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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

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.