Darkness Visible: Pictures, panel shed light on Congo’s war and suffering

March 7, 2013
by Corydon Ireland, Harvard Gazette

A Congolese soldier, an RPG slung over one shoulder, standing at the roadside smoking a cigarette. He is wearing a wig.

In an orange dress, a young woman whose hair resembles strands of wire. The front lines are just a short drive away.

Two men in a banana grove lowering a purple casket into a grave. The size of a toolbox, it contains the body of an 8-month-old girl killed by cholera.

Mud-covered men squatting in a jungle stream — miners who work for one meal a day and the promise of pay in six months.

These and other images will be on display along the second-floor office walls of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School through June 30. The exhibit, “Congo on the Wire,” is the work of photojournalist Finbarr O’Reilly, a fellow this year at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. The images are a gift to the Carr Center from Thomson Reuters, the news agency for which O’Reilly is the chief photographer in West and Central Africa.

The photos also summarize the tragedy and travail of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a central African nation riven by war. Since 1998, the death toll — from combat, disease, and starvation — has numbered about 5.4 million, making it the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II.

Much of what you need to know about the country is in O’Reilly’s pictures: death from disease, death from combat, intimations of sexual violence, hints of child trafficking, and the exploitation of natural resources.

There is also a sense of the strength and resilience of the Congolese, who remain starkly dignified, even joyful, despite pervasive war. Said O’Reilly at the opening of “Congo on the Wire” on Wednesday: “The reality is that it is a much more joyful, vibrant, alive place” than the exhibit’s images portray. “This is not an expression of daily lifestyle."

The opening set the stage for “The Congo’s Invisible War,” a 90-minute panel in HKS’s Wiener Auditorium. Gathered there to put words to all the images were a Congolese human rights lawyer, a Boston-based physician, and O’Reilly.

Moderating the panel was Carr Center Executive Director Charlie Clements, a public health physician and human rights advocate who flew combat missions in Vietnam before concluding that war was immoral. Congo has so rich an agricultural landscape that it is “like driving through a fruit salad,” he said — yet its constant state of exploitative war keeps everything off-balance. “Wherever you travel in the Congo, you meet new sets of traumatized people.”

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Girl with braids

Serafin Nyanzaba, 17, who has been displaced by war, wears a newly done traditional Congolese hairstyle at the Don Bosco center in Goma, Nov. 20, 2008.

Photos by Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters

A Congolese government soldier wearing a wig smokes by the roadside near the front line, north of Goma in eastern Congo, November 11, 2008.

These photos are part of the exhibit "Congo on the Wire" on display at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School through June 30.