The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Ben Affleck is not guilty about being a celebrity

June 26, 2008 |  4:42 pm

Affleckorig The world, as we all know, is full of unbelievable poverty, famine and suffering. Busy with our own lives, numbed by millions of hours of footage of dead bodies, mutilated limbs and distended stomachs, we tend to ignore it all--until a celebrity (Bono, George Clooney, Madonna, Angelina Jolie, fill in the blank) comes along to briefly turn a spotlight on the carnage.

We stop, stare, remind ourselves to make a donation to Human Rights Watch and then go about our business. Of course, before we know it, we turn on Fox News or open up the Wall Street Journal editorial page, where some ardent commentator can be found playing the blame game--not blasting all of the governments who've refused to act and have ignored the suffering, but ridiculing the celebrity who took the time to speak out about it.

Ben Affleck is no stranger to this mean little game--he's been bashed all too many times for speaking out on a number of issues. Perhaps that's why I was more than a little surprised to see an e-mail from him today, asking me (and presumably about 800 other people in his Blackberry) to spread the news that "Nightline" is airing a segment tonight (at 11:35 p.m. on ABC) that he put together after making a series of trips to the strife-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. I guess he still hasn't learned to stop sticking his neck out.

As Affleck wrote: "I feel a little foolish emailing everyone I know and asking them to watch a show I worked on, but the point of this effort, in part, is to raise awareness about a part of the world that has endured a great deal, often in relative obscurity. Basically, I think this is important enough to look a little foolish over.... I think the 'Nightline' segment is worth checking out on the merits of the stories of the Congolese people I got to know, the incredible country they live in and how they are fighting to overcome terrible adversity."

If you want to take a little time out of your life to read more about what Affleck learned on his visits, go here--or here--to see a gallery of photos from the Congo. Four million people have died in that country during the past decade and I'm ashamed to say I don't know the name of a single one of them. I'm eager to watch tonight and see what Affleck has to say.

As it turns out, Ben just e-mailed me with a more in-depth explanation of what inspired him to do this. So keep reading:

In short, what led me to Congo was a limited understanding which led to a growing fascination. I was interested in Africa as a whole—but obviously that was too broad to get involved in in any kind of meaningful way. I did a lot of traveling, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Sudan, South Sudan, Rep. Congo, DR Congo, and in the course of that I continued to be drawn to DR Congo—for its tragedy, complexity, beauty, greatness, history—the fact that if it functioned properly, it could carry all of sub-Saharan Africa on its back! One of the things that stunned me was how little was known—and how little I knew—about a place whose recent conflict had killed more people than any war since WWII! The incongruity of that, the idea that all of this suffering was happening without people hearing about it in the west—and that silence might, in some way, be contributing to the problem, was one of the things that motivated me to get involved.

The principle thing for me, over the course of this last year, has been learning. I needed to learn and I’m still learning. It’s not as if I’m some expert or I’m presenting myself as a person with answers—an I’m not an advocate of a particular organization. The idea behind this was to create a media piece along with the learning trip I was taking so that people back home could, ideally, learn with me. In so doing, perhaps a sense of empathy—maybe even solidarity can develop between the viewer and the people in the DRC. Of course, this isn’t likely to happen over the course of sixteen minutes of Nightline programming, no matter how good the ‘hooks’ are (“when we come back, Ben Affleck is eaten by wolves…”) but it is a start. A genuine one, I hope.

You asked about what I saw in terms of what was good and bad—hopeful and tragic. The Africa I saw was a continent of contradictions. There is tremendous growth and achievement in places, terrible inhuman suffering in others. And in some places the two are somehow bound up together. The Democratic Republic of Congo is such a place. On the one hand it is suffering unimaginable misery. There are the oft-repeated statistics (to which one can become numb if one isn’t careful), four million dead over the last ten years, twelve hundred people dying a day (by some counts), in parts of the Kivus in Eastern Congo two of every three women have been raped. All of this is so unspeakably barbaric, inhuman and unacceptable that the mind almost wants to turn off—not absorb the full meaning of those numbers by making each one into an actual person like you or I.

On the other hand, the Congolese I saw were amazing. As I have continued to travel there, I have continued to come across person after person who, though they’ve survived one or another form of terrible suffering, shows incredible strength and resilience—and I believe that is emblematic of the entire country.

There is a small shelter in Kinshasa called “Stand Proud”—it really isn’t much more than a house with a patch of dirt out back. They take in homeless street kids who are paralyzed, most have polio (others were crippled by inexpert nurses injecting quinine into their buttocks when they were infants). Most of these children crawled into the shelter on all fours—many never spent a day off their bellies before they came. Stand Proud teaches the kids to make their own braces and crutches—which the kids do. They learn to use them, to stand and to walk. When I got there it was late at night but every single one of those kids was in the back. I could hear music and I went around into the yard to see what they were doing. Fifty crippled children were outside, dancing. In the pouring rain.

They were just so happy they could stand up—let alone move—that they wanted to dance all night and all day. It was a celebration and an act of defiance by kids who lived on the streets, had no parents, did everything for themselves (including make their own leg brace equipment) and now announced their strength and independence—and joy.

Some of them were seven years old.

If there are people like that in a country, what can’t that country accomplish?

I spent time in the city of Goma, the center of much of the fighting and the area around which much of the gender based violence is taking place. On one side, there was the impunity and lawlessness that allowed rape to become almost a matter of course for many women. Even worse, poverty, war, and dehumanization in Eastern Congo are such that women aren’t just raped but gang raped—and often with sticks, rocks and bottles. This trauma often causes women to suffer a fistula, an internal injury which can lead to being ostracized, the loss of income/family, infection and even death. The ONLY people who can perform surgery on this tragically common injury in Goma are the doctors I visited at Heal Africa Hospital.

The doctors worked tirelessly, often taking bikes miles out into the countryside (fistula can also be caused by giving birth at age 11 or 12, which happens when girls are taken by militia groups as ‘wives’) to treat women who may not have the means practically or politically to come in to the hospital. While I couldn’t help but feel incredible anger and confusion and sadness (and a sense of guilt) I was more amazed by courage than overwhelmed by the darkness.

The hospital administrators told me there was a woman there who had been raped and burned alive by a militia group. Her name was Marta. Marta was insisting on telling her story because she felt it was important for other women to hear what happened and to come forward if they had been raped. We went and met Marta and she was terribly scarred. We asked if she was sure she wanted to be filmed and though I could see she was nervous and self-conscious, she was resolutely certain that she wanted to say what happened to her. So, I talked to her and she forced herself to relive this trauma. I said I could tell that she didn’t like talking about this and that it was very painful for her and asked her why she wanted to do this so badly and she told me she didn’t want other women to be afraid. She wanted women to hear her tell her story and feel the courage to come forward themselves.

This is in a country where less than ten percent of rapes are prosecuted.

With people like Marta, how can there not be hope for the Congo?

Ben Affleck photo by Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

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