Posts Tagged ‘rebels’

Nick Kristof, Zainab Salbi, Lisa Shannon — what a week!

Friday, April 16th, 2010

So I started my week by going to hear Nicholas Kristof, columnist of the New York Times, speak at the Columbia Journalism School. He was the last in a series of speakers that have come throughout the semester to talk about covering conflicts. As I expected, he was thoughtful, articulate and, at times, quite funny. He talked a lot about his new book, “Half the Sky,” which I’ve recently read, and is well worth picking up if you haven’t already.

Among the unnerving facts he spoke about:
-Worldwide, there are more males than females because so many women have been killed because they are female. From the book, here is the stat: “more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine ‘gendercide’ in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.”
-There is a well-documented connection between societies where women are most marginalized and those mired in conflict

I also gained what may at some point be a really useful tip while out reporting — never accept a ride from a photographer or cameraman in a war zone, “they are crazy,” Kristof said. If you want to drive towards the shooting and violence, not away from it, then get in that car. Otherwise, steer clear. Note to self…

After he finished speaking I was able to sneak in among the mob of people trying to talk to him, pass him my card, and tell him “jambo” from Roger and I. Roger, the amazing translator I work with in Congo, has also worked with the New York Times heavy. Mr. Kristof smiled in recognition and seemed surprised and happy at the coincidence.

Then last night, I went to the Strand to hear Lisa Shannon and Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, talk about Congo and Lisa’s new book “A Thousand Sisters: My Journey of Hope into the Worst Place on Earth to be a Woman.” Lisa is the women I mentioned in my previous post whom I met in Congo and who taped the KUOW radio show with me on Monday. The conversation between Lisa and Zainab was, again, thoughtful and compelling. Both women are such an inspiration in taking their passions and dreams and making them reality, all for the sake of improving women’s lives. Yet, what also came out clearly during their hour at The Strand was how much their own lives have improved and taken shape as a result of their work. It’s an important reminder not to waste too much time on jobs etc, that are not fulfilling and motivating.

Lisa talked a lot about the women in her book — her Congolese sisters that she has sponsored through Women for Women. One, Generose, has a particularly moving story. She suffered the loss of several family members (a child and her husband, I think) at the hands of a militia (the FDLR, I think, but don’t recall for sure) who also cut off one of her legs. During Lisa’s last trip to Congo, when we met, she held the first ever Run For Congo Women in Congo. It was on Feb. 28, as I was on my way from Kigali, so I missed the event. Nevertheless, she described it as joyous and mentioned that even Generose, on crutches, walked / ran for about 1/3 of a mile, as much as she could. Later she told Lisa, “if I run, then everyone will know they can do something.” If that’s not a poignant example of how strong and courageous Congolese women are, despite suffering in more atrocious ways than I have ever seen, I don’t know what is.

When Zainab later asked Lisa to comment on the idea that war brings out both the worst and best of humanity, she expanded on what Generose’s comments alluded to — the determination of Congolese women not to be bowed by the violence around them. Even, Lisa said, if militias terrorize, murder, rape, and torture them; loot their villages and burn their homes, Congolese women “can’t be stopped.” The militias do not and cannot win. “There is something in Congolese women that cannot be touched,” Lisa said.

I had the chance after the talk to go out with Lisa and it was such a treat to talk with her again and commiserate about Congo — what is so difficult there, inspiring there, what makes us want to continue going back. I hope that this last trip won’t be the only time we overlap along the shores of Lake Kivu.

Gorillas!

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Holy, holy mountain gorillas! Saw them today on my trek into the depths of the bush in Virunga National Park. It was incredible.

A backside view of the 200 kilo Silverback and Papa to the 12-member gorilla family I saw

A backside view of the 200 kilo Silverback and Papa to the 12-member gorilla family I saw

Which of these tasty morsels shall I chomp on next?

Which of these tasty morsels shall I chomp on next?

The family baby -- loving his chance to play and stuff his grill!

The family baby -- loving his chance to play and stuff his grill!

The adventure began on the road into the park. It’s a mostly uphill, deeply rutted route marked with huge jagged lava rock that look made to pop tires, stall cars and dent anything and everything underneath our seats… It was a bumpy and slow ride, at times even mildly harrowing. But despite a couple stalls and spinning wheels and take twos and threes, we made it. We actually walked the last 100 meters to the trail head while the car drivers tried to navigate a particularly treacherous mud / rut / rock combination. In our absence, and with several sets of young hands from the local village youth, they eventually made it to the ranger station where we started and ended our gorilla adventure.

The head ranger, a welcoming man named Michel whose been a ranger here for 20 years, told us that between Congo, Rwanda and Uganda — the park crosses into each country at points — there are about 700 mountain gorillas left. In the area where we walked, called Mikono, there are 6 families totaling about 43 gorillas.

We walked about an hour and a half through the densest forest I think I’ve ever been in — there was no trail because we were following the gorilla’s paths, actually tracking them. So the rangers had to use their machetes to carve our way through. As we ducked under and climbed over roots, pushed vines to the side and untangled them from our feet, we eventually got to an enclave of 10 gorilla nests. They were infested with flies and adorned with fresh logs of gorilla poop. The rangers need to check the nests and the poop in particular to make sure the animals remain healthy. Blood in stool = no good. No blood = good.

These indicators also signal the way. Michel said after they nest the gorillas don’t move that far away. He then predicted another 30 minutes of walking. And in 31 minutes we saw them! A family of twelve, including the father, a 200 kilo Silverback (massive fingers and toes, hunk of a head), and an utterly adorable little baby gorilla. It was such fun and so unlike anything I’ve gotten to do here yet. The gorillas were super chill and even seemed to be posing for us at times. At one point the baby started walking straight at one of the guys in our group (we were four — me, roger, and a Canadian couple), as if to grab him. But the mamma gorilla pulled the baby back, reeling in mischief. So human! Michel said the baby was shocked by our light skin and would have wanted to touch us and see if it would wipe off! I don’t think they see that many tourists these days.

This is, in fact, considered the low season. Only about 25 people have gone to see the gorillas this month. Back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, there were upwards of 3,000 visitors each year. Now the number is about 250-300. The park closed in 2005 because of violence and only reopened in the southern section (where we were) in May of 2009. That was when the Congoloese army was able to clear the FDLR (former Interahamwe from Rwanda) from the area. These days things are calm again and our rangers were more worried about running into a possibly angry elephant than anything else!

Being in the forest was great. It was hot and muggy and pretty difficult to walk because of all the vines and branches, and not really being able to see the ground much because of said vines and branches, which not only made standing upright at times a challenge, but cover the forest floor. Yet it added so much to the experience to follow the actual path the gorilla’s take and find them that way. Needless to say, they move much more easily through the jungle than I. However, I am now able to officially claim I’ve bush-whacked!

I saw a bit of rural Congo on our drive, as well. As I expected the poverty was intense. The homes had mostly thatched roofed and bamboo walls with mud or leaves in between, and the children ran about in tattered t-shirts and dresses. When they saw us they got very excited and immediately asked for cookies! I should have known and brought some — though it might have required a trunk-full to satisfy each child! Note to self…

Tomorrow I’m back to reporting. But those gorillas will not been soon forgotten.

For more info visit the Virunga National Park Web site.

The head ranger and I pose in front of the gorilla family, our masks firmly in place to keep our diseases from infecting the precious animals

The head ranger and I pose in front of the gorilla family, our masks firmly in place to keep our diseases from infecting the precious animals

International Women’s Day

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

So I’ve not been a very good blogger of late… apologies for not recording these events sooner.

Monday, March 8, was International Women’s Day. Though it is celebrated around the world, I’ve never participated in or even been aware of any special events in the U.S. I know they exist, but they’re not well publicized or attended it seems. In Congo, it’s quite a different story.

I was in Bukavu on Monday, out early, to cover the annual parade that marks International Women’s Day here. I knew it was going to be a scene, but this was spectacular. There were thousands of women — I don’t know how many and I couldn’t get an official estimate, but by my own guess I’d have to say around 5,000 women at least. And they were dressed to the nines! Each group that marches — local NGOs and women’s associations, UN divisions, international NGOs, etc — dresses in matching clothes. Thus under a bright, hot sun (my shoulders are only now starting not to ache from my neon sun burn), one of Bukavu’s main avenues transformed from an often muddy, jaggedly pot-holed roller-coaster, into a rainbow of the city’s women.

The colors were outstanding! And the patterns, all together like that, a vibrant swirl. The singing and dancing of the women along the route was uplifting and made one think that if all of these women could come together, in force, they could do anything. They could really change this war-torn place…

Even as dark clouds moved in, pushing the sunshine out, and an absolute downpour drenched us all, the women did not stop. Nor did they step out of beat to the music playing as they walked. Nor did their arm swinging fall out of pattern. And they were smiling — well, a lot of them were. I even saw one lady who seemed to have lost a sandal to the raging river the street had become keeping up with the others, utterly unfazed, and happy.

Women in the rain, with pearls, on International Women's Day, Bukavu, eastern DRC

Women in the rain, with pearls, on International Women's Day, Bukavu, eastern DRC


The rain didn't stop, and neither did the women marching on International Women's Day in Bukavu, eastern DRC

The rain didn't stop, and neither did the women marching on International Women's Day in Bukavu, eastern DRC

They kept this up for several hours more, though I bailed after about one hour or so in the rain. I was soaked and cold. I  had tried to take cover under a tarp hung over  a seating area, but I was on the edge. A fine spot while the rain fell straight. But when it started to come in sideways, it was all over. Roger, my ever-steadfast translator, was soaked too. And then Debi, our driver, found us! God knows how he maneuvered the car so close to where we were, but he save the day, whisking us back to dry clothes and warmer bones.

I did try to return to the parade to catch some speeches and see more action, but by then there was no way to get through the traffic back to where we’d been or anywhere near the route’s finish line. With two more interviews to go that afternoon we had to turn around.

The rain only let up late in the afternoon and most marchers had dispersed around the time we did, give or take an our or so. And yet, the day was certainly not a wash (sorry for the terrible pun…). It was wonderful to see so much spirit and enthusiasm among women here — so many of whom have suffered terribly as a result of the country’s ongoing and brutal conflict. It was inspiring to see little girls get into the mood and tell me that the day was their day to call on the government to support girls’ education, to ”say what we think” and to “be valued.”

Even as violence goes on and as women are so often it’s victims, this day displayed their remarkable resilience and courage. It reminded me, as so many things here do, of what I take for granted, of how lucky I am and how little I’ve really ever “endured.” I am grateful for the perspective.

Notes from my notebook

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

I’m hoping that I can share some snippets now from my notebook (N.B. some may end up in later stories, I’m sure) …

So, I’ve been wanting to write about a young girl at the Panzi Hospital who came up to me one day as I was sitting waiting to have an interview with a psychologist there.  She struck me because she walked right up to me,  shook my hand and introduced herself.

It was unusual because most of the women at the hospital were pretty shy and really only responded to me once I reached out to them, even just to say hello. When I had a chance to talk to her later  she had a typically awful story.  She was just 14 years old, maybe 15 (my notebook isn’t with me at the moment), and she had been raped during an attack by rebels on her village.  She said they were Interhamwe.  Her father was killed, her mother abducted and she and her siblings all fled.  She’s not been able to locate any of them since then — it was several months ago — and has not heard from her mother.

Someone had referred her to Panzi to be treated for the rape and while she was in Bukavu she was taken in by an older woman. Terribly, while in the city, she was raped again, which is how she came to be at Panzi again, introducing herself to me.

When I asked her why she had come up to me she said she was hoping I could help her,  give her some place to live, maybe take care of her “worries” (my translator explained this is a euphemism for asking for financial assistance).  What she wants and needs is an older woman in her life.

Needless to say,  I was tongue-tied. More than that,  I felt unwillingly paralyzed.  This is the hardest part of being a journalist — wanting to get close enough to tell the important stories, but being ethically bound to keep enough distance  from my  subjects to tell those stories fairly and in a trustworthy voice.  All I can do is hope to write about her and people like her and that felt really inadequate in the moment…

I’m hoping to hook her up with another woman I met who’s working in the Congo and who I think can help her;  can find her some older women to be mentors and guides; can give her the support she needs.

Street girls in Bukavu picked up by the police and taken to a shelter

Street girls in Bukavu picked up by the police and taken to a shelter

As you might imagine, she was not the only young woman I met who needed a safe place to stay and someone loving to take care of her. Though she was not pregnant, she could have been, and there are many girls her age that are. In fact, I met two on my last morning in Bukavu who had been rounded up by police the previous night for working as prostitutes in local bars. (side note: I’d been with the police, though mostly confined to the car,while they were out looking for these girls. Very interesting… Bukavu is not a place where I would, or where anyone should, normally ever hang out at night without the police escort…)

Options for these girls are few — they are desperately poor and have gone to the streets as the only way to survive. There’s a lot of this in the Congo, just surviving, not really living… Many homes for children and girls won’t take them in, because of their condition, especially those run along strict religious lines. Fortunately, I interviewed them in a place that does accept them, so the prospects are not totally grim. Nevertheless, there are few people, I think, for whom life presents more obstacles.

Talk about perspective…