On Monday evening, about 70 people ensconced themselves in a windowless conference room on the 3rd floor of the CBC building in downtown Toronto for “Congo on the Wire”, an event that focused on the continuing humanitarian crisis in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The event, sponsored by Médecins Sans Frontières and Reuters, offered an opportunity to hear from Finbarr O’Reilly, a Reuters photographer who has worked extensively in the Great Lakes region and whose photo exhibit opened last night, and Banu Altunbas, the MSF head of mission in the DRC.
As someone who follows the news out of the DRC closely, I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t learn anything new about the conflict during yesterday’s event. But that wasn’t the point. What the launch event for the “Congo on the Wire” photo exhibit sought to accomplish was to provide new and different perspectives on the conflict, as told by people whose work brings them close to the heart of it.
For me, the highlight of the evening was listening to O’Reilly talk about his photos. Many of the images he discussed last night depicted very brutal scenes on the front lines – blurry, spontaneous shots that underscored the banality of evil in conflict. Violent exchanges on the front lines, never-before-seen photos of Hutu militants in their jungle hideouts, artisanal miners in gold mines in Ituri: O’Reilly’s photos aren’t necessarily elegant, but they capture reality faithfully. When asked about why he seemed to focus so much on fighters and soldiers, he explained that these are the people who are driving the conflict, and he wanted to depict their lives as realistically as possible.
Not all his photos, however, focus on the actors of the conflict. One of his most beautiful shots – which is unfortunately not part of the curated photo exhibit at the CBC building – was of a tailor named Boniface and his son. O’Reilly explained that he was in one of the displaced camps around Goma when gunfire erupted. At that moment, Boniface invited him to hide in his makeshift house — made of banana leaves and a plastic tarp — to wait for the threat to subside.
In the photo, Boniface and his son are lying down next to O’Reilly, who recorded the sounds of the attack. The combined impact of the photo and audio was unusual and very powerful. Like with many of his other photos, O’Reilly does a great job at humanizing the conflict and its survivors. His intention of showing various facets of life and conflict in the DRC, including the “Congolese love for life” and the “bit of glamour that lurks in the shadow of the war” was a testament to the vibrancy and spirit of the people of the DRC.
After O’Reilly’s presentation, he and Altunbas discussed the continued involvement of the international community in the DRC, namely the presence of MONUC, the UN peacekeeping mission that has been in place since 1999.
Both O’Reilly and Altunbas expressed their disappointment with MONUC. O’Reilly spoke of a “failed mission,” that fails to provide adequate protection to civilians. He noted that violence was ongoing, despite the presence of a “heavy, bureaucratic, and expensive international mission.”
Altunbas echoed this sentiment, acknowledging that MSF maintains only minimal relations with MONUC, given their contentious role in the conflict. Both speakers agreed that they did not – and could not – know what the effects of a UN withdrawal would be (MONUC is slated to leave the country in 2011).
Last night’s event was an interesting opportunity to hear about how MSF – bound by a principle of neutrality – can support advocacy efforts. By helping out writers and photographers with logistics and providing them with access to remote locations where the media rarely ventures, MSF facilitates the journalist’s role.
As a joint venture between MSF and Reuters, “Congo on the Wire” represents an innovative approach to raising awareness and levels of understanding about one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.