A while back I read a book by Croatian essayist Dubravka Ugrešić titled Culture of Lies: Antipolitical Essays. The book, published in 1998, detailed some of most gruesome aspects of the war in the former Yugoslavia and the new media wars. With the bitter humanism and political interesse of the European critical theorist style, Ugrešić wrote some of the most profound descriptions and metaphors of political rape and misogyny I have read. “War is shooting and shagging, screwing and killing,” she writes that a returnee from the front announced.
As the war spread throughout society in the former Yugoslavia, “War and sex were richly intertwined.” The society that embraced war “simply activated what had always existed in the male mindset.” Her analysis of the “traditional war-pornographic rhetoric” extended to the names of weapons (often women’s names), war photographs, (ex.g. fighters with rifles sticking out or embracing the barrel of a fieldpiece), the subculture of war (cartoons, literature, jokes, humor), and the new media war over image, (symbolic exchange for Baudrillard).
This, for Ugrešić, is the male concept of war, where the homeland (a feminine word as in ‘the mother country’) is fought over with weapons of the male imagination. A “deeply homosexual war came about,” she writes, “and the strategy of rape became a cruel everyday reality.”
And since “in these lands every lie becomes a truth in the end,” the silence about the war in the Congo has likewise become a truth. Many are unaware that the country is six years into a brutal conflict (though ten years since the new conflict began) in which up to 4.7 million people have died: the highest number of fatalities in any conflict since World War II says the Economist.
In her essays, Ugrešić is not talking about Croatian society in particular; the Culture of Lying is a global society. The myth of national priority allegiance is the myth of global media attention.
Harvard researcher Ethan Zuckerman has devised a useful “Global Attention Profile” that documents the amount of reporting that is done throughout the world in order to compare with points of interest. Looking at a timeline of this project, pan-African issues are systematically underrepresented. Our own struggle with irrationality is marked by inadequacies transmitted from the mythical national prioritization of state heads to the mythical faces of media and news management.
An article in The Nation describes several common ways in which marauding militias transmit the male message in the DRC. Unspared infants and old widows, for example, are brutally raped and left to die in the bushes. The men use the phallic barrels of rifles, bayonets, and “chunks of wood” to gang rape young women, piercing and padlocking their labias, and infecting them with HIV/AIDS (which 60% of the combatants carry.) One of these accounts tells the story of a 70 year-old woman whose entire family was murdered. But the armed men were not finished.
“They grabbed me, tied my legs apart like a goat before slaughter, and then raped me one after another.”
“they stuck sticks inside me until I fainted.”
This woman was left with a massive fistula and permanent incontinence, and her story is a common one. In an interview with filmmaker Lisa Jackson, she tells us that Congolese men who walk into their homes while their wives are being raped will often not interfere if it is done ‘for the sake of the motherland’.
For the thousands of women who were raped in the Croatian homeland, Ugrešić writes that their bodies simply served “as a medium for the transmission of male messages,” signals written by and sent to other men. It is a numbing ‘procession of simulacra’ from our perspective, to turn Baudrillard’s phrase, but an everyday ministry of pain for the Congolese women.
The media desert is certainly not barren when it comes to information about the rape epidemic in the Congo. It is rather the trahison des clercs of the modern mainstream media which buries and re-prioritizes this information to fit the priorities of prominent heads of state. The “major-league press follows the geopolitical map,” says a spokesperson from the UN World Food Program. The snake chews its own tail; we are all followers of each other’s information. Even now, the links I provide are linking elsewhere, and the ‘chain of signifiers’ is unending.
During the conflict in Bosnia alone, NATO peacekeeping troops numbered 65,000, “and even that wasn’t enough,” a UN major said. Today, there are only 5,000 UN troops in the DRC, an area which is roughly the size of Western Europe, and most of the time peacekeeping forces are outnumbered by the warring militias.
“Never before have we found as many victims of rape in conflict situations as we are discovering in the DRC,” said the UNWFP. It’s “like Rwanda, only worse.”
Fighters from six countries–Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia–have been fighting proxy wars in the DRC for years, plundering the country’s tremendous mineral wealth to fill their pockets in a neo-mercantilist struggle for wealth accumulation: another male concept of war wherein the ‘homeland’ of the other becomes the object of immense jealousy and territories for spilling seeds of rape and war. The commerce of the “blood” minerals, such as coltan, is used in cell phones and laptops, and uranium, drives the conflict. Enriched Congolese uranium was used by the U.S. in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Since the old truth is that the West determines global priorities, is the new truth that the West simply does not care? Perhaps, but the West in fact has never prioritized Africa. Early on the Western powers, the U.S. included, used strongman imperialist tactics to rape the Congo ‘motherland’ for its resources: diamonds, rubber, tin, gold, silver, tungsten, manganese, uranium, palm oil, timber, etc. American professors, venture capitalists, colonialists and the like had all struck asymmetric bargains with the Congo since its ‘invention’.
And now, as it was said by Kwame Nkrumah, the new colonialism is the highest stage of imperialism. We are constantly “running back again.”
This, by the way, is how the Dictionary of Literary Terms defines the word palindrome. It is a running back of words and symbols. Ugrešić introduces us to her work with an analysis of the palindrome as a metaphor for political discourse. “In our normal understanding,” she writes, “it is normal for there to be two sides, right and left, East and West, and it doesn’t cross anyone’s mind to suggest that they’re identical.”
The palindromic reality that is Africa today is that we are intimately connected to the region through globalization: our cellphones and laptops depend on this war. And it doesn’t cross anyone’s mind to suggest the interdependent relationship. With every cellphone minute used, we speak “the devil’s verse”, the language of the palindrome.
- Which is at once subversive and utopian. For Ugrešić the palindrome suggests the abolition of binary opposites and a commitment to sameness. “Shall we destroy each other, will the ‘atom furl’ us all in the end,” she writes, “Will we be left with one single, final palindromic wail – kisik!“
In Croatian this means “oxygen”.
The struggle for oxygen continues. There cannot be recrudescence in Africa when we are constantly “running back again” palindromatically but redefining our terms alphagrammatically as we go along.
One of Ugrešić’s enigmatic verses ends this way:
“‘Madam I’m Adam,’ said Adam to Eve, and she introduced herself equally palindromatically: ‘Eve.’”