Since 1998 hundreds of thousands of Congolese women and children have been raped, and more than 5 million people have died. One of the first victims of the violence was my best friend—-almost a sister—and her husband. Her body was found mutilated with more than 100 bullet holes; her husband had been shot not far away from her. The incident occurred while they were traveling back to Goma from Kigali, Rwanda. At the time, I thought it was an isolated tragedy.
But in 1999 I started seeing more and more violence against women and children. And soon I started to realize that racism was to blame for the lack of global response to this humanitarian disaster. (It brought back memories from my childhood: my black, illiterate mother suffered for marrying the son of a rich, white Belgian colonialist.) In September 2000, after an 18-month-old baby, raped and with a broken body, died in my arms on our way to the hospital, I stopped believing in the promises of Western politicians and was convinced that mobilizing women might be the only way to change things.
This past August, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She placed a sharp focus on ending the sexual violence taking place here, pledging $17 million for medical care, counseling, economic assistance, and legal support. She understood that the empowerment and protection of women was essential to Congo's future. I was encouraged by her visit and her words. But since her trip, the violence has continued. Dozens of women continue to show up at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu each week because of the horrific injuries they have endured from sexual torture. More needs to be done to address this ongoing crisis.
The West has traditionally focused its attention on treating the consequences of sexual violence, but not the causes. My fellow activists and I have long tried to show that the exploitation of Congo's natural resources is a significant factor in the continuing atrocities. The mining industry here is driven by foreign demand, and will change only with international pressure for human rights and ethical business practices.
Nine years after that baby died in my arms, as grassroots activists within and outside Congo rally to expose the root causes of sexual violence, it's impossible to forget that day—and all of the horrible days that came before it. But I can glimpse the future of my beloved Congo, when women will be free and safe, and hope that the ghosts in my narrative won't repeat themselves in the memories of others.