These are strange, exhilarating times to be working on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For the first time since full-fledged war broke out in the central African country in 1996, the American public seems to be waking up to the brutality of the conflict there. Over the past year, there has been a flurry of activity inside and outside the Beltway -- in congressional hearings, Oprah shows, and Broadway theater. The country's ongoing rape epidemic is finally getting front-page treatment. Congress passed a bill specifically on the Congo, and lawmakers and corporate boards in California, Pittsburgh, and universities around the country may soon follow suit.
For those of us who have been writing about or working in Congo for over a decade, this attention is anachronistic. Past is the height of the war, when nine African countries slugged it out through the country's jungles, savannahs, and highlands, splitting the country into half a dozen fiefdoms. Since 2003, the country has been unified; troops from Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Angola have (largely) withdrawn. Elections were held in 2006, confirming Joseph Kabila -- who had taken over after his father's assassination in 2001 -- as president.
Despite the peace deal, violence has escalated in recent years in the eastern Kivus region -- along the border with Rwanda and Burundi -- as the government has tried to root out remaining armed groups through brutal counterinsurgency campaigns. While conflict has become confined to a smaller area and is less regional, it is still incredibly vicious. A study released this week in a U.S. medical journalconcludes that more than 400,000 women are being raped a year, with between 17 percent to 40 percent of women in the east reporting sexual assault during their lifetime.
But the violence in eastern Congo is sadly not new. So why this sudden flurry of attention? The novelty is the grassroots mobilization around the issue in the United States. For years, the sheer complexity of the conflict -- more than 50 different Congolese armed groups have seen the light of day in the past decade, fighting for a host of reasons -- has been the bane of reporters and activists alike. How can you make someone care about a conflict you can't explain? In 2006, even the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof attempted to justify why he wasn't writing much about the Congo: "I grant that the suffering is greater in Congo. But our compass is also moved by human evil, and that is greater in Darfur." Good guys vs. bad guys make for an easier story. It has always been difficult to reduce the Congolese conflict to such simple binaries.
But the needle began moving back toward Congo in 2007, when John Prendergast founded the Enough Project. Prendergast, a former National Security Council director, felt stymied by the limitations of his work with the International Crisis Group (which aimed to influence high-level policymakers). "I knew that unless Americans started putting pressure on their elected officials, nothing was going to change," he told me. And in order to rally those grassroots, his new organization had to boil the conflicts in Africa -- starting with Sudan and now including the Congo and Uganda -- down to a more simple narrative and focus on the naked suffering.