Wednesday, December 24, 2008
I sit in New England with the snow whirling around the house and Christmas carols playing in the background. And Congo seems so far away.
I have returned to the US to spend the holidays with my parents here in CT. And I am thankful to be able to do that. Especially since shortly after I arrived my grandfather passed away. It is meaningful to be here with my parents during this time. And I have always been less than enthusiastic about Christmas spent in 80 degree whether. It is just not the same. And although fake Christmas trees and cheap christmas decorations are on display in all the shops in Goma, and toy sellers display their wares hopefully on the streets. sometimes it feels like all the wrong parts of this holiday have become the most popular in Congo. But to be honest, at least in Congo Christmas is largely a holiday for children and church. For adults, the important holiday is New Year. Feasts are held on New Years, rather than Christmas, and New Years is the holiday when all the adutlts buy new clothing and even exchange gifts.
Still, I like Christmas. Inspite of the over-commercialization and the hustle of buying presents. I haven't been here on Christmas for the past few years. And I must say that I was shocked yesterday, at the jam-packed parking lots in one store after another. This in an economy that is suffering?
But what I like about Christmas is the candle lit churches and the music sung by choirs. The times when snow seems to blanket the world and for a moment everything is quiet. I like it when all the stores finally close and people go home. And I like tradition, whatever it might be, for the chance it gives us to count back over the years and remember them. To remember that we are a people who gain strength not only from looking toward the future, but from remembering the past.
So christmas strikes me as a little strange this year. Because less than a month ago I was in Congo. My husband is there now, many of my friends are there. And yet I can barely imagine the 80 degree weather and the sounds of the streets. They seem like perhaps a life I only dreamed. And I am aware of how many of you must feel, our friends and family here in the US, when we are so far away, in a world that is hard to imagine.
In my parents house we have a real Christmas tree this year, and next to it a manger scene. And to be honest, the manger scene looks a bit out of place. There is no glittery snow and no flashing lights. The little people aren't even bundled up in winter clothing. The manger scene is truly a world so far away. A people I can hardly imagine. Perhaps a world much more like Congo, than like the one here, in the US. And I guess that is why I like Christmas. Not for all the Christmas lists and gifts, and feasts; but for the rare moment when all of that stops. And we are asked to remember a different world. A world so unlike our own.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
But nothing has been heard of the three brothers. Many young men were killed in Kiwanja during the fighting. The CNDP claims that many of the young men killed were mai mai soldiers(another rebel group working with the government). It is hard to say what happened, but mai mai are "grass roots" rebels who do not often have access to uniforms and might well be in civilian clothing. This puts all young men at high risk. And as areas like kiwanja are taken first by one side and then by the other, the entire population is at risk of being accused of being an "enemy collaborator" at one time or another. After all, what options does an unarmed population have? How do you choose whether to "collaborate" or not when gun-weilding soldiers take over your town? What choice do you have?
And so the population runs. And we continue to wait for more news.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
They will have to cover the cost of an extra rent payment, while they continue to pay their monthly rent in Goma (they have a year long lease). This has been a hard decision for them to make, since the extra cost is signficant, but in the end they have concluded that you can replace money and you cannot replace people.
My husband and I will remain in Goma. Our apartment has much greater security than their little house, so we feel ok. We also have the benefit of a car if we need it, to make a quick departure.
Life in Goma seems to require weighing odds that you should never have to weigh. Some residents of Goma have fled to Rwanda or to Kinshasa or other more secure places. However the vast majority have stayed behind. For those who have chosen to make their life in Goma, who are tied to Goma, it is almost impossible to leave. Homes are crowded with relatives of all sorts who have fled other areas. How do you flee with all of them? How do you leave them behind?
I recall hearing that after the volcano errupted in 2002, people were very quick to return home, often walking on hot lava to reach their homes. They returned quickly, despite continuing danger, out of fear that the town would be looted and all their belongings would be gone if they did not return.
It is easy to say that your possessions are not worth risking your life. And health is more important than wealth. But for people living on the edge of poverty, the two are not very far apart. It only takes a glance at the situation in the refugee camps to understand the problem. People are sleeping out in the open or under tarps. With no door to lock, how do you stop drunken soldiers from doing as they please? I read the other day about a child who was killed as she slept by a stray bullet. With no wall to hid behind, no bed to hide under...the vulnerable only become more vulnerable. A home, no matter how humble, provides some sense of security.
So the women of Shona have made an unusual choice in the scheme of things. They have chosen to move to a more secure area. This perhaps demonstates their sense of vulnerability. They are handicapped women living alone. But perhaps it also demonstates their widening sense of choices. For the poor, life often presents very few choices. The women of Shona are far from rich, but through their sewing they have begun to earn enough to be able sustain the added cost of creating a temporary home somewhere else.
As an American I have noticed that this is perhaps one of my greatest luxuries. I always feel that I could go somewhere else. I can make other choices. I could do other work. For many of the people of Goma there is no choice to make. They cannot afford to lose the marginal security that their homes, their possessions, and their work provide. I often struggle under the weight of choices. They are simply so hard to make. But perhaps I should also be more thankful for them.
A few updates:
Still no news of the family in Kiwanja. We continue to pray for them.
No suspects have been identified in the killing of my husband's staff member.
The refugees of Kibati have not been moved off the front lines.
The Security Council has agreed to send a little over 3000 more troops to Congo.
Over twenty men were pulled out of a UN convoy and arrested by Government soldiers who claimed that the UN was transporting Nkunda's soldiers. The UN claims they were not Nkunda's soldiers, rather Mai mai soldiers ( a rebel group that works with the government, not against them)
The UN Convoy was then attacked by stone-throwing civilians.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Monday, November 17, 2008
I read an article yesterday that described the people of Goma as having an ability to rebound from death that only comes from overexposure to it. It seemed an apt description.
Fighting continues in various areas ourside of Goma (none of them particularly close to Goma). CNDP troops appear to be consolidating their territory in North Kivu. The days in Goma continue as normal. The evenings and nights are punctuated by occassional shooting. We never find out who was shooting or why. We hope that it is the shooting of police and UN officers that we are hearing more than the shooting of bandits. The population is uneasy, both because of the general insecurity and because rebel soldiers remain close to the edge of town, although they have apparently withdrawn a few kilometers (or been pushed back, depending on who you talk to). However they are still nearby. There have been demands to lengthen the distance between the two sides as well as demands to move the refugee camp of Kibati off the front lines. While everyone seems to be accepting the necessity of both these demands, implementation is another story.
As for us, we are here along with everybody else, rebounding as best we can.
Friday, November 14, 2008
Last night, between 8 and 9 PM, 6 people dressed in civilian clothing entered the house of a man (I have been asked not to use names). This man worked as a guard with the organzation that my husband also works for. He was the man that would greet me whenever I visited my husband's office.
Often he would greet me with news about the house he was building on the far side of town. Materials are expensive and he was progressing slowly, building much of the house with his own hands. But a couple months ago, the major work on the house was completed and he was able to move in with his wife and 11 children.
Last night, 6 people entered his house and asked him to come outside (or forced him). They apparently attempted to rob him, we are unsure of what was taken at this point. But he was not a very wealthy man, and he had put most of his money into building the house.
He was then shot in the back and killed. Apparently, as the attackers fled they ran into a group of police, more shooting ensued and one of the police was injured. We do not know more at this point. To tell you the truth, we may never know more. In Goma, people are afraid of incidents like this. It seems entirely possible in the minds of most people here, that unknown assailants might come into you house at night and rob and kill you. They don't need a reason to target you and you don't have to have much money. In my American mindset I want reasons. I want detailed explanations about what happenened and why. People here seem to have realized that those explanations often never come.
My husband works with a staff of 21 people in Goma. This is the second member of his staff to be killed by armed robbers within the last two months. We are at a loss to explain this. Both men who were killed lived near the outskirts of town, in particularly insecure neighborhoods. Beyond that, we have no idea. Our minds search for connections, for explanations of why this is happening. But the truth is that probably there is no explanation. This is the reality people live with here.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Two weeks ago, at the beginning of their successful march to Goma, Nkunda's rebels took the town of Kiwanja. They began setting up their own administration in the area, and a week later, were surprised by an attack from a pro-government militia. The militia gained control of the town, but after several days of fierce fighting, Nkunda's rebels retook the town. When reporters and aid agencies were finally able to enter Kiwanja, they found many bodies. At the first count it was twelve civilians (or fighters dressed in civilian clothes). Human Rights Watch is now investigating at least fifty deaths from this incident. Many claim that there were over two hundred killed.
Throughout this time, phone connections have been cut and our Shona woman was unable to learn what had happened to her family. Just yesterday she got news that her cousin's husband, brother in law and 2 week old child all were killed in the fighting. She has received confirmation of this news from several sources, but does not know how they were killed or by whom. She has an older sister with three children, an older brother with three children, and two younger brothers who were all living in Kinwanja at the time. No one has been able to give her any information about what might have happened to them. They could be among the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing in circles around Eastern Congo, at a loss as to where to run this time. They could be injured. It is impossible to know.
Please keep her family, as well as all the innocent people caught in the middle of this fighting, in your thoughts and prayers.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Unfortunately this does not mean that the war in Eastern Congo is moving in the right direction.
The town of Goma has regained relative normalicy for the moment and so we are here. But the fighting continues in other areas, and all sides seem to be building up their forces.
At the edge of town is a refugee camp called Kitabi, housing 50,000 refugees. Nkunda's rebels hold the area just north of Kibati, putting the camp at the front lines between the government and rebels. Obviously this is an unstable situation. On Friday rebel soldiers at the front line fired their guns in the air, throwing government forces into a panic, and starting an exchange of gunfire and mortars. The population in the refugee camp picked up their stuff and began to run towards Goma. Inside Goma, everything shut down in an instant. All the shops in Birere (the comercial section of town) immediatly shut their doors, and everyone went running home. The fighting turned out to be a minor skirmish, but the difficulty of having a refugee camp on the front lines, and a major city only a step away, is abundantly clear. We go back to normal, but in a second, everything can change.
In the meantime, we are happy for the chance to be home, and for the opportunity for the Shona women to begin sewing again.
Friday, November 7, 2008
Goma is eternally Goma. There are a couple of UN tanks sitting on the round point near our apartment, and numerous vehicles full of UN soldiers are circulating around the town. But other than that, very little seems to have changed. People seem to be feeling somewhat hopeful. My neighbor assured me that everything is fine in Goma now. He said the chaos in Goma last week was due to the fact that the people who are supposed to be protecting the town (I am assuming he meant the UN) were not paying enough attention. But now they have been awakened, and since they are awake, no one will be able to destroy Goma again.
This belief seems to be common in the streets. There is a renewed faith in the UN's ability to protect the town. 5 days ago the UN was stating that it could not guarantee the protection of Goma, it would do it's best to protect civilians but it could not guarantee that Goma would not fall. This seemed link an invitation to the rebels. Now the UN is holding press conferences and stating that it will open fire on any rebels who attempt to take the town. Clearly the UN is attempting to regain the public's faith. And they appear to be succeeding on some level.
But Nkunda is at the gates. He gave a press conference yesterday filled with his usual bluster. He continues to state that he and his rebels will take down the government (all the way in the capital, 1000 miles away) if the government refuses direct talks. His commanding officers continue to claim that they will take Goma.
Fighting has restarted in a number of rural areas. Nkunda claims that he has not broken his self-proclaimed cease-fire and that he has merely fought off attacks from the government. But this distinction is hard to understand at best. Nkunda's rebels have taken two towns in the North, forcing the population to flee further. They have also retaken the town of Kiwaja. The town of Kiwanja was under Nkunda's control until Tuesday when another rebel group allied with the government retook the town in a surprising show of power. This lead to bitter fighting between the two groups, and eventually Nkunda's rebels reclaimed the town. However there are wide spread reports that many civilians were killed by Nkunda's forces as they reclaimed the town, apparently in a retaliatory fashion.
By all accounts, it appears Nkunda is tightening his control and continuing to increase his territory in the area. At the same time there are reports that soldiers from Angola and Zimbabwe are being brought in by the government. This feels like a chess game, with each side carefully positioning its pieces.
In the meantime the presidents of Rwanda and Congo attend a summit meeting with the UN in Kenya. One more piece to position on this chess board.
As I was walking around Goma I talked with young one man, who perhaps best summarized the mood of Goma. I asked if he was scared.
He replied "Fear is a luxury for the rich." If you are poor, what does it matter if you are afraid? There is nothing you can do about it. You can't run away, you can't change anything. You just keep on living. What is the point of being afraid?"
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
We are able to cross into Goma during the day, but we continue to return to Rwanda by nightfall. Everyday, we wonder whether it might be possible to sleep at home, in Goma, today. And everyday we just don't know.
Goma feels almost normal. Everyone is anxious to resume life. After a week with no markets and no work, people are happy to be able to start again. In the streets people look at eachother in a somewhat surprised fashion, simply happy to be alive. As though this nightmarish past week was some kind of big mistake. Yesterday as I returned to Goma and greeted our friends and neighbors, everyone said that they had been very scared. They reported hiding under beds and trying to figuring out where they could run to. Our apartment is in a big compound, with many Congolese families, a bread bakery, a restaurant, an ice making stand etc... Although no one looted our apartment, soldiers did enter the compound demanding to see the landlord and shooting in the air. Somehow higher level soldiers were called, and the belligerent soldiers were told to go elsewhere.
Now our neighbors are out on their balconies again, washing clothes and cooking meals. Congolese music is pounding from nearby restaurants. The only notable difference in town is the presence of UN vehicles patroling more than they used to, and the visible lack of government soldiers.
But there are serious realities lying just beneath the surface. No one knows what is going on. Rumors of all sort are rampant. But no one really knows why the town is calm, or how long it can remain that way.
The reality is that rebel soldiers remain on the doorstep of Goma. They continue to hold to a ceasefire that they declared last week. However the rebels have demanded negotations with the government and have stated that they will fight if the government refuses to negotiate with them. Meanwhile the government refuses to negotiate directly with these rebels. In January a peace agreement was signed which allowed for negotiations between the government and all 20 rebel groups in Congo collectively. The government says it will only negotiate in this context, with all the rebels, not directly with the rebels lead by Nkunda (the CNDP). This is bascially a face-saving position, a refusal to recognize the amount of power that the CNDP holds. After all it was the CNDP that sent the government forces running, and it is the CNDP that has doubled its territory in the last two months, and stands poised to take Goma itself. The CNDP are uninterested in being lumped in with a bunch of small rebel groups that hold little or no power. They want real recognition, and are willing to continue fighting and killing to get it.
So while Rwanda and Congo have been under heavy international pressure to reach a solution and both sides have agreed to a summit meeting "sometime this month", Rwanda is busy saying that they have no role in the war in Congo, and COngo is busy refusing to meet with the CNDP directly. It is hard to imagine how we are going to get anywhere under these conditions.
Fighting restarted in Kiwanja, a town about 50 miles from Goma. The area was taken by rebel forces (CNDP) on their march into Goma last week. Now the town has apparently been taken by another rebel group, allied with the government. The people of the area are surely suffering. And this restart in fighting can not promise anything good.
As you can see, the situation is hard to follow. It is hard to know the "end game" of the different parties involved, or how they plan to achieve it.
Two of the Shona women have returned to Goma, to stay with their families there. This is fine, as they have immediate family that will look after them if fighting starts again. But the other two ladies remain with us in Rwanda. They have no family in Goma, and would have no one to help them flee if fighting started.
As one of them explained, "our friends and neighbors tell us to come back to Goma. But they all have two feet. And if fighting starts again they will pack their stuff, put it on their heads and leave. Me, what can I do? On my crutches I won't even make it to the corner. It is different when you have your mother nearby, she will put you on her back and carry you. But who, besides a mother, will do that for us...It is best that we stay in safety until a real solution is reached...then we can return to Goma in peace."
So we wait.
Sunday, November 2, 2008
And we wait...
Nkunda remains on the outskirts of town, apparently waiting for news of negotiations between Rwanda and Congo. Or maybe waiting for something else entirely...who knows.
The people of Goma wait for markets to open, schools to open and work to begin again.
The refugees wait for food, water, and medical help
the aid agencies wait for the refugees (where have they all gone? They have apparently been forced out of camps and disappeared in all directions...)
And we wait for news that it is ok to return to Congo...
We have gotten some good news.
Our house and the Shona house were not looted! For all the reports of wide-spread looting we appear to be incredibly lucky. The sewing equipment for Shona as well as all our merchandise remained untouched.
Also, thank you to the people who donated so generously to Shona. We now have enough money to sustain the women for several more weeks in Congo, which should be plenty. Sometimes the world seems so big and we seem so far away. And when we realize that people so far away are thinking of us and concerned for us, it means a lot. Thank you.
Congo Quagmire Finally Grabs the World's Attention
In the last several months, attacks against innocent, impoverished civilians in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo had become numbingly commonplace as a rebel group bloodied government troops, capturing and later relinquishing federal military installations. Indeed, chaos seemed to have reached a weary sort of equilibrium as refugees scattered at each outbreak of fighting. Few people in the west seemed to notice, or care.
It was only this past week, when the rebels advanced to the outskirts of the eastern regional capital of Goma and routed government troops in embarrassing fashion, that the western world finally started paying attention. Jolted by the rebels' stunning march and the threat it poses to Congolese President Laurent Kabila, western diplomats have descended on the DRC this weekend to push for a lasting truce.
The immediate concern was for the tens of thousands of refugees who fled the rebels' march to Goma, capital of the North Kivu province. The fighting dissipated Wednesday and the refugees are now heading home, desperate for food and shelter. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees, the world organization's refugee agency, said it was investigating reports that rebels had destroyed camps housing some 50,000 internally displaced people in the town of Rutshuru, about 50 miles north of Goma. "Hundreds of thousands of people who have already suffered far too much are in danger and in desperate need of help," UNHCR High Commissioner Antonio Guterres said on Friday.
Once the plight of the refugees is addressed, a far more daunting challenge will face all the diplomats who are now speaking earnestly of a solution at last in eastern Congo, whose people have suffered through two wars and numerous clashes since the mid-1990s. Do all those parties with a stake in the Congo conflict — from the government, to the rebels, to the U.N. and a host of peripheral western powers — have the will to settle on a deal? And do they have the will to confront the government of Rwanda, a country scarred by its 1994 genocide, which has given sympathy — and, many suspect, military support — to the rebels? The fighters claim to be protecting ethnic Tutsis from some of the same Hutu militias responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus during the Rwanda genocide. Both Hutu and Tutsi groups are remnants of refugee militias that fled to Congo during and after the genocidal conflicts in Rwanda. "This is a massacre such as Africa has probably never seen, which is taking place virtually before our eyes," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told Europe 1 radio before departing Paris for DRC on Friday.
But Kouchner is wrong. Africa has seen such a massacre before — in the exact same place, over the last 10 years. An estimated 5 million people have died as a result of conflict in Congo's east, a place whose warring factions have stymied the world just as badly as have those in Darfur or Somalia. Fighting between the rebel forces, led by Gen. Laurent Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi, and Congolese troops had raged for months. It became clear in June that a January peace deal between the government and the rebels was collapsing, but little was done. "I've been working on Congo now for 10 years and I sometimes feel we're in this deja vu scenario. We see far too often that there is a flurry of diplomatic activity at moment of crisis and it tails off quickly," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Congo researcher for Human Rights Watch. "There are no quick fixes."
Whether the diplomats agree with that sentiment is unclear. The foreign ministers of Britain, Belgium and France all headed to DRC and planned to meet with the president, Joseph Kabila. They were then to travel to Rwanda for meetings with President Paul Kagame. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazer passed through Goma on Friday before visiting Rwanda. On Friday, Kabila and Kagame agreed to attend a summit to try to resolve the issue. They have made similar promises before, but achieved little. And while experts say that efforts are underway, there are still no plans for the Congolese government to negotiate with Nkunda's rebels.
Any solution will have to include Rwanda — as evidenced by the import of the planned meeting between Kagame and Kablia. Human rights groups have accused Congolese forces of colluding with ethnic Hutu militias thata fled neighboring Rwanda to escape justice for their role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The Congolese government has repeatedly promised to disarm the militias, to little effect. On the other side, Kagame, an ethnic Tutsi, has ties to the eastern Congolese rebels. That group says it is fighting to protect ethnic Tutsis in Congo who have been persecuted by both the Congolese government and the Hutu militias.
Kagame denies supporting Nkunda but the rebels are clearly getting their weaponry from somewhere. Uruguay's military commander Gen. Jorge Rosales, whose nation has troops among the U.N. peacekeeping troops in Congo, told reporters this week that the rebels were backed by Rwandan tanks and artillery, and there was a "high probability that troops from Rwanda are operating in the area." The rebel advance has also exposed some unpleasant truths. One of the most important is the fact that U.N. peacekeepers based in eastern Congo were helpless to stop Nkunda's men.
At the height of Nkunda's campaign, government troops were on the run. Goma, the eastern city that is home to countless aid groups and hundreds of thousands of refugees, stood open for the taking. U.N. peacekeepers were reportedly holed up and surrounded at one base 55 miles north of Goma, rationing food and running out of water. But as rumors spread that Goma's fall was imminent, Nkunda declared a cease-fire and halted his advance. By the end of the week, the havoc wreaked in Goma had been caused chiefly by Congolese government soldiers, who stole cars, looted businesses and raped women across the city. The U.N. multinational force, "is stretched to the limit," spokesman Madnodje Mounouba tells TIME. "We have 6,000 people in North Kivu, not all are frontline soldiers, and have to be everywhere in a territory that is bigger than France."
Nkunda had proven his point, and may have achieved what he wants: a spurt of international attention, and the potential for talks with the Congolese president Kabila to air his grievances. He is in a position of strength — he's made it clear that government forces are no match for his men, and Goma is his for the taking. "Nkunda wants direct negotiations with the government," says Van Woudenberg, of Human Rights Watch. "And now he now holds the ultimate bargaining chip — the town of Goma."
Friday, October 31, 2008
That is a good question. All of us who are sitting in relative safety (whether it is the safety of a hotel just across the border or a house thousands of miles away) struggle with this question.
For the past two days Goma has been strangely silent. Nkunda is continuing to hold his rebel troops outside the city of Goma. Behind rebel lines refugees camps are being forcibly emptied and refugees are being told to go home (many of whom have not been home for months or even years), sending hundreds of thousands of refugees into the streets with no water, no food and no shelter. Aid agencies are unable to reach the vast majority of these refugees because of the continued fighting and insecurity in these areas. The relative calm in Goma is largely due to the fact that heavy negotiations are taking place between Congo and Rwanda, and the international community has sent a number of high level diplomats to support these negotiations. But many fear that this is the calm before the storm. Unless a heroic accomplishment leads to a real agreement between all parties involved (and how many times has this been tried and failed before?) the war could ignite to catastrophic proportions.
So we are all left asking what we can do.
As soon as we are able to return to Congo, I hope to have a better idea of how to meet some of the needs of the many people who are suffering there.
In the meantime, the four Shona ladies are fortunate to be here in relative safety. They are staying in one room of a guest house and eating one meal a day, plus bread to tide them over. We are paying $25 a day to be able to do this. ($15 a day for the room, $10 a day for food) We hope to be able to return to Congo soon, but there is no certainty on that level. They have left behind all their sewing equipment, plus about $500 worth of merchandise that was ready to be shipped out. We are hoping that the house was not looted but have yet to receive any confirmation on that. In the meantime, we are unable to continue sewing and expenses continue to rise.
We have a stock of items in the US that continue to sell on ebay. Your purchases are always appreciated, and especially now.
If you are intersted in making a small donation to help fund the Shona women as they stay out of harms way, that is also much appreciated. All donations will be used to cover the cost of the room and food for the women.
I know that the people of Eastern Congo would also greatly appreciate you keeping them in your thoughts and prayers. They would also appreciate you spreading the news about the situation in Congo. Being in the midst of a tragedy is terrible, and feeling that the tragedy has become invisible in the eyes of the world, is devastating. Please follow the news, talk to people, and help keep the eyes of the world on this disaster.
However we are receiving messages from the US Embassy stating that all US citizens should leave Goma immediately and that there will be some kind of announcement this afternoon and increased chance of rioting.
So here we are. Waiting for the other shoe to drop and praying for the best for all our friends in Goma.
NY Times Article that was on the front page Thursday.
This is the strangest of wars. Two days ago the US embassy sent out text messages to American citizens stating that the embassy was evacuating all it's staff in Goma (as far as we know, it has none) and that American citizens should leave immediately by all means possible. We had already left, as I am sure everyone else had as well.
Today we were sent a message stating that things are relatively calm in Goma and we should feel free to go home or to work. Hmm...
The people of Goma have woken up today after a relatively calm night, and are hopeful. The sun is shining and maybe the rebels have gone away. Or something. Maybe an agreement has been reached, we know high level negotiations have been going on.
But you can't help but wait for the other shoe to drop. And you can't help but feel like this is a game. A terrible game, in which way too many people have died. Why did Nkunda reach the outskirts of town and stop? Leaving the town with a vacuum of power and opening it up to a terrible spree of lootings and killings. Was it a show of force? To put him in a good negotiating position? Because he didn't want the humanitarian catastrophe of Goma on his hands? Or is he simply waiting?
From our American perspecitve, we are left with questions. From the Congolese perspective, they are left with hope. It only takes one calm night for the Congolese people to hope again. Shops are beginning to open, people are beginning to move around. And we, all of us, hope that life can begin again.
As for right now, my husband has crossed the border to scope Goma out, see how things are looking. We'll see what news he brings on his return and go from there.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
As rebel soldiers have advanced on Goma in the past two days, they have sent before them a wave of refugees and fleeing government soldiers. Whole refugee camps have emptied out and begun the march into Goma. It is estimated that 45,000 people have been displaced in the area in the last couple days. Relief agencies are largely unable to operate because of the ongoing fighting, leaving tens of thousands exhausted and scared refugees to arrive at the outskirts of Goma with nothing in place to aid them.
Along with the refugees have come the fleeing government soldiers. Most of the soldiers passed through Goma and headed South. This caused wide scale panic in Goma. The UN forces remain in Goma and continue to hold positions and try to maintain some level of security. Rebel forces reached the edge of town and then pulled back and supposedly declared a unilateral ceasefire. Over the night there was wide spread looting and shooting. As we talk to people this morning, it appears that some government soldiers returned to Goma in the night and soldiers along with police tried to regain some measure of control, as rebel soldiers remained on the outskirts of town.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Monday began as any normal day. I went to Birere, the cloth section of town, bought a new supply and headed over to the Shona house. We were in the middle of a meeting, when shots fired out. I called my husband to see what was going on and he said that people were throwing rocks at UN soldiers in Birere and the UN soldiers were probably firing into the air to disperse the crowd. As the ladies and I continued our meeting we heard cars rushing down our quiet little road. Parents were sending cars to have their childen picked up from school in a hurry. These days the town is tense, and shots fired sends the town into panic. Shops and markets are immediately closed in fear of pillaging.
In Goma, there are motorcycle taxis everywhere. This makes up one of the largest forms of employment for young men. While I personally know many wonderful motorcycle taxi guys, as a group they are known for driving badly and having a mob mentality. If one motorcyclist is killed, the other motorcyclists often cut the road with a mob-like demonstration, demanding justice...or perhaps just retribution. They have been at the root of many riots in Goma over the years.
So on Monday, things were getting tense in Goma. People were throwing rocks at the UN because rebel soldiers were approaching Goma. On Sunday a government military base about 30 miles from Goma fell for the second time in the past two weeks. And it appeared the rebels were advancing toward Goma,claiming towns along the way and sending floods of already displaced people rushing towards Goma. The people of Goma, and Eastern Congo in general, are frustrated with the apparent failure of both the Congolese military and the UN soldiers. I am not sure why, perhaps people simply expect less of their own soldiers, but a lot of the frustration is directed towards the UN rather than the Congolese soldiers. Perhaps it is the belief that the UN should have the weight of the entire international community behind it and therefor should have unending resources to fight this war.
And then the UN hit a motorcyclist. Accidentally. The roads in Goma are crazy even on good days and motorcyclists get hit regularly. But this was the UN and the motorcyclist died. The other motorcyclists raised a crowd and shot and killed two UN soldiers. During the conflict the UN soldiers killed 5 people and stormed a number of houses.
We were told to leave. All NGO (non-profit organizations) were told to get their cars off the roads. People often assume NGOs are somehow connected to the UN or atleast supported by it. Even myself, as I walk down the street on any given day, I will be called mzungu (white person) perhaps 5-10 times. I will also be called MONUC (UN solidier) atleast once or twice. This always seems rather amusing to me, that I could in any way be mistaken for a soldier. But suffice it to say that the international community is perceived as one body, and right now, we are perceived as one body that at best is doing nothing, and at worst is aiding the rebels.
So we crossed the border to Rwanda, and are staying in a hotel close to the border. We are probably 3 miles from our apartment in Goma, but of course once you cross the border it might as well be a million miles away.
Monday night, as we tried to sleep in the hotel, we could hear shots from time to time. And we got numerous phone calls from all friends and coworkers in Goma, who were hearing lots of shooting, only much louder, and who were scared out of their minds. The shots were largely coming from the main prison in town, where soldiers rioted and escaped, and guards were trying to regain control. But no one knew for sure what was happening or who was really shooting.
The night here can be a scary thing. During the day, life seems tenable in Goma. But night falls around 6:30 here and from then until morning everyone is on their own. Most people don't have cars, so they can't go anywhere after dark. And these days, even driving around in a car at night isn't recommended. Most people don't have power, so they are often sitting in small shacks with their families, praying for the best, listening to shots echo through town, and waiting for daylight. There is no 911 to call if you have a problem. At best people call their friends, who have little to offer, other than a voice on the other end of the line.
And here we were, with the safety of a border between us, and nothing to offer our friends who we left behind. We were forced to leave because we are foreigners who might be targeted. But by leaving we only cement the view that the international community abandons people. Before we left I had a little girl come up to my door, the child of a neighbor I suppose. She informed me “they'll beat you”, in a perfectly calm, matter-of-fact voice. I looked over the balcony she was standing on to the crowds in the street and assumed she was talking about the crowds who were watching the motorcyclists riot. I think she meant that if I went out into the streets they would beat me. I am not sure if she was trying to be helpful or hurtful but I suspect neither. I suspect that she was just stating a fact, much like the weather. And this is what is striking about the mob mentality here. There is a sense that things just happen, and normal people can do nothing to change them.
The four handicapped ladies that I work with live in a house together. It is just a small house, with a couple neighbors in a fairly good section of town. But the Shona ladies are young women, living on their own, with no ability to run away if things start going bad. On Monday night they were informing me that they had not even a penny in the house, and only a little food. Like the rest of the population they were scared. After worrying about them all night on Monday, we were able to bring them over here, across the border, on Tuesday. So here we all are. I'm thankful that we were able to bring them over here, but of course they are only 4 people in a population of 500,000.
UN soldiers were apparently able to turn back the latest approach of rebel soldiers on Tuesday. To stem the tide at least for the day. And they were apparently able to keep the population from throwing too many rocks.
About 20,000 people have been displaced in the last couple days. They are marching on foot, all their possessions on their heads, and arriving on the outskirts of Goma. Many of them are fleeing from refugee camps that were overtaken in the latest fighting and burned to the ground. Refugees are fleeing from the place they already fled to. The idea of wandering without a home is very real here. The people of Eastern Congo are used to packing up and fleeing, again and again. It is no wonder that this place, so rich in soil, is so poor. No one seems to be able to stay long enough to plant anything. Or why plant, what a soldier will reap?
Friday, October 24, 2008
There is something fragile about life here in Congo. There is the sense that everything could go down in flames at any point. Rebels could invade. The volcano could erupt. The barely functioning government could fall apart. Someone could steal all your money.
A couple weeks ago, a man who worked closely with my husband was shot to death in his home by armed robbers. People here were shocked and disturbed, because he was truly one of the most gentle men you could imagine. But no one was all that shocked. Not the way people would be in the US. Life is simply more fragile here. Our hold more tenuous. Or maybe it is our sense that we can hold anything in our hand that is more tenuous here.
I first started sewing here with a different group of ladies. They worked in my house, I helped care for their children. I liked them and I trusted them. As it turns out, I trusted them more than I should have. Even though that situation didn't work out, it got me started on what I am doing today. And I love what I am doing today. The ladies I work with are great. But here in Africa I've become cautious. I am always looking around the corner for the flames. If I was too quick to give my heart away before, I am probably too slow now. What, after all, is a heart for... if not for giving away?
My husband is fond of a Rwandan saying that says “the place that is healed is called a scar”. What is healed is not left unmarked. As I think about this fragile world and my fragile heart within it, I wonder sometimes how Africa has marked me.
Thursday, October 9, 2008
You gotta give it to our parents. They will go anywhere to be with us! Goma is not for the faint hearted. It is not exactly a tourist destination. And yet in the past two months we have had both my parents and my husband's parents here to visit us (along with a niece). They arrived as fighting in Eastern Congo is heating up again. And yet we all had a wonderful time.
Everyone loved seeing our parents here. I guess Congolese are used to seeing white people arrive, with aid programs or business deals. But they are not used to seeing them arrive with parents in tow. Sometimes, as I walk around Goma, i think that the children in the street don't believe that I am real at all. White people are simply strange beings from another planet, so rich and fortunate that nothing can ever touch us. Our lives are like the jewlery in a shop, glittering under its protective covering. But everyone has parents. Everyone can understand the love that brings parents half way around the world to see their child. Everyone can understand what it is like to have your loved ones far away. As i talk to friends across the world, as we try to hammer out lives for ourselves in the most disparate of worlds, it seems to me that this is one issue we all return to again and again. The people we love are simply too far away. I wish the world were smaller, so I could have everyone I love under one roof, or atleast in one country.
But in the meantime, until the world gets smaller, I am so grateful for loved ones who make the trip, even when it requires 20 hours in a plane.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
In starting this blog, it occurs to me that I owe my readers some sort of explanation. After all, who am I? And why am I living in Congo? (sometimes I ask myself this very question) I am from a small town in CT. I am a high school teacher by profession and have spent most of my career teaching in NYC. Congo was not exactly the logical next step.
However my husband (who is also American) grew up in Africa (Burundi and Rwanda) and when we got married seven years ago, we went to live in Rwanda for two years. Rwanda is an important part of my husband's life and I wanted to make it a part of mine as well. We lived in Kigali, Rwanda for two years and then returned to the US. My parents are in the US and I am an only child so that is the force that is always pulling me back there. But Africa is addictive. There is something about life here, that is a little more raw. In Africa you have to come face to face with the realities of life, realities that in America we have become good at softening. So we came back to Africa. We have been here in Congo for the past two years. We will not be here forever. I feel torn between my desire to be near my parents, and my love for this place here. I am sure that the rest of our life will involve a balancing act of some sort...with lifetimes spent in both places.
But for now we are here. My husband works with microfinance, and I came here with no real job in mind. I have spent a good amount of time learning Swahili and am now working on French. I have done some teaching at one of the local universities. But the people in Goma are poor, and the ones who can go to university and learn English are the fortunate ones. I wanted to do something to help those who are a little less fortunate. In Goma, I found myself living in a perfectly nice house next to neighbors who were living in a tiny tin shack. How can this be just? This is the eternal question I find myself asking in Goma, a land of such extremes of poverty and wealth. I don't have an answer, but my struggle here each day is to find ways to make my life here a little more just.
A year and a half ago I started a small sewing group despite the fact that I know nothing about sewing. I was looking for something tangible to empower a few people to better their lives. That group has become SHONA, a small group of physically handicapped women who sew. We sell their products through our website and through ebay (check us out: www.shonacongo.com) but the group is about more than just sewing. It is about empowerment. The women are learning to organize and lead the group themselves, they are learning to read and write, play sports and live on their own. They work as a group and live as a group, an incredible example unity and interdependence. While at the same time, they offer an incredible example of empowerment and independence. In Congo, handicapped people are expected to beg in the streets. Handicapped women are expected to be particularly dependent as they are often not sent to school, and are assumed to be unable to marry. The women of Shona are now earning the money to provide for themselves, and are beginning to consider the ways they can help provide for others as well. This is our goal. In the midst of a culture that teaches dependence on foreign aid, the women of Shona are independent; in the midst of a culture that teaches “service to self”, the women of Shona are preparing to serve others.
My life here in Congo is unexpected. In the sense that it is not what I thought I would be doing at this point in my life. But there are plenty of people around world, working with similar projects, with similar goals. It is the women of Shona, as they sew, play sports, and help others who live a truly unexpected life. And that is where the beauty lies.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
This is Eastern Congo.
Where the sunsets over the lake can break your heart. Where the land is incredibly fertile and the temperature close to perfect. And this is Eastern Congo, where lava covers the ground and everything seems ruined.
I love contrasts. But Congo has a few too many, even for my taste. My husband and I have been living here in Goma (Eastern Congo) for the past two years. And what can I say? Congo is impossible to summarize.
We live in a small apartment near the airport. Let me be a little more specific. We have a plane super-highway that runs directly outside our home. We stop conversations atleast 5 times daily because you cannot hear yourself think over the roar of the planes. Yet we live in a town where the vast majority of people have no running water or electricity. Truly. People walk by our house with water containers on their heads as the planes fly by. But wait, if you are lucky, you might even see that person who is carrying water reach in their pocket and pull out a cell phone. It is the strangest combination of the 19th century and the 21st century.
We have a plane super highway outside our house because the roads in Congo don't work. Literally, you can't get anywhere in Congo by road, you simply have to take a plane. The roads that do exist in Eastern Congo are in terrible shape and are cut by rebel soldiers so they are unsafe to travel. So if you can't seem to have functioning roads in a country, why not move on? Go straight to planes.
Likewise, there is a lack or running water, because there are virtually no public services in Goma. So who can fix the government? The water supply system? Skip it...and buy a cell phone. Goma is a regional hub for fancy cell phones. You go to Goma and buy a cell phone because they are cheaper. We may have no water but we also have cell phones without a state imposed tax. There is always an upside in Goma.