We cannot let millions more die

Little is known here of the evil besetting the Democratic Republic of the Congo but we must not ignore it


By David Mitchell, July 22, 2010
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It was only a little article on the JC's website but it was one of the most heart-warming to read in a while. Yet again, Israel - so often the subject of bad press around the world - was rapidly responding with real aid to a humanitarian crisis.

On this unfortunate occasion, the disaster was not on the scale of the Tsunami in 2004 or the recent Haiti earthquake but, last week, following a fuel tanker explosion which killed and injured hundreds of people, an Israeli medical team rushed to the city of Sange, in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I was moved, not just because it was Israeli doctors who responded first, but particularly because they assisted the people of the DR Congo. Over the past decade, the perpetually troubled Congolese have lived and died through one of the worst tragedies and evils to plague a people since the Holocaust.

It is not entirely surprising if you have not heard much about this crisis, as far too little is actually reported about the situation in that severely troubled part of the world. Historically, the country has been politically unstable since its days as a Belgian colony. Yet in recent years, not unlike the situations in neighbouring Rwanda and Darfur, both the violence and the humanitarian crises have escalated.

In April 2007, the International Rescue Committee published a study placing the death toll in the DR Congo since 1998 at 5.4 million. This horrific figure is estimated to have continued rising at a rate of 45,000 mortalities a month.

Using simple mathematics, it is highly likely that well over seven million souls have perished as a direct result of the inter-regional violence, war crimes, corruption, acts of genocide and gang rape that have continued to torment the Congolese on a scale that defies comprehension. Add to these shocking figures the millions of refugees, the poverty, disease and starvation and the devastation of human life becomes almost unimaginable.

Even then, what these shocking figures cannot convey is the magnitude of the ongoing rape, torture and mutilation occurring throughout the DR Congo. There are reports of such violent and graphic gang-rape of women - and men - that I often find it impossible to sleep after reading these accounts.

Taking just one example, in February of this year, 15 women were abducted and raped by armed assailants - five of the women were brutally tortured and then beheaded. A few miraculously survived and seven never returned, and are presumed dead. It is therefore hardly surprising that the DR Congo is often described as the most dangerous place in the world in which to be a woman.

Perhaps now you understand why it was doubly heart-warming to read that Israeli doctors were the first to rush in to help the Congolese. Of course, this is not the only support for the DR Congo coming from the Jewish community. In both Israel and around the diaspora, refugees from the DR Congo have received aid and shelter. There are also several charitable initiatives hard at work to send regular aid to the region.

Yet this really is not enough. I wonder why a community such as ours, who know all too well the consequences of violence and mass murder, has not been more involved with raising awareness of this appalling situation and lobbying the world's leadership to take a more proactive stance.

This Shabbat, and over the following three weeks, many Reform, Liberal and Masorti synagogues will include an additional prayer in their services. Alongside thousands of churches throughout this country, as part of the Save the Congo Interfaith Month, our communities will be calling to mind the desperate situation of the people of the DR Congo.

We will pray that the Congolese will see a time when they no longer live under the shadow of war. We will also remind ourselves that we need to do so much more. In the words of our tradition, "whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world" (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a).

So what will you do?

Rabbi David Mitchell of Radlett & Bushey Reform Synagogue is a patron of Save the Congo (www.savethecongo.co.uk)

    Last updated: 2:24pm, August 13 2010

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