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March 15 2010

Artists go under the hammer for Oxfam

Peter Blake and Antony Gormley are among artists to create original works for a set of books scheduled for auction at the Saatchi Gallery

January 16 2010

Hell on earth: John le Carré on Congo

'We are talking of a country being held to ransom, a country that has no memory of deciding its own fate, only of desperate need, terrible violence and self-hatred, and the rule of the gun'

A couple of years ago, on a brief research trip to eastern Congo, I chanced on a hillside village high above the old ­Belgian colonial town of Bukavu, and fancied myself for a moment transplanted to a ­village in plague-stricken Europe in medieval times: children, scary-eyed and brain-damaged by undernourishment, ­hobbling towards us, old hags of 40, teenage polio victims paddling themselves along on bits of packing case, deformed and toothless faces smiling grotesquely as they begged, young bodies scarred, broken and hideously regrown.

On other journeys, I liked to think, I had seen some of the least fortunate people on earth – in the worst slums of Cairo and Nairobi – but never before had I set eyes on a community that, for generation after generation, had been denied even the most elementary medical care. Yet these people, and millions like them, are the real victims of near-perpetual warfare. On any average day of the year, 1,450 Congolese die of war's twin side-effects: disease and malnutrition.

How did it happen? Where to begin? Nowhere on earth has suffered more terribly from the ­consequences of colonial rule than Congo. The very word colonial doesn't begin to encompass the scale of human misery, greed and cruelty that have been visited on Congo by foreign predators throughout its history, whether we talk of Arab slavers or the pillaging of the country's people and riches by the appalling King Leopold of the Belgians, or the murder in 1961, with Belgian and US connivance, of Congo's first elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, just one year after the country obtained its independence.

And who was America's choice to replace Lumumba, seen as too leftist, too nationalist, too unpredictable? One Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, whose 30 years of ever more demented misrule, corruption and proxy wars against perceived ­enemies of western alliance reduced Congo to a condition of social and ­economic collapse from which it is still to recover. Those with a mind to explore the horror of Congo's wars over the last 50 years can do no ­better than treat themselves to Michela Wrong's In The Footsteps Of Mr Kurtz and Thomas ­Pakenham's The Scramble For Africa.

But its own wars aside, Congo's greatest ­mis­fortune has been to play host to the wars of other countries. In the aftermath of the Rwandan ­genocide, Hutu insurgents fled across the border and used eastern Congo as a base from which to launch attacks on their Tutsi enemies still in Rwanda. When the Tutsis retaliated in kind, it was Congo that paid the blood price.

The first Congo war had barely raged itself out before the second followed. Warlords ruled. ­Roaming militias fought, looted and killed at will. Mass rape and the mutilation of women became a military weapon, destroying tribal and family life. Still today, in eastern Congo, thousands of men and children are condemned to slave labour in gold, diamond and tin mines, frequently at ­Congolese army gunpoint, always in ­unimaginably appalling conditions. Congo's ­mineral reserves are the ­largest on the planet, yet three-quarters of its population live on less than a dollar a day. Mining companies raise billions on stock markets, but 60m Congolese have yet to see the smallest ­benefit from their country's wealth.

What is to be done?

A better question is: what is not to be done?

We must not take shelter behind the notion of democracy as a cure-all. Yes, yes, it was admirable and right that Congo, in 2006, held its first free – or fairly free – elections since the murder of Lumumba. Democracy at last. But little has changed. And little can. Without a civil society to support it, how can democracy act as a panacea?

We are talking of a country 1,300km long, most of it forested, with a largely illiterate population whose size can be only roughly estimated, with neither a functioning judiciary nor a police force, nor a basic educational or medical system, and barely a hard road; of a country, just as before, being held to ransom by its own government, army and rival militias, in every avenue of life, be it ­mining, trade or elementary social mechanisms; of a country that has no memory of deciding its own fate, only of desperate need, terrible violence and self-hatred, and the rule of the gun.

What overnight miracle do we expect to have occurred on the morning after Democratic ­Election Day? Not a western-style parliament complete with upper chamber and official oppo­sition, that's for sure. A more likely outcome is that the electorate, where it can be brought to the polling booths, will vote on knee-jerk tribal lines, the winner will take all and the loser will take to the jungle. Which is pretty much what happened in 2006. So much for democracy as the cure.

Neither should we take shelter behind the easy notion of economic aid – or not without first insisting on the donors' right (and obligation) to follow every penny of the cash all the way to its proper destination. With corruption endemic at every level of life – and raised to an art form by Congo's less scrupulous western trading partners – the hardest trick in the box is to bring aid where it is most desperately needed. In this respect at least, Britain's record in Congo is for once a happy one. We have kept our national interests on a leash. We have been generous and prudent.

The same can hardly be said for the World Bank, which looked on while the government signed away 75% of its copper and cobalt reserves in three highly questionable deals that yielded next to nothing for its state or people.

And finally, however intractable Congo's ills may appear, and however drained of compassion we may feel in the face of Darfur and other hells, we must never turn away our gaze. Indeed, we have a moral duty to look, which is what these photographs are telling us. To observe pain only through the prisms of the boardroom and the computer screen is to sever the vital artery between compassion and action. The continuing human tragedy of Congo is not a statistic. It is a continuing human tragedy. It is 1,450 tragedies every day. It is countless more if you include the orphaned, the bereaved, the widowed and all the ripples of truncated lives that spread from a ­single death. It is you and me and our children and our parents, if we had had the bad luck to be born into the world these photographs portray.

But Congo has one secret that is hard to pass on if you haven't learned it at first hand. Look ­carefully and you will find it in these pages: a ­gaiety of spirit and a love of life that, even in the worst of times, leave the pampered westerner moved and humbled beyond words.

• This is an edited extract from John le Carré's foreword to The Rape Of A Nation, by Marcus Bleasdale, published by Thames & Hudson at £32.50. To order a copy for £29.50, with free UK p&p, go to or call 0330 333 6846. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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