On the horrific events in Newton, CT today

December 14th, 2012

I wanted to post some of the beautiful, passionate, important things I have been reading from my friends in response to the horrendous school shooting today at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, CT. We’re all pretty much on the same page here: we need SERIOUS legislation making gun laws a hell of a lot stricter in this country. We can’t stop people from doing crazy things, not all of the time, although I agree that mental health care should be easier to get and much more affordable at that. And we can’t make our schools into impenetrable fortresses that are as welcoming as jails. This has no educational value, nor is it necessary. Evidence? See the rest of the world. But the number of people who die senselessly in the USA because of guns and an intense lack of courage and will from our leadership to stand up to politics is something about which we should be deeply ashamed. NO MORE. It has to stop.
-Danielle Shapiro, a journalist, lover of all children, and aunt who can’t stop thinking about her nephews today

Now from my friends:
-Liam O’Rourke, a teacher:
I went to work today, a mere 20 miles from Newtown. I walked into a building full of children. I taught nine year olds grammar; I read “The Woman in White” with seventh graders; I discussed the ending of “Moby Dick” with a senior who thanked me for teaching it to her, because (in her words) “this book is everything.” Then at lunch a group of little six to eight year olds came to me with their lunches and begged me to read them the last pages of “Over Sea, Under Stone” because our last class was canceled due to our afternoon holiday party. They sat rapt. They gasped aloud when Mr. Hastings almost got the grail away from Barney, cheered when the children defeated the dark ones, and laughed when Great Uncle Merry scolded the newspaper reporter. Then I stood in the dance studio and watched as 83 kids from 5-18 sang Purcell madrigals in their chorus and later Pat Benatar in karaoke. They danced. They played. They ate cake. Now imagine that someone walked in… I don’t need to finish that fucking unutterably awful thought. Anyone who will not accept that guns and gun violence needs to be taken seriously in this country is a person who, in my mind, is complicit in each and every one of those children’s deaths today. If you are still unconflicted in your support for the right to bear arms indiscriminately, then you are dead to me. Because I promise you that I will choose the brilliant, silly, joyful, spinning, dancing, singing children over your right to bear arms EVERY SINGLE TIME.

-Emily Ziff Griffin, a mother:
Dear President Obama:

I wrote you recently, a month or so before the election to urge you to take a stand on the things that matter to me as a new mother, things I believe also matter to you—the environment, education, food safety and obesity, the mental health of our veterans, and gun control. I received back a lovely form letter detailing the work your administration has done on environmental i
ssues. Thank you for that.

But I am writing again today and have decided that I will be writing you every day for the next year or until you take a serious and effective stand on gun control. I am sitting in my office in New York City watching reports of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting flood the internet while my 10-month-old daughter sits in daycare in Brooklyn. The horror that fills my heart as I look at the pictures of these tiny kids being shuttled into the parking lot, their mouths agape in fear and sorrow is overwhelming. And this is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that we are being confronted with this type of image. This keeps happening. And yes, we need to better treat the mentally ill members of our society. And yes ultimately it is “people who kill people.” But Sir, we quite simply need to control, in no uncertain terms, the access people have to these weapons.

You are in a position to help. It is your duty and responsibility to help. I and millions like me re-elected you because we believe you are who you say you are. And that person you say you are would not sit idly by, again, and do nothing to make this issue a priority.

You’ll hear from me again tomorrow.

Thanks for listening,

Emily Ziff Griffin,
American anti-gun mother

-A letter from the parent coordinator at the school in NYC where my friend Valerie Otto’s daughter attends:
Dear 41 Families,

I am loathe to write anything right now on the tragedy today in Newton, Connecticut.

But I send this out to you–hug your child very tightly tonight and speak to him or her of your love. Whisper of grace and awe and joy and hope (and carry in your own hearts and minds the idea that maybe, just maybe, our children will see a world in which those things can somehow take root and cover this heavy darkness.)

Speak softly in your voice….but carry the sound and fury in your soul and scream to the sky……Please, no more.

My thoughts go to the families of those killed, those injured and those who witnessed. For those of us who work in the elementary school system, we are one today.

My gratitude and love goes out to you all…..

Your Grieving PC

-Laila Al-Arian, a journalist, an aunt:
Can’t stop thinking about the children who were brutally and senselessly killed today and can’t possibly imagine what their parents are going through. Gun control, America. We have willingly sacrificed our first amendment for the sake of false security and have clung to false notions of the second for the sake of a powerful lobby.

-Jana Winter, a journalist. This is her story today from Newton:
http://www.foxnews.com/us/2012/12/14/connecticut-town-looks-within-for-support-after-unspeakable-tragedy/

Lake Tanganyika Highlights

November 10th, 2012

Well hello again!

I know it’s been ages since my last travel log and I apologize. But let me try to right the wrong with an update here about my trip to the Tanzanian coastline of Lake Tanganyika. I’ll save some of the details as I’m hoping my travels will ultimately find their way as printed words on a published page… But here’s an overview.

Lake Tanganyika is the longest lake in the world, the second deepest, and the oldest in Africa. It is so big, about 420 miles long, that four countries surround it — Tanzania on the east coast, Zambia in the south, the DR Congo in the west and Burundi in the north. I’ve been once before, two years ago I was on the Congo side for a story (found here: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/03/02/meet-amy-lehman-the-woman-behind-congos-floating-hospital.html?cid=topic:originals2), and the lake took my breath away. I’ve been aching to go back ever since. Finally got my chance.

I left NYC on Oct. 13th and got to the Tanzanian side of the lakeshore on the 15th. Three full tiring days of travel – a long trip. But this is not an easy place to get to. I traveled through Amsterdam into Dar es Salaam, where I landed late at night, spent about 45 min in a taxi to my hotel, and got about four hours of sleep. Before the sun even rose, it was onto Mwanza, the country’s second largest city, apparently, sitting on the edge of Lake Victoria. A few sleepy hours later I flew into Kigoma, the largest Tanzanian town on the lakeshore. This is where I would start and end my trip and where the real adventure began. The fact that the journey is not exactly direct comes as no real surprise. In spots, especially along the Congolese and Tanzanian shorelines, Lake Tanganyika happens to be one of the most remote places I’ve ever been lucky enough to see.

And with that isolation comes some intensely beautiful landscapes: utterly empty beaches, graceful formations of volcanic rock, acacia tree-filled hillsides and some imposing mountain peaks. The highest of these in Tanzanian is Mount Nkungwe, in Mahale Mountains National Park, at 8,077 feet above sea level. I saw it from afar, nestled among thick, low-hanging clouds. I am pondering a climb one day… Would definitely not be easy – I’m told that you have to ascend and descend two other peaks before the final uphill push. But after the 11 or 12 hours it would take to reach the top, this would probably be an adventure rewarding as hell.

Mountain peaks not withstanding, there are plenty of other enticements in and around Lake Tanganyika. The biodiversity is spectacular: more than 250 species of Cichlid fish swimming under water, many found nowhere else in the world. I saw a wide variety on a few snorkeling outings. There is no corral here, it’s all rock, which makes for lovely, easy swimming and viewing. Next time, maybe a dive is in order? The water is reliably the same refreshing, never-too-cold, temperature year-round. It is comfortable, crisply clean, and wonderfully clear. I LOVE dipping into this lake!

If the aqueous life is not enough for you, in the jungles along the coast and at nearby national parks there are a bevy of other animals on view: chimpanzees, hippos, crocodiles, lions, leopards, giraffes, zebras, elephants, hyenas, buffalo, warthogs, vultures, eagles and more! It’s a wildlife cornucopia and I saw it all at Gombe, Katavi and Mahale National Parks. The lions and chimps came so near I could have scratched between their ears. Alas, I decided to keep my hand instead… These parks are among the most remote in Tanzania and I usually had the animals to myself – an uncommon treat.

The villages along the shoreline are mostly poor, some profoundly so. Many villages have no electricity, running water, cell phone service or even vehicle accessible roads. If you want to know what isolation looks like, this is it. Still, the settings are often stunning. The homes here are built of mud and brick and covered in thatched roofs made of local grasses. Some are upgraded to corrugated tin. They are all rectangular. The story behind this, I heard, is that the nation’s first post-independence president, Julius Nyerere, instructed people to build them thus because, apparently, only poor people lived in round dwellings! I haven’t been able to verify this yet, so who knows if it’s true, but nonetheless it’s a strange and colorful tale!

Most people in coastal villages make their living as fisherman. Many work late into the night and through the early morning plying the waters by lantern light on the hunt for local sardines. Called dagaa in Swahili, the sardines from Lake Tanganyika, and especially Kigoma, are coveted as a national specialty. Fishermen dry them in the sun laid flat on the nets in which they were caught. Shimmering silver, the dried fish are then bagged and sold on the side of the road in town, if not shipped around the country. The fishermen use a local technique to catch them: two big boats string a net between them and smaller boats with the lanterns move in concentric circles around their bigger partners. The glow draws the fish into the nets, except when the moon shines too brightly. As the night darkens, the view from shore is one of distant golden hues bobbing on the horizon. A beautiful, romantic, montage.

I think I’ll leave it here for now. There is so much more to tell about my journey: a grimy, wonderful 32-hour voyage on a 100-year-old colonial era cargo and passenger ferry; wild animal encounters; deep jungle hikes; sensational sunsets; lots of enchanting bird song; an amazing, luxurious, nearly secret, lodge and more! But this should give you a taste of the place, I hope…!

More to come!

Columbia University SIFA takes on gender violence in the DRC

December 7th, 2010

Last Monday night I had the opportunity to attend a talk at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs on gender-based violence in the Congo. The assembled panel was an excellent group: Dr. Les Roberts, an Associate Clinical Professor of Population and Family Health at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health; Dr. Susan Bartels, associate faculty at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative; Judy Ericson Anderson, Executive Director of Heal Africa USA; and Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World.

Though the panelists all shared their observations that the incidences of rape and sexual violence does, in general, seem to be decreasing in Congo, it remains a huge problem. And, they emphasized, it’s a problem not just for the women and girls (and men and boys) who are raped, but it’s a problem for the entire country and its prospects for a future that includes long-term peace, stability and development.

Dr. Roberts began the conversation by explaining some of the roots of violence in Congo – the 1994 Rwandan genocide, fleeing Hutu refugees some of whom carried out the genocide, Rwanda’s pursuit of those individuals into Congolese territory, the shifting alliances between rebel groups and the many sovereign nations involved in Congo’s violence throughout the years, and the constant struggle for control of Congo’s vast mineral resources – those that largely fuel the fighting.

I was especially intrigued by some of the findings Dr. Bartels shared of her study of 4,300 women patients who checked into Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, South Kivu, between 2004-2008. All the patients she considered in her study had been victims of sexual violence.

On average, she found that women waited just over 10 months after they were attacked to present at the hospital. A few came much sooner and many came much later, even two or three years, after their rapes. The finding is significant, she explained, because what solutions medicine can offer to rape victims – like post-coital contraception and STD preventatives – are highly time dependent. The longer women wait to get help, the less medicine can do. Thus, it makes a big difference if women are aware of the help available to them.

Other findings she discussed:
-Most women were raped in their homes, not on roads, at their farms, etc. This is important information especially for those whose job is civilian protection, i.e. the UN, and should help them determine what tactics to pursue.
-The majority of attacks included two or more perpetrators. They were gang rapes.
-The risk of pregnancy for women was especially high among those who had been kidnapped and held as sexual slaves. (For some stories about women who endured and survived this horrific experience, see my Christian Science Monitor article: Mothers in Congo get help in raising children of rape)
-More than half of all perpetrators of the rapes were soldiers, about 52 percent, though that number could be, and probably is, much higher.
-All types of rape decreased between 2004-1008.
-However, during the same time period, the number of civilian-perpetrated rapes increased 17-fold. This, Dr. Bartels explained, suggests a “normalization” of rape in Congolese society – a truly worrisome development, to be sure.

Judy Anderson focused on the work Heal Africa has been doing to train counselors throughout North Kivu province to work with women who have been raped. One of their main endeavors has been to inform victims about their rights and the services available to them at places like Heal Africa, a hospital based in Goma that provides fistula repair and other gynecological care (as well as other medical interventions). If women know what help is out there they can access it earlier, a significant development given the findings Dr. Bartels discussed earlier.

More than 3,500 women have been trained as counselors, said Anderson, a woman I have spoken to on several occasions for my pieces about Congo. And thus far, more than 30,000 women have gone through Heal Africa’s counselor’s network.

Donovan wrapped up the comments from panelists by first explaining why an Aids organization spends so much time advocating for an end to sexual violence: “We are of the absolute conviction,” she said, that if there was no more gender-based violence and discrimination, “then Aids would be a virus, not a pandemic.” I found this connection intriguing and was grateful for her insights because it’s not something that I think is obvious to many. I admit that it wasn’t to me.

She then shared several more thoughts about the global problem of sexual violence and how it plays out in Congo specifically. Some of her comments included the following:

-“Nothing,” she said, “is working on a national, global or systemic level to end sexual violence.” She suggested that because all responses to sexual violence are “after-the-fact,” or “reparative,” the job of prevention is not getting done – at least not effectively enough.
-Prevention, she added, is never going to happen (really and thoroughly) if men are in all the decision-making (read: power) positions.
-To that end she called for a moratorium on all further UN declarations, treaties, and resolutions on ending sexual violence until those that are currently in place – and that already codify women’s rights to be included at the highest decision-making levels and peace negotiations, that demand gender equality and the protection of women’s rights – are actually enacted.
-Gender training should be a prerequisite for UN peacekeepers. This is a point I’ve heard from other human rights advocates and I think underscores the need for much more pre-deployment training for troops in general.
-It is also important to have many more women peacekeepers, Donovan said, and the UN should therefore give incentives (monetary) for countries to find and train women to take on these roles. If it is twice as valuable to countries to recruit and train women peacekeepers than men, they will do it, she said.
-A serious economic analysis is required to better understand what it will actually cost to solve the problem of sexual violence.

Several more important points came up during the Q & A session that followed. Dr. Roberts emphasized the need to focus on preventing the exploitation of Congo’s minerals. Anderson and Bartels addressed the importance of including men in the fight against sexual violence.

Most significant to me, however, was one of Donovan’s remarks, what she cautioned might be “unforgivably cynical.” She said that the problem of sexual violence in Congo continues because Black, African women from strategically unimportant countries don’t matter to most.

If she’s right, then I’ll end with a thought and a plea. To me, these women, who are among the most invisible people on the planet, do matter. Their lives and struggles matter and their survival matters. Their courage, as I’ve seen it, is exceptional and their strength is inspiring. It’s why I keep going back to Congo because they have so many stories to tell.

And so my plea is to please make them matter to you too. Visit the sites of the organizations listed here and see what help you can contribute. Or simply read about the Congo here or in other blogs and newspaper and magazines. Then send the stories onto your friends and family. One of biggest challenges is getting more people to be aware of the Congo and the daily challenges the Congolese experience. Until we care, a lot of us, these problems will persist and victims of rape will continue to suffer.

CPJ call to action

November 22nd, 2010

Tomorrow evening I will attend the Committee to Protect Journalists annual awards dinner honoring four courageous reporters with the 2010 International Press Freedom Award. I look forward to this night all year long — it continues to be one of the most inspiring evenings I have ever experienced. Tomorrow’s honorees include journalists from Venezuela, Iran, Ethiopia and Russia. Each have risked everything — often even their lives — to bring us the truth that we, as readers and citizens, deserve.

This year I want to post an appeal I received by email from Joel Simon, CPJ’s Executive Director, for contributions to CPJ’s Journalist Assistance Program. The program supports journalists who have been brutalized for doing their jobs by those who are enemies to truth and freedom. CPJ is an excellent organization and their work is vital to us all. I believe in their work wholeheartedly. For more information, visit their site.

Here is Joel’s note about the Journalist Assistance Program:

Help journalists in need: An appeal
By Joel Simon/CPJ Executive Director

Mikhail Beketov is lucky to be alive, although I’m sure there are days when he doesn’t think so. On November 13, 2008, the environmental reporter who campaigned against a highway that would have destroyed a forest in Khimki, a town outside Moscow, was beaten nearly to death by men with metal bars. The attackers made a special effort to destroy his hands and left him to die in the November cold. He would have if neighbors had not noticed him and called the police 24 hours after the attack.

Today, Beketov is confined to a wheelchair. He can no longer speak. He can no longer write. His mind appears intact, however, and he took great joy when we visited him at his Moscow hospital during a recent mission to Russia. CPJ board member Kati Marton described the afternoon we spent with him in a very moving blog. In a most outrageous development, while Beketov’s attackers walk free, the disabled editor is being dragged to court by Khimki Mayor Vladimir Strelchenko–the official who sponsored the highway Beketov so sharply criticized. Strelchenko–whom Beketov’s colleagues and friends suspect to be the man who ordered the November attack–filed a criminal defamation suit against the journalist. Reports tell us that despite serious health concerns, Beketov is being forced to appear in court, driven in an ambulance.

Through our Journalist Assistance program, CPJ has been providing Beketov with financial support since the attack. But it became clear to us during our visit that he will need care for the rest of his life. We pledged to help Beketov find the care he needs. We are currently researching options for underwriting long-term help, but in the interim CPJ will provide financial assistance.

We are seeking donations to CPJ’s Journalists Assistance Fund, which will be used not only to support Beketov, but dozens of journalists around the world who are victims of violence and repression.

Here are a few examples:

CPJ helped Kalundi Robert Sserumaga, a well-known Ugandan journalist and author, with his medical bills and general support after local authorities detained him for four days on charges of sedition. While in state custody, Sserumaga was beaten, threatened with death, and denied medical attention.

Syrgak Abdyldayev, a Kyrgyz reporter, was stabbed and beaten in March 2009 by an unidentified attacker. Abdyldayev, a political reporter and commentator with the independent newspaper Reporter-Bishkek, was hospitalized with 21 stab wounds, two broken arms, and crushed shoulders. CPJ sent funds for medical treatment and general support.

Tika Bista, a reporter for the Nepalese local daily Rajdhani, was critically injured in a knife attack in December 2009. CPJ sent funds for emergency medical treatment and also helped support her family during her recovery.

All contributions to CPJ’s Journalist Assistance Fund will go directly to journalists in need. CPJ already covers the full cost of administering the Journalist Assistance program, including researching cases, delivering financial assistance, and providing non-financial support including help with resettlement.

What this means is that every dollar that you contribute–whether its $500, $100, or $10–will go directly to journalists in need. And the entire amount is tax deductible. Please make a donation now to support CPJ’s vital work.

Your gift may be worth double. If this is your first donation to CPJ, or you give more now than you’ve given before, CPJ Chairman Paul Steiger will match your contribution up to $500.

“Nathalie”

October 21st, 2010

21.Oct.2010

When I was last in Congo, in March, I visited the island of Idjwi. I wrote about meeting a little girl on the side of the road who was all by herself, dirty, had obviously been crying and was terribly malnourished. After urging the village chief and elders to find an adult to be with her, a woman came who turned out to be her mother. Turns out that 9 percent of the children on Idjwi, and there are thousands of them, suffer from malnutrition. This little one was not alone.

I followed up with Roger and Bahati and sent money to them so that the mother could bring the child to the hospital. I wasn’t sure if she would survive. I’ve never before seen a child so small and limp from lack of food. But the mother did take her daughter to the hospital where the little girl received care. I subsequently learned through Roger and Bahati that she was getting better.

Today I got to see for myself.

Roger and Bahati and I ventured again to Idjwi and met with the girl’s mother. Turns out, that although I thought her name was Nathalie, and that she was 3, her name is Anuarite and she is just 2.5 years old. Her older sister is Nathalie, and is 4. Her younger sister is Dione, 1.5 years. They all, and their mother, Nankomere, looked much better – cleaner and better fed. Nevertheless, I left the mom with a bit more money for a hospital follow-up because I remain concerned that the girls are not as healthy as they could be.

But it was a huge relief to see them, and especially, Anuarite, doing so well. I completely didn’t recognize her when we arrived at the hut. She had a head full of little curls, round cheeks and some actual muscle – not much – but some on her legs and arms. I couldn’t for all my efforts get her to crack a smile and she seems tired still. It’s probably a legacy of the malnutrition. Nathalie was much more affectionate with me, clinging to my legs and staying quite near me the entire length of my visit.

Roger and I had gone shopping and picked up some dresses and shoes for the three girls, which we gave as well. The stuff is way too big for them now – we had all the ages wrong of the sisters – but they’ll grow into it and have things for the future, which is key.

Their mother told me she had used some of the money left over from the hospital stay to buy items to sell as a petty trade. With that, and the farming she continues to do, she has herself been able to feed her children better – she showed me the dried fish, cassava flour and beans in her tiny mud hut. She has even bought her three girls some new clothes. When I met Anuarite, she was barefoot and wearing only a tattered, oversized, and soiled t-shirt. She didn’t even have on underwear. This time she was in a smart skirt and top set that matched her sister Nathalie’s, her face was clean and and she had on a pair of underwear fashion from some old cloth.

But the main point is that she was much improved physically and I was really thrilled.

I intend to keep up with the family and support them in the little ways that I can. And I will keep working on getting that smile from Anuarite. I know it’s coming.