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Affleck, Feingold Draw Attention To Violence In Congo


We're going to learn more this morning about one of the deadliest and most enduring crises in Africa. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, gangs and militant groups commit violence at will. This involves ethnic differences and a fight for control of vast mineral wealth. The conflict, raging for nearly two decades now in the Eastern part of the country, has the attention of the U.S. government.

The Obama administration has a special envoy to the region, former democratic senator Russell Feingold. He had been on our program back in November, touting the surrender of one of the most vicious militias in the country. I asked Feingold if a few months later he's still feeling optimistic.

RUSSELL FEINGOLD: Probably a little more so.

GREENE: And that's because, Feingold says, he's seen countries in Africa and beyond upping their commitment to bring peace to Congo. But Feingold acknowledged a major stumbling block, Congo's government. Among other things, members of its military are accused of selling arms to the militias they're supposed to be fighting.

FEINGOLD: If they can't have accountability, if those who have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes are not prosecuted, if people can't see that people that have perpetrated the use of rape as a weapon of war, they don't see punishment for that, then it's not going to be possible for that part of the DRC to be properly governed.

GREENE: We were chatting in Feingold's office at the State Department and there was someone else who joined us.

BEN AFFLECK: You know, they've got an array of Danishes in the other room that are all in serious violation of the Batman diet.

GREENE: You might recognize that voice. That's actor Ben Affleck, who is busy preparing for his role in the latest Batman movie, but he's also been spending a lot of time thinking about Congo. Affleck's been an advocate for peace in the country for nearly a decade now. He co-founded a nonprofit, the Eastern Congo Initiative, to support grassroots efforts on the ground.

He came to Washington last week to testify with Russ Feingold at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pushing for more action in Congo. I asked Ben Affleck to look back to when he first got interested in the country. He says friends in Hollywood were pushing him toward other causes, but what struck him about Congo was the size of the devastation there and also the fact that no one was talking about it.

AFFLECK: It seemed to me that what I had to offer at the time could be better used in Congo and after that my sort of insecurity about not wanting to be somebody who does it without understanding it, led me to go with Whitney Williams, the person who co-founded ECI with me, we did a couple years of traveling in the region in Congo and surrounding countries, meeting with academics, politicians, survivors, and also being a actor afforded me that access, which I'm really grateful to.

And the more I got involved and looked around the Congo, the more I was drawn there, not just because of the suffering, but because of the will and the energy and the determination of the Congolese people in the face of that suffering to overcome.

GREENE: It sounds like that insecurity is something you think about a lot. Talk a little bit more about that if you can.

AFFLECK: Well, I think there is a deeply ingrained cynicism in culture and particularly, with all due respect, in the media toward celebrity activists. And I understand that because there are - there is the opportunity to be involved with causes that, you know, do more for you than you do for the cause. And I was, you know, I shared some of that skepticism and resentment and so I wanted to make sure that that wasn't me.

Mostly it's because I knew I wouldn't be a credible advocate if I wasn't taken seriously, if I hadn't done my homework. And so, you know, in order to do it, you had to do it properly.

GREENE: Give me the message. What is the pitch that you're delivering to convince the U.S. government and the American people that they need to get involved here?

AFFLECK: I think really, to me, you know, it's a question of our moral responsibility in the United States, our values, and how we manifest those values overseas. This is not freedom at the point of a gun. This is respecting people's human rights. The United States's necessary and stated intent to work for the freedom of others the world over and the recognition that the daughters and the wives of the Congolese are no less important than our own daughters and wives, and that when they are violated and abused and raped, indeed when any civilian is, it really is an abuse that all of us suffer.

And I think that that ideology is present in the American people. We're not going to solve it, but there are increments of progress that can be made if we dedicate our diplomatic resources. These things can make a difference. We need to stop looking at it in terms of a binary, like fix it or not fix it. You know what I mean? Hopeful or not hopeful. That's an incredibly reductive way of looking at the world and foreign policy.

There are gains to be made. There are lives to be improved and to be saved. And that contributes to the well-being of our world, so that's the case I'm trying to make.

GREENE: One of the areas that you have focused on is sexual assaults in Eastern Congo. Can you paint a picture of what women in this country face?

AFFLECK: Well, sexual assault, and a culture of rape and sexual assault really emerged after the Rwanda genocide when the two million Hutu, largely Hutus who had been involved in one way or another in that genocide, either been scarred by it or participated in it, sort of spilled over into Eastern Congo and they brought with them a sort of ideology of the genocide, a devaluing of human life.

And as society got further destabilized and as one war happened, then another war happened and the military forces were allowed to exploit the civilian population and they did so with complete impunity, you know, this culture evolved to a place where - and it's not everywhere. And there are really good people fighting this, but people that I've talked to have said, well, yeah, if you can catch a woman, sure, you can, you know, you can take her.

It's just kind of mind-blowing. It has to do with the degradation of values in a place where human life hasn't been valued. And now there are areas of Eastern Congo where two out of three women have been sexually assaulted in some way and it's run the gamut of...

GREENE: Two out of three.

AFFLECK: Two out of three. And it's got all sorts of hideous results, including, you know, very young girls trying to give birth and suffering medical problems, women who suffer fistulas in very high numbers as a result of being sexually assaulted. And also a culture of fear and a sense of hopelessness. And being somebody with two daughters and a beautiful wife, I feel an acute sense of sympathy for a place where the life and the body of women is so devalued.

It's not the only issue at play, certainly, but it's a particularly acute and painful one.

GREENE: Your testimony is in the Senate. There were some reports on Capitol Hill that you also were interested in testifying on the House side and that the invitation was - well, that you weren't invited, and there was some reports that might be because some lawmakers felt that there were other experts who had more credibility than you. Does this tap into the insecurity that we were talking about at the beginning?

AFFLECK: Well, now, this in particular, 'cause I've testified twice in the House. The House wasn't something that we pursued in this particular case so this may be like a rumor. However, there definitely a sense of resentment towards actors, and the idea is, well, you're not an expert, and that's true. I'm not an expert. I'm a person who's spent a lot of energy and dedicated a lot of my time to this issue. And I never pretended to be a technocrat or a wonk or certainly, you know, an expert, a special envoy.

What I am is an advocate and a human being and a director and an actor and somebody who cares deeply about this and wants other people to know about it. And, you know, like it or not, we live in a society that gives a very, very high profile to even the most mundane activities of entertainers, and so I'd like to take some of that interest and focus it on something substantial.

GREENE: Ben Affleck, Russ Feingold, thank you both for welcoming us to the State Department. We appreciate the time.

FEINGOLD: Thank you.

AFFLECK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.