Not Like Libya: Why the Congo Can't Keep Our Attention

Author explains why suffering in the country seems "anonymous."

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In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 5 million people have been killed, and 2 million have been displaced over the past 15 years. During the series of wars that have ravaged the country, 400,000 women are raped annually, author and political scientist Jason Stearns told NPR. His book, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, offers a history of the nation's recent conflicts.

As the Congo prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections this November, Stearns talked to NPR about why the central-African nation has become one of the "deadliest killing fields seen since the end of World War II" but still can't seem to win the war for the attention of the United States. In part: We like things simple, and the problems there are complex.

Read an excerpt here:

Recently, questions have been asked repeatedly about why the U.S. and other powers intervened in Libya but not in other countries convulsed by violence, including the Congo. What are your thoughts about the different responses?

Stearns: Obviously, politics matter a lot, and national interests. But framing matters a lot, too. Libya came on the heels of Egypt and Tunisia. It was part of a more general story and people were made to care. There was a hypothetical massacre that was going to happen in Benghazi. There was a lot of pressure to do something about this.

But there are new statistics that will be coming out soon that over the course of a year in the Congo, 400,000 women were raped. That's not hypothetical; those are statistics in a study carried out by academics with funding from the U.S. government.

When the Congo does pop up on the radar, the suffering seems to be anonymous, with an equally anonymous perpetrator. At the moment, there are over 30 different armed groups active in the Congo, and they're all abusive. And the government is abusive as well.

Do you think that kind of complexity is the reason the Congo receives less attention than places like Libya or Darfur?

It's a conundrum. We care less about things that are more complex. If we can't fit loss of lives into a simple narrative, we care less about them.

If you can point your finger at who has direct responsibility, it's much easier to craft the story and make people care. Whereas if it's a mess and it's difficult to detect the heroes or the villains, it's going to be much more difficult to sell that story if you're a journalist or even a diplomat or aid worker.

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