Sunday, July 22, 2007

Human Rights Abuses Make Great Dinner Theater

Stephanie was at a party tonight, so I went to dinner with a friend at Busboys & Poets near U Street. I don't know if you've ever been, those of you that live here -- it's a restaurant and bookstore with a bar and a screening room and a lounge etc. etc. Sort of a throwback all-purpose hangout spot, with a heavy dose of lefty politics sort of floating vaguely in the air. They show documentaries, host poetry nights, have guest speakers and book lectures; anyway, you get the idea. My friend and I didn't know it, but when we came for dinner we got seated in the Langston Room (three guesses which Langston they're talking about) and they were gearing up for the regularly scheduled 11:00 p.m. Saturday movie series, which on this occasion was a few documentaries about the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is the former Zaire that Mobutu Sese Seko used as a piggy bank and essentially flushed down the toilet when he was finished.

If you don't know what's going on there today -- well, not to trivialize suffering anywhere, but Darfur is like a street fight compared to the DRC's Holocaust. Between 3 and 4 million people have died in the last six years, almost all innocent civilians, and the women that do survive have been raped and abducted on a regular basis, including girls and women as old as 80. This is because of persistent superstitions that having sex with the very young or very old give men special powers. Just read that sentence again.

If I sound like I'm reading from an activist's notebook, it's because it made an impression. I'd heard about the fighting in the DRC before, but never in much detail, so a lot of it was freshly shocking even as I drank my hot chocolate and ate my bread pudding. (The restaurant continued serving.) My friend and I left feeling kind of terrible, and more than a little bewildered that no one does or says anything about this. The sheer scale of the fighting makes you wonder at the conspiracy of silence. The death toll is, as one of the films described it, "an Asian tsunami every six months." Stretch that out over six years, and keep the world in the dark about it, and you have some idea what these people have been through.

The fighting is mostly about controlling land with lots of valuable natural resources, including minerals that you'll find in your cell phone and computer. A quick, quick primer is here, with much more useful information widely available. I have to say, when you hear about something like this and don't do anything about it you've really got to slap yourself in the face. If you only ever donate or volunteer for a single humanitarian cause, make this your choice. The country could be stable and prosperous if a few relatively straightforward steps were taken, including sanctioning companies that do business with rebel groups for their own profit. A report on this is available here, and is by no means the only one of its kind.

When American corporations prop up militias who literally kill civilians to control gold mines, you have to wonder who's letting them get away with it.

P.S. - See this article for more on why "genocide scholars" (I shudder to think what their conventions are like) are pessimistic about the future, especially with regard to international law. Darfur is mentioned prominently. You won't read anything about the DRC.


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