Lobbying to help a wartorn country

lizabeth Gibson

In an average month 38,000 people die in the Democratic Republic of Congo, mostly from disease, starvation and war, according to a study led by the humanitarian aid group International Rescue Committee.

“It’s easy to ignore because it’s so far away,” Kenilworth resident Mary Watt said.

But between Sunday services at the First Presbyterian Church of Evanston, 1427 Chicago Ave., Watt and other members of the congregation took notice. Janet and Tom Sullivan made sure of it.

As part of a letter writing campaign, the Evanston couple stood by the doors of the church and handed out senators’ addresses, form letters and information about a senate bill to provide aid to the African country.

The two went to the Congo in 2003 as short-term AIDS workers after hearing about the conditions in the Congo from friends. There they visited churches, hospitals and social services organizations and began filming a documentary.

Since then they haven’t stopped working to try and lessen the suffering they saw in the Congo, Janet Sullivan said. They have raised about $7,500, collected clothing donations and taught classes about the Congo through their church. Now they are working to garner support for federal legislation.

A proposal to help

The bipartisan senate bill, sponsored in part by U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Barak Obama of Illinois, establishes U. S. policy objectives in the Congo and proposes a 25 percent increase of about $52 million in financial aid to the country for 2006. That equates to about 87 cents per Congolese citizen, based on the 2005 population according to the CIA World Fact Book.

Durbin visited the Congo in late last year and said he saw incredible need.

“It appears that when God has a bad day he takes it out on the Congo,” the senator said. “The situation in east Congo is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world and most Americans don’t know it.”

Obama introduced the bill in December. Durbin said he hopes the senate passes the bill in the next few moths but added it will be a struggle to keep the request from becoming lost in a sea of budget demands.

The proposal outlines the importance of stability in the Congo as not only a humanitarian concern but also an important national security measure, goals Durbin describes as inseparable.

“The Congo is a very strategic country because it is very large, it has a ton of natural resources and it is very strategically located in the center of Africa,” said Dori Dinsmore, the Midwest regional director of Amnesty International.

The Congo is about the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River and borders nine countries.

Dictatorship, then war

The Congolese are set to vote this summer in their first democratic election in nearly 50 years. Their last democratically elected president, Patrice Lumumba, was overthrown by a military coup, likely with the support of CIA operatives in the Cold War struggle for dominance of third world countries. The U.S. government supported a new regime under Mobutu Sese Seko, which lasted until his 1997 overthrow. Since then the country has been at war, with the factions that worked to depose the dictator fighting amongst themselves and neighboring countries.

Evanston residents from the Congo said the country needs peace more than anything else.

“When you don’t have a stable government you don’t benefit from the help countries are trying to give,” said Kividi Kikama, the pastor of the New Community Church of Chicago, 1713 Green Bay Rd. He came to the U.S. in 1990 and has family living in the Congo.

He said the transitional government has not proved capable and only an elected government can effectively initiate change. Under unstable governments foreign countries sell the warring factions guns in exchange for the Congo’s wealth and natural resources like diamonds.

“The U.S. helped support a corrupt government and now the people of the Congo are paying for it,” Dinsmore said.

The fighting has seen a number of human rights violations, such as the recruitment of child soldiers and the torture and rape of women and children as war tactics, Dinsmore said.

“People flee to the forests to avoid conflict,” Janet Sullivan said. “And then they die there.”

Humans are not the only ones in the Congo that suffer. Tourists came to see wildlife publicized by movies like “Gorillas in the Mist.”

“Most of the animals have been eaten because people are so desperate,” Janet Sullivan said.

Farmers who fear for their safety abandon their fields and go to the cities, leaving the cities’ new populations with no source of food, said Mephie Ngoi, an Evanston resident who came from the Congo 40 years ago. He now participates in the Sullivans’ campaign. The staple of many Congolese villagers’ diets consequently is a dumpling made from roots devoid of much nutritional value.

A different reality

Modern and ancient mix in the Congo.

“You’ll find everything from the 10th century to the 20th century,” Ngoi said.

Remote villages listen to radios and communicate with telephones, but cities and villages alike suffer from poor roads and lack of running water.

In the Congo, the Sullivans washed themselves out of buckets and watched as a truck tipped over on the crumbling road in front of them.

The couple saw public vans overflowing with 20 people, towering piles of odds and ends strapped to bikes shorter than the stacks of luggage and, in most cases, people walking.

Durbin and the Sullivans said the hospitals left a strong impression.

“It’s just so different it’s hard to describe,” Janet Sullivan said. “Just the equipment makes you feel like you’re in a hospital 100 years ago.”

At one hospital families cook meals outside since the facility doesn’t provide hot meals and nurses wash sheets for the 110 beds by hand, Janet Sullivan said. The Congo has one doctor for every 120,000 people and one surgeon for every 3 million, Durbin said. That’s the equivalent of one surgeon for all of Chicago.

“People are dying of diseases that should not cause death,” Ngoi said.

AIDS, war and hunger kill off the caretakers of children and the elderly.

To support her grandchildren and adopted orphans, one woman walked 12 to 15 kilometers, or about 8 miles, to take sticks she collected in the forest to market, Janet Sullivan said.

The Sullivans also visited some of the 300 schools run by the Presbyterian Church in the Congo, Sullivan said. Students dressed in fourth-hand American clothing pay $10 a year to crowd into classes of about 50 students per teacher. Dropout rates thin older classes down to about 10 students. The tuition cuts into incomes that average 30 cents a day.

Hope in the midst of scarcity

Everywhere the Sullivans went people provided them with food and music, regardless of their economic state.

In the absence of television and computers, music provides entertainment and solace, Janet Sullivan said. One church the couple visited ran four choirs with about 150 members, and the Sullivans woke up in the morning to the sound of singing drifting into their hotel room. Antelope skins form drums, turtle shells make finger harps and gourds act as amplifiers.

“They sing a lot,” Janet Sullivan said. “Music is one of the things that help the Congolese survive.”

But neither music nor money are enough, activists said. So the Sullivans will return to the Congo in August to find more to do, and they’ll keep printing form letters.

“It’s hard to know what you as an individual can do so this is nice,” said Ruth Moss Buck at church after picking up information from the Sullivans. Buck, an Evanston resident, was managing editor of The Daily in 1945. “Maybe your letter will be the one that pops up and they notice.”

Reach Elizabeth Gibson at [email protected]