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Congo's paradox: a wealth of resources yet poverty for millions.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is a huge country of over 75 million people in the heart of Africa, yet its many challenges are not well reported. For two weeks in June, the social justice organization Kairos led a delegation of Canadian church representatives to the DRC, and I was privileged to join it as a representative of the Presbyterian Church.

We were hosted by Heritiers de la Justice, a Congolese human rights organization based in Bukavu, the capital of the eastern province of South Kivu. Through its various programs, HJ counsels survivors of gender-based violence and their families, directs them to medical and other resources, assists them with legal processes and advocates for their welfare. Each day we saw groups of women waiting patiently at HJ's offices.

But the price of actively supporting these women can be steep. Because of his work, the founding director of HJ, Pascal Kabungulu, was shot and killed in 2005.

We heard many stories from women survivors of gender-based violence and those who care for them. They spoke of attacks on rural villages by members of the militia groups that compete for control over the immense mineral wealth buried in the eastern DRC. The brutality of these attacks--some upon child victims as young as two years of age--could leave no doubt that their purpose was to terrorize.

We were moved by the stories of the women who carry loads of rock from a small-scale quarry up a winding hillside path to the road leading to Bukavu. Until HJ intervened on their behalf, the women were not paid for this back-breaking labour. Congolese people themselves--particularly women--seemed to be the main means of transportation of goods. Especially in the rural areas, we saw roads crowded with pedestrian traffic. Everyone was carrying a heavy load.

And this was the Congolese paradox. How could such a large country, blessed as it is with both fabulous wealth in natural resources and hard-working people, be reduced to such dire poverty?

We heard from many civil society groups and church groups, as well as politicians and government officials, both in South Kivu province and in the capital, Kinshasa. In all our many meetings and discussions one question arose again and again: what was the relationship between mineral resource extraction and the ongoing conflicts in the eastern DRC?

HJ arranged for us to visit Twangiza, a gold mine operated by a Canadian company, Banro Corporation, located about 80 kilometres from Bukavu. But when we arrived we were told that company representatives were not prepared to receive us.

We had already heard from civil society groups in Bukavu about the forced movement of rural people to make way for large-scale mining projects.

One Congolese observer told us that the epidemic of gender-based violence would end if peace were made among the various warring groups. I was skeptical. A constellation of other factors--government corruption, an ineffective system of justice and impunity for those who commit these terrible crimes, the unfair distribution of resource wealth, as well as societal attitudes that denigrate women--appeared to me to be substantial contributing factors.

In the midst of these almost intractable problems, we were inspired by the heroism of people like Dr. Mukwege and his staff at Panzi Hospital. an institution in the outskirts of Bukavu. It is often the destination for women survivors of sexual violence from the rural areas. Hospital and human rights workers are increasingly targeted by armed groups. Dr. Mukwege himself was attacked as recently as October of last year, and his driver was killed.

Dr. Mukwege's attackers have not been brought to justice. Indeed, it is likely that the authorities themselves, including military authorities, are implicated in the attack, and for that reason the case will not be properly investigated or proceed to court. This was part of a pattern of impunity for human rights violations for which the Congolese military shares some responsibility. Years ago the Congolese military courts asserted jurisdiction over the murder of HJ founder Pascal Kabungulu, but they have failed to bring the case to trial.

Amongst all I experienced, two vivid images will remain with me. The first is of the people of Bukavu in their thousands, dressed in their finest clothes for Sunday worship at the many churches in the city. The service we attended was full of joyful music from two choirs, and when the singing stopped and prayer or preaching began, we could hear the singing from another church across the street or around the corner.

The second image is of a helicopter flying overhead just outside Bukavu. Each month, Banro Corp. aims to ferry over 10,000 ounces of gold out of the Twangiza mine by helicopter. It seems to me that the lives of ordinary people on the ground are untouched by the wealth that is carried away far above them.

Peter Lamont is a retired military judge and member of St. Andrew's, Ottawa. For more on his trip, visit kairoscanada.org/dignity-rights/women-of-courage.
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Title Annotation:EXPOSURE
Author:Lamont, Peter
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:6ZAIR
Date:Sep 1, 2013
Words:830
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