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Healing DR Congo

What's the solution for DR Congo where rape is used as a weapon of war? Lessons might be learned by

A few months ago human rights campaigners had that very rare thing - some comparatively good news out of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Three men had been convicted of the rape of a 56-year-old woman called Bitondo Nyumba, a mother of four from Katungulu, South Kivu Province.

In May 2005 seven government army soldiers had attacked her in her own home. She was beaten and raped and her house was looted. Her injuries were so severe that despite two operations she later died.

Her family launched a campaign to have the perpetrators brought to justice. Against a general backdrop of near-total impunity for cases like Nyumba‘s, it was no small victory to have these men pronounced guilty by a military tribunal in Uvira on 5 September 2008. But, actually, as it has turned out, that victory was decidedly short-lived.

First, the three men actually remained untouched, still serving within their regiment; and second, this already blighted country was about to suffer a further convulsion, with fresh fighting plunging the eastern provinces into renewed anarchy and lawlessness.

Here’s another Congo story. A woman called “Christine” (not her real name), from the North Kivu, Masisi territory, became head of her household after her husband was killed during the early years of the Congo conflict. For many women in this region to be without male heads of household is to add to the risks they face daily.

Christine and two of her daughters were at home in 2002 when fighters from an armed group broke into her home. She and her daughters were all raped. Determined to recover and fight back, Christine actually became a rape survivor counsellor in Masisi territory.

However, tragically, there was to be no satisfying Hollywood movie-style arc to this tale. In July 2007 Christine was taking a group of rape victims to Goma for medical care when she found a young woman by the roadside tied hand and foot. “I started to untie her”, recalls Christine. “She had been raped by soldiers who had pushed a piece of wood into her. She was telling me that she was supposed to be getting married on Saturday.” This was not to be a moment of rescue and salvation. Christine, the other women and the traumatised girl were soon waylaid by four soldiers who proceeded to viciously beat Christine before gang-raping her in front of the other terrified women. In the aftermath of the attack Christine discovered that the rescued girl had been killed.

Showing almost superhuman strength, Christine continues with her work. She travels to rural areas identifying survivors and arranging care and support for them. And she runs a small refuge providing basic medical care, counselling and advice, dealing with women of all ages, but sometimes girls as young as 12. The women also cultivate nearby fields to generate income.

Brave though they are, Christine’s heroic efforts are just a drop in the ocean in Congo. Essentially the outlook is still extremely bleak for her and other embattled Congolese women. So where are we to look for some sense of hope in what is unquestionably a desperate situation? The answer - with a heavy dollop of caveats - is Liberia.

Congo’s own complex situation clearly requires specific peace-creation efforts, ones that will almost certainly involve a long-postponed effort to bring to justice the Rwandan Hutu genocidaires who remain at liberty in eastern Congo. But it will also require the kind of disarmament and reintegration into mainstream society of armed groups that Liberia has seen in recent years.

Liberia’s war-torn period - 1989 to 2003 - punctuated by the outbreak of a shaky peace during 1997-9, saw many of the horrors that Congo is revisiting: shifting armed groups of often searing viciousness, the perpetration of utterly heinous atrocities against civilians, the kidnap and use of child soldiers, the deployment of rape as a weapon of war, and the self-serving involvement of other nations with an eye on valuable mineral deposits.

As with Congo, Liberia’s horror story had involved the quiet deliberate use of extreme sexual violence to humiliate and terrorise entire communities (men often seeing the “shame” of not protecting their female relatives from rape as particularly hard to deal with). But, for all that, it is recovering; not fully, but quite considerably.

How so? Well, fitfully and with repeated setbacks, it has with some determination attempted to carry out disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration and rehabilitation programmes (DDRR in the jargon) that United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions advise as part of the post-conflict route to stability.

In particular, Liberia has tried to address two specific UNSC resolutions: 1325 and 1820. These insist that for long-term peace, stability, economic security, equality and development of a post-conflict society, peace has to have gender at its heart.

Women need to be at the table with the men in suits as they carve up, reorganise and rebuild peace and a new order. It’s not about doing a favour to the poor women who have suffered - it’s about recognising that conflict and attendant poverty and social breakdown will be prolonged, deepened and re-ignited unless gender is at the heart of the process.

And while Liberia’s implementation of 1325 and 1820 has been far from perfect, Prime Minister Ellen Sirleaf Johnson has continued to support gendered post-conflict projects.

The Liberian experience has actually begun to reveal that, as with Christine’s Herculean efforts in Congo, the best projects have turned out to be women-led ones for the women themselves.

Liberian women have not just lived and recovered from the brutality of rape and the trauma of child soldiering, they have helped others to live, recover and help rebuild their own societies. Congo needs to look to Liberia sooner rather than later.

Heather Harvey, Amnesty International UK Stop Violence Against Women campaign manager

Amnesty International has helped organise a speaking tour with two former female child soldiers from Liberia who are discussing Liberia’s post-conflict reintegration programmes for women. They will speak at The Women's Library, London Metropolitan University, 25 Old Castle Street, London E1 7NT, on Thursday 20 November at 6.30pm. To book: www.amnesty.org.uk/events_details.asp?ID=1057

an Sheppard/Alamy
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In the heartlands

What does visiting Wallasey, Pontypridd and Islington North reveal about Labour’s future?

Islington. It’s the idea, as much as the place itself, that the right hates: an enclave of wealthy people who have the temerity to vote against right-wing interests. The real Islington, and Jeremy Corbyn’s patch of it in particular, is not all like that. Although parts of his constituency do resemble the cliché of large townhouses and overpriced flat whites, Labour’s 78-year hold on the seat is founded not on the palatial houses around Highgate Hill but on the constituency’s many council estates.

It’s a place I know well. As a child, Islington North was the place next to the edge of the known world, or, as I would come to call it later in life, Barnet. After going to church in Bow, my mum and I would take the bus through it to choir practice, where I sang until my voice broke, in both senses of the word.

Today, austerity is making Islington North look more like its past. Not the Islington of my teenage years, but of my childhood: grimy streets and growing homelessness. Outside the Archway McDonald’s an elderly woman points out the evidence of last night’s clubbers and tells me that today’s teenagers are less considerate than I was or her grandson is. She’s wrong; I once vomited in that same street. But street-sweeping, particularly at night, has been one of the first things that councils have cut back on under constraints from decreasing local authority budgets.

As for homelessness, that, too, has come full circle. Tony Blair’s government was the first to count the number of people sleeping rough, and by the time Labour left office it had been reduced by two-thirds. In the six years since David Cameron first came to office, the homeless figure in England more than doubled from 1,768 estimated rough sleepers to more than 3,569 today. This is the world that Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters want to fight against. These are the effects of Conservative rule that make Labour activists yearn for an anti-austerity champion.

***

Demolishing the stereotypical views of Islington and elsewhere is vital if we are to understand the currents flowing through ­Labour. This summer, there have been three main characters in the soap opera (or farce) that has played out in the party – the beleaguered leader, Jeremy Corbyn, of Islington North; the leading rebel, Angela Eagle, whose constituency is in Wallasey; and finally, the eventual challenger, Owen Smith of Pontypridd. I visited all their constituencies in a whirlwind week in the hope that it would illuminate the leadership race and the wider challenges for left-wing politics in Britain.

In all three places, the easy assumptions about Corbyn’s appeal were complicated by the facts on the ground, but a common thread united them. Outside the Holloway Road Odeon, I heard it first: “Jeremy is a nice guy, but he’s not a leader.” The trouble was that even those who questioned Corbyn’s leadership had little faith in those challenging him.

On 4 July, during a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Neil Kinnock talked about “the supermarket test”: how people in Tesco or Lidl would say “I want to vote Labour, but I can’t vote for Ed Miliband”. He urged Labour’s representatives in the Houses of Parliament to “apply the supermarket test for Jeremy Corbyn and see what answer you get”.

In reality, they had been applying it for months. That was the spur to the attempts in late June to oust Corbyn as Labour leader. For the 172 MPs who said they had no confidence in him – and the 41 per cent of Labour members who told YouGov that they thought Corbyn was doing either “fairly badly” or “very badly” – he is an obstacle on the road to saving Britain from the Tories. Idealism didn’t create a minimum wage, set up Sure Start centres, or bring in civil partnerships: assembling a broad enough coalition to elect a Labour government did.

The minority of MPs who support him, and the thousands of members who say they will vote for him again, feel differently. For them, Corbyn’s demise would feel like a capitulation. It would feel like ­accepting that neoliberalism, capitalism and austerity have won the day, that the role of the Labour Party is to ameliorate rather than oppose them.

When I visited Islington North, Labour’s leadership election was only just starting to get under way and Angela Eagle was still in contention. Her tough performances deputising for the leader at PMQs have made her popular at Westminster but that enthusiasm has not made it as far north as Islington. “To me, I can’t see Angela Eagle as a prime minister either,” said Mike, one of the regulars at the Coronet, a Wetherspoons on the Holloway Road. “What are they running her for?”

The same sentiment prevailed in Wallasey, the Wirral constituency that Eagle has represented since 1992. There, too, were a few pockets of Corbynmania. There was also a sense that Labour is heading for defeat as long as Corbyn remains in place – but little faith in Eagle’s ability to alter
that trajectory.

Wallasey is of less long-standing Labour vintage than Islington North. It remained steadfastly Conservative even between 1945 and 1966, and Eagle first won the seat in 1992. Although she is now in possession of a 16,000-vote majority, her neighbour Margaret Greenwood took Wirral West seat back from the Conservatives by a margin of only 400 votes. Tory strategists still eye the Wirral hungrily.

Wallasey is home to New Brighton, the seaside resort commemorated in Martin Parr’s 1985 series The Last Resort. A popular tourist destination for most of the first half of the 20th century, New Brighton was hurt by tidal changes in the River Mersey, which stripped most of its sand, and by the closure of its pier, but it remains a favoured destination for retirees and day trippers. In times past, Liverpool families that did well for themselves crossed the Mersey, bought a home – and promptly started to vote Tory. Wallasey, and the Wirral as a whole, is still where Scousers who have made it good set up their homes, but nowadays their politics usually survives the river crossing unscathed.

Yet there is still a vestigial sympathy for Conservatism in the leafier parts of Victoria Road and Seabank Road, one that is largely absent from Islington North. Perhaps Theresa May’s diligence in dealing with families affected by the Hillsborough disaster, which was mentioned frequently when I asked people for their opinion of the new Prime Minister, is sufficiently well regarded here that it is beginning to erode the Thatcherite taint still hanging over the Tory rosette on Merseyside.

However, it is not just Labour politics that is proving increasingly capable of weathering the journey across the Mersey. In Westminster, the chatter is that Militant – driven out of Labour in the 1980s, though most of its members continued to live and work on Merseyside – is back as a force in the city’s constituencies, and that many of its members have moved out and retired to New Brighton. Their influence is blamed for the series of damaging stories that slipped out of Wallasey in the days after Eagle declared her candidacy.

“There’s a reason why they’re so good at getting themselves on the national news and in the papers,” one MP tells me. “It’s that they’ve done all this before.”

***

The perception that Eagle “lost control” of her local party, as well as a disastrous campaign launch, led to support from fellow MPs ebbing away from her. It went instead to Owen Smith, the MP for Pontypridd, a little-known figure outside Westminster, but one who has long been talked of as a possible Labour leader inside it.

Smith’s great strength, at least according to some of his backers, is that he is a blank canvas. Certainly, as with Corbyn in Islington, there was a widespread perception in Wallasey that Eagle was not cast from the material from which leaders are made. Smith at least had the advantage of introducing himself to voters on his own terms.

His slim hopes of defeating Corbyn rest on two planks. First, the idea that a fresh face might yet convince wavering members that he could win a general election. A vote for him rather than Corbyn can therefore be seen as a vote against the Conservatives. Second, he is willing to call for a second European referendum. Among Labour Party activists, who backed staying in the European Union by 90/10 per cent, that is a compelling offer.

In Islington and Wallasey, both of which voted Remain (and both of which still have  houses flying the flag of the European Union when I visit), that message also has wider appeal. But in Smith’s own seat, a second referendum is a tougher sell. The Valleys voted to leave by a near-identical margin to the country at large. No one to whom I spoke was enthused about replaying the referendum.

Smith’s status as a “blank slate” will only be useful if he manages to write something appealing on it over the course of this summer. It is also possible he could just remain largely unknown and undefined.

Travelling around the country, I became accustomed to explaining who he is. Even at my hotel in Cardiff, which borders his constituency, the name “Owen Smith” was met with blank looks.

Unfortunately, the habit proved hard to break once I was in Pontypridd, resulting in an awkward scene in the back of a taxi. “I know who my MP is,” my driver said angrily, before launching into a lengthy diatribe about the arrogance of London-based journalists and a London-led Labour Party. The accent had changed, the setting was more confrontational, but the story remained the same as in Islington and Wallasey: he was convinced of neither Jeremy Corbyn’s nor Angela Eagle’s ability to fight and win an election. “That voice? In a room with Putin?” he said of Eagle. Then he said something unexpected. “But I’ll tell you what – they need a change from Jeremy Corbyn – and why not Owen Smith?”

“Why not Owen Smith?” As much as they might wish to deny it, that is the message with which Corbyn’s critics will try to take back control of the Labour Party. It is a message that feels unlikely to move or inspire. As I catch the train back to London, I reflect that those who want to convince Labour activists to give up Jeremy Corbyn – and what they feel he represents – need to offer them something compelling in return. No one puts “Vote for the lesser of two evils” on a banner.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue