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Ben Affleck tells congressional panel of horrors of Congo

By Tom Cohen, CNN
Actor Ben Affleck testifies on Congo before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Actor Ben Affleck testifies on Congo before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
  • Celebrated actor/writer/director, other witnesses call for a U.S. special envoy to the region
  • Affleck and Cindy McCain appear before a House subcommittee
  • Affleck heads the Eastern Congo Initiative

Washington (CNN) -- Imagine a place where women are systemically raped, children are forced to fight as soldiers and most people struggle to survive on less than $2 a day.

It sounds like some dark fictional world created by Hollywood, but actor, writer and director Ben Affleck assured a congressional committee Tuesday that such conditions are very real in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and will get worse unless the United States increases its involvement.

Affleck and other witnesses urged the Obama administration to immediately appoint a special envoy to the central African region as Congo prepares for a national election in November.

Without a stronger U.S. influence, including more aid, military training and regulations to crack down on minerals trade that fuels the conflict, eastern Congo faces another downward spiral of violence and suffering, Affleck told the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights.

Affleck cited statistics on the plight of the Congolese in the region of dense rainforest and volcanoes: 5 million people dying since 1998 due to war and its collateral devastation such as hunger and disease; 1,000 rapes a month; and more than 1 million people displaced from their homes.

"We must learn from history and do our part to see this never happens again," Affleck told the panel. "I believe nothing could be more misguided (than) to allow the Congo to again fall into a state of crisis or humanitarian chaos."

Committee members welcomed Affleck's testimony, thanking him for using his celebrity, time and personal commitment to help raise attention to continuing crisis in eastern Congo.

Affleck, who last year started a group called the Eastern Congo Initiative that provides grants and other help for the region, cited strategic and moral reasons for a bigger U.S. role.

The Congo conflict involves surrounding countries including Uganda and Rwanda, and is driven by competition for riches from mining minerals used to make cellphones, computers and other technology used in the United States and elsewhere, he noted.

He proposed four steps for action, including:

--U.S. support for a comprehensive strategy to protect women and children;

--More U.S. funding for election monitors and other electoral structures;

--The appointment of a special U.S. envoy to the region; and,

--Developing a comprehensive approach to dealing with the issue of conflict over minerals and with armed groups, including rebels from neighboring countries, local militias and the Congolese military, that fight to profit from the mining.

Other witnesses Tuesday included Cindy McCain, the wife of Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who acknowledged that her partnership with the liberal Affleck in the Eastern Congo Initiative made for "strange political bedfellows" but showed the issue transcended party politics.

Witnesses and panel members agreed on the myriad problems of the region, noting statistics such as 15,000 reported rapes since the beginning of 2010 as part of campaigns of sexual violence intended to sow terror and displace populations.

Currently, the United States has dedicated $5 million through the U.S. Agency for International Development to support the Congo election, noted Donald Yamamoto, a deputy assistant secretary of state at the Bureau of African Affairs.

Committee members and witnesses pointed out the U.S. assistance for Congo's last election, in 2006, exceeded $80 million. Affleck said the U.S. focus on Congo decreased after that, and the situation deteriorated when violence erupted anew a year later.

Listening to the witnesses revealed the complexity of the conflict. They used a jumble of acronyms to refer to the various rebels groups and armed militias involved in the conflict, such as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) of Ugandan rebels and the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) of Hutu extremists, as well as the Congo military.

Like the rebel groups and militias, the Congo military also conscripts child fighters and uses rape and sexual assault as a war strategy, witnesses said. They called military reform and training a key requirement to any Congo strategy.

Affleck isn't new to the political arena: He previously testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services in July 2001 to support funding for stem cell research at a hearing titled "The Promise of the Genomic Revolution," and in 2008 he met then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi after observing House floor proceedings as he researched his role in "State of Play," a political drama set in Washington.

Asked why he got involved in the issue, Affleck said reading about the carnage and misery moved him. He explained he spent two years traveling to the region and learning about it because "I didn't want to be some celebrity dilettante."

That brought one of the few lighter moments of the hearing, when Republican Representative Jeff Fortenberry, R-Nebraska, responded: "That's very impolitic of you to say, but very well-received."

To Affleck, the Congolese people "simply want to live their life in peace, earn a living and raise a family," just like people in America and elsewhere. He rejected a common argument that the situation in Congo is too complex for a solution, raising his voice to declare, "It's not."

"I humbly suggest that the U.S. government take a hard look at its current commitment and find a way to do more," Affleck said.

CNN's Rebecca Stewart and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this story