Posts Tagged ‘violence’

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.

A radio show!

Monday, April 12th, 2010

So I just got off the phone from a taping for “the Conversation” with Ross Reynolds on KUOW, Seattle’s NPR station. I was on with Lisa Shannon, founder of Run for Congo Women and author of her new book “A Thousand Sisters: My Journey of Hope into the Worst Place on Earth to be a Woman.” Her Web site is: http://athousandsisters.com/. We were there to talk with Mr. Reynolds about the Congo and our experiences there. The show is scheduled to air this Friday, April 16, between 12pm and 1 pm PST. However, depending on the news cycle it could be moved to a different time. If you are interested, I am sure you can listen live online. The Web site is: http://www.kuow.org/conversation/

The show taping today was a chance to reflect on some of what I have seen. I don’t think I nearly conveyed all of that, maybe a small bit if I was successful, and I do hope that I sounded articulate. It’s so funny how such a thing can be so nerve-wracking even when no one can see you and you know they’ll edit it all to make it sound coherent! Or at least I hope! And while talking about some of the reporting I did, I failed to mention that a piece about children born of rape will be published in the Christian Science Monitor. As soon as it’s done I will hopefully be able to send KUOW the link to post on their site, but I am not sure of our pub date yet. I feel terrible for forgetting! Well, hopefully there will be more opportunities.

Lisa was great on the show. It was so fun to reconnect with her this way. We met while at the Hotel Orchid in Bukavu. Our trips overlapped by a few days. Her book has just come out and I highly recommend it. It is full of thoughtful insights and well-wrought observations. Reading it has made me think so much about my own experiences in Congo — a place that is a jumble of complicated feelings, the more so the longer I am home and thinking about it. Sometimes I am inspired there, I am often humbled — especially by the courage and strength of the women I have met — and I am buoyed by the ability of people who have suffered so much to still be so generous to others. Yet I have been maddened, frustrated, angry, and hopeless too. It is a place that gets under your skin. It is a place I will continue to go back to.

I have been stunned, really, by how much it is on my mind now. I think it is because, of course, I am still finishing stories now that I reported there, so I am busy rifling through my notebooks and remembering my interviews. Yet it also because now I have the time and the space to let it in. The result is not always easy. As a journalist I struggle, and I probably always will, with needing to get on the inside to tell a good story but to simultaneously remain on the outside in order to tell a true and fair story. At times it frustrates me, it saddens me, not to be able to do more than just write. I hope that one day this effort will feel like enough.

Anyway, catch the show if you can. And look out for more stories from Congo in the Christian Science Monitor and Women’s eNews!

The International Crisis Group on Congo

Friday, April 9th, 2010

The International Crisis Group released an interesting, if a bit depressing, briefing on the Congo yesterday. Here is the link, though I will also paste in the overview below. They have the authority to say what many people, myself included, often think about — that there is a long long way to go in Congo before a real, sustainable peace and a lasting, reliably democratic government is in place. I do hope that their analysis makes a difference in the work on the ground there.

Congo: A Stalled Democratic Agenda

Africa Briefing Nº73
8 April 2010

To read the full report in French, please click here.

OVERVIEW

The consolidation of democracy in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is stalled on almost all fronts, and the Congolese regime remains fragile. When Joseph Kabila became the first democratically elected president in 2006, the international community celebrated the election as a milestone in the peace process, but today checks and balances barely exist, as the president’s office has curtailed the powers of the government, parliament and judiciary. Civil liberties are regularly threatened, and key institutional reforms – decentralisation and the security sector – have made no significant progress. Unless the Congolese political authorities give new impetus to democratic transformation and institutional consolidation in 2010, the gains made during the transition could be at risk and the international investment in the giant country’s stabilisation wasted. The Congo’s international partners must place democratisation and institutional reform at the centre of their dialogue with Kabila’s government and link the provision of development aid to their progress.

In 2006, for the first time in the Congo’s history, its people chose their national and regional leaders through credible elections. A year before, the most democratic constitution yet had been adopted by referendum, entrenching the apparent determination to radically change political and economic governance and recognise democratic aspirations that had been unfulfilled since independence. Implementation of this new constitution demanded fundamental institutional reforms, such as decentralisation and a complete overhaul of the security sector. This political project, whose origins lay in the negotiations at Sun City to end years of war, as well as the national conference of the early 1990s, clearly linked the return of lasting peace to the principle of a balance of power between central government and the provinces and the establishment of genuine checks and balances at both levels.

Kabila won a five-year term by embracing this vision during the election campaign. He promised to fix a collapsed state and fight corruption; elaborated a program to rebuild the Congo through five strategic priorities – infrastructure, health, education, housing and employment; and pledged further democratisation, notably by respecting the rule of law and holding local elections. Nearly four years on, however, the record is abysmal. His presidency is seeking to impose its power on all branches of the state and maintain parallel networks of decision-making.

The regime has undermined the independence of the judicial branch by running an anti-corruption campaign that is politically biased. It has used money and coercion to eliminate challenges to its authority and to fight against the local rebellions that have happened since 2006. Kabila is contemplating amending the constitution on the pretext of addressing difficulties in implementing decentralisation. Any constitutional amendment aiming at concentrating more power at the level of the presidency or controlling dissenting voices, however, would pose a threat to already weakened mechanisms of checks and balances. It is unlikely local elections will be held before the end of parliament’s first term, putting the prospect of general elections in 2011 at risk.

Despite this authoritarian trend, the international community which has invested so much in the Congo’s peace process has remained mostly silent. The Congolese authorities demonstrate an extreme sensitivity to any remaining indications of international tutelage. Invoking sovereignty, the Congolese government has called for the withdrawal of the UN mission (MONUC) to be completed by summer 2011 and has announced that it will take charge of organising the general elections. It is simultaneously engaged in negotiations to secure massive debt relief before the 50th anniversary of independence on 30 June 2010. Given its size and its tense internal politics, the DRC is prone to local rebellions fuelled by domestic discontent that can easily get out of control. In this context, a new international strategy is needed to support democratic consolidation and to prevent new risks of destabilisation.

Furthering the democratic agenda is vital to the Congo’s mid- and long-term stabilisation. Creating new momentum to reverse current trends will require that institutional reforms and legislative programs are not considered merely as technical processes, but as tests of the government’s political will to improve governance and as a central part of any dialogue on additional aid. The following steps are necessary to restart democratic transformation:

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Beginning to prepare for the 2011 general elections now. The long-awaited National Independent Electoral Commission should be established and a proper budget should be allocated at the same time. In the meantime, the current electoral authorities should present a clear operational plan for those elections as a basis for discussion with donors.
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Institutionalising the fight against corruption. An anti-corruption strategy based on civil society’s efforts and other post-conflict countries’ experiences should be elaborated and implemented by newly-created independent agencies.
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Guaranteeing fundamental rights through law and institutions. Parliament should create the National Human Rights Commission as outlined in the constitution, review the penal code to comply with the UN Convention against Torture, limit the powers of the national intelligence agency and pass a law protecting journalists, human rights activists and victims and witnesses of human rights abuses.
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Harmonising the decentralisation process with the capacity building and budgetary allocations of the provinces and local governments. The government should set up a commission of national and international experts to establish openly when and how to hold local elections. In the event these elections cannot be held before the 2011 general elections, a new timeframe should be elaborated.
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Establishing a clear partnership between the international community and the Congolese government on security sector reform that aims to add a political dimension to the current technical approach. Benchmarks should be set to measure progress, and conditionality should be determined.
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Connecting development aid and democratic governance. Given the major role played by donors in the Congo, they should use their financial and political leverage to support the process of building democratic institutions and seek to engage the country’s new Asian partners in this strategy, who would benefit equally from a more stable and effective regime with which to cooperate and do business.

And so?

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

What now? I leave Congo this time frankly depressed.

In my three weeks there I certainly had some “up” moments — good interviews, jolly gorillas, lovely scenery along Lake Kivu with a temperate breeze going through my hair. It was great to work with Roger again. I enjoyed seeing Goma. And there were moments when I met women who were finding their way again, finding some satisfaction in life and pride in their children. They were becoming healing and that was uplifting for sure.

But there was also what sometimes felt like a barrage of bad. So many stories of rape and murder and loss; inescapable poverty, hopelessness; people barefoot on mud-choked roads, children in tatters playing with objects tossed to the ground, the boy on Idjwi so painfully hungry. It just got to me this time. Perhaps this is getting to know the place better and being able to see more.

It doesn’t stop me from wanting to return for more reporting. There is much to write about here and I intend to be back in a few months. I think the only way for me to resolve my own feelings of despair and fatigue is to go back and put down on paper what I see and how I feel; to use my words as my tool. Nevertheless, as I sit in Kigali having a slow day of reading, a bit of walking and not much else, I’m acutely aware of how tired and drained of reserves I am. My patience is frayed. I need to turn my brain off. I am sad. Congo is sad.

The sun sets magically over Lake Kivu and Goma

The sun sets magically over Lake Kivu and Goma

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