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Ben Affleck launches initiative for Congo aid

By George Lerner, CNN
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Ben Affleck: Changing Congo
  • Actor Ben Affleck launches initiative to assist communities ravaged by war in DRC
  • Initiative supports organizations working to help rape victims and rebuild from war
  • One organization, LAV, reintegrates ex-soldiers, victims of violence back into society

(CNN) -- Actor Ben Affleck on Monday launched a grassroots initiative to assist communities ravaged by war in one of the most troubled places on earth, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Affleck, who just returned from a trip to the DRC, told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that he had long heard about the crisis in Congo, which has left more than 5 million people dead over the past 12 years, but only came to understand the scope of the humanitarian crisis after repeated visits to the country.

"The more I traveled, the more I was struck about it, the more I fell in love with the people, the more I was horrified by what was happening. And the more I did, I started to develop this idea of partnering with the Congolese people and wanting to empower community-based organizations there that were doing extraordinary work," Affleck said.

Affleck on Monday announced the launch of the Eastern Congo Initiative, an effort to support community organizations working to help rape victims and to rebuild from a decade of war.

"There are folks who are working to protect those who are suffering from gender-based violence, who help child soldiers to advance the educational needs of the citizens there." Affleck told Amanpour. "There are people who live in the communities, who are from there, who understand the relationships there, who are Africans finding solutions to African problems. And when I was there, what I saw was that those were, in my view, the most effective folks at meeting those goals."

One of those groups, Affleck said, was an organization known as LAV, the French acronym for "Let Africa Live," which taught practical trades, such as carpentry, auto mechanics and textile production, to reintegrate both former soldiers and victims of the violence back into society.

Affleck cited the case of one woman whom he met on his trip last week. She had survived a horrifying ordeal at the hands of a militia in Eastern Congo.

"They, in her words, treated her like an animal and a slave. She was a bush wife to six men who raped her. She became pregnant. She eventually escaped by asking basically permission to take a bath and making a mad run for it," he said. "She barely escaped with her life. She walked for a week and made it back to the city. She was homeless, pregnant, and destitute in the city. She was discovered by folks from (LAV). They took her in. They brought her into this community."

Through the work of LAV, the woman is now attending to law school, with plans to practice and teach law, Affleck said.

"She's an extraordinary woman, and (LAV) was the kind of group that we want to partner with and support so that we can broaden their capacity to do more."

Congo analyst Jason Stearns, who worked in Eastern Congo's war zones with the International Crisis Group and the United Nations, said the problems in Congo could be traced to two sources: the ongoing after-effects of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the collapse of the Congolese state.

"We're not going to have a solution to the problem -- and to the rapes, for that matter -- until we have a Congolese state and army that serves the people, rather than preys on the people," Stearns said. "Four billion dollars is currently the amount the international community gives to the Congo for various things, and they've done a great job in emergency stuff, in feeding displaced people, but really a very poor job in reforming the state institutions that would prevent such a crisis in the future."

Congolese human rights attorney Sylvie Maunga Mbanga said the government needed to focus attention on ending a culture of impunity towards rapists, especially when those rapes are committed by members of the Congolese army.

"We need to punish the perpetrators of sexual violence against women," she said.

Eastern Congo may have received far less international attention than the crisis in Darfur, but Affleck called on Washington to do more to address the humanitarian situation in the DRC.

"The United States really needs to develop a comprehensive policy towards Congo as a whole, much in the same way it did toward Sudan in late 2009, which it doesn't have toward Eastern Congo, despite what a sort of mess the place is," Affleck said.