Wednesday, November 26, 2008

News of family

As I mentioned earlier, one of the Shona women grew up in Kiwanja, which was the site of intense fighting and brutal killings a few weeks ago. Her older brother, older sister, and two younger brothers all were living in Kiwanja at the time of the fighting. She had no idea what had happened to any of her siblings or whether they were safe. She has now received news of her older sister. At the time of the fighting, her older sister fled. She walked for a week, with two children in tow, to reach the town of Butembo. THat is 245 kilometers. The youngest child is 6 years old. They carried whatever possessions they could on their heads. We are very happy to hear that they have arrived safely.

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


The Shona ladies have decided to rent a small house across the border in Rwanda for three months. Security continues to be a significant concern here in Goma, and they have the good fortune of work that they can pack up and take with them. The house in Rwanda will be only a couple miles from their current home in Congo, but the border provides significant security.

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

a NY Times article

A good picture of life these days...
NY Times

Monday, November 17, 2008

Quick Update

For those of you wanting to follow more news I recommend a BBC update on the fighting in Eastern Congo:

BBC article

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


One of the Shona women grew up in Kiwanja. Almost all of her family continue to live there.

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

Elda, one of the Shona women, learned yesterday that 3 of her extended family members were killed last week in Kiwanja. One of them was a two week old baby. She has no specific information about how they were killed. A number of other relatives, some of whom she is very close to, have been unreachable since the fighting started. The people who confirmed the death of some of her family, had no idea where the rest had gone. We are praying

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Last night week we slept in our own bed for the first time in two weeks. It is wonderful to be home. We have returned to Goma (on the condition that we are willing to leave again at a moment's notice).

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

Fear is for the rich

We continue to cross into Goma during the day and return to Rwanda in the evening (due to security concerns).

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

What to write?

It is hard to know what to write. We wait everyday for some definitive news that the situation is going one way or the other. But there is no definitive news. We wait expecting to hear the shooting start up at night again, but no shooting (thankfully).

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...

We have now been in Rwanda almost a week. We would like to go home. The town of Goma continues to be relatively quiet. A strong police commander was brought into Goma and they started shooting people who were out looting. So, now, we only here shots occassionally, and it might be the government shooting to stop bandits, rather than the other way around.

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.

This article summarizes pretty well the current situation

Congo Quagmire Finally Grabs the World's Attention

Rebel fighters from the National Congress for People's Defense (CNDP), under the direction of renegade General Laurent Nkunda, parade in Rumangabo, north of the Eastern Congolese town of Goma violence

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."