George Lerner is an independent journalist based in New York City. For seven years, he worked as a producer and writer for CNN, covering the "War on Terror," the United Nations and U.S. politics. As a reporter for Reuters during the mid-1990s, he wrote on global poverty issues, reporting on Latin America's 1995 economic crisis and Asia's 1998 financial meltdown.
I traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo driven by two powerful images. The first was footage of an elderly African-American man in 1960s Mississippi, who cast his first ballot after decades of disenfranchisement. After he left the polling site, a crowd of civil rights workers hoisted him onto their shoulders and paraded him home. The second image showed thousands of South Africans waiting hours in line to vote in the first postapartheid election.
The Congolese did not face apartheid or Jim Crow, but since gaining independence in 1960, they have suffered through decades of dictatorship and war. This election in July 2006 was the first competitive vote in more than 40 years.
Leaving for Congo, I wasn't sure whether the Congolese would view the election with celebration or skepticism. After all, they have been let down by the promise of peace before. What I did discover was an immense appreciation for the very act of voting. In that sense, the elections were about more than President Joseph Kabila or his main rival, the vice president and former militia leader, Jean Pierre Bemba. (Kabila defeated Bemba by a wide margin in a second round of Presidential voting in late 2006.) These elections represented the hope for an end to violence and for a new kind of security, one that promised safety to all those who had suffered through the bloodshed of the past decade.
I wondered how a society that has lost an estimated four million people to civil war could heal. Facing this question, I decided to spend most of my time in eastern Congo, the epicenter of the conflict. It is not a perfect peace. Despite the peace treaty brokered in 2003, the Congolese army still battles with militia groups in parts of the northeast. Armed men in the countryside still kill and rape with impunity. But many parts of the east have witnessed a remarkable transformation over the past three years, and the elections symbolize that change.
It's not easy shooting a documentary in Congo. People are hardened by decades of authoritarian rule, and many didn't want to be filmed. The very sight of my camera drew suspicion from the soldiers, police and private guards who cropped up at every turn. After recording an interview in one village, I was held by the Congolese army for questioning. The colonel, lounging about his hut in a tank top and boxer shorts, demanded to know why he had not been informed of my activities here. He scolded the Congolese journalist with whom I was traveling, telling him that this was a secure military zone, not -- as it appeared -- a sleepy market town. My companion told the colonel that we were here to inform the public and that what we were doing was critical to the new democratic society these elections were supposed to create. The journalist's defiance showed inspiring courage in a country where the gun still holds the last word.
There were also tense moments while filming in the capital, Kinshasa. Young men demanded beer money from me simply for visiting their neighborhood. A political rally turned frantic as soon as the candidate left, when dozens of young men gave up their political chants and pressed around me for money. In a poor district where electoral officials were accused of burning ballots, the atmosphere became so charged that the U.N. peacekeepers and electoral officials jumped into their vehicles and drove off -- my signal to leave as well.
This has been the most expensive peacekeeping operation in U.N. history, with some $500 million spent to ensure that fair and peaceful elections took place. Many in the international community believe that peace and democracy in Congo are critical to bringing stability to the rest of central Africa.
Bearing witness to these historic elections was inspiring. The sight of a Babembe tribe leader reaching out to embrace his Banyamulenge counterpart, after decades of hostility, made me aware that something important was taking place. I tried my best to shut up and let it play out on camera. Their hug, with its expression of brotherhood, reached beyond the legacy of communal violence to a new Congo. This, above all, represented the hope of the elections.
By George Lerner