by Ashley Mooney

There is an African proverb that says “when the elephants fight, the grass suffers.”

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the elephants are militias and the grass is the women, said John Prendergast, co-founder of Enough Project, an organization that fights to end genocide.

Congolese rape victims assemble outside of a peace hut. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Prendergast, who spoke at Duke Nov. 29, said the DRC is now the home of the deadliest war since World War II. The conflict has been created in part by large corporations seeking a variety of natural resources within the region throughout the past 150 years. Currently, the Congo is the main source of gold, tantalum, tin and tungsten, which are used to power electronics such as cell phones, laptops and digital cameras.

“Congo is now the most dangerous war because powerful corporations have come to [the country] for the last few centuries to take whatever they want, and structured the state to facilitate that,” he said. His talk was part of the Ferguson Family Distinguished Lectureship series on the Environment and Society.

The nation is currently riddled by struggles between the Congolese armies, militias and other groups from bordering nations Rwanda and Uganda. Many of the groups utilize brutal tactics throughout mineral-smuggling networks, and, Prendergast said, use sexual violence at the center of their methodology.

“[There has been] no other war in the world where the link between our consumer appetites and sexual violence is so direct,” he said. “All of these groups use rape as a means of social control… They target women to humiliate and destroy the will of the community.”

Prendergast has dedicated himself to the pursuit of peace in the region for over 30 years and has lobbied several companies – including Apple – to use free-trade models of mineral trade.

“Unless international capital or profit-seeking capital is regulated in some way, it will trample all over human rights,” he said.

Prendergast credited Duke’s student body for leading the nation in the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative, which 115 schools are involved in.

The way to create peace, he said, is to pressure the United States government to encourage the United Nations and other countries to support “an African-led peace process in Congo,” which deals with the root causes of the issue.

“We aren’t going to solve all of the Congo’s problems sitting here – we aren’t going to solve them in the United States or Europe,” he said. “But we can play a major role in supporting the Congolese to find those solutions.”

He added that until everyone is more aware of the root cause – the demand for phones, laptops and other electronics – the conflict will not end.

“When you log onto your laptops tonight, remember they wouldn’t be so cheap without minerals from the Congo,” he said. “When you answer your cell phone or make a call, remember… all of the women of the Congo who have survived sexual attacks.