Pat Robertson has said some awful things in the past. He claimed “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays,” should take part of the blame for 9/11, that Hurricane Katrina was due to America’s pro-choice policies, and that the 2010 Haiti earthquake was because Haiti’s founders had sworn “a pact to the Devil.” But if the allegations in Lara Zizic and David Turner’s documentary Mission Congo—which premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival—are true (and there is a mountain of evidence presented that back up the filmmaker’s claims), then Robertson is much, much worse than even his fiercest detractors imagined.
In the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 800,000 people, one million Rwandans fled to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Many of the refugees were stashed in camps with little to no shelter, running water, or medical supplies. One of these refugee camps was in Goma.
So Robertson, sensing an opportunity, took up the cause. He began pleading on his TV program The 700 Club, broadcast by the Robertson-founded Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), for viewers to pledge at least $25/month to Robertson’s non-profit organization, Operation Blessing International (OBI), to help.
“We’re going to ship enough medicine to take care of a quarter of a million refuges,” said Robertson at the time.
“I want to chart a 727 airplane with 100 doctors directly into Goma,” he later proclaimed. “It will be the largest contingent of doctors, I believe, on the field.”
Chris McGreal, a journalist for The Guardian who was stationed at the refugee camp in Goma, recalled a strange sight. The camp was plagued by a cholera epidemic, which claimed over 40,000 lives. As victims were rushed to medical tents on stretchers, he witnessed a preacher running alongside the stretcher clenching a Bible and preaching to the victim. The Bible-thumper was a member of OBI.
“They had one tent and a stack of Bibles,” said a member of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which provided actual aid to the refugree camp in Goma, in the film.
“People began to refuse the Bibles,” added a local. “‘What we need is food and medicine,’ they said. Operation Blessing would say, ‘That’s not our mission.’”
Furthermore, Robertson repeatedly alleged on The 700 Club that he had purchased a fleet of Vietnam-era cargo planes from United Flights to ship medical supplies to Goma.
“I thought this was a good deal… men helping men,” said Robert Hinkle, Chief Pilot for Operation Blessing in 1994. “They began asking me, ‘Can we haul a 1,000-pound dredge over?’ I didn’t know what the dredging was about.”
According to Jessie Potts, who served as Operations Manager for OBI in 1994, the charity stopped sending medical teams to Goma several weeks into the operation. Instead, the film alleges that these resources—the donations, the cargo planes, etc.—were used for the for-profit African Development Company Ltd., a diamond mining operation that was headquartered in Kinshasa, while the mining site itself was located in the remote village of Kamonia. Robertson was the sole shareholder and president of ADC.
In the film, Bill Sizemore, a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot that penned an exposé on Robertson’s activities in Africa, claims that the ADC had a mining license granted to it by Mobutu, then-president of Zaire, who had been sanctioned by the United Nations over alleged human rights violations.
“Pat Robertson, over the course of the next few years, actually lobbied to have the sanctions against Mobutu removed,” Sizemore says in the film.
The film also presents a video from 1994 that it says plainly shows Robertson palling around in Africa with Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, who then ushers him onto a helicopter. Bagasora was an instrumental figure in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and was later sentenced to life imprisonment by the International Tribunal Court for Rwanda (ITCR).
Two men who worked as Mining Consultants for the ADC in 1994, Craig Macfarland and Sid Slackman, go on record in the film claiming that Robertson did indeed hire them to help operate a diamond and mineral mining operation in Kamonia. And, since most foreigners needed a well-connected local to help set up a business in Africa, Robertson allegedly employed Pastor Kosongo, who served as a local governor and ADC partner in 1994.
“We signed an agreement and we went to work with him at ADC,” Kosongo says in the film. “I was his associate, I had 25 percent of the business and his group had 75 percent. I went as a delegate of my country. We had many privileges and many concessions.”
In order to mine the diamonds and minerals, the ADC would use dredges that vacuumed all the material up from a river's floor and then went through a processing machine to collect the values—whether they be diamonds or gold.
OBI’s Chief Pilot Hinkle claims in the film that the cargo planes, which bore the logo “Operation Blessing” on the tail, were barely used for any sort of charitable work. Instead, he was shipping 8-inch and 6-inch dredges, 55-gallon drums of fuel, food supplies, four-wheelers, and Jeeps out to the diamond dredging operation in Kamonia. Of the 40 flights he flew, the film alleges that 43.9 hours were spent on humanitarian aid, while 271.9 hours were spent on transporting dredges around Zaire. At one point, Hinkle says he became so disgusted that he had the “Operation Blessing” logo removed from the aircraft. The film also claims that the 3,000-foot airstrip Robertson touted on his program was not used for the transport of medical supplies, but for the mining operation.
It doesn’t stop there.
Robertson also started a farming operation in then-Zaire that he called “Dumi Farm.” He claimed that the farm was thriving, bringing food to the locals, but Hinkle claims that the farm mostly served as a front to bypass taxes on the mining operation.
“We were supposed to pay a huge import tax on dredging—mining, equipment—but they told the inspectors that it was for the Operation Blessing farm, and it was to clear the water out of the land so they could farm it,” says Hinkle.
The farming operation failed almost immediately. According to Larry Streshley, Medical Director for the Presbyterian Church in Kinshasa, OBI transported American farming supplies and seeds to Zaire, which didn’t thrive in the different climate, so the corn didn’t mature.
“They ignored the local’s advice on when to cultivate,” adds Michel, the Dumi Village Chief. “We weren’t happy with this because Operation Blessing didn’t trust the people.”
To this day, the OBI website continues to solicit donations for Dumi, despite “no evidence that any of the money raised has gone to the people of Dumi,” who are still living in abject poverty, according to the film.
And OBI’s presence in Goma was virtually nonexistent, according to Samantha Bolton, who was stationed in the Goma refugee camp while serving as an information officer for Médecins Sans Frontières in 1994. She also claims the “charity” even used pictures of MSF workers in their fundraising, passing them off as their own aid workers.
“I don’t remember seeing Operation Blessing anywhere,” she says in the film. “They may have sent some representative, but they were in no way a player in this situation.”
What the film does allege is that OBI may have purchased mass quantities of aspirin to ship to victims at Goma.
“Maybe he took over a few hundred thousand doses of aspirin, which you can buy for $1/1,000,” says Richard Walden, CEO of Operation USA and co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. “Maybe he spent three hundred bucks on aspirin. So, did he take over enough aspirin for hundreds of thousands of people? Probably yes.”
“We got enough Tylenol…too much,” adds OBI Operations Manager Jessie Potts. “I never understood that. We got enough Tylenol to supply all of Zaire.”
After Sizemore’s piece ran on the cover of The Virginian-Pilot, it caught the attention of Virginia Sen. Janet Howell, since OBI was based in Virginia, and receiving tax relief from the people there. She went to the state attorney general to demand an investigation. The Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs conducted a report that stated there was “no evidence” of Robertson ferrying doctors and supplies to Goma, according to Sen. Howell.
A few claims from the 1998 report are as follows, according to the film:
1) Misrepresenting in September 1994 that OBI was ferrying doctors and medicines in the Caribou aircraft.
2) Misrepresenting in December 1994 that OBI has carved an airstrip to assist natives when the airstrip was for the benefit of ADC’s mining operation.
3) Misrepresenting in July 1994 that OBI needed funds to expand its farming operations and that the soil was so rich that anything planted would grow when, in fact, the farm venture failed in 1995, due to poor soil conditions.
According to the film, then Virginia Gov. James Gilmore had received a personal donation of $50,000 from Robertson, and the newly-instated Attorney General Mark Earley had also received a donation of $35,000 from Robertson for his 1997 election campaign, and was dependent on the influential conservative Christian’s support. Earley decided not to prosecute Robertson.
Meanwhile, when Mobutu fled Zaire in 1997, the film claims that the last of Robertson’s mining concessions expired. The film also claims that in 1999, Robertson signed mining agreements in Liberia with then-president Charles Taylor who, in 2012, was convicted of crimes against humanity.
Operation Blessing International reported $220 million in revenue in 2011, and still enjoys tax-exempt status in the United States.
And, according to a video that appears in the film that allegedly was posted to the Christian Broadcasting Network’s website in 2012, Robertson still appears to claim that OBI brought plenty of medical aid to Zaire.
“Well, if your desire is to help the people of the country, it’s necessary to work with the existing government,” says Robertson. “We brought the largest contingent of medicine into Goma in Zaire, at least the first and the largest, and we were helping Doctors Without Borders to get the medicine they needed to critically injured people. But the press doesn’t report that.”