Sara and Baraka

October 21st, 2010

19.Oct.2010

Nothing has even come close to lifting my spirits as the sight of 15-year-old Sara and her 1-year-old daughter Baraka did today in Bukavu. I wrote about them last March when I did the piece on children born of rape for the Christian Science Monitor. Sara was abducted and raped and had a child when she was 14. She has no family. If I remember correctly, her parents were killed. I am not sure what happened to her one sibling.

She lives now in a group transition home for women who had been patients at Panzi Hospital. She remains there, but is set to move soon, I believe, to another of the hospital’s homes.

My interview with Sara many months ago, really moved me, as most of those I conducted with young rape victims did. But her face and her child stayed with me better than the others. First because of her deep love and affection for her daughter, even after what she had been through, and second because her daughter is such a happy, lively child. None of that has changed. Baraka continues to giggle and gurgle and smile constantly. She was afraid of me, unfortunately, perhaps because I look so odd to her. But she is a gaggle of happy energy for others. And Sara is still a profoundly kind and big-hearted young girl. She laughed at her daughter’s frightened reaction through her own slightly bewildered eyes.

My heart swelled when I saw her. The minute she saw me, and the instant of recognition passed between us, her smile opened and she ran to me, Baraka on her back, and we hugged. She was so excited and surprised to see me. It was instantaneous joy and totally sincere and unscripted and real and again, Sara managed to move me, nearly to tears. I am sure after our interview she never did expect to see me again. And I was so thrilled to see her. I never forgot her and there seemed something very important to both of us in knowing that.

It’s often so difficult as a journalist here for me to hear about such horror and then simply walk away. I know all I can promise is a story and I believe deeply in the power and potential of journalism to change lives; to change the world. But that does not often translate for a girl whose lost her whole family, her childhood and any real semblance of security. So to be able to come back, and to see how much my doing so meant to her, and to realize how much it meant to me as well, was a profoundly important experience. Obviously I wasn’t the only one who felt some tie, some connection. Sara felt it to.

Sara is now in school, fourth form, something she wanted desperately. I’m ecstatic. She is healthy, Baraka is healthy; Sara has friends in school, she is learning French and Swahili, and math and she seems happy. We were able to communicate in French a bit, she knows some basic phrases, and after much prodding, she shared with me her new English too: “Good morning! How are you?” She was so shy and sweet and could barely look at me and keep from giggling as she said it. But I know she was happy to share. She also showed me her school notebooks, paging through slowly, so I could see as her writing in French had improved since September and how she has gone from measurement conversions to simple geometry in math.

Before parting I left her with some money for school uniforms, notebooks and pens, and little extra to get her hair braided. It costs $1 and she likes to do it twice a month. I am more than happy to support such vanity. She’s a beautiful girl, thoroughly, in her core. I can’t wait to see her again. In fact, I’m sad to leave her.

Slow day in the Congo…

October 21st, 2010

13.Oct.2010

Didn’t get too much done today, but I am now sitting at the sublime waterside bar of Le Chalet, a bar and restaurant in Goma. I could dive in the cool waters of Lake Kivu if the desire overtook me, though I think I’d look a bit funny sitting here all wet during the interview that is about to take place. To my right the sun breaks through the clouds in glorious rays, casting a glow over the mountains in the distance. It belies what I know is the crippling violence ongoing far below in so many places.

The interview went well, provided just the outside perspective of MONUSCO I was hoping for. And then Roger and Jet (Dobs’s nearly identical younger brother) and I had a yummy meal at Doga, becoming a favorite.

Roger gave me a lesson over dinner about the ethnic make up of Congo’s people. It’s not simple, as one can imagine. So I had him literally map it out for me. And I could see he was a highly successful teacher in his day. The people who settled here came from two migrations – the first from the Sahara, the Bantu people; the second from the Nile, the Niletiques in French, not sure the English translation. They in turn, through further migration east and west of Lake Kivu and the environs, as well as coupling, became the Bushi people (I think) and the Rwandan Tutsi and Tanzanian and Kenyan Masai. From there it gets more and more complicated. Suffice it to say, the populations of the Great Lakes region (and most of the world) all basically started out as the same people and / or share significant family lineages. Makes the many conflicts engulfing this region (and everywhere, globally) feel all the more useless, since we are all the same. Naïve? Perhaps. But true.

Farm patrol in Rugari

October 21st, 2010

12.Oct.2010

If anyone were to tell you that Congo is a beautiful country, don’t doubt it. I saw some truly spectacular countryside today.

Roger and I accompanied the Indian peacekeeping contingent from the Rugari COB (TK) (part of MONUSCO, the UN mission in Congo) on their regular farm patrol where they walk through the vast cultivated countryside whose farmers they are sent to protect.

Hill upon rolling, bright green hill, plotted in neat round rows for beans, sorghum, cassava, potatoes and other vegetables. The terrain was rarely flat, often offering long vistas over the valley below and towards the mountains opposite. The farmers were genial, greeting us graciously as we passed with big smiles, energetic waves and “Jambo! Habari!” (Hello! How are you!) Children hollered happily as we passed, they shy ones warming up after the initial shock of seeing my white skin – Mizungu! Plus, Roger is so sweet with them that few can resist cracking a smile once he goes in for a robust high five handshake.

The land was lush and the footpaths slick and muddy. They cost me my footing once on a downhill slope. Note to self: find walking stick before next rural Congo trek. It makes one feel a little more sheepishly clumsy because the locals run up and down these paths in sure bare feet or meager plastic sandals. Here I was with my water-proof, extra comfy, good soled Tevas and I couldn’t hold it together. Typical.

Besides the fact that we saw a really special area, the reporting was fruitful. More on that in the story…

Driving to Goma

October 21st, 2010

10.Oct.2010

A new route, this time, from Kigali to Goma, the northern route. Alphonse is ferrying me there again, cheerful as always, and tells me he likes this way best because the scenery is more striking. Initially that’s hard to imagine because the road to Bukavu is a winding, hilly one that is complete the entire way with striking countryside. But it turns out that driving to Goma takes you past Musenze, a tourist hub at the Rwanda base of Virunga National park and home to six (I think) volcanoes. This is where the mountain gorillas on the Rwanda side reside. It is also where, according to Alphonse, one of the hotels deep in the jungle charges $1000 per night for the privilege of volcano and lake views.

We drove on a Sunday, kind of a grey day, but pleasant. The roadsides where fairly busy with church-goers: women in silky finery and radiant parasols. These are the large umbrellas that seems to be unique to the area, vibrant colors, intricate designs – especially of flowers – used not only to protect from the rain, but in Victorian fashion to shield the women and the babies on their backs from the sun. I’d love to find one and bring it home. This trip, with the venture to Lake Tanganyika is probably not the one…

It felt like a quick ride and Alphonse dropped me at the border. We bade goodbye and I walked to the immigration counter. Roger found me there and we proceeded to the hotel, Cap Kivu again, same room too! The receptionist remembered me! Cute little spot with a slanted ceiling and balcony overlooking the beautiful gardens and lake. I read and slept and tried to regulate my body from the jet lag. Roger and Dobs and I had a nice dinner at Ihusi hotel and then it was off to bed for a day of planning my coverage on Monday. Uneventful. Good.

World Press Freedom Day

May 3rd, 2010

May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. But on this day, this year, I am not thinking about the dangers for the many journalists whose bylines I’ve come to associate with places like Mogadishu or Manila, Kabul, Moscow or Islamabad. It’s not because I don’t have immense respect for them and for the risks they take to bring their readers essential reports from some of the most dangerous, repressive corners of the world. I do.

But this year my thoughts are with those who rarely, if ever, get a byline. Yet these are the individuals without whom most foreign journalists – myself included – would never get a single story written.

These nameless men and women are the fixers, the translators, the drivers, the local reporters and aspiring journalists who make the work of their foreign peers possible. They are brave and determined individuals who assume nearly all the risk for telling stories those in power would often rather stifle and who are far too rarely recognized for their efforts.

Of all the journalists who have died around the world because of their work, 90 percent are locals, according to CPJ. It is common that their murderers are never found, prosecuted or convicted.

I recently returned from a three-week reporting trip to the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was my second time there, covering stories primarily about women’s and children’s rights and sexual and gender-based violence. I was mostly in Bukavu and Goma, the regional capitals of South and North Kivu respectively, where violence and insecurity has been ongoing since the late 1990s.

Impunity and disregard for the rule of law is rife in Congo, a vast nation with a shoddy record of protecting the members of its media, especially in the east. Six journalists have been murdered since 2005, according to Reporters Without Borders, and three in Bukavu – one each in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Fixers are not immune. According to a 2004 CPJ report, Acquitté Kisembe, a fixer for Agence France-Presse, disappeared while on assignment in 2003. He was presumed dead.

Though Congo is seeing increased stability in some parts of the country, risks for journalists remain. On my first trip, last October, I reported on the death threats one month earlier made to three female journalists based in Bukavu.

On both trips I worked closely with a local interpreter whose assistance has come to be not just helpful, but a professional and personal necessity.

He, like so many of his colleagues around the world, guides me through every step of what I do in Congo. He’s found for me secure accommodations and reliable drivers to ferry me safely along eastern Congo’s gutted, perilous roads. He’s made contact with countless sources before I’m even in country to insure that I’ll have the story I’ve promised my editors. He’s spent hours helping me schedule interviews and translating them as we go. He never lets me walk into a police station or military compound alone. He tells me where I can go safely and where I can’t. I don’t question his judgment.

As we bump our way through Bukavu’s muddy streets, he shares his insider’s take on Congolese culture, politics and history. His lessons often become the silent background informing so much of what I write. And, no less important, he steers me to the best food and Internet connections in town. I’ve told him many times – and I can only hope he knows how sincere I am when I say this – I would be totally lost without him.

But his name goes nowhere on my stories. He’s a silent, but invaluable, partner. For me, this World Press Freedom Day is a reminder of my indebtedness to him and his colleagues everywhere.

At CPJ’s Impunity Summit, held last month at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Owais Aslam Ali, secretary-general of the Pakistan Press Foundation, underscored this point that unnamed locals are key to our work. Yet he felt that the international media community is not doing enough to protect and support those journalists and fixers upon whom we rely so heavily.

“This war is being covered by the foreign media on the cheap,” he said of the ongoing conflicts in Pakistan. The brunt of the dangers are being borne by the local media, he said, adding that they are pushing the limits of what they cover for, and because of, the foreign press.

Yet, Ali felt that there was scant support by the international media community for the journalists who take risks to bring us these stories, who become internally displaced as they flee their homes in the face of threats because of their work. He called the foreign media “callous” in this regard. The only journalist’s murder in the last decade to have been solved and prosecuted to a conviction in Pakistan was that of Daniel Pearl, an American, in 2002. But to Ali, the case was evidence that with international pressure, attention and support, there can be justice for all journalists, even when they are local.

So, today, I’ll be thinking about the names behind the names we see in print. I’ll be thanking them for their courage and tenacity and wisdom. I am grateful for the continuing work CPJ does to protect the fixers (here are some recent examples: http://cpj.org/tags/fixer). I hope that others at the Summit heard what I did from Ali – that when we speak up for journalists, let’s not speak only for those whose names appear in print.

(this post was written for the blog of the Committee to Protect Journalist)