(On Art! is an occasional item on artifacts of transnational culture)
News stories of mass rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo are so disturbingly frequent as to have become almost numbing. With labels like "the rape capital of the world" being bandied about, it's all too easy to forget the individual human face of this tragic violence. Photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale's book, The Rape of a Nation, offers a painfully personal glimpse into the horrors of the DRC's conflict. The book (which you can view online here) begins with pictures of the mines and mineral resources that are the source of the war. It documents the pain of everyday life in the DRC, from child soldiers to infant funerals. The photos highlight the disastrous state of the public health system in the DRC, and the consequences for the Congolese people.
In this week's Economist, Bleasdale tells the stories behind the photos. He speaks of Madelaine, a fifteen-year-old girl gang-raped twice in one day by rebels and government soldiers. When he asked her if she'd sought medical care, Madelaine's response was that she was so desperate to find food that she did not have the time to wait in the hospital. Madelaine's story is that of countless women in the DRC, and Bleasdale attempts to document their suffering fully yet respectfully. He includes in the book photographs of the sites of rapes to put the viewer in the shoes of the survivors; one of the most beautiful and disturbing photos is of the flowers in the Aveba church gardens where women were rounded up by the military and raped. Bleasdale discusses the impunity of the perpetrators and the lack of compensation to the women for their suffering. The book and his narration are by no means uplifting, but offer a powerful and intimate portrait of one of the great tragedies of our time.