Posts Tagged ‘war’

Idjwi

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Sunday was an adventure. It started early with a 5 am wake-up so that I could meet Roger, Victoria and Bahati for our 6:30 am boat ride to Idjwi — an island in Lake Kivu. Bahati was out guide for the day. A friend of Roger’s, he grew up on Idwji and knew where to take us to see a village chief, small, private coffee farms, the breathtaking views and the one tourist spot, a local lodge, built seven years prior. Victoria is a woman I met on my last trip and who was again in Congo working with a non-profit women’s center she started to aid rape victims. She and I shared several adventures on my last trip and I knew she’d want to come along on this one.

The boat ride, so early in the morning, was one of the highlights of our day. With the sun coming across the lake in a dazzling blaze, setting alight the many fishing boats in a sparkling silver, the view was truly cinematic. And with all the waving between us and the fishermen, I woke up quickly, snapping away with the camera. Hopefully some of the shots came out…

Our boat was a small speed boat operated by another Idjwi local who know lives in Bukavu. It was a surprisingly smooth ride and the fresh air was lovely. We’d hired the boat for the day, to take us the hour or so to Idjwi and then bring us home in the afternoon. Much better, and easier to organize, than trying to go on the scheduled Bukavu – Goma / Goma-Bukavu boats.

A possible Belgian relic?

A possible Belgian relic?

We arrived on the island at about 8 am and took a short stroll along the water seeing a convent, the hospital and hospital staff’s housing. Though one of the sisters told us there had been a drought, the flowers were gorgeous, including my favorite dahlias. It is one of the things I like best about Congo — the rich flora and fauna. If this was what drought produces, I would love to see it when the rain is abundant.

A view of Lake Kivu from the island of Idjwi

A view of Lake Kivu from the island of Idjwi

We soon then jumped in the hospital jeep and wound our way to the home of one of the village chiefs. There I interviewed him, probing about the island’s history and people’s experiences during the war. There was no real fighting on the island, but it has suffered from the many Rwandan refugees that came there and the resulting environmental problems — many, many trees cut, soil degraded, etc. In conjunction with deep poverty, a growing population and a blight on the banana trees, there is real hunger here.

We saw it very soon after our interview. As we left the chief’s home, we started an ambling walk that wound us along a road bordered by thatched-roof huts, kasava fields and sweeping views of the hilly island and the vast lake. But not long after we started, I noticed a tiny child sitting, by himself, on the side of the road under the shade of a tree. He was totally alone with not an adult in sight. I stopped and asked the chief where his family was. I was told that it’s perfectly normal for him to be sitting there, he does all the time. I didn’t agree. The child was obviously in bad shape — dirty, had wet eyelashes from crying, mucus all over his face, no pants, and as we looked closer, he was severely malnourished. I went over and wiped his face clean with some kleenex and tried to show some affection — gently rubbing his back and head and cheek. I asked the chief (accompanied by several men from the village) to get his parents or someone to come and look after him. It took me nearly 15 minutes or so of urging until he finally called a woman over. The whole episode was deeply upsetting. I nearly started crying because I was so frustrated that no one seemed to care an iota about this child and couldn’t be moved to do anything to help him. Even now, as I write about it, I can feel my blood pressure rising.

The woman who had come over, in no hurry whatsoever by the way, took the child by his hand and pulled him to his feet. Then it was even more clear how sick he was — tiny, shrivled legs, and a rear end of sagging flesh. No muscle, no vitality. I was so upset. I gave her 1500 Congolese francs and asked her to go and buy bananas for him and some for her own children. I urged her to please, please, do this; to understand it was very important to me that she use the money for bananas for the child and not for anything else. With Roger’s help and translation I hope she understood and followed through. What I really wanted to do was to bring the child to the hospital. But with his parents absent I didn’t really think I could just pick him up and take him away.

Only the next day did Roger tell me that it turns out the woman who’d come over was, in fact, the child’s mother. The chief had asked him not to tell me. I am not sure why. But it makes me even more angry. If I’d known we could have taken them together to the hospital. It’s totally heartbreaking. It was among the most painful things I’ve ever seen and experienced. Perhaps it’s good I didn’t know then she was the mother. I may not have been so kind and I know it’s really not my place. My assumption was that she was abusing and neglecting her child. But, when I am rational, I know I can’t understand all of the reasons for his hunger. We were told the father used all the family’s money to buy beer. Thus the layers of reasons for the child’s sickness are likely many and it would be totally presumptuous of me to have lashed out at the mother.

Later in the day we met a nurse from one of the village health centers. We asked him to go find the child and mother and try to bring them to the hospital. I will follow-up with Roger and Bahati that this happens. The nurse seemed to take the news in stride. He was concerned but given the depths of poverty here, it seemed this was certainly not the first case of such extreme malnutrition he’s seen. Turns out, though the island is beautiful and looks extremely fertile, the banana blight is having a serious impact on access to food. Also, much of the land on the island is owned privately, so the population doesn’t have as much land to cultivate as it seems.

The remainder of our walk was nice. We got a real sense of the island’s beauty, saw eucalyptus and cyprus trees, fields of coffee and kasava, beans and potatoes, and had a lovely picnic lunch at the lodge, the Congomani Guest House. But sadly, the day was colored by this encounter.

We also, unfortunately, had another nasty encounter after lunch with an awful man who was bothering Victoria and I about showing him our passports. He claimed to be some intelligence agent, but had no photo ID to show, despite me asking repeatedly. I had been visited by the intelligence service before and they had no problem producing photo ID when I asked. I then had no problem producing my press credentials — all they asked for — and the whole thing ended congenially. This tim, lots of yelling ensued, the man got very aggressive and wouldn’t let us leave the island until Victoria and I showed him our passports, which we ultimately did, though we wouldn’t let him touch them.

Though he wouldn’t give me his name — shouldn’t have been a problem if he was legit, no???? — I found out and told another intelligence agent I saw the next day. Not a nice side of Congo, this…

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

The more I learn…

Friday, March 12th, 2010

So I had a really lovely evening last night. Roger, my translator, Dobs, our driver, and I went out to dinner in Goma. I’ve blanked on the name of the restaurant, but it was a nice place with outdoor and indoor seating, a thatched-roof bar and pretty good food.

A view of Goma from a rooftop restaurant

A view of Goma from a rooftop restaurant

But the two things that I liked most was the diversity among customers there and the conversation with Roger and Dobs.

Roger mentioned it first, saying that the restaurant looked like “South Africa” because of the co-mingling among foreigners and Congolese. And it’s true that the customers were a more mixed group than I normally see in Bukavu. Roger thought it might be because there are more foreign aid organizations in Goma and thus more of their staff. So the city inevitably sees more mixing. Whatever the reason, it was a welcome change. It is one of the things I don’t like about traveling sometimes, is how conspicuously separated foreigners can be from the local populations.

Also fascinating was the conversation. Nearly every time I ask Roger a question I learn something from him. The same held true last night. But with the addition of Dobs my head was swimming as I try to learn more about the conflict here and why it is so deeply entrenched and complicated. It’s taken mental acrobatics for me to keep straight the different allegiances of all the armed groups. Add to that now my growing understanding of how ethnicities impact those allegiances and how different that can be from North to South Kivu — only separated by a lake, but often the experience of war is so dramatically opposed.

For example, we had an engaging debate about whether the war has affected North or South Kivu more — somewhat macabre, I know, but interesting. Roger says the south because it is such a small province and thus the proportion of victims is far greater. Dobs felt it was the north because of its close ties to Rwanda (geographic and ethnic) and the ongoing instability in so much of its rural areas.

Further, it seems that the victimization of women, in particular, takes on significantly different face depending on where they live and who attacks them. When the attacker shares fewer ethnic ties to the victim, the stigma for the woman, and her child if she becomes pregnant as a result, is that much greater. When the perpetrator is a civilian, the community response is quite different, and it seems the need for secrecy is greater. Sometimes, an aid worker told me, in the case of civilian rape, families will still try for their own mediation — a marriage between the perpetrator and victim or paid reparations to the victim. This is, however, illegal in Congo.

I’m digesting all of this and trying to understand it in context, knowing all the while that there are millions of layers still to unravel…

And, by the way, this is all simplified way way down from the depths of knowledge Roger and Dobs have about all of these issues. So don’t quote me, I’m still learning!

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.

sometimes it is tough here

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

This is from yesterday, March 5:

Congo is breaking my heart a little bit today. I think I’m extra tired – Roger and I were running around all day, being quite productive, but tiring ourselves all the same. And the interviews were not – as they never really are – on easy topics. But on this trip, I guess my stories are bringing me even closer to the suffering so many women and girls have endured here.

At this point, I’ve met all too many girls aged 14 or 16 or 18 who were kidnapped, raped, beaten savagely, used as slaves, and impregnated – many of them when they were only 12 or 13. They’ve seen their parents and siblings murdered and their homes burned, they’ve been rejected by remaining family members and tell me their dreams of finishing school, marrying, just living, have been shattered.  It’s devastating because there is nothing I can say to make any of it better. And while merely taking care of themselves can feel like an insurmountable challenge, they’ve got the added dimension of another life in their hands, their children.

Today we encountered in one of these young women the depths to which this society’s entrenched stigma is piled upon and internalized by rape survivors and their children. She had a story like so many others – abducted by the Interahamwe at age 14, raped repeatedly, beaten so terribly she is now handicapped and impregnated. But unlike so many other mothers we’ve met, she’s not been able to get past her trauma to love and accept her child, an adorable, dimpled 4-year-old who can’t contain her smiles. To hear her express such anger and disdain for the child made it by far among the most difficult interviews I’ve ever had. I empathize with every cell in my body for her suffering. But to know it will be passed on inevitably is incredibly painful.

Tomorrow I’ll be back on the activism story and will hopefully close the day with a more promising outlook…