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United Nations peacekeepers oversee the election. Congolese women gather at a rape counseling center. Election officials count ballots. Green rolling hills in rural eastern Congo.

Rough Cut
Congo: Hope on the Ballot
Can historic elections bring peace?
 

 

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Length: 13:00

George Lerner

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

REACTIONS

Luc Jackson - Bungulu, uganda
You make a so good action in our land Africa, so I send you congratulations and thank you so much. God bless you.

Tony Gambino - Bethesda, MD
George's documentary faithfully shows the hope -- and myriad challenges -- the Congolese face. This country of 60 million people -- virtually unknown in the U.S. -- could be on its way to a much better future for its people, or it could revert to the horrors of the last decade. The Congolese have done their part in voting in a new government. The international community needs to support them, particularly by making sure that the large UN force (known as MONUC) -- which is ESSENTIAL to maintaining stability -- remains in the Congo at full strength for another year or more, to help the Congolese begin to emerge from this very fragile period.

Julian Wamukala - Malden, MA
The USA businesses use the US governement to do its dirty work. To put in power puppet leaders in order to use the country's workforce and resources to get rich.The elected prime minister of the DRC was assassinated by the CIA.
The dictator who took over was an agent of the Americans (the Western powers).
Together, they looted and plunder the country and are still doing so.The problems of Congo is linked to the corruption(the race to material richness) that controls the West. Today, the corporations from the West are exploiting the richness of the country with the complicity of the "international community".But God knows how to punish those who under the motive of preaching the Gospel, have set out in the World to preach and to exhalt the evil lifestyle of the Romans (the democratic constitution they were supposed to give up).To judge the nations, God needed a reason to condemn or to approve them.
The western countries that were part of the Roman empire have chosen to use the power of God (the Gospel) to glorify and to exhalt themselves. They want to the world to be to their image; they want the world to copy (worship) the Roman traditions of war, plunder and exploitation. They want to fill the world with the spirit of evil that controls them. The time is near when they will find out that they've been set up and the pay back time is near.