundaries. The connected human chain which binds us demands that we contribute, even if only in some small way, to the betterment of the world. Congo is a place that deserves, at the very least, our eyes and our ears.
For more information or to get involved, visit:
Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital and Research Center: http://www.dmf.org/ourhospital.php
Save the Children: http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/en/990.htm
Malu Malu and Goma Peace Process: http://www.amanileo.org
Stand Proud (Polio Rehabilitation Center): http://www.ipvrc.org
International Medical Corps: http://www.imcworldwide.org
Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders): http://www.msf.org
Doctors Without Borders in the Democratic Republic of Congo: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/news/country.cfm?id=2290
United Nations Mission in Democratic Republic of Congo:http://www.monuc.org
Heal Africa Hospital: http://healafrica.org