Researchers Give a Voice To Victims of Civil Conflict

Photo: More than half of the 3,500 Congolese surveyed in the 'Living with Fear' report said they had undergone violence, including beatings, enslavement and sexual violence.
Patrick Vinck/Courtesy
More than half of the 3,500 Congolese surveyed in the 'Living with Fear' report said they had undergone violence, including beatings, enslavement and sexual violence.

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UC Berkeley: Research Abroad

Five faculty members at UC Berkeley conduct research abroad with a humanitarian emphasis

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Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a three-part series on professors who do humanitarian research abroad.

When UC Berkeley professors Phuong Pham and Patrick Vinck left for the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo last year, they were curious about civil conflict in the area. By the end of their study, they had seen firsthand the violence that Congolese citizens face in their daily lives.

During their research, they witnessed increased fighting-often less than 40 miles from where they were staying-and saw thousands of refugees fleeing along the roads.

"You can hear the shooting at night," said Vinck, an assistant professor of international area studies who specializes in conflicts and development. "It's there all the time, so you have to always be cautious, always mindful of the security situation."

As part of a three-year humanitarian research project, Pham and Vinck spent September through December 2007 in the conflict-ridden Congo, surveying local attitudes toward peace, justice and social reconstruction.

The project was part of the Berkeley-Tulane Initiative on Vulnerable Populations, which is led by the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center and is funded by $1.5 million from Humanity United and the MacArthur Foundation.

Vinck, who is the director of the initiative and has also researched in Iraq, Rwanda and Uganda, said his work stems from a realization of what victims of mass conflicts experience as well as a desire to give them a voice.

"You hear all these stories, you get to know how those people live, and then you want to understand, why did it happen? And then you want to know, what can be done about it?" he said.

The conflict in Congo is deeply rooted and multidimensional. With more than 300 ethnic groups, the country has a long history of racial violence and conflict over resources. Fighting has been further aggravated by an African power struggle and spillover from the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Although a ceasefire was achieved in 2002, civilians still face threats from rebel forces. Last week, the peace process collapsed after violence was renewed by rebel leader Laurent Nkunda.

In August, the researchers sent their findings in a report called "Living with Fear" to the Congolese government and key international players.

The report found that more than half of the 3,500 respondents had been subjected to violence, including interrogations, forced labor, beatings, enslavement and sexual violence at the hands of rebel forces. Four out of five people surveyed identified themselves as victims of the conflicts since 1993.

"In Congo, basically everyone has been victimized," Vinck said. "It's not just the violence. It is that everything has been destroyed-the society, the families, the relationships-everything has kind of been broken. And so the rebuilding is very complicated."

Ninety percent of respondents said they believe peace, defined in the report as "national unity and togetherness," could be achieved. But, Pham said, most respondents felt peace was not close, but is a possibility in the next decade.

Pham, director of research at the Human Rights Center and visiting associate professor of international area studies, plans to travel with Vinck to Chad and Darfur next year for similar research.

"We're trying to represent the affected populations in policy decisions," Pham said. "We want to help the government make an informed decision about reconstruction."

Mass displacement, infectious diseases and the food crisis are also major concerns, Pham said. During her travels, she witnessed people trying to grow vegetables on the sides of the street to avoid starvation.

The researchers faced not only challenges in conducting the surveys, but also traveling in a country where police misconduct is the norm.

"In 20 miles, the car got stopped five times. There's rampant corruption ... it's a totally dysfunctional place," Vinck said.

Despite the current situation, Pham said Congo is rich in resources and has the potential for development if the conflict can be overcome.

"They're optimistic that peace will come eventually," she said. "That it is possible, that there will be a solution. But right now, they're still suffering."


Rachel Gross covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected]

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