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Political theater

The Congo Tribunal
Regissør: Milo Rau

The Congo Tribunal shows us a country turned into a war scene. 


As I write this, and as you read these words, there is a piece of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) somewhere near both of us. In fact, the device you read my words on is very likely to contain a fragment of this African country. Coltan, niobium and cassiterite are minerals that are indispensable to our lives in the 21. century, because they are found in most electronic devices, and large numbers of them are buried beneath Congo's soil.

To reverse the equation. But this wealth is rather a curse than a blessing. For the past two decades, the Congolese government, international companies and local militias have made the country a war scene, with each of the belligerent parties serving in the chaos – for which no one is held accountable. Swiss director Milo Raus's latest political theater project, The Congo Trial, reverses the equation, if only symbolically. For the first time in history, rebels, victims of massacres, representatives of mining companies, the government and opposition politicians gather in one room and listen to each other.

For the past two decades, Congo's economic war has claimed millions of lives. 

Raus's previous political theater projects have been about events in the past. The last days of Ceausescus, for example, a project based on extensive historical research, reconstructed the Romanian Revolution in 1989, with actors playing the fatal lawsuit against the Ceausescu couple. Such a set-up can blur the boundary between fiction and reality, and in this way new meaning can arise. The Congo Tribunal is very different from Raus's previous work, as the events it explores are still going on and have never been in the spotlight before. The term political theater can be misleading in this context, because it implies staging and acting and thus a certain degree of manipulation of what goes on in front of the camera. But apart from the trial played, nothing is staged in this movie.

The court hearings took place in two places, the first in the city of Bukavu in the DRC, the second in Berlin a month later. The film only shows the hearing in Bukavu, along with footage of toxic industrial waste sites, ruined lives and outrageous images of killed women and children after the Mutarule massacre, where the army could have intervened but did not.

A blink. Incidents such as the Mutarule massacre, which are brought to trial along with two similar atrocities, are not uncommon in the DRC. Some of the violence is related to ethnicity, but is mostly about resources. For the past two decades, Congo's economic war has claimed millions of lives. The number of deaths is estimated to be between five and seven million. It is as if half of Belgium's population were to be killed without any eyebrows.

But the world would care about something like that happening in Belgium. Just not when it happens in DRC, a country that is usually at the top of the list failed states. Maybe we should ask ourselves for a simple tag like failed state does it make it easier to overlook the killing and suffering just because we feel we can't wait for something else from such a place?

The rich get richer. “The international community is helping strong states grow stronger. When you are weak, you are helped to become weaker, ”says a Congolese human rights activist during the trial, one of the most heartbreaking findings that can be made about his situation. As it is now, the exploitation of the country's resources earns the world economy, enriching a handful of government Congolese, selling mining rights to multinational mining companies. These companies have the power to remove entire villages and pollute as much as they want, without being held accountable. Local mining cooperatives can be swept away and the workers made slaves to the larger bosses. Local militias are set up, which claim to protect people, but instead create fear, and become powerful, financially driven actors working with the corrupt government. The abuse circle has ended.

It is as if half of Belgium's population were to be killed without any eyebrows. 

When it comes down to it, all these people and their interests as an interconnected rope are so tight and chaotic that no one knows where to begin to solve it. But what if bringing these people face to face could be a start? And what would happen if the whole world began to listen and care?

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Bianca-Olivia Nita
Nita is a freelance journalist and critic for Ny Tid.

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