Breaking a Violent Habit

by Lane Wallace

Eve Ensler, the author of The Vagina Monologues, gave impassioned testimony last week to the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs about the violent war against women being waged, still, in eastern Congo. Testimony reinforced yesterday by Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times, in a column titled, simply, "After Wars, Mass Rapes Persist."

No sane person in the world would argue against the notion that a terrible travesty is being conducted against women in not only the Congo, but Liberia, Sudan, and other African conflict areas. Eastern Congo has the highest rate of violence against women in the world, at the moment. As many as 70% of the women and girls there have been sexually assaulted or mutilated, according to some estimates. The numbers boggle the mind.

We should do something, Ensler says. I agree. Wholeheartedly.

Hear one woman's tale of brutal mutilation, and you want to throw up. Realize that behind the eyes of most of the women you encounter lies a similar, horrifying tale, and something inside you twists, screams, and goes strangely numb. There's simply no way to even absorb it. But having spent a little time in conflict areas in Africa, I also agree with Kristof that the problems are so complex that solutions are difficult to see, or even imagine, clearly. Especially by people on the outside.

In 2001, I spent a little time flying relief supplies into Sudan, in the 18th year of civil war there. The airlift into Sudan involved a bizarre mix of missionaries and mercenaries, and both authorized and unauthorized flight missions. The U.N. planes could only fly into areas authorized by the Sudanese government. But seeing as the conflict was a civil war, there were whole areas the government didn't want aid to reach. Hence the unauthorized flights by non-U.N. aid organizations ... like the one I was flying with.

On one flight, we dodged a couple of Northern-occupied towns and did a "quick turn" at a little dirt airstrip in the village of Akot, Southern Sudan, where there was a hospital and a school. We were on the ground less than 10 minutes because that's when we were at our most vulnerable. Not long before that, a Red Cross plane had been bombed by the Northern Sudanese on that very strip. Such are the hazards of war, of course.

Six years later, I went back to Southern Sudan ... in large part because I wanted to see what had changed since the 2005 Peace Accord had been signed. Unquestionably, progress had been made. Villages that had been decimated were being rebuilt, and people were returning home after years in refugee camps. Mine fields had been cleared and turned into outdoor markets.

But all was not idyllic. Southern Sudan's charismatic leader, John Garang, had died in a helicopter accident right after the peace accord had been signed, leaving behind feuding tribal factions and corrupt officials. In village after village, men told me that if the North didn't agree to independence for Southern Sudan, they would simply get their guns and return to their rebel hiding places. In one village, when I asked a group of teenage boys what they wanted, now that the war was over, one wordlessly took my pen, wrote the word "independent" on his hand, and held it out for me to see. There was no smile on his face, or in his eyes.


Two days later, I was flying with the same pilot I'd flown with six years earlier, when we got a radio distress call. There'd been an uprising at a local hospital, and hostages had been taken. The Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) had moved in, captured the kidnappers, and freed the hostages. But the conflict involved tribal rivalry, people were armed, and tensions in the area were running high. Could we fly in and take the hostages to safety? 

We got security updates every 10 minutes on the way there, stayed high, and did a maximum performance descent to the dirt airstrip, to keep our exposure to any potential ground fire to a minimum. We taxied to the end of the strip, where our human cargo awaited us, and shut down the engine only long enough to load up. Four minutes later, we were airborne again, in a steep climb. As we reached a safe altitude, and my heart rate returned to something closer to normal, I realized with a sad shock that I'd been to that strip before. Six years earlier. And then, too, we'd had to do a quick turn to avoid violence on the ground. Because then, the nation had been at war.

All of that is to say ... the sobering truth of Africa--or, perhaps, anywhere--is that an absence of war does not equate to peace. And violence is a very hard habit to break.

Is there any hope? A little. Kristof points to progress being made in Liberia, where the Carter Center is working to prosecute rapists and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has sent strong signals that rape will not be tolerated. He also quotes a young girl there who, despite being brutally raped and mutilated, has determined that when she grows up, she wants to build shelters for abused girls ... and become President of Liberia.

Farfetched? Well, consider: in 1994 Rwanda suffered one of the most brutal, genocidal civil wars in memory. But in the vacuum that the chaos left, the surviving women had to start taking on roles they never had before. (At one point, 70% of the country's population was female.) In 2003, a country that only nine years earlier had nurtured a highly repressive culture toward women; a culture in which women were not allowed to inherit property or own their own businesses ... elected a parliament in which a full 49% of the representatives were women. Which gave Rwanda a greater percentage of women in its national government than any other country in the world.

How did that happen? In part because of international efforts to help Rwanda draft a new national constitution and electoral process. And in part because of the Rwandan women themselves. Can that happen in Congo? I don't know. But Ensler's right about Congolese women being resilient. In September 2007, as UN tanks rolled down the streets of Goma to try to repel an attack by rebel leader Laurent Nkunda a few kilometers to the southwest, I watched women in town continuing with their standard Saturday morning town clean-up. They were singing as they worked.