For most of her recent African tour, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sounded much like any visiting foreign official, male or female. Except in Congo.
When Clinton ignored security advice and flew to Goma, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, her focus on the region’s rape crisis resonated with some of the continent’s most powerless people: women.
It wasn’t just that she was the first top-level American official to go to the epicenter of one of the world’s deadliest wars, nor even the U.S. aid money she promised. It was her reaction to victims’ stories of rape -- and the hope that she might do something about it.
The conflict in eastern Congo is a toxic mix of jostling militias, ethnic tensions, greed for resource wealth, a tragic colonial history, a predatory army and opportunistic neighbors. Rape is commonly used as a weapon in this war. Although reliable statistics are difficult to come by, it’s estimated that close to 200,000 women have been raped since the conflict began 13 years ago.
In a recent surge in violence, an estimated 3,500 women and girls have been raped since the beginning of the year. Men and boys also are increasingly victims of sexual assault.
In America, Clinton might have been portrayed as a bit of a shrew in her sharp reaction to a Congolese student’s question about her husband’s thoughts on an issue -- a momentary loss of her usual steely control that got so much media coverage that it became the single moment some people remember about her trip.
But women’s rights activists in eastern Congo weren’t talking about that. They were talking about the tears they saw glistening in her eyes Tuesday as she talked to rape victims and heard their horrendous stories of suffering, including a woman who was raped while pregnant and who lost her baby.
Clinton was so warm and compassionate, activists said, they felt they could almost call her Hillary.
Christine Schuler Deschryver, a prominent Congolese activist with the organization VDAY, which fights gender violence in Congo, is cynical after many futile visits from envoys of various countries and organizations.
But Clinton’s visit gave her a renewed sense of hope, said Deschryver, who was one of the activists who met with the secretary of State.
“For the first time in a decade, I have hope again,” she said, speaking by telephone from the city of Bukavu. “The message I gave her first of all, as a woman, not as secretary of State, is that a woman can feel the pain all these women feel.
“I had another image of Mrs. Clinton” before meeting her, Deschryver said, “and I have really discovered a woman with a big heart. I saw in her eyes many times tears. I know she was deeply moved.”
Clinton’s focus on the violent tussle for mineral wealth in the region, not just the victims it creates, was seen by activists as a key part of the message.
John Prendergast, founder of the anti-genocide awareness group Enough Project, said resolving the conflict required a concerted long-term approach.
He said one key was to make more transparent the trade in minerals from the region, including gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum. That way consumers could be sure that their purchases of cellphones, laptops and other electronics in which these metals are often used were not helping fund the war.
The conflict “has devolved into a scramble for one of the richest non-petroleum resources bases in the world. There’s just way too much money to be made,” said Prendergast, who was an Africa analyst in President Bill Clinton’s administration.
He said if America’s top diplomat decided to make stopping the war in Congo a priority, a lot could be achieved.
“When an issue becomes specific and personal to a Cabinet member, it has a better chance of getting the kind of personal attention needed to push through the initiatives that can make a difference,” Prendergast said. “I think she’s now personally invested in having some kind of solution in Congo.
“She’s stated her desire is to have an end to the conflict,” he said. “She separated herself from the usual high-level visitors [to Congo] by saying we are doing to deal with it.”
To activists such as Deschryver, Clinton’s visit also inspired hope that female Congolese leaders could play a role in ending the conflict.
Although her initial euphoria over the Clinton visit has faded a little, she remains optimistic that Clinton can make the difference if she continues to push the issue.
“If the U.S. has the will and if they give a very strong warning and say first of all we want to stop the violence, it can have a big impact,” Deschryver said.
“I hope that was her aim in coming here. Otherwise in 100 years, we will still be here, beggars depending on other countries.”
An African foreign policy analyst said Clinton hit the right diplomatic notes.
“A little over halfway through the year, both the president, followed up by Secretary of State Clinton, have been to Africa, which is quite a departure from the attention that Africa usually gets,” said Francis Kornegay, analyst with the Institute for Global Dialogue, an independent South African think tank. “I think overall her seven-nation safari has been quite successful.”