Posts Tagged ‘Rwanda’

Columbia University SIFA takes on gender violence in the DRC

Tuesday, 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.

Driving to Goma

Thursday, October 21st, 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.

This really happened…

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009
Passing the time on the long, long journey to Bukavu...

Passing the time on the long, long journey to Bukavu...

Here’s one good way to get to know someone well: travel internationally together for nearly 62 hours with little sleep, two airplane cancellations, one three-and-a-half hour mad dash across European borders in a rental car and a couple of Belgian beers along the way. So far, it’s working for me.

That’s how Dr. Scott Eggener, Dr. Gregory Bales and I spent the first three days of our journey from Brussels to Frankfurt to Brussels again, then to Bujumbura (Burundi) through Rwanda and onto our final destination, Bukavu in the eastern Congo. And I’m thinking that among the admittedly many silver linings I can find in this tale of travel woe, is that I’ve met two men, about whom I’ll be writing, who are exceedingly easy to get along with in stressful situations and incredibly determined to do some good in the world. And that’s just about as good a set-up for any piece as I could hope.

So it all started easily enough for me at JFK on Thursday, Oct. 15. My plane to Brussels left on time and I got to sit next to an amiable Italian lady, which for anyone who knows me, knows was an extra bonus. I breezed through customs in Brussels and then slowly started making my way to my next gate for the three-hour wait until I would fly to Burundi. On this second leg of my journey I’d be joining Scott and Greg, physicians from the Univ of Chicago whose medical work in Bukavu is the subject of one of my pieces there.

But when I finally found a departure monitor that listed my flight, I saw to my dismay the words “annullé” flash upon the screen. Not wanting to believe what I knew to be true – that annullé means cancelled – I stood staring until my translation was confirmed with the dreaded English version that soon followed the French. So I marched over to the Brussels Airlines information counter and was re-routed, with Scott and Greg, to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) via Frankfurt. From there, we would catch another plane to Bujumbura and hopefully only be set back by about eight hours.

With the power of the Internet and the Brussels airport wireless, I found the docs in the departure lounge and we proceeded to spend a very tired day in Brussels. We first ambled through the Magritte Museum, which was lovely, if a bit overcrowded. We then ate a fine Belgian lunch and wandered over to an old church that was, as we discovered, built in the 11th century (I won the bet for guessing it’s age most closely, though I was off by about four centuries – so, yes, maybe we’re not history buffs…).

Feeling too exhausted to do much else, we decided to try and see a movie and maybe catch a nap in the process. We chose something called “Hump Day,” mainly because the theater was there (i.e. we walked past it) and the film was in English. It turned out to be quite easily the worst film we had ever seen. Agonizingly boring and slow-moving, the film followed two straight male buddies who wanted to try and make a gay porn film, sort of as a dare, for a radical film festival (please don’t make me try to explain more). I think the only reason we didn’t walk out is that the seats were relatively comfortable, the theater was dark, and we all slept some.

After browsing in a small book shop nearby and picking up a copy of Tin Tin in the Congo, appropriately enough, we found a local pub and shared a couple of beers. Turns out, Greg is a master fly-swatter (faster maybe even than Obama!!) and Scott a wizard at picking out unfortunate baby names (no, not for his own children).

Soon enough we were headed back to the airport where we were those people at the check-in counter who take FOREVER and you simply can’t understand why. Now on Ethiopian Air, they didn’t want to allow Scott’s third checked bag (medical equipment) because he had paid American Airlines for it but not them. After much haggling on the phone, an email confirming that payment would arrive eventually seemed to suffice. Thus, our bags successfully checked, we headed to our next flight with only a few minutes to spare.

The plane was not too crowded and we took off promptly for Frankfurt. When we landed, we sat on the tarmac for an hour. No word about why from the cockpit. Then it was two hours and, only when pressed, did the flight attendants tell us we had a flat tire. “But don’t worry,” they assured me, “you’ll get your next flight.” Then three hours and, “I don’t think we’re leaving Frankfurt tonight.” Then they served us dinner – they insisted. Then by hour four, after much fretting and wondering how we’d ever make it to the Congo, we were finally allowed off the plane.

We departed with a plan: get our bags (hurdle # 1), rent a car at 2:30 in the morning (hurdle #2), drive back to Brussels and don’t get lost (hurdle #3), catch our original cancelled flight to Bujumbura at 10:40 am, which, of course, would have seats for us (hurdle #4) and don’t get charged again for the flight (hurdle #5).

Well kids? Our bags came off at carousel B17 as we were told. The car rental company in terminal A was open. We did find our way out of the garage and on to Brussels in good time and with no major gaffes. Brussels Airlines got us on the 10:40 flight with no extra charge and, the bonus, the flight was practically empty. Thus we spent the next eight hours to Burundi each with our own row of five empty seats – snoring loudly I am sure.

Once in Burundi Alice, my fixer, met us at the airport as planned (despite all the changes in said plans) and though our hotel had no record of our reservation, rooms were available. We slept well and woke to a relatively easy drive across two borders (Rwanda and Congo) and around verdant, rolling hills framed by the misty, imposing mountains beyond.

In Bukavu we settled into our guest house and after some lunch, story planning, phone-calling and interview arranging with my translator extraordinaire, Roger, I went back to sleep. For three hours. I napped like a baby — out cold and in blissful content that we had actually managed to get here. There were several moments when I hadn’t been so sure…