Mission Congo: how Pat Robertson raised millions on the back of a non-existent aid project
televangelist claimed Operation Blessing was giving vital aid in
response to the 1994 Rwandan crisis. A documentary opening at the
Toronto film festival paints a less flattering picture
One of the stranger sights of the refugee crisis that followed
the 1994 Rwandan genocide was of stretcher-bearers rushing the dying to
medical tents, with men running alongside reciting Bible verses to the
The bulk of the thousands of doctors and
nurses struggling to save lives – as about 40,000 people died of cholera
– were volunteers for the international medical charity Médecins Sans
Frontières (MSF). The Bible readers were hired by the American
televangelist and former religious right presidential candidate, Pat
Robertson, and his aid organisation, Operation Blessing International.
on Robertson's US television station, the Christian Broadcasting
Network, that reality was reversed, as he raised millions of dollars
from loyal followers by claiming Operation Blessing was at the forefront
of the international response to the biggest refugee crisis of the
decade. It's a claim he continues to make, even though an official
investigation into Robertson's operation in Virginia accused him of
"fraudulent and deceptive" claims when he was running an almost
non-existent aid operation.
"We brought the largest contingent of
medicine into Goma in Zaire, at least the first and the largest,"
Robertson said as recently as last year on his TV station.
new documentary lays bare the extent of the misrepresentations of
Operation Blessing's activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo,
formerly Zaire, that it says continue to this day.
Mission Congo, by David Turner and Lara Zizic, opens at the Toronto film festival on Friday.
It describes how claims about the scale of aid to Rwandan refugees were
among a number of exaggerated or false assertions about the activities
of Operation Blessing which pulls in hundreds of millions of dollars a
year in donations, much of it through Robertson's televangelism. They
include characterising a failed large-scale farming project as a huge
success, and claims about providing schools and other infrastructure.
some of the most damaging criticism of Robertson comes from former aid
workers at Operation Blessing, who describe how mercy flights to save
refugees were diverted hundreds of miles from the crisis to deliver
equipment to a diamond mining concession run by the televangelist.
the Rwandan refugee crisis, when more than 1 million people fled into
neighbouring Zaire and started dying en masse of cholera, Robertson told
his viewers that Operation Blessing was at the forefront of saving
Rwandan refugees flee the fighting in 1994. Photograph: Pascal Guyot/AFP
"It was the most important first medical shipment on
the scene out of everything," he said of one aid delivery as he appealed
In another broadcast, Robertson said Operation Blessing was saving thousands of lives.
"The death toll in this particular camp went down to almost zero because of our people being there," he said.
Robertson claimed that Operation Blessing sent plane-loads of doctors.
are tents set up with our doctors and our medical teams that came from
here to work as hard as they could to save lives," Robertson said over
pictures of a large tent of children on drips being tended by nurses and
But the film was of MSF medical staff at work. Operation
Blessing had just one tent and a total of seven doctors. MSF officials
who worked in Goma told the documentary-makers that they had no
recollection of even seeing Operation Blessing – let alone working with
"What's really unacceptable is that Operation Blessing took
photographs of MSF workers and then used this in their fundraising,"
said Samantha Bolton, the former MSF spokeswoman in Goma.
from other aid operations said that Operation Blessing was not anywhere
near the first or largest groups working in Goma. Jessie Potts, the
operations manager for Robertson in Goma in 1994, told Mission Congo
that the medicines that did arrive were not of great use in fighting the
"We got a lot of Tylenol. Too much. I never did
understand that. We got enough Tylenol to supply all of Zaire. God, I
never saw as much in my life," he said.
Then, Potts said, suddenly
everything changed. "Operation Blessing, several weeks into the
operation, decided not to send any more medical teams," he said. The
flights to Goma dried up.
Robert Hinkle, the chief pilot for
Operation Blessing in Zaire in 1994, said he received new orders. "They
began asking me: can we haul a thousand-pound dredge over? I didn't know
what the dredging deal was about," he said.
describes how dredges, used to suck up diamonds from river beds, were
delivered hundreds of miles from the crisis in Goma to a private
commercial firm, African Development Company, registered in Bermuda and
wholly owned by Robertson. ADC held a mining concession near the town of
Kamonia on the far side of the country.
"Mission after mission
was always just getting eight-inch dredgers, six-inch dredgers … and
food supplies, quads, jeeps, out to the diamond dredging operation
outside of Kamonia," Hinkle told the film-makers.
The pilot said
he joined Operation Blessing to help people. Of the 40 flights he flew
into Congo, just two delivered aid. The others were associated with the
diamond mining. "We're not doing anything for those people," he said.
"After several months I was embarrassed to have Operation Blessing on
the airplane's tail." He had the lettering removed.
ordered an airstrip carved out of the bush next to the town of Kamonia,
800 miles from Goma. On his television show he left the impression this
was part of his aid operation.
The televangelist was also raising
donations for Operation Blessing's other activities in Congo. These
included a 100,000-acre farm near the town of Dumi, which Robertson
claimed had produced a large harvest of corn and was a "tremendous
"The soil is unbelievable. You stick anything in
the ground and it grows. You put a shovel in and it starts sprouting,"
he said in appealing for donations.
In fact, the farm at Dumi had
already failed. The soil was of poor quality and Operation Blessing
brought seeds from the US unsuited to the region.
To this day,
Robertson continues to solicit donations on the back of the project, on
the grounds that although the farm failed, it left a legacy with a
school that established a "foundation of education" in the town. 2011 posting on the Operation Blessing website described the school as "thriving".
the turbulence over the years, the children of Dumi still gather to
learn and grow in the little school house on the plateau," it said.
Yet Mission Congo visited the Dumi school at the same time and filmed it abandoned, stripped of its desks and falling down.
local leaders in Kamonia said that they were promised schools, roads
and a hospital by Robertson's mining company – but none of it
Robertson's activities in Congo were initially
exposed by a Virginia newspaper, the Virginian Pilot, in the 1990s. The
investigation by Bill Sizemore prompted the attorney general in
Virginia, where Operation Blessing is registered, to order a probe by
the state's office of consumer affairs.
Its report concluded that
Robertson made "fraudulent and deceptive" statements with claims to be
ferrying doctors and medical aid to Goma when he was delivering
diamond-mining equipment. It accused Operation Blessing of
"misrepresenting" what its flights were doing, and of saying that the
airstrip at Kamonia was part of the aid operation when it was "for the
benefit of ADC's mining operation".
It also said Robertson had falsely portrayed the Dumi farm as hugely successful when it had already failed.
Robertson made material claims, via television appeals, regarding the
relief efforts. These statements are refuted by the evidence in this
case," the report said.
But the Virginian authorities declined to
prosecute Robertson, describing his misrepresentations as a "blemish".
Mission Congo notes that leading state politicians were recipients of
large donations from Robertson.
Robertson has been embroiled in
mining controversies elsewhere in Africa. He supported the then
president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, during that country's civil war
without revealing at the time that he had an $8m investment in a
Liberian gold mine. Taylor was already indicted by a UN war crimes
tribunal at the time and was later convicted of crimes against humanity.
has consistently denied the accusation of misusing donations and
claimed that the Virginia authorities' failure to prosecute effectively
cleared him of wrongdoing. He has acknowledged the diamond mining
operation but said that it was small scale and produced few gems.http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/sep/05/mission-congo-pat-robertson-aid-rwanda#start-of-comments