Thursday, 26 November 2009

Congo V-Day at the Royal Albert Hall, London

19 November 2009 marked the 100th anniversary of the Great Congo Demonstration held at the Royal Albert Hall, chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Randall Davidson and supported by other clergy, prominent activists and writers, to raise awareness about the atrocities meted out to the Congolese people in the so-called Congo Free State under the brutal regime of Belgium’s King Leopold II. This time, with over 100 people crammed into the lower room of the Royal Albert Hall, V-Day UK 2009 commemorated the women and girls who have undergone murderous rape and assault by the various militia wreaking havoc in Eastern Congo. With reverends and archbishops representing their respective religious groups, V-Day was reminiscent of the gathering that took place 100 prior, only then it was on a far bigger scale, in the main hall of the same Royal Albert Hall, and on this occasion the audience were warned to keep the noise to a minimum.

Organised by V-Day UK, the meeting was inspiring, with a number of speakers including Eve Ensler, playwright, activist and founder of V-Day, and human rights activist Christine Schuler Deschryver.

The morning started with warm, light-hearted introductions by comedienne Sandi Toksvig, but took a sombre turn as the audience heard horrific stories, like that of an 82-year-old woman in hospital who had been raped and beaten, and of a four-year-old girl who had died before she could even make it to hospital. The room wept for the pain endured by the babies, elderly and young women and girls whose lives have been destroyed by the sadistic sexual assaults they have experienced at the hands of the militias in Eastern Congo.

Visibly distraught, Christine Deschryver took to the stage and talked about her anger at having to speak of these horrifying scenes for 13 years in her attempt to denounce the war. She has been accused of being too forthright in her approach, but believes that there is no room for politeness when such atrocities are taking place. ‘I don't believe in politicians,’ she confesses, ‘only a women's revolution will stop things, and it has to start in the mind.’”

The paucity of parliamentary presence somewhat supported this belief. Only two party representatives attended: Eric Joyce, Labour member of Parliament and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Great Lakes Region of Africa, and Baroness Trish Morris, Shadow Minister for Women. Both agreed that there was nothing to separate the parties when it comes to these issues.

Eve Ensler spoke with incredible passion and was close to tears when recalling the story of an eight-year-old girl who had been raped for weeks on end and had therefore contracted fistula. On their first meeting, Ensler attempted to embrace the young girl and hugged her for the first time after her attack. Unable to hold her bladder due to the fistula, the child relieved herself on Ensler's lap.

Since then, Ensler has campaigned against the sexual violence used as a weapon of war against women in the Congo. She suggested that the synergy of ‘colonialism, racism, capitalism and sexism’ is the reason why the cries of these women go unheard. Ensler ended by declaring that, ‘the way things change is through outrage. The destruction of women and femicide will in effect be the destruction of the life of the world.’

Baroness Morris made a key point when she said that, ‘we won't have a stable Africa without a stable Congo, and without a stable Africa we have a dangerous world.’ So perhaps the time has come to refuse to be kept quiet, outrage must be expressed and sound levels cannot be kept to a minimum.

As Eric Joyce acknowledged, ‘the crisis in Congo doesn't appear to be strategically significant.’ Perhaps that is why the conflict doesn't elicit the same media coverage and political outrage as ‘9/11’. However, the conflict in Afghanistan didn't seem to be strategically significant until that fatal day.