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Congo is more than rape and minerals

There are political dynamics and logic underlying the brutality in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that journalists need to explain.

By Jason StearnsGuest blogger / February 24, 2011

A Congolese miner holds a piece of casiterite ore, a kind of tin. Armed groups, including members of the Congolese army itself, control the trade in Congo's rich mineral resources, allowing them to keep themselves fed and armed. As a result, the West's insatiable desire for natural resources, helps to keep Congo's conflict brewing.

Scott Baldauf/Christian Science Monitor

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Let me take a page from Binyavanga Wainaina's essay and blog my own two cents, a little bit less tongue-in-cheek, about how not to write about the Congo.

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It's not all about rape and minerals. Yes, things are bad in the country, and by all means file stories about the conflict and the suffering. But focusing on the ghastly violence distracts from the politics that gave rise to the conflict. This comes at a cost: If all we see is black men raping and killing in the most outlandish ways imaginable, we might find it hard to believe that there is any logic to this conflict. We are returned to Joseph Conrad’s notion that the Congo takes you to the heart of darkness, an inscrutable and unimprovable mess. If we want to change the political dynamics in the country, we have above all to understand the conflict on its own terms. And those terms are not just rebels raping their way across the country to get their hands on conflict minerals.

Look for agents, not just victims. In print and on radio, the Congo sometimes descends into a kabuki theater of snot-nosed children/rape survivors oppressed by savage black soldiers. We need to get away from this. Some Congolese are unscrupulous and vicious, but they usually have reasons for what they do. If we can understand why officials rape (and it's not always just as a "weapon of war") and why they steal money (it's not just because they are greedy) we might get a bit better at calibrating solutions. Of course, it's much harder to interview a rapist or a gun-runner than their victims. But don't just shock us; make us understand. Otherwise we only have ourselves to blame when we react to a rape epidemic by just building hospitals and not trying to get at the root causes.

Be careful with ethnic descriptives. For a while, the CNDP was "an ethnic Tutsi rebellion." While the group was indeed led by Tutsi and backed by many in the Tutsi community, without further context, that description makes it seem like the reason for their rebellion was rooted in their ethnicity. Of course, it was, but it was not because part of their DNA sequence gave them a predilection for AK-47s, but because their ethnicity was historically entwined with land conflict and local power struggles since at least the 1930s.

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