I was kindly asked by Women for Women to speak alongside the inspiration Zainab Salbi in the House of Lords today. It was a strange experience but incredibly uplifting all the same seeing people taken even more interest in the DRC. I know you haven’t heard from me in a while, but for those who are interested, i thought you might like to see what i talked about.
rd February 2011.
I’ve been asked to talk to you today about how I tried to get more people aware of the conflict in the DRC.
I must say it’s a welcome change from my standard pret a manage lunch…Anyhow I supposed you’re probably wondering why a guy is speaking at an event organised by Women for Women….
I’ve always been interested in the Great Lakes region since working and travelling through that region. This interest didn’t stop when was back in the UK.
I used to sit in bed at university in my Bermuda shorts and a wholly hat and spend hours studying the Rwandan genocide and conflict in the DRC – I could never get my head round it, how come I never saw this covered in the UK media?
The reports of the violence, especially towards women, read like something from a horror film – it was shocking.
5 million have died, with an estimated 2 million dying after the conflict supposedly ended. I felt frustrated that this needless destruction was ongoing but know one seemed to know about it. The New York Times, claimed that the war had been given “fewer column inches per million deaths than any other recent war”.
I couldn’t understand this, given everything I had read.
So I made the decision to go to the DRC and try and get my head round it. When I visited Goma in 2009, I sort of hoped that I’d go, see that things one the ground were improving and that was the reason why it was getting little coverage…..
I knew this wouldn’t be the case, but I hoped by somehow visiting Congo would subdue this restlessness and frustration.
I came back from the DRC feeling numb and broken. I couldn’t talk about what I’d seen or how I felt, because I didn’t want to admit to my friends how guilty I felt.
Before going to DRC I had signed myself up to a marathon – it was the week after coming back from Africa. I know I have the bionic women next to me, but for those who haven’t ran a marathon. When you run marathon you hit this point called the wall – where you run out of energy, feel helpless and don’t know if you can carry on – basically pathetic, weak and no sense of sense control.
I had hit a similar wall few weeks earlier when I sat on down in Goma and chatted to a lady living in a refugee camp.
She had been sexually assaulted by a solider, so violently that she’d lost her unborn child. She told me what had happened, and I just sat there and I couldn’t offer her anything other than sorry, not even the crumb of comfort that people in the UK were aware of her plight and thousands like her – I’d have been lying if did.
I could have walked away and think it was impossible to make a difference. But I couldn’t I had open peoples eyes just like I had had mine opened.
So I decided to run to draw attention to tragic conditions in the DRC.
I had just finished one marathon, so it needed to go beyond that and I needed to do something to make people take note – 12 marathons in 12 months.
A started to blog about the running and someone commenting on it hit the nail on the head with what I was trying to achieve:
I’ ve told pretty much every person about you running.
It always starts with a “he’s crazy” or “he’s mad” from them. But always ends with them wanting to know what is fuelling you and i always make sure i tell them about the conflict & the lack of coverage. They are always interested and can’t believe what is going on in a small pocket of a forgotten bit of Africa. God knows how many people I’ve mentioned it too, probably 30-40 or so over the months but thats 30-40 more people who know about the Congo.
I wanted to remove the excuse of people saying I didn’t know. I wanted to bring the DRC to the UK public.
It became apparent after about a month that I needed to go back to the DRC and show people what was happening to in the DRC to women, children and men because the UK media wouldn’t. I wanted to go to the Congo was to show people through different media – video, photos, and writing what was happening out there, because no one else was.
To give you a flavour of how hard it was to get people to take interest, the Editor of the Daily Mail said he’d only cover my attempt to run for awareness if I had got caught up in trouble whilst in the Congo – I couldn’t help but feel he’d missed the point – hadn’t enough blood been spilled?
As I began planning my marathon in the Congo, I say planning, it was more a lot of googling, but I came across runforcongo and women for women, so I got in touch and we took it from there. A few months later I was on the border of rwanda/congo.
I was accompanied by a great group of friends, and we went to do what we could to make more people aware of the conflict in the DRC and the devastating impact that sexual violence was having on so many lives.
I didn’t know how I would do it but I wanted to show that this isn’t just 5 million lives lost and people think ohh that’s a big number, but show them the face and person behind this devastation.
Being able to see the work that women for women do on the ground is really quite something, the conditions that they work in, the issues that they have to face everyday is something more than impressive.
From speaking with the women and increasingly the men the work that they do in helping women come from victim to a citizen is unbelievable – you have this amazing community of women who have suffered so much yet they are working together to help one another and move forward –
Sexual violence is said to be a weapon of war, well the work that women for women do takes the bullets out of that gun.
A lot of people have asked me what running a marathon was like in the Congo. The simple answer is I can’t describe it – I’ve never been happier, but I’ve never felt so despondent (thinking of Alice, Genarose and Florence). I thought it would bring some sort of closure. But it didn’t. I’ve thought about it a lot, you know something has a profound impact on you when every time you try and describe it you use an array of emotions and it feels different every time. I just wanted the running to be worth it, and when I stopped on that dusty road, it didn’t know if it had been.
So I finished the 12th marathon in December.
What I’ve learnt from last year is that people do care – you sometimes just have to go the extra mile to make them take note.
The Guardian eventually decided to run our trip to Bukavu.
The response from that article was staggering. What was apparent was that for so many people they genuinely didn’t know about what was happening in the DRC but wanted to do something to help. One lady even donated her fuel allowance – probably best not to mention it round here otherwise it might get cut!
The problems in the DRC are huge, but this shouldn’t mean that they can’t be solved. It is so important that people across the UK show their support for the women in the DRC and put pressure on our government to do more in the DRC.
The congo is over 5000 miles away, I’ve looked this up as I’d like to run there one day, but it is closer than you think. You might not appreciate that you have a bit of Congo in your pocket – things in your phones that make them buzz come from the Congo and the battle to gain access to these materials continues to drive instability in that region.
I’m still getting my head round last year. The thing that still haunts me is that I’ll never get to meet the woman in Goma again, but I hope that in someway I’ve made amends for not being able to do more to help her at that time..
I’m determined to go back to the DRC and demonstrate my commitment to those who are by no fault of their own trapped in this region of instability.
Last year I ran for congo, and I would love it if you could put your trainers on and joined me and ran for congo in April.