By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
KINSHASA, Congo, Aug. 10 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday that she will use a visit to war-torn eastern Congo to seek ways to end the deadliest conflict since World War II.
Clinton plans to visit with refugees and speak to rape victims on Tuesday in an area with one of the highest incidences of sexual violence in the world.
Since 1996, eastern Congo has suffered through two civil wars and subsequent battles between militia groups that have left at least 5 million people dead from violence and related causes such as disease and hunger. Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped by soldiers and militia members.
Clinton said that on her trip to Goma, the provincial capital, "I will be pressing very hard for not just assistance to help those who are being abused and mistreated, and particularly women, but also looking for ways to try and end this conflict."
She singled out one of the root causes of the fighting, the lucrative mining of gold, copper and cassiterite in eastern Congo. The United States, France, Britain and other countries have to join together "to try and prevent the mining from basically funding a lot of these militias," Clinton said.
Congo is the fourth stop on Clinton's seven-country tour of Africa. It is a desperately poor country, with only 300 miles of paved roads in an area as big as the United States west of the Mississippi. Average life expectancy is 45.
Thousands of Congolese lined the road in front of tiny, colorfully painted shops as Clinton's motorcade sped into Kinshasa, the capital. Women in brightly patterned dresses balanced bundles of vegetables and bottled water on their heads.
Clinton is scheduled to meet Congolese President Joseph Kabila in Goma. She said she would talk with him about how his government could become more credible and how the military, notoriously undisciplined and often unpaid, could be improved.
The Congolese military has launched an offensive to take back eastern Congo from Rwandan rebels who have lived in the region for years. The operation has won support from the United States and United Nations. But human-rights groups say it has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes and has driven up the rate of rape, with soldiers often involved.
Johnnie Carson, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said that the United States is committed to promoting reform of Congo's security forces, including increasing training of the military. "But in order to ensure that soldiers who are trained by the U.S. will remain in the army to do their jobs, it is critically important that there be fundamental reform of the Ministry of Defense" and regular payment of its military, he said.
Clinton began her trip to Congo by visiting a small, modern hospital focused on maternal and infant care built by former NBA star Dikembe Mutombo, a native of the Congo.
She then attended a town-hall meeting with students, urging them to denounce the plague of rape in eastern Congo and press their government to be more accountable. Some students seemed skeptical.
"You mentioned in your speech about mechanisms of transparency. Do you think our leaders, the Congolese leaders, really want to put these mechanisms into place? Because it's known by everyone that most of our leaders like more to enrich themselves to the detriment of the population," one student told Clinton.
Another student asked Clinton what her husband, the former president, thought of growing Chinese investment in Congo.
"My husband is not secretary of state. I am!" Clinton snapped.