Friday, October 31, 2008

What can we do?

A number of people have written and asked "what can I do?"
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.


As it turned out...

As it turned out, my husband did not cross the border. The border is open, but our security advisor advised against any visits into Goma. People in Goma continue to call us saying that people are starting to move around. The markets have not opened but motorcycle taxis are returning to the streets and some shops are opening.

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.

The strangest of wars

Check out the the
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

updates on the war

Check the following articles for current news:
Seattle Times

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

those we love

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.