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American Lisa and Congolese Lisa

DR Congo, February 3, 2010

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Nicholas Kristof

The New York Times
February, 2010

My Thursday column is about the war in eastern Congo, looking at the work of Lisa Shannon and her Run for Congo Women. Readers sometimes ask why I often write about outsiders, like Lisa, rather than about the innumerable local people who are doing extraordinary work — often at greater risk. It’s certainly true that Congo, for example, has a vibrant and admirable civil society, full of Congolese women themselves organizing against rape and war.

But it’s already very difficult to get Americans to show any interest in a remote, distant conflict, and if everyone in the drama is Congolese it’s that much harder. An American protagonist in the column creates a connection to readers, I hope, and leaves them more engaged in the topic. That may not be fair, but it’s the reality. Likewise, I want to encourage readers — overwhelmingly American — to get involved, and Lisa makes a nice role model for that.

If I had had more space in this column, I would have made more of the quite lovely meeting between Lisa and the little Congolese girl named after her. “Lisa” isn’t a Congolese name, so the little girl may be the only Congolese Lisa in the city of Bukavu. I asked the mother what she would have done if the baby had been a boy, and she said that in that case she would have named it after Lisa’s then-fiance. Whew – considering that they then split up, that was a close call.

After I met her, Lisa flew up to the town of Dungu in northeastern Congo. It is surrounded by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a particularly nasty militia that started in Uganda. In an email, Lisa told me about a recent attack there:

A young woman walked along the roadside with her one year old baby boy when she saw them. The LRA soldiers shot a man near her, fleeing with his 3 year old daughter in his arms. The bullet hit his arm, but nailed the child, passing straight through her stomach. (The father lived, but the little girl died in t he hospital two days later.) When the young woman started to run, the shot at her, hitting her butt, the bullet passed through, blowing apart the whole area between her legs. She collapsed to the ground, but but held her baby to her chest and dragged herself on her back to the bushes to hide. If she had immediate medical treatment, she would likely live. But everyone who could have helped had already run away searching for safety.

In the morning, a neighbor saw a trail of blood mixed with road dust. She followed the marks to the bushes, where she found the young woman’s dead body, her baby boy, alive, cradled in her lifeless arms. The baby was still nursing.

I asked Koko’s family if they knew the young woman. Though their family has already suffered multiple losses in LRA attacks over the past two years, the answer was yes. Koko’s eyes widened, her jaw dropped when she heard the name. It was her cousin Antoinette.

For those who want to support Lisa’s work, you can go to her website here. Or leading groups engaged in advocacy work on Congo include the Enough Project, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam and Refugees International. Among the aid groups active on the ground are the International Rescue Committee and Mercy Corps, as well as the United Nations agencies. I saw food deliveries arranged by the World Food Program, which has been amazingly successful in keeping people nourished even in the middle of a war in the Kivus region. Then I’m a huge fan of the Panzi and Heal Africa hospitals, as well as VDay’s support for the City of Joy in Bukavu. Other ideas?