I am pleased and honored to stand here in front of you to celebrate this International Day of Peace, the wonderful day of peace. As you know peace is a state of being quiet. Peace is our common responsibility, a world responsibility.
Women and peace are the same thing, they get married forever.
It is important that the United Nations decide a particular date devoted to peace. Peace is so important to humanity that when it breaks down, basic human rights such as right to live, to security and to freedom cannot exist. So, it is good to pause for a while and meditate on the state of the world peace, celebrate with those who are able to celebrate but also try not to forget those who are excluded from celebration today.
If in many parts of the world important progress has been made towards peace, we must sadly say that in other areas peace is very far from being achieved. I would like to focus with you on those hot islands of insecurity, of war, of violence and of human rights abuses where men, women, and children have no cause of celebration today. In doing so, we can better see who we may build peace bridges with and, finally, we will be able to see how peace bridges can be built with the aim of bringing more people to the celebration of next year’s Peace Day.
UN Resolution 1325 (31.10.2000) made specific provisions for the protection of women during armed conflict. But the reality in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is entirely contrary.
1. What about women in Congo (DRC)?
There are many parts of the world where peace does not exist. As it is the case in my country, the DRC. I would like to share with you what is going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with a particular stress on the fate of women and girls.
Women in the Congo have not known peace for a long time, but they want peace. The DRC is very rich in natural resources. Many western countries and multinational companies seek to control those natural resources. As they did during the slave trade and the colonization of Africa, they have no intention of taking into account the rights and aspirations of the local populations to:
· Live as free people
· Have a normal life as human beings
· Benefit from their natural resources and their trade
· Have a good government
· Live in peace within and outside of the Congo
These countries and multinational businesses just use violence. They usually help a rebel or a soldier to seize power by force. They assist him to hold power for several years and to become a strong man with very weak institutions which are unable to hold him accountable. In fact the “so-called strong man” is a toy in the hands of western powers and of the multinational businesses.
In order to take control of the Congolese resources, some western political and capitalistic powers decided to topple Mobutu, a strong man they had helped to keep office for 32 years (1965-1997).
Since October 1996, the DRC has been victim of several invasions from Rwanda and Uganda. Among the actors of these invasions is the current president of the DRC, Joseph Kabila. He has been president since January 2001, after the assassination of the then Laurent Désiré Kabila, the self-proclaimed president of the DR Congo.
According to the International Rescue Committee, more than 5 million Congolese died as a result of the permanent state of war and insecurity created and deliberately maintained by Rwanda and Uganda with the blessing of the international community. It is worth stressing the specific ill-treatment reserved to women and girls in the eastern part of Congo.
According to Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) 200,000 women have been raped, including ladies more than 75 years and girls three years of age. Women are easy targets when they go to the fields or fetch water. They used to dig a hole to hide in when they were threatened with rape. But many are not lucky enough to escape. How could they when their heads are loaded with wood, water, or food for their families? Very often they are gang-raped or simply killed.
Those who are less lucky end up with their genitals cut off or fired at with bullets. Rape frequently takes place in the very presence of the woman's husband and children. Many female family members are raped in the presence of their male family members. As a result, they cannot keep living together. Families are broken and the social fabric of the community is torn apart.
In addition to the psychological trauma, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases are intentionally spread as a policy of ethnic cleansing. Those abuses are being committed every single day for the past 13 years, but untill now none of the abusers has been punished or the deeds even investigated.
Because of the massive killings during 1994 in Rwanda, the international ccommunity does not have the courage to stop the Tutsi-dominated regime of Rwanda from destroying people's lives in the Congo.
Multinational companies are more than happy to buy cheap minerals such as coltan from Rwanda and timber, gold, and diamonds from Uganda. Arms trafficking has increased in the area, enabling small armed groups to grow. Two violent groups, the FDLR from Rwanda and Lord's Resistance Army from Uganda, are devastating the Eastern Congo, killing, raping, looting, and burning villages in total impunity.
As a result, more than 1.8 million local people live in “internally displaced persons” camps where conditions are sub-human: no proper sanitation, no drinking water, and inadequate food.
In short, Eastern Congo is being destroyed on the one hand by rebel groups supported militarily and diplomatically by Rwanda and Uganda and on the other hand by armed resistance groups from Rwanda and Uganda working inside the Congo. There are also armed groups of Congolese origin who are trying to fight the invasion by neighboring countries.
It is sad to say that the rest of the Congo is not safe as well. Women and girls are safe nowhere throughout the Congo. Young girls are sold on the Congo-Cabinda (Angola) border by the same military forces. Women and girls are abused at the hands of the police, the army, and the security services. Rape is commonplace in prisons and in police stations. It has become a weapon of war to exterminate Congolese women. Thus, massive violations to human rights are taking place in Congo in total impunity. We need a deep change.
As a lawyer, I used to assist many victims — men as well as women and girls. At one point in time, I felt that the war against those abuses must be fought at a higher level. I decided to run for the presidency of the republic. I still strongly believe that moral and competent leadership is the first requirement of progress.
My struggle was and is to keep our people free, make an area of happiness for populations, and have a good and accountable government that rules by law with great respect for human rights.
But I was arrested on trumped up charges of inciting an insurrection to overthrow Kabila’s regime, of burning the Supreme Court, and of possessing weapons. I was brought before a military tribunal. It is a hard thing to be considered guilty when one has committed neither any offense nor crimes. Since my time in prison, I pay more attention if someone is accused.
I always say thanks to the courage of the judges, my lawyers, the international and national communities’ pressure and prayers offered for me worldwide. I was acquitted along with my seven assistants on April 30, 2007.
Prison in the Congo is a very painful experience. In addition to being overcrowded, the prison is a very dirty place without proper sanitation or drinking water. Mosquitoes, worms, and flies are everywhere. I was kept in a cell next to a stinking toilet. I developed a respiratory infection and was about to die. Thanks to a military doctor and to my family who sent medicine, I was saved. Many prisoners die of hunger or lack of medical care, because the Congolese government does not feed its prisoners and there is no medical assistance provided. Only family members do.
While in prison, a young girl aged 11 was arrested on suspicion of stealing $150. She was beaten and raped. I did all I could to secure her release. Congolese prisons are real hell. I wanted to share all this with you because all those victims are voiceless and of course excluded from celebration today.
I keep shouting on their behalf, but their voices will have a better chance to be heard if we are many to shout on their behalf.
On behalf of peace, of world peace and development, the blood regime in the Congo must change for real democracy and help so women and children live in quiet area. With the exceptional force of the women of the world it can be done. I will be grateful if you could put this case on your agenda as well as talk of the endless suffering of Congolese women. Why not send letters to world decision-makers? We expect them to take action to stop the killings of Congolese people and the under-development of the Congo with Kabila’s regime.
2. BUILDING BRIDGES OF PEACE
The first step to building peace is to become peace agents ourselves. We need to become peaceful people inside and around us and to take action to prevent the breakdown of peace and actively contribute to rebuild it with all our abilities.
As individuals we need to be aware of what is going on in troubled places of the world such as Somalia, Nigeria, Darfur, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and the Congo and decide to do something for peace in those areas. We may choose to raise awareness or to organise events in support of women and children affected by violence. We need to be creative and to show active solidarity.
Secondly, I believe that our organizations, churches, and mosques need to work together in peacemaking and support for victims. More will be achieved when we join together to raise awareness or support victims.
Finally, working in a network with organisations and individuals who are in direct contact with those affected in troubled places will make a significant difference. I know from my own experience how hard it is to fight injustice and human rights abuses from inside. In conditions like these, the backing of an outside network can be very helpful.
Those who work on the grass-roots level in troubled areas need our moral, financial, and psychological backing. In doing so, we can save many lives from death or prison. Then we will be able to bring more women, men and children to celebration next year.
Women of Africa and of the world, let us stand together for peace.
Marie-Therese Nlandu was an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience 2006-07.