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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:

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood