Posted: 04/06/2008


The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo


by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

At what price convenience? Rape, mutilation, death and cell phones in the Congo.

The Greatest Silence, Rape in the Congo won a Special Jury Prize (Documentary) at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It premieres on HBO on April 8 at 10 p.m.

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Coltan. Such a small word, but it’s levied such a huge price in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Most people don’t even know what coltan is, or for that matter, where the Congo is. Most people might not even care.

But if you own a cell phone, DVD player or computer, you’re linked to coltan, and by extension you’re linked to a bloody civil war that’s ravaged the Congolese, particularly their women and girls—even as young as two.

The upcoming HBO special, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, reveals the devastation borne from a war between native Congolese soldiers and the combined foreign armed forces from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi called the Interhamwe.

The rich soil of the Congo produces gold, silver, diamonds and oil, and is also home to the majority of the world’s rich coltan reserves. This dull, black mineral serves as the reward for the soldiers, although women and families pay the ultimate price.

Emmy Award-winning producer/director Lisa F. Jackson spent 2006 in the Congo, reaching out to the women and girls, many of whom are presented in the film as mere shells of their former selves.

Jackson is a New Yorker, and her personal story—being raped by three men while living in the Georgetown area of D.C.—parallels the stories of the women whose voices are brought to the forefront of this riveting account. Jackson was merely trying to make a living when she was accosted and raped late one night.

The women in the Congo are also merely trying to work and feed their families, but they aren’t safe from the soldiers whose job is to steal from the miners once they’ve finished their hard work.

The documentary was filmed in Bukavu, or Land of Rivers, an upper-class area that borders Rwanda, but its beauty never hints at the misery that’s taking place within the region.

Imagine a two-year-old baby or an 80-year-old woman being raped, or a woman’s teeth being knocked out. It’s mind boggling!

But these are some of the stories—told by women who’ve been stigmatized, disowned, and literally banished from society, after they were raped and mutilated. Many, if they are able, flee to a remote forest, hiding out and living with self-hate and shame, for something that’s totally not their fault. And many of them, even after having been violated by men, wish for one thing: that they would marry, so they wouldn’t have to work and live alone.

It is estimated that since the war began in 1997, more than 4 million people have died and 200,000 women have been raped.

“The bodies of the women became the playground,” says women’s advocate Christine Schuyler Deschryver in the film. The men who are interviewed regard the rapes as sport. They also revealed that they felt they had been protected with a magic potion, but in order for the potion to work, they have to rape the women, and afterward, they say they feel strong enough to defeat the opposing army.

The women’s interviews are peppered with those of government police officials, doctors, activists and politicians, among others. One surgeon is dedicated to “reconstructing” the women’s bodies, after they had been raped and mutilated with guns and other objects.

So, maybe viewers will think twice after watching HBO’s The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, when reaching for their cell phones, or popping the next movie into the DVD player or laptop. Maybe we’ll think about the lives that have been shattered, so we can enjoy what’s not even considered a luxury, but a simple convenience.

I watched this film with bittersweet feelings. Sure it’s a sad, heart-wrenching documentary. But through it all the strong women survive and offer a glimpse of hope, as they try to return their lives to some measure of normalcy.

One woman, who became pregnant as a result of the rape, named her daughter Lumiere, or “light,” still hoping for a brighter future for both.

The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo won a Special Jury Prize (Documentary) at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It premieres on HBO on April 8 at 10 p.m.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is a writer, editor, journalist and film critic in Chicago..

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