What Ashley Judd Learned In Africa

I wonder about the girl, the very little girl, in the tattered pink tutu. It's been a little more than six months now since the American actress Ashley Judd caught a glimpse of her through the mud-streaked window of a battered car rattling toward Goma in eastern Congo. Today the headlines, mostly in the news-roundup columns, the "also in the world today" segments, say that tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing toward Goma, which already had so many. They are the miserable survivors of one of those wars the world hasn't quite forgotten, but just doesn't really give a damn about. Have a million people been killed there this decade? Actually, many more—but faceless people, African people, victims bereft of significance in a 24/7 news cycle that fixates on Sarah Palin's wardrobe.

That Judd fixated on that little girl's wardrobe struck me as much more important when I read the description in Judd's diary of a brief trip into Congolese hell published recently on the TheCommunity.com. And then I met Judd in New York a few weeks ago. I've talked to any number of stars who've adopted causes, but she was the first I'd interviewed since Audrey Hepburn back in 1992 whose descriptions of what she saw made me see the suffering for myself. Both were incredibly vulnerable to what they experienced, Hepburn working with UNICEF, Judd with Population Services International. The difference is that Judd is just so American, so Southern, so earthy, in fact.

"Tell me about the girl in the tutu," I said.

"Well, Goma," said Judd, choosing a word very deliberately, "is a s---hole." The description is perfectly accurate. "There are no paved roads, there are giant potholes, there is loose dust and dirt, there is strewn rubble: just massive scenes of garbage and rubbish. There is a different look in people's eyes, very cagey and challenging and suspicious, sinister, because of the sense that you don't know what's getting ready to happen. Random armed men would just come up to the car and knock on the window. There was a volcanic eruption not that long ago, so literally, the world is grey. Goma is just grey, grey, grey."

And Judd wondered, "How does a child—3- or 4-years old, or maybe an 8-year-old whose growth is so badly stunted by malnutrition if not outright starvation—come across a pink tutu?" The cast-off clothes of the world wind up in Africa, in fact, barely clothing a cast-off people.

Judd thought of America's abundance, and those little girls she sees going to church on a Sunday in Tennessee who, having proudly dressed themselves, wear colorful mismatched elastics and rosettes in their hair and maybe a little tutu-type dress. They are so safe and happy, as they should be. And then there was this vision of the little girl in Goma, and seeing her was one of those moments that anybody who visits war zones and refugee camps experiences. Surrounded by so much incredible suffering, you glimpse something incongruous, something you can't quite process, and it releases emotions like flame exploding from a burning home. "That torn, filthy, ragged tutu on this child just seared into my soul," said Judd.

"Why do you think people don't pay more attention, given that there is so much suffering?" I asked. "Do you think it's because it's so hard to figure out the good guys from the bad guys?" In the current fighting, the Tutsis—the tribe slaughtered in Rwanda during the genocide of 1994—are leading a rebel army against the government of Congo. They claim, with reason, that Congolese military is allied to the Rwandan Hutu killers who sought refuge in the countryside surrounding Goma after their defeat 14 years ago. Those armies, and others that have splintered off, are also looking to control vast deposits of valuable tin and colombo-tantalite, or coltan, a metal useful in the manufacture of cell phones and computers. All sides turn children into soldiers, all sides use rape as a weapon of war. And the biggest peacekeeping contingent deployed by the United Nations anywhere in the world has neither the ability nor, it would seem, the will to impose order. "It's hard to build a narrative here of anything except suffering," I suggested.

"Maybe the numbers are too staggering," said Judd. The International Rescue Committee has counted 5.4 million people who've died from war-related causes in the Congo since 1998, which it calls "the world’s deadliest documented conflict since WW II." The vast majority have died from "secondary" causes, which bring on protracted suffering as horrible as that inflicted by any bullet or bomb. Under other circumstances, the fatal malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition would be "easily preventable and treatable," as the IRC concludes.

"Maybe this concept of secondary deaths isn't something that we respect yet," said Judd. "I don't know. I do think that women and children tend to be the most vulnerable and the most exploited and the most underserved and so there is probably a gender inequality factor that contributes to the lack of attention that's being given."

"Why do you do this?" I asked.

"Because I have to," she said. The journey to Rwanda and Congo in May, like many others she has taken with PSI, seems to have been intensely personal, at once exploration and expiation, and completely exhausting. "I know when it's time to go back," she said. "I was flat on my back for three weeks after the Democratic Republic of Congo." She went to her family doctor, and then to a psychologist in Nashville who deals with post-traumatic stress disorder. And the psychologist said, "Actually, this isn't trauma, this is just plain old straight-up grief."

During the genocide in Rwanda and in Bosnia in the 1990s, and in so many other horrible conflicts before and since, journalists, diplomats and not a few celebrities have witnessed horrors and warned of worse to come, and nothing effective is done to stop the impending tragedy. Even when a cause becomes as celebrated as saving Darfur, it's hard to see positive results. So what can you do in a place as vastly grim and as widely ignored as eastern Congo?

"I have to put my faith in the power of an individual," said Judd. "A few sips of water made safe, averting a single case of HIV, preventing an unintended pregnancy—those moments matter.

"My grandmother taught me that what comes from the head goes over the head, what comes from the heart goes to the heart," said Judd. Her colleagues at PSI and YouthAIDS do the heavy analytical and organizational lifting needed to sustain clinics and deliver other kinds of help around the world, Judd said, leaving her to work "entirely from the heart."

"Inevitably, there are people who say that you are a voyeur," I said.

"Let them come with me—Come 'voyeur' with me," she said.

"There is a powerful scene in your diary about women waiting outside the clinic in Goma that treats rape victims," I said. "There are so many that they wait for days, weeks, months, living hand to mouth."

"This epidemic of rape; it's like a contagion," said Judd. "When one man does it, it activates other men, and then the more brutal it becomes—looking for pregnant women to rape, and children. It's so unbelievably heinous that it's hard for us to wrap our minds around."

"Sit with a woman, who, through word of mouth, heard there was a clinic which could help a woman who had been raped," said Judd. "She had to figure out—in the midst of being stigmatized, in the midst of her physical agony, in the midst of incontinence and starvation—how to get herself walking, crawling to this clinic, only to find that it's overcrowded, because there are so many women, hundreds, if not thousands, just like her. And just imagine, this is a clinic that does nothing but genital reconstruction."

"What exactly are we talking about here?"

"Well, the vagina will tear when being forced to accommodate either a rapist's anatomy or objects that are introduced: wood, rock, sticks, guns, bayonets. There will be perforation of the vaginal walls, perforation and ripping of the cervix, potentially, based on the extent of the penetration into the uterus. The wall between the rectum and vagina is ripped apart. The urethra, which goes to the bladder, is damaged. There is incontinence. The urine is constantly seeping out, because the muscles and mechanisms that hold the bladder intact are ruined; there is faecal incontinency, which of course can introduce faecal matter into the gut, which results in horrific infections. Does that paint the picture?"

It did. So I asked Judd if she thought people ought to have a stronger sense of just how horrible these scenes are—or would people simply turn their backs… again?

"Well, I think that it's abusive to point out a problem without also pointing out a solution. So unless there is a call to action and a practical plan for participating in the solution, I don't think that those pictures that truly depict the misery are helpful." Those are precisely the kinds of plans that PSI and the IRC and TheCommunity.com and other groups are trying to foster, of course, which is why Judd does talk about what is happening, and does hope people will listen.

And that would seem to be all there is to say about the voyeur question, but it is not.

"There was a time about two and a half years ago when I was so emotionally distressed and disturbed by everything I had seen, I got caught in some really negative, rigid, black and white thinking," she said. "I thought I had to chuck my whole life. I thought, 'I have to sell my farm. I have to walk away from the first world altogether.' I had to say to the global north: 'Bye, bye. I'm outta here.' And I thought the only way I can truly make a difference is living in a refugee camp." Only after much counselling did she come to believe again that she could lead a moderate, balanced life and still be useful in the world by witnessing, and talking about rape in Congo, workplace programs in Vietnam, or victims of human trafficking in Ethiopia. Some people will listen, someone may act, someday.

But on Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council condemned the fighting in the Congo while taking no major action. On Thursday, reports came out of Goma that the city was in a state of chaos. What has happened to the little girl in the pink tutu, no one can say.

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