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October 23, 2009

Demonstrators Press Sanders, Leahy, Welch on Congo Crisis

Wil Wilcox Does your computer look like this?

Probably not. But that hides the fact that so much blood in spilled on account of a precious mineral used to make computers, cellphones, game consoles and other gadgets we all use.

The mineral coltan is mined is the Democratic Republican of Congo and has fueled a brutal war there that's gone barely mentioned in the U.S. media since 1996. With more than 5 million dead, it may well be the deadliest conflict since World War II. Urgent action is needed to stop the killing, and Vermont's elected officials can play a crucial role.

That was the message Friday at a noontime rally organized by Friends of Congo, a group trying to raise awareness about a conflict that's destroyed a country and uses rape as a weapon of war. A few Congolese refugees joined students from UVM, St. Michael's and Champlain College, who towed wagons full of computer parts smeared with fake blood, on a march down Main Street and up Church Street.

"We're not asking anyone to stop using cellphones and computers," said Kate Bailey, a junior at St. Mike's. "We just want them to be aware that when they go into the Verizon store and buy a cellphone, there's a a connection to what's happening in Congo."

The crowd assembled at Sen. Patrick Leahy's office on Main Street before marching on Congressman Peter Welch's office down the hill. At both locations, they were met by well-dressed congressional staffers who offered praise for the protesters and cautious support for their platform.

When they arrived outside Sen. Bernie Sanders' office on Church Street, the demonstrators got a surprise. Bernie was there, and invited the students up for a chat.

"What's on your mind?" Sanders asked, seated at the head of a conference table in his second-floor office.

Cleophace Mukeba Kyendamina, a refugee who resettled from the Congo to Burlington, told Sanders that urgent action is needed to stop a genocide that is ripping apart his home country.

Bernie at Draker labs 004 Trish Siplon, a political science professor at St. Michael's College who marched alongside some of her students, told Sanders there are important measures he could support. Among them:

  • Cutting off financial aid, and military training support to Rwanda until that country's government stops funneling weapons, training and soldiers to armed groups in Congo
  • Reintroduce the Extractive Industries Transparency Disclosure Act, a corporate responsibility bill aimed at mining companies
  • And support the International Violence Against Women Act, which would incorporate antiviolence initiatives into U.S. foreign assistance programs.

"We're talking about five to six million people that have already died, and these specific issues are really pretty urgent," Siplon told Sanders. "We know that you're with us in spirit, we just really want to see you moving on of these specific targets."

Bernie's response: "We'll take a hard look at these and get back to you."

Sanders noted that he's doing several things to combat the Congo crisis. He is sponsoring bills to increase aid to women in developing countries, crack down on atrocities committed against civilians, provide humanitarian aid and monitor the mineral trade more closely.

Outside Leahy's office the mob chanted and held signs with slogans such as, "Leahy - Sign International Violence Against Women Act!"

Brian Boone, a junior political science major, held a sign that read, "Hey, Senator Leahy, Take a Stand! Justice in the Congo is What we Demand!"

"This war in the Congo has got to stop," said Boone. "Six million people have died for cellphones. Hopefully they'll listen to us."

Leahy's state director, Chuck  Ross, came outside and defended Leahy's record on Congo. "This was an issue he was onto way before the rest of Congress were," Ross said. "The reason why the U.S. is funding some of the work it is, is because of his leadership on the Foreign Operations Committee."

When the mob arrived at Congressman Peter Welch's office a few minutes later, a staff aide was waiting outside to greet them. But when pressed on Welch's position on the topic, he came up empty.

"He's certainly very concerned, but I'm really not here to speak on his behalf," said congressional aide Jon Copanis, who promised the group that Welch himself would get back to them.

Trish Siplon was not impressed. She wants Vermont's leaders to take a hard stand — to hold hearings on Capitol Hill, stage press conferences, shine a bright light on the crisis.

"It's good to take leadership, but it only moves things if you take forceful leadership, and no one's doing that," Siplon said.

"Trish Siplon was not impressed. She wants Vermont's leaders to take a hard stand — to hold hearings on Capitol Hill, stage press conferences, shine a bright light on the crisis."

Professor Siplon, gee, I'm sorry that one of Vermont's three elected representatives in Washington, who has 10,000 issues to think about every single day, is unable to meet your personal expectations of impressiveness for activity on a particular country in Africa. Welch is not even on a foreign affairs committee, to my knowledge. Give it a rest. Is everyone you know "impressed" with you on every single aspect of your professional life?

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