The big picture: the persistence of normality in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Violence in the Ituri province in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has lately forced 1.7 million people to flee their homes. There are perhaps 100 separate armed militias operating in the territory, using systematic terror tactics of looting, murder, beheadings and rape in ongoing ethnic conflicts and wars over mineral resources.

The photographer Finbarr O’Reilly has been documenting that shifting horror story. His new book, Congo, A Sublime Struggle, takes its title from a hopeful speech given by independent DRC’s first president, Patrice Lumumba, before his CIA and-MI6-backed assassination in 1961. The full quotation reads: “Brothers, let us commence together a new struggle, a sublime struggle that will lead our country to peace, prosperity and greatness.”

O’Reilly’s graphic pictures, currently on display in the lobby of the UN headquarters, explore the heartbreaking outcome of that hope, destroyed by foreign-backed dictatorship and exploitation. Some focus on the brutal lives of dollar-a-day gold miners, waist-deep in muddy river water as they pan for the specks of fortune that may offer an escape. Others portray some of the tens of thousands of women and girls who have been raped. Some document the schools and classrooms that have been attacked and destroyed – an estimated 400,000 children between six and 11 are without any education in the region. And a few show the sheer, indomitable persistence of “normality” in this most fractured of the world’s communities.

This picture, taken at a hairdresser in Bunia, a city of 1 million people, and site of one of the largest UN peacekeeping forces in the world, is one such image. The focus is on the women sharing a smile in the foreground, but in the light of O’Reilly’s other pictures, your eye is drawn to the figure holding her head under the drier, and to imagine her dreaming of other possible worlds.

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