Friday, June 22, 2007

Killing in the Name of God

By Leana Wen
Two for the Road:
In Africa With Nick Kristof
The New York Times
June 21, 2007

The most bizarre experience on this trip so far has been the visit to General Laurent Nkunda. It’s hardly an everyday occurrence to go to the military camp of an actual “warlord” who is accused of raping and massacring thousands. (He prefers to be referred to as “liberator of the people”, and denies all allegations against him.) That a journalist well known for opposing him had just been assassinated in the Congo, and that General Nkunda made several references to our security, made us apprehensive during the interview and cautious in subsequent reporting.

One of the most striking parts of the interview is the religious fervor with which General Nkunda led his troops. Apparently, he is very influenced by the evangelist movement, and as a pastor in the Pentecostal church, he helps to convert and baptize his troops. He proudly sported a pin, “Rebels for Christ.” Before each drink and meal, he and his faithful prayed. “We fight in the name of the Lord,” he told us. “That is what I tell all my troops. When they fight, they have God on their side.”

As a lapsed Christian, I have to admit that I don’t know much about Christianity. But something about Nkunda’s comments made me feel ill to my stomach. Was he really using God as a license to kill? Was it really his conviction that God was with him in battle, or was he using “the God card” as a way to manipulate and control his troops? It would not be the first time that the name of God has been used to consolidate power, and certainly not the first time religion has given hope and purpose to unemployed young men without good futures.

I spoke with another pastor in the Pentecostal church about my discomfort. This pastor lives quite a different life from Gen. Nkunda: Reverend Samuel Meyele is one of the pastors working for HEAL Africa hospital who counsels women victims of sexual violence. There are no international warrants out for his arrest, only international praise.

According to Pastor Samuel, Nkunda’s faith at one point seemed real. Pastor Samuel recalls when Nkunda first joined a neighboring Pentecostal church in Goma. He and Nkunda were even friends at one point. When Nkunda first started leading his troops into war, Pastor Samuel said that none of the local churches would believe it. They were finally convinced that he was the one leading the crimes and atrocities, and his own church ended up excommunicating him. “What he does now, it is not part of the church. It is not right. He can call himself Pastor and Pentecostal, but this is not what we believe.”

Pastor Samuel sees firsthand the spoils of Nkunda’s “religious” mission. So does Sister Dominique, a Polish nun who runs a feeding center and hospital in Rutshuru province. For seven years, she has seen children who are severely malnourished, mothers who are starving to death, and people of all ages displaced, injured, and despondent. We asked her to explain how it is possible for her and the soldiers working for General Nkunda to both be working for God. “All people fighting say that they do so for God,” she responded, with tears in her eyes. “But if they are stealing, raping, killing, they do not understand God. It is not God they work for.”

I lie awake at night thinking about our experiences in the Congo. Meeting this charismatic General who sounds like a preacher is superimposed with seeing the villages destroyed and hearing the stories of those who lives were cut short because of conflict. To be fair, other “warlords” and rebel groups are also implicated in the conflict. And I may not know much about Christianity, or God. But the basic values of humanity are such that killing and maiming innocent people—in anyone’s name—is just wrong. That General Nkunda is able to use religion as a rallying cry to the point of committing such atrocities is testament to the depth of the problems and the erosion of human values in the Congo.

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Winning Essay: Leana Wen

April 29, 2007

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

If we just looked for them, we can find injustices everywhere. Hurricane Katrina exposed Americans to abject poverty and health disparities right in our backyard. Many more injustices exist "over there," in developing nations, that result in millions of preventable deaths and lifetimes of wasted talent and squandered opportunity. I want to fight these injustices and change the world.

My upbringing exposed me to injustices first hand. Raised in a dissident family in China, I came to the U.S. on political asylum after the Tiananmen Square massacre. We were outsiders in a Communist regime and remained outsiders in predominantly Mormon Utah and then inner-city Los Angeles. Though Shanghai, Logan and Compton have little else in common, they all bear witness to the differences between the haves and have-nots, and I grew up keenly aware of the impact of political, cultural and socioeconomic oppression. As a child with life-threatening asthma and debilitating speech impediment, I also confronted the stigma of disability and the challenges of seeking healthcare with limited resources.

Yet the mechanisms to address injustices eluded me. I thought that becoming a doctor would allow me to help those most in need; however, I witnessed more problems than found solutions that had sustainable rather than short-term impact. Our H.I.V.-positive patients would receive antiretrovirals, but we would not know if they had food at home to stave off starvation. Our orphans with pneumonia would be cured with antibiotics, but we are not changing their lives of destitution, chronic malnutrition and forced prostitution. Pills might help the individual patients at that point in their lives, but does not resolve the root causes of their problems.

Global change requires more than pills and individual-level change: it hinges on concerted education and mobilization. Today happens to be the anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, an acute illustration of preventable atrocities that proceeded because of public silence. The scourge of H.I.V. and the conflict in Darfur has had much more media attention, and many more activists are engaged and many more people are pressuring their governments to take action. Short of bringing everyone to Africa to witness conflict and disease, the next best thing is to find ways to communicate to people who otherwise are content to live in our insular worlds.

It is to learn communication to the public as a method of effecting change that I apply for this opportunity. Doctors are natural storytellers who have the privilege of hearing, seeing and experiencing the lives of our patients. I have heard my patients' stories, and now want to help tell them. Treating a patient's problems and moving on to the next ailment is not enough, and I want instead to convey my patients' stories and describe their communities' struggles. I want to solve global problems by educating and motivating the public to action. I want to learn these tools from you.

Perhaps I am not your typical or even ideal candidate. I am not a journalist. I was born abroad; have had some experiences working in developing countries; and as a Rhodes Scholar-elect and future physician in international health, will seek opportunities to travel and work in other parts of the world.

However, my perspectives are different from and complementary to yours. My life story and experiences working in underserved communities to fight H.I.V./AIDS and advocate for healthcare access may appeal to activists, minorities and youth. I have enough medical training to explain illnesses, but not enough for ailments to become routine or for cynicism to trump idealism.

My overseas experience has been as an aid worker and participant, and now as an observer, I will approach every encounter with fresh eyes. I have written regularly for the medical community, including a blog and a monthly column for The New Physician; my writing to the public will be similarly opinionated and inspired. I will bring to your team incessant curiosity, keen intuition, wry humor, high energy, physical agility and fiery dedication. I aim to make a difference and become a change agent against global injustices; with this experience at The Times, I will have the tools to do so.

Leana S. Wen was born in Shanghai, China. She came to the U.S. on political asylum in 1991, and grew up in Utah, California and Missouri. Her experiences as an immigrant in diverse communities are driving forces behind her interests in public health and international health policy, and her commitment to fighting for social justice around the world. A recent graduate of Washington University School of Medicine, Leana has served as a Global Health Fellow at the World Health Organization in Geneva; as a National Security Education Program Boren Fellow in Kigali, Rwanda; and as National President of the American Medical Student Association, the nation's largest independent organization of physicians-in-training. Leana is a Rhodes Scholar-elect, and in the fall, she will begin two years of study at the University of Oxford to examine health systems in developing countries. After her return, Leana plans to enter residency training in emergency medicine.

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