Last evening, as we drove home to Rochester from Chicago in a snowstorm, our conversation touched on where we each were at the moment the tragedy of 9/11 began unfolding. We each remembered, of course. We each remembered the horror of watching the Towers collapse, a scene on television that seemed unbelievable for having been imagined so often as a special effect in TV dramas. Even in a snowstorm, watching out for slippery stretches of highway and the mini-whiteouts created by semis and snowplows, we were comfortable in our heated car. It has heated seats, to help ensure the comfort. It took us a bit longer than usual to make the trip, but our safety was never seriously in doubt.
Try as I might, it is difficult for me to imagine what it is like to live in a place where comfort is impossible and where terror, fear, violence, and death so haunt daily life that safety is at best momentary and temporary. Yet some live in such a place.
In his New York Times’ column yesterday, “The World Capital of Killing,” (which you can read here), Nicholas Kristoff reports from one such place: the Congo.
It’s easy to wonder how world leaders, journalists, religious figures and ordinary citizens looked the other way while six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. And it’s even easier to assume that we’d do better.
But so far the brutal war here in eastern Congo has not only lasted longer than the Holocaust but also appears to have claimed more lives. A peer- reviewed study put the Congo war’s death toll at 5.4 million as of April 2007 and rising at 45,000 a month. That would leave the total today, after a dozen years, at 6.9 million.
What those numbers don’t capture is the way Congo has become the world capital of rape, torture and mutilation, in ways that sear survivors like Jeanne Mukuninwa, a beautiful, cheerful young woman of 19 who somehow musters the courage to giggle. Her parents disappeared in the fighting when she had just turned 14—perhaps they were massacred, but their bodies never turned up—so she moved in with her uncle.
Kristoff goes on to tell Jeanne’s story, to date, a story of watching relatives be mutilated, herself kidnapped, and repeatedly gang raped. Left for dead by her abductors, she was taken to a hospital where surgeons pieced together her torn body. Three days after being released, soldiers from one of the rampaging militias in the countryside abducted her again. Once again she endured gang rape, and once again she somehow found her way to the hospital. The surgeons think there is too intact tissue left to effect full repairs.
Kristoff ends his piece not with a conclusion, but with questions—questions that must be answered by those of us who are comfortable and safe.
Unless we see some leadership here, the fighting in Congo—fueled by profits from mineral exports—will continue indefinitely. So if we don’t act now, when will we? When the toll reaches 10 million deaths? When Jeanne is kidnapped and raped for a third time?
I realize the United States cannot be the world’s police. I understand the rest of the world also bears responsibility. I know that American young men and women stand in harm’s way in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I am aware that we have our own concerns for safety, especially in light of threats made by people and organizations that have struck before.
My question is this: Is it possible that our own concerns for safety can make us hesitate to act when horror unfolds in a part of the world where we have no national interest? That’s what happened as the Holocaust unfolded. May we be a people so committed to justice that we not allow it to happen again.