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October 1, 2009 7:22 PM

Local group works to heal victims of war in Congo

Posted by Kristi Heim

People in the Democratic Republic of Congo have suffered and inflicted on each other atrocities that are impossible for many outside the country to imagine.

The country has been called the "worst humanitarian disaster since World War II" by the International Rescue Committee, a place where 5 million people have died as a result of war, hunger and related consequences over the past decade. Women's bodies have been the battleground.


PHOTOGRAPHER/SOURCE

Dr. Jo Lusi and his wife Lyn Lusi are founders of HEAL Africa, a nonprofit organization with U.S. headquarters in Monroe that trains health professionals in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In eastern Congo, the worst hit region, military groups prey on the local population, using rape as a weapon.

In the heart of this crisis, a doctor and his wife operate a hospital and 28 "safe houses" to treat, counsel and shelter women and girls brutalized by the violence.

Dr. Jo Lusi, a native of Congo, and his wife, Lyn Lusi, who is originally from Britain, founded the non-profit HEAL Africa, which provides medical care and training for local health workers in the country's rural clinics.

Traveling from remote Goma, in eastern Congo, the Lusis visited Seattle recently, where they have a small U.S. office in Monroe.

"We come here to bring the message of congratulations from the girls to the people who are supporting us," Jo Lusi said. "We want to encourage those who are ready to help and to say Seattle people, you are great! The job is not finished."

A local women's group provided funds for two safe houses, and the group also received matching grants from Microsoft and Boeing, whose employees donated money, and support from Quest Community Church.

The story is not all bad in Congo, Lyn Lusi said. She and her husband have seen volumes, living and working there since 1985.

"This is time to tell people that the work is going well, in spite of all the bad news everyone hears," she said. "We can't stop the war, but we can be present in the communities, helping communities organize and take care of what they can, using the resources they have available."

As an example, she told the story of a girl who had been raped and dared to go to a safe house and talk with a counselor despite urging from her mother to keep quiet.

The girl was taken to the hospital for treatment and she continued to press for justice. The rapist was publicly tried, and the courthouse so crowded the trial had to be held outside. When the man was convicted, there were cheers.

"The foundation of any society is our trust in the system," Lusi said - trust that is slowly being rebuilt one case at a time. "We want to build on the strength of everybody's desire to have a functioning community."

Four years ago Jo and Lyn Lusi asked Judy and Dick Anderson, whom they had met in Congo, to start an organization in the U.S. that could support them. So the Andersons did, working initially from their log cabin in the woods in Snohomish County, where they lived in between humanitarian missions overseas.

After HEAL Africa was mentioned in the bestselling book "Half the Sky," Oprah Winfrey linked to it as one of 8 organizations helping women rape victims listed on her Web site.

"It's like David among the giants," said Judy Anderson.

To cope with the volume of traffic, supporters at Microsoft hosted HEAL Africa's site, which had received 20 online donations today within hours of Oprah's show.

Much of the violence in Congo is fought over minerals, and the area where HEAL Africa works is rich in them.

"Wherever there are minerals there is violence," Lyn Lusi said. "We're cursed by our wealth in Congo."

Everyone with a cell phone may be tied to the conflict.

The mineral coltan is used to make a heat-resistant metal powder called tantalum, a key component in everything from mobile phones to computer chips to stereos and VCRs, as this story describes.

A campaign called The Enough Project examines how demand for electronics products such as cell phones and laptops is helping to fuel the violence and seeks action by President Barack Obama, electronics companies, consumers and Congress to try to end the conflict.

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