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Friday, February 11, 2011

A Last Stop in Rwanda, then Heading Home

I take less tea this morning.  It will be about a four-hour drive on a curvy, brought-to-you-by-China, but dangerous road to Kigali, Rwanda.  Ida will travel with us to the edge of Goma and see us over the border.  We will take Thomas, Jean Baptiste, Bingi, and an assistant researcher from our Kigali office that is waiting for us as we cross over.  I'm surprised when we leave the hotel and within five minutes are at border patrol.  I didn't realize we were so close from our hotel.

Ida sees us to the other side but has to stay back in Goma.  Immediate research and conversations have to happen as the Bosco gold-smuggling operation has taken a nasty turn.  We can't wait to hear.  We all wish for her to be safe.  She is another hero of this region.

We are a caravan of two vehicles.  Our landcrusier and a vintage Toyota Corolla with some HRW Rwanda staff, Bingi and Jean Baptiste.  We follow them as our first official stop will be the HRW Rwanda office in Kigali.  Then lunch with the staff and head to Kigali airport.

The juxtaposition of the two countries is stark. The drive from the border at Goma to Kigali looks like no African country I have ever seen.  Hillsides covered with nice single family homes, just like one would see in any populated US city.  The houses all are new, investments made by NGOs and a lot of foreign aid since the genocide.  Proper roofs.  Plumbing.  No one carries water on their back.  Kids riding bikes along the roads, not pushing them up hills with hundreds of pounds of cargo.

The drive then gives way to rich farming on either side.  Everywhere you look you see people working the soil, planting, hoeing, harvesting.  Everyone is in western dress.  I mean everyone.  Gone are the vivid prints wrapped around the women. 

Our lead car gets pulled over about every 20 minutes to have papers checked.  Rwanda.  The police will see us from a distance, clearly foreigners, and wave us on.   Taking no chances that they might inconvenience someone making an investment.  We drive up a half mile or so, pull over and wait for our lead car to pass.

Reaching Kigali, we come to a stop.  I point out the window at something not seen in our entire stay: a traffic light.

The Kigali HRW office is set way back, hidden down a driveway off a side street.  No sign calling out what or whom is inside.   President Kagami is no fan of any human rights organization that exposes wrongs with him or his administration.  HRW keeps a low profile.  Our senior researcher was kicked out over a year ago, and finally we have a new senior researcher coming in next month.  We walk through the office and meet the small, local team.  In each office I see photographs of Alison framed on desks and shelves.  Her presence is deeply missed and never forgotten.  The bulk of the office staff has been with us since the late 90s.  Another fine team.

Mindy and I will catch the first of only three flights that depart from Kigali today -- it's a quiet airport.   In Nairobi we will be surprised yet again to bump into a friend from CoJ.  Three of us will board the night flight to London.

It's a small world.

HEAL Africa, Dinner at Ida's with the HRW Family, Remembering Alison

Tuesday morning.  Today will start with a tour of HEAL Africa, a health center in Goma that offers a holistic approach to treating victims of gender-based violence.  We will then visit the HRW office located in the center of Goma and meet with about a dozen human rights defenders who work closely with our staff.  Afterward, we will sit down with the head of the UN peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) for all of North Kivu.  We will be in Goma all day, just moving from one end of the road to the other.  We will finish our final day here with a dinner including all of the local HRW staff and their families.

I am up once again early with the sun and can't stop thinking about our visit the day before.  My sleep has been very brief, and I take another three cups of tea with powdered milk.  I have yet to see milk or cream in liquid form on this whole trip since landing in Burundi.  It will sour in the heat, and refrigeration isn't a good option.  Power is a luxury.  It is also highly unreliable.  In Goma, the power goes out at random times each day and can be out for several hours at a go.  You always want to keep a flashlight close.

HEAL Africa is a series of multi-story buildings placed together in a protected compound.  Similar to Panzi, we won't look in on patients but will meet with some staff and tour the facilities.  It is an oasis if you are a victim in North Kivu.  HEAL is maybe 15 years old and is largely staffed by Congolese. They offer a terrific medical program training doctors in all sorts of specialties.  We also meet with Richard, a Congolese human rights lawyer who is a native of Goma and attended the local law school.  He works here at HEAL Africa alongside ABA (American Bar Association, where in this small world I also have another great contact).  Richard speaks great English, which leads me to leave the tour and pull him aside.  I have my girls from yesterday on my mind and I want to better understand what it takes to get them to the local university and law school.  Coincidentally, Richard is applying to a summer graduate program at UC Berkeley.   I talk to him about the girls we met yesterday and their aspirations.  Richard knows anything is possible.  He agrees to help.  We exchange emails and I hope to help Richard get settled in Berkeley in the near future.

We aren't far from the HRW office, which I am proud to say is prominently labeled with our logo on the front of the building above the door.   The office is located smack in the center of town on the main road, of course.  Ida informs us that we moved to this location a few years ago for security reasons.  The center of town is always rush hour, which would make it much more difficult for someone to take aim at the office and not be seen. We also have security, both a day and night watchman, to protect our office and staff.  Although Ida doesn't travel with security, she does have round-the-clock security where she lives.  When you read the reports she and the team publish, you understand why.  There are very bad people in very high places in the DRC, and Ida and team, in HRW fashion, are fearless in exposing that fact.

Our meeting begins in our conference room, which is packed with human rights defenders who have traveled from all over the region to meet with us.  Ida works closely with everyone from the foreign diplomatic core to UN officials, various military sources and, naturally, human rights workers out in the field representing countless local NGOs that do very brave heavy lifting.  Today's meeting is with a crowded table of these Congolese heroes.  I am moved by their commitment, the fierceness with which they carry out their work, and how much they count on HRW to help them advocate for justice.  They work on issues ranging from child soldiers to land conservation, and everything in between.  Interestingly, the make-up of the 12 representatives: 11 men, 1 woman.  We need a means to help the women.

After the meeting, most of the representatives linger, waiting to use the single computer and internet connection that HRW makes available during the long office hours for the partners to use.  I love what HRW makes possible.

We have about an hour until our next meeting, and the whole lot of us are in need of a coffee.  Oh, I love sharing that I haven't seen a Starbucks since I left the airport in Brussels.  Ida and Thomas know where to go for the best coffee in town, and they deliver completely.  It was another lovely hotel in town, again on Lake Kivu.

For the second time in as many days, we see another one of our group from the City of Joy opening.  It is William Perkins, an American born in Paris, a French film maker who is working on a documentary about Eve and her work in the DRC.  William stayed on in Bukavu a couple of extra days, as he is trying to adopt a four year old girl that lives at Panzi.  The girl was born there, a product of rape, and is HIV-positive.  William is married with a two year old in Paris, and he and his wife, both very much wanting to adopt, are sorting through the logistics.   He has traveled over to Goma early this morning on another Marinette, which suffered a similar engine failure.  He will spend a few days in Goma spotting secure locations for the documentary, for when he comes back with a film crew in a few months.

Off to MONUSCO to meet with Hiroute Guebre Selassie, the woman who heads up the UN peacekeeping mission for all of North Kivu.  The least inspiring of all the meetings.  If you read much news on the Eastern DRC or any of the HRW reports, you will see that the UN mission is an abomination.  It has pluses and minuses, of course, but minuses predominate.  But pulling them out completely would be a security disaster.  Who do these Congolese have to trust?  On the plus side, Ida proves effective in her relationship and influence with Hiroute. Hiroute, like everyone we come across, has the greatest respect for Ida, HRW and the truth we expose. The MONUSCO offices are air-conditioned to a temperature I refer to as "meat-locker."  Makes me sick.

For the first time since arriving, we will have about an hour in our hotel before meeting Ida and crew for dinner.  I dump all my luggage on my bed for two reasons: I don't want to take any lizards home with me, and I need to see everything I can live without and leave for Ida.

I had big aspirations for myself on this trip.  Yes, I packed a yoga mat.  I had to carry an extra bag just to cart it with me.  Pilates mat work once a day, an hour long session loaded on my iPod.  Easy.  Hah.  I did do it once on my overnight stay in Brussels.  But since hitting the ground here, the days have been jam-packed, and by the time I land in my hotel room at night, it is always very late, my mind racing and my heart heavy.  Writing has been my only reprieve.

Mosquito repellent, sunblocks, Cipro, Malarone, all of the stuff I use to treat my eye condition (which I think Ida might also suffer from), pens, rain boots, coat, poncho, umbrella, all shoes but the thongs on my feet, my long brown "Michelin Man" coat (it was freezing in Brussels) that my kids always make fun of.  All gone.

The break goes quickly, and Rona and Mindy and I head to dinner.  Ida will play host, and the office staff will be in attendance with their families.  Such families.  When we arrive, 40 or so people of all ages are sitting everywhere.  Jean Baptiste introduces me to his wife, three young boys, and four of his five daughters who have joined us.  Maybe ages 3 to 21.  Our night watchman is there with his wife and ten children, ages 3 to 25.  The day watchman and his seven children, maybe 3 to 14.  There are some babies, children of children present.  Bingi, the office receptionist/manager, bright and engaging.  Eric, our driver, and his brother.  Thomas and Ida complete the party.  We enjoy the most delicious meal I have had on the trip.  We had arrived just after sunset, and as expected the power was out.  Candles burned here and there, and a few lanterns helped immensely.  But it was still very hard to see faces.  You could make out shapes and I got to hold babies -- an adventure in the dark.  About two hours later, the power flickered back on and just in time for Jean Baptiste to read a beautiful speech he had written for this grand occasion.  It isn't often HRW in Goma sees visitors from so far away.  Jean Baptiste read in French and Ida translated.  He was so appreciative of us all, but in particular and deservingly so, of Ida.  As are we all.  He then had us stand and join in a moment of silence to honor Alison Des Forges.  Her impact in this region, Goma sharing a border with Rwanda, has been immeasurable.  I will never forget seeing these family members, young to old, all of whom know of this extraordinary defender of human rights, paying tribute just four days before the anniversary of her untimely death.  She should never be forgotten.



We said our goodbyes and headed back for our last night at Hotel Linda.  Tomorrow we will start our journey home.  Home.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

In the Field with Human Rights Watch

It is Monday in Goma and I wake up well before my wake-up call (which mind you comes precisely on time) and wander outside for an early morning look across Lake Kivu.  Hotel Linda is perched right on the shore with nothing but a wall of lava rock to protect it.  The lake is still, giving one the illusion of tranquility.  Breakfast, a fruit salad of peeled mango, pineapple, banana, passion fruit and tea.  I will have three cups this morning, hoping it will clear my head and lungs and relieve me of a poor night of sleep.

Our group consists of several local HRW staff: Ida, the lead researcher for the DRC and based here in Goma; Thomas, assistant Researcher and a brand new resident to Goma arriving only a week ago from the US; Jean Baptiste, a native of Goma and a 12 year veteran of the team (Jean Baptiste was a teacher before joining HRW and he is fluent in both Swahili and French.  He serves a very valuable role as our translator, while also having a smile that could warm the world.); Eric, our temporary driver, as the full time driver is out due to an accident; and Rona, the Africa Director of HRW who has joined us from NY and is also the boss of Ida and team.  We are six in total plus Eric and traveling in the newly-acquired used Toyota Land Cruiser, which is a must for these roads.  The previous land cruiser was driven until it was beyond repair.  Thomas and Jean Baptiste take the jumpseat in the back, Ida in the front opposite Eric, and the rest of us in the second row.   We are off and as usual, quickly come to a halt.  The morning traffic jam begins as soon as we join the single road that all of Goma seems to inhabit.  This crawl will continue until we reach the outskirts, and then the only impediment will be the cars and trucks replacing tires along the way -- of which we will see many.

We are headed to a small village west of Goma.  The drive takes a little while, and if you were to look on a map it is like going from Fremont to Redwood City but with no bridges -- so it will be a lot of ground to cover, in our case north and then south.  The drive is scenic.  Mountains covered in jungle, the lake always on our left as we climb up and around. The forest is dense with banana trees.  Cassava has been planted everywhere.  The sides of the road always a flow of women balancing baskets filled with ears of corn, onions, pineapple, cassava and yams, piles of firewood, jugs of water, anything and everything.  And so often with a baby wrapped tightly on her back.  I count only twice on this trip where I saw a baby or child being carried by a man.  The women are always covered in fabrics so bright that you can't take your eyes off of them. Occasionally you will see a woman with two babies, one on back and one on shoulders, and always a basket full of staples on her head.  The women of Congo are strong.  They hold their heads up while bearing substantial weight.

Massive bags of charcoal are being carried from the forest to the market to sell for cooking fires. The smell of this burning is always in the air.  Men and boys carry it out on handmade wooden bikes that really resemble a scooter -- a chuckadu.  The front wheel is maybe 20" in diameter and often carved from wood and the back wheel is about half the size.   They load bags of charcoal from the forest that must weigh well over 100 lbs on the makeshift "banana seat."  Often two boys will push together as the road from the forest is a series of endless peaks and valleys. You see children of all sizes with loads.  Lots of water in big yellow jerrycans with a piece of fabric serving the purpose of a rubber band. The cloth goes around the forehead and underneath the jerrycan on their backs.

We pull off the road, and we have arrived at our destination.  A single story wooden house with many little rooms that you can see have been added one by one, as needed. The house was built by a woman whom I’ll call Makemba, our host today.  Her counseling and listening center for victims of rape and torture, both women and men, is what we have come to experience.

Makemba greets us with a warm smile, so happy she is to see Ida and to have visitors come this way.  We are quickly surrounded by a crowd of young children, I think 18 in total.  We will spend the next several hours here. In that time we will observe babies crying, young ones playing with bottle caps and stacking rocks, little ones dancing and making faces in the front bumper of our land cruiser, amusingly watching their reflection in the chrome.  Three-year olds with babies asleep on their backs, children occupying themselves, most of them I'm guessing were not planned nor wanted births.  What we will never see is anyone having any food or drink.   We watch babies wake from naps on the backs of women, knowing they must be crying out in hunger.  The women untie the cloth wrap that is harnessing the children and bring them around with one arm, effortlessly.  They then lie them across their laps and pat them to sleep again.  I am thinking, where is the food?  You don't nurse a result of violent rape.

After saying hello to those gathered, Makemba takes us in through an open doorway into the front room of her house.  A wall of blue  plastic sheeting hangs from the ceiling to separate the room into two spaces.  Behind the blue wall is the quieter room where Makemba will all-too-often listen to victims tell their story for the first time.  In our front room there is a small wooden bench to the left and a 3' x 4' wooden table with two chairs behind, and then maybe eight plastic stackable chairs are brought in and set up in a crescent.  Initially, Makemba will sit with just our HRW group and she will tell her story.  It will start in 1999 in her village and it will be a day in May at precisely 11pm.  She will be asleep in her home with her husband and 4 daughters.  The oldest two are 13 and 15, the other two quite young.  From the best I can tell the house was one story and three rooms.  They will hear gunshots.  Makemba tells her story slowly and gives rest for Jean Baptiste to translate her words into French so that Ida can translate for us into English.  As the story continues, I will be so grateful for the time to hold it between translations.  Makemba continues, often looking down at her folded hands caressing her fingers.  I don't take my eyes away, although they are at this point like dripping faucets.  All I can do is bear witness to her story.  I can only hope that each time she tells her story, maybe in a small way, it divides her grief.  In my mind I keep thinking what if that were me?  My family?  You can't think it.  You will pass out.

Years later she decided to tell her tragedy.  She would share it with others, and she would listen to theirs.  She would learn how to counsel.  She would comfort and take in those abandoned by their families, girls pregnant as a result of brutal gang rapes.  She would take them in and their children, many infected with HIV.  She would find a way to send the young girls to school.  She would also send all the children to school.  She would raise some money and lease an acre and a half of farmland.  She would plant a garden and use it to feed those in her charge and sell what they could for income.  School would be $12 a trimester for primary and $30 a trimester for secondary.  Sometimes there wouldn't be any money and no one would go.

Makemba built her house and opened it up because she needed a reason to live. She says she will die doing this work.

We will then have eight women come in, ages 13 - 55.  They will go around the room and they will tell their stories.   We will listen.  We will hold them in our eyes as we listen.  We will cry.

And then the girls, especially the teens, begin to show anger. They are mad. This is not fair.  Whatever did they do to deserve this?  They have been brutally gang raped.  Forced to be sex slaves.  Tied to trees.  Horrific stories. They have been infected with HIV.  They have children as a result that they must care for.  They can't stay in school.  They are rejected by their families.  They can't get married or even have a fiance.  They go hungry.  They try to do work as porters, carrying heavy loads on their backs great distances to earn $.30.  They tell us in their country you can go to jail for killing a goat, but you can brutally rape a women, torture her, infect her with HIV, kill her and nothing happens to you.  Just yesterday we buried a woman who had been raped.  We want to say something, but how can we speak on their behalf if we have no education?”  One by one, they just keep airing their grievances. They are smart.  They are articulate.  They are outraged and, most of all, they know their rights.  They want to know when are they going to be treated with the decency of an animal?   Does anyone really care?

Ida, brilliant Ida, begins to talk to them quickly in French, which most of the teens understand and speak from their time in school.  She tells them that we have just come from Bukavu where a great number of women, just like Mindy and me, have come from all over the world, because we want to change what is happening to them and the girls and women in their country.  Because we care.  She tells them that news reporters came, and high ranking government officials from the US and many other places.  That artists and actors and activists, all activists really, have come to tell the world we have had enough.  She tells them about this great City of Joy that was built by women.  She speaks of Eve Ensler as V-Day posters are hanging all over the walls.  They know of V-Day.  She tells them the tide is turning.

Mindy then has a brilliant idea that she and I both pull out our cameras and show them pictures of City of Joy.  Pictures of the women singing and dancing, holding hands, the conga line, Eve and Christine and Mama Bacu.  I don't think I have ever appreciated a digital camera more than at that moment. They formed groups around our two cameras and could not believe what they were seeing.  Their smiles light up. Their eyes suddenly show life.  They even show off their English, which was far superior to my French.  They wanted to learn more.  They wanted to have conversation. 

When we asked the girls what they wanted, they were instantaneous in the answer: they wanted to be back in school!  A week ago they had dropped out, because they had no money for fees to continue.  When you asked them what they would study if they went to university?  Law!  They wanted justice.  Above all they wanted justice.  They would fight for it and they would bring it.

They are the future if this country is to have one.

We stayed through the afternoon, taking pictures of all and showing the little ones on the camera screen.  We had some bundles of baby clothing and toys we had brought from home that we handed over to Makemba.  Carefully, the older women untied the parcels and made piles of clothing by sex and size.  Each of those responsible for a little one stepped up in turn and carefully took what was handed them, precious and new.

Ida and Jean Baptiste and Thomas had gone back into the listening room and were hearing more testimony, this time from a group of men who had been raped and tortured. Meticulously documenting.  The work of HRW researchers is heavy.

It was late in the afternoon, maybe 3, and we needed to head back.  We hugged and held and promised we would not forget them.  For now, we would be of help.

We loaded in the car and suddenly felt our parched throats and hunger pangs.  It had been nearly eight hours since breakfast, in the hot African sun without food and water.  Welcome to how half the world lives.  Hunger we just don't know.

On our way back we stopped at a small food stand on the side of the road next to Lake Kivu.  They had a table with an umbrella next to the lake, and we all crowded under, grateful for the shade.  Yellow lentils, plantains, fish, pommes frites, and guilt.

I'm too tired to keep writing so suffice to say dinner was again busy with the diplomatic representatives from US and Holland, both great admirers of Ida and HRW.

A small plane with a US and Nigerian crew and passengers had landed on the runway in Goma earlier in the day.  $6.6 million in cash on board.  The plan apparently to exchange for gold bars mined from Eastern DRC.  Illegal.  Very.  A top General of the Congolese military, Bosco Ntaganda (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bosco_Ntaganda), looks to be behind it, and someone had alerted the police.  The gold bars are at his house.  Passengers and crew were all being held, and our American representative was up to his ears.  Ida would soon be, too.

I can't sign off without telling you that all the kids are back in school, although I'm sure you knew that by now.

If the fabric of this ravaged and war-torn country is ever to change, it will take a revolution from the top and bottom.  At the top, you must have reform of the security sector.  That will take training, pay, and accountability from a leadership that doesn't seem to give a damn.  But foreign governments will continue to try and pressure, including the US.  From the bottom, the grassroots, where all meaningful and lasting change begins, it will take planting seeds that grow into great leaders.   Sowing a recurring crop of strong activists, which will again multiply and grow and multiply and grow.  Healed.  Nurtured.  Supported.  Educated.  Appreciated.  Integrated.  Accepted.  Respected.  Loved.  A center, a community, an ever growing network of strength.  A place where they turn their pain to power.  City of Joy.  It was their idea. 

I don't know what on earth I could ever teach these women.  I have learned so much from them.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Marinette, an Unplanned Stop, and Goma

It is Sunday morning, and we are up bright and early to head to the boat dock.  You never can properly estimate travel time in the DRC, so extra hours need to be planned so as not to miss our boat.  We are leaving Bukavu in South Kivu and crossing nearly the length of Lake Kivu to arrive in Goma in North Kivu.  All of this in the eastern part of the DRC.

Well, I can't wait to update the photos on this blog when I get home.  Our two hour speedboat ride on the boat, Marinette, is really no different from the mini-buses I described on the streets of Bukavu.  We are packed in like sardines.  Four across in a row, 2 x 2, with an aisle so narrow that although I have an aisle seat my legs are right up against the man "across" the aisle from me.  And we all have our knees pressed against the seat in front and our bags on our laps.  The boat is enclosed, glass windows all around.  Most of which do not open.  I think the boat held about 32 of us.  I don't know if I've ever been in such tight quarters -- you just prayed it would be a quick trip.  The petrol fumes did my airways in and I would continue to pay for that even days later.  But we are off, only a few minutes behind the "schedule."

Ida and Rona and Thomas from HRW are on the Marinette with Mindy and me.  We try to talk to pass the time, but trying to breathe is hard enough.  About 45 minutes into the trip, our captain suddenly turns off the engines, and we sit nearly motionless, in our little greenhouse on Lake Kivu.  We make out from the HRW folks, who conveniently speak some Swahili and French, that one of our two engines was making a funny sound and so the captain doesn't want to use it.  He carries on a great argument with the boat’s only hand, who is riding outside near the engines.  After a long while it is decided we will use only one engine.  We will chug along at half speed.  We have sent for a rescue boat to leave Goma at once and come for us.  The one engine we have doesn't have enough gas to get us far.

We are all keeping our eyes peeled for the new boat.  Surrender.  Finally after another hour and some, we make our way toward a tiny village on the shore.  We will get off this floating jalopy and we will wait for the rescue.

Boy were we a sight for the villagers.  It was big excitement when we pulled ashore.  Everyone came running over to see.  Beautiful children came out of everywhere.  They were very kind and welcoming.  We were so happy to get off the boat and work our legs and lungs.  Mindy and Rona and I made our way over to a small hut with a roof that offered some shade.  We sat down under the overhang and were surrounded by curious children.  I stopped counting at 30.  One of the very young ones sat at my feet and very gently began to touch my toenails, painted a very dark red.  I don't know if she thought it was dried blood or what exactly, but she was ever so softly taking her finger and would touch each toe, one by one.  After awhile she laid one of her hands on top of my toes and just left it there.  Perhaps making me better.

A woman in the village had a large basket full of bananas.  When we spotted our much bigger boat in sight, we purchased the whole bowl of fruit as a gesture for their warm hospitality and turned them over to the ever-growing bunch of beautiful children to eat.  The smiles made the Marinette worth the ride.

Our new boat, a police boat with room for 60 and functioning windows with indoor and outdoor accommodation, was a great relief.  It was still two more hours on this boat, but we learned days ago to let go of a schedule.

We arrive in Goma, a city very different in appearance from Bukavu.  We are greeted by local HRW staff and a land cruiser.  Within minutes we are on our way.  It's been about eight hours since we last ate, so a quick lunch is at hand.  We have a meeting with a local NGO, Soprop, and we are already well overdue.

Goma sits in the shadow of a volcano, Nyiragongo.  It last erupted in 2002.  Most of the city was covered.  The two-story buildings are now single-story, as the lava spread everywhere and filled in where it found space.  The roads seem worse than Bukavu.  Like mountain biking on sharp lava rocks.
Crazy.  You still serpentine.  The population is smaller.  And unlike Bukavu, which is laid out much like San Jose, roads going in every direction, Goma was all built largely along a single road that at some point finally forks.  So you can imagine the traffic jams on a single road and the state of the road.  Lots of flat tires.  And without a shoulder, people change the tire right in front of you.  Serpentine.

We have a great lunch at the Chalet.  The best restaurant in town for ex-pats.  Our HRW crew seems to know everyone.

We bounce our way to Soprop.  This will be our first experience to see HRW in action.  Ida will interview victims of sexual violence and we will observe, doing the only thing we can do, bearing witness.

A room full of women awaits us, and Ida decides to divide the task with Rona and Thomas.  Mindy and I will sit with Ida and Jean-Baptiste, our translator, and we will begin.  We go in our groups to very small rooms, which are clearly primitive examination rooms, and we crowd around the table.  It's after 5pm now, and as the city begins to grow dark, the power goes off -- as we come to learn happens every day, at all times of day, sometimes for hours.  So carry a flashlight.  We are sitting in utter darkness, with the door closed to give some feeling of privacy.  You can just make out the outlines of our bodies.

The first woman comes in and she softly begins her story.  I am grateful it is dark, as the tears quietly stream down my face.  This trip just got so much harder.

We finish taking testimony and documenting their stories, and then head to Hotel Linda.  I can't remember dinner.  My heart is heavy.  I am exhausted.  The nighttime is too short and my room hot and crowded with lizards, cockroaches, mosquitos.  I lie on top of the sheet thinking how blessed am I and everyone I know.  Tomorrow is an early start.  We will visit a small center for women and men that have been victims of violent rape and torture.  We will once again take testimony.  HRW works everyday to document these atrocities and press for accountability and justice.  Our journey will be well outside of Goma in a small village called Minova.  I haven't really a clue what I am in for.  All I know is that I am so grateful to be here.

Panzi Hospital, City of Joy, and the Green Mamas

It is Saturday morning in Bukavu, and the caravan departs at 8:30 a.m.  Our first stop will be the Panzi Hospital, just a stone’s throw from City of Joy.  The same slow procession moves from our hotel through the streets of Bukavu.  The narrow roads are teeming with life, no different from the previous days.  Saturday gives no reason for rest, especially in a population that is searching for the dollar a day to survive.  Our vehicles weave and bounce to avoid the foot traffic, bicycles, motor bikes, and over-crowded vans that remind me of the jalopies in Costa Rica.  (How many people will a Congolese mini-bus hold?  Answer: 1 more.)  So crowded.  You just hope with each swerve and landing that we haven't hit anyone. You can't take your eyes off the faces.

We arrive at Panzi, a place I have seen only on “60 Minutes.”  We are greeted once again by Dr. Mukwege, the founder of the hospital and, recently, the Panzi Foundation.  He will give us a tour of the hospital and the surrounding grounds.  Out of respect we will not be going inside, so as not to disturb patients being treated.  Panzi isn't a zoo, it is a hospital for the most sexually violated women and men, and victims of torture.  The occupants of Panzi have a lot of healing on their plate if they are to survive. 

The hospital has just added its second surgery room.  There is a pharmacy, psychological counseling center, physical therapy, recovery rooms, nearly everything you would find in an American hospital, but go back 50-60 years.  There is nothing opulent about this place but everything secure, warm, comforting, an oasis of tender hope.  A set of single-story brick structures that meander again, like an elementary school.  Our tour doesn't take long.  The hospital holds about 300 at any given time.  There are no single, double, or triple rooms.  Most patients share a large room with dozens of simple beds.  They are getting some of the finest care on the African continent.  Even the great hospital, Heal Africa, located a 4 hour speedboat ride away, has to send the men who have been brutally raped and tortured to Panzi.  Panzi specializes in miracles.

We head to the open grassy area to the left of the hospital, where once again hundreds of women, young girls, and a lot of beautiful babies, all wrapped in vividly colored fabrics, have gathered to celebrate two of our party: Stephen Lewis, the grandfather of the global effort to combat the AIDS epidemic, and Eve Ensler, the extraordinary woman who has made it her life's work to stop the violence against women and girls.  The crowd is bursting with joy once again and the drums beat and the dancing continues.  Today Panzi is filled with celebration -- what a moment this is for Dr. Mukwege.  I can't help but think that we are giving him the best medicine he could hope for -- a down payment on the commitments those of us with some means can deliver.  Stephen Lewis and Ambassador Verveer agree to lobby hard for the anti-retroviral drugs needed so desperately in the DRC.  It is a tragedy to know that none has been coming in.  That will change.  It must.

Next stop is the City of Joy, where yesterday we only celebrated in the center garden and today we will tour the buildings.  It is only a moment in the cars as the two are so conveniently close.  Our tour starts with a welcome from the marvelous woman who will oversee the day-to-day of CoJ, Mama Baccue.  She reminds me of the main character in The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency novels.  She is traditionally built, takes full command of her audience, and with the aid of a white board lays out the goals and the business plan for CoJ in one succinct lecture.  You know that Christine and Eve knew what they had when they found her.  She has the warmth of a best friend and the competence of an experienced surgeon, and she is all about prioritizing the tasks at hand and checking them off completed.  The women that come to CoJ will be in very capable hands.

We are suddenly surprised by the beautiful sound of voices singing.  It is the women who built this city, brick by brick.  This was the first ever construction project in all of Eastern Congo undertaken by a female construction crew.  Eve had insisted.  Men were brought in to teach the women, V-men.  The crew of women number 80-100.  All survivors, young and old.  After finishing this truly monumental project -- in my head I am counting 13-14 brick buildings with blue corrugated metal roofs, secured windows and spacious rooms -- these women have formed their own building company.  They lay brick, paint inside and out, install ceilings and lay tile for floor.  They are also responsible for planting the grounds.  A close look shows perfect rows of grass, planted a single seedling at a time, producing 2 single blades.  I sort of can't get my mind over it.  Can you imagine the patience and how precious each seed?  V-Day has just agreed to fund them with a $20k grant to seed their new endeavor.  The DRC requires a lot of construction, as so much is in utter decay.  These women will prove a great investment.

We finish our tour in the big dining hall, where we take in a generous lunch buffet of chicken kabobs, fried fish, goat, beans, avocado, cassava leaves (very similar to a stewed spinach), corn meal balls, rice, plantains, and pommes frites.  We all sit together, chairs in big circles.  Rosario and I eat with a group of young girls, all clearly middle teens.  Their plates are mounded with food, and I mean mounded, mostly meat.  We wonder how on earth they are going to eat it all. There are no napkins, and the skewer from your chicken doubles as your fork.  The girls begin to take meat from their plates and wrap it in their shirts. We both dig into our bags, searching for anything we can find to wrap food.  Plastic bags holding everything from the purse size packets of Kleenex to small zip-locks holding teabags.  We scour the room and our group produces as many creative containers as our backpacks, purses and bags can muster.  God, I never in my life wished I had a case of zip-locks as I did at that moment.  These women are all small.  Some eat only a banana every third day.  They are filling their tummies, but even more, they are packing all they can to carry home to their families.  Once again, they sing.

The City of Joy is a very special place.  Eve encourages us all to come back on "sabbatical.”  Everyone can teach something.

We load up again and the caravan departs for a visit to a women's cooperative, known as the Green Mamas.  It will be about a 45-minute drive out of the city and into the hills.  Or so we think.  After about 30 minutes, we find ourselves at the Coco Lodge.  Susan is in our front seat and sends a text to Eve.  "Why are we stopping at Coco?"  Eve replies with, "We are not, we are almost to the Green Mamas."  With that Susan jumps out of our vehicle only to discover we are missing half our caravan.  The lead driver has lost us!  Our drivers are all from Rwanda, and the ONLY person who knows where we are going is the lead driver.  With no GPS or map to lead us, we make our way by text sent from lead car.  Although we arrive nearly an hour later, we have made it!

The drive out was lush with scenery and twice as long from the necessary serpentining.  We climb out and hike up a hill where this wonderful group of women has formed a semi-circle around hundreds of neat little mounds of cassava and yams.  Produce!  And so much of it.  This is some of the richest soil I have ever seen.  Everything grows here.

We are told by Eve that she met these women about a year ago on a trip to the DRC.  It started as a handful of women, all of whom had been violently raped and rejected by their families.  They came together living in one small shelter and forming their own close knit family.  They began to plant on a small plot of land and sold their produce at market.  They saved their money and bought the land.  Then more women came.  They grew more food to feed themselves and extra to sell at market.  We learn tonight that they have two acres they plant among 1,800 women in the cooperative.  We ask what they want, and they tell us more land so they can increase their production.  We come together around Eve, and together we agree to buy them a farm in Africa -- eight more acres.  V-Day will handle the transaction.  You should have seen the life in their eyes.

On our drive back, all vehicles stay close.  It is dark.  The traffic has let up, but the potholes are harder to avoid.  We drive into Bukavu and gather for a final night group dinner at the Orchid.  Our meals are light on food and filling on conversation.  Tomorrow, we all depart in the morning.  Mindy and I will take a boat to Goma.  The rest of our crew will retrace the drive back to Bujumbura and catch flights home.  Safe journey for all. 

And so Part 1 of my trip comes to an end.  Tomorrow begins four days with Human Rights Watch.  The trip is about to get a lot heavier.  But we are stronger now than when we first arrived. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

La Cite de la Joie

"It's very easy to understand the story of rape.  It is very different to live it in your body."  This from one of the seven victims that addressed the crowd today.  "All I want is for you to help me build a dwelling to be safe and where I can learn to become a leader, so that I might be able to go back to my village.  We will want justice and we will fight for that.  If this war was in your country, it would have ended.  You never would have tolerated such violence against women."

Today is the big day.  We will get our first glimpse of The City of Joy (CoJ).

Breakfast at the Orchid.  Passion fruits, tea and toast. We have a 10 am departure and all are dressed in the best we can pull from our bags. Today is the festivity that so many of us have travelled so far to bear witness and have worked so hard to play a small part in its creation.

Well worth the journey.

Our caravan begins and it's not so much a far drive as a long, slow one.  Our hotel is in the more affluent part of town, although still quite poor.  The ride will take us to City of Joy near the Panzi Hospital (http://www.panzihospitalbukavu.org/).  In Dr. Mukwege style (keeping company with Paul Farmer), we are headed to the poorest neighborhood of this sprawling city of a million built for a population of 50,000.  Less populated streets, all dirt, give way to more populated until you are driving through a mass of humanity.  Babies too many to count.  Brick structures give way to wood then corrugated tin then finally tents. 30 people per tent.  To paraphrase Warren Buffet, you look out the window and you know you won the lottery in the womb.  It is poverty on a level unfamiliar.

We park and file out one by one to the sturdy gates of CoJ.  Standing there to greet us are Eve, looking like a vision in red (and always black), Dr. Mukwege, who was the genesis behind this endeavor and is ripe for the Nobel Peace prize, and Christine Schuler-Deschryver, the Executive Director of City of Joy.  We make our way through their open arms and walk down a long covered walkway (much like a school) to round the corner to a sight I don't think I will ever forget.

The City of Joy is a community of brick buildings – a vision in red.  Ten houses that sleep 10 each; a huge kitchen to feed a crowd, dining hall, computer center compliments of Google, a classroom, a recreation room for therapy, yoga, meditation, healing and more brick buildings--too many to remember or to count.  The CoJ is surrounded by a protective brick wall, tall and comforting.  All of this built by Congolese women.  In the center of these brick structures is a big yard, much like the playground at my kids’ elementary school but without the play structures. The women have constructed a big tent with only a cover and open on all sides.  Maybe 100 yards square in the middle of this grass field to play host to this unbelievable occasion.  Dozens of small plastic tarps were carefully tied together to protect us from the rain which always comes.  What I found amazing was what was holding up the “tent.”  Thin rough logs maybe 20 feet high and crudely cut boards and sticks, large sticks all just tied together.  No wire, no nails, no scaffolding or concrete bases.  Just raw wood dragged in from the hillside and hundreds of pieces of plastic sheeting all tied together and tied down with heavy string.  As I sit here and type I can't get it out of my mind.  Ingenuity.  Make it work.  Mission accomplished, as the ceremony, which went for maybe 6 hours, saw rain both light and heavy and we all remained mostly dry.

Under that great tent and surrounding it are hundreds and hundreds of women and girls and children.  All of those women and most of the children, as young as 2, are victims of rape.  The drums beat African music that makes your whole body move, and we all begin dancing, falling in with the Congolese women.  Touching and holding and hugging and speaking with our eyes, hands to each others’ hearts, our hands on their swollen bellies, holding beautiful babies in our arms, one after the other they smile and love to be held close.  We use our broken French, whatever means we have to communicate our love for them.  Our sisters.  You are no longer invisible.  You are no longer invisible. 

We even formed the longest “conga line” I have ever seen.  (The conga in fact originated in Cuba as a religious dance by slaves taken from the Congo.)  For nearly two hours we danced and danced.  We passed water bottles among us to keep our energy flowing.  Spirits so strong. They are so grateful for the safe house, the shelter.  We are so grateful to be able to share it with them on a day that has never seen so much hope.  I don't know if I'll ever know that emotion again.    

The formal part of the day begins, oh maybe two hours behind "schedule," because the music just did not lend itself to taking your seats.  Journalists from the around the world have come to cover the official opening, including the New York Times who have also sent their finest photographer.  Here’s a link to a wonderful piece by the NYT’s Jeffrey Gettleman that really captures the event – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/07/world/africa/07congo.html.  The U.S. State Department has sent Ambassador Melanne Verveer.  Of course, the Governor of South Kivu, along with ambassadors from France, Norway and more I can't remember. Many take to the podium and make commitments we hope they will keep.

The highlights of the day are seven Congolese women, all victims of gender violence who have been treated at Panzi Hospital and have come to tell us what they want. They want a shelter, a roof.  They don’t ask for money.  They just need a moment to be safe enough for long enough to plant a seed to start growing roots to be on firm ground, protected long enough to find their voice to master the art of telling their story.  They have stories you can't imagine.  But from that pain arises power.  Power to lead.  They are confident.  They are direct.  They are composed and so full of strength that you never want them to stop.  They are part of the key to a better future for the DRC.  These are the first sprouts of CoJ.  You can picture a community, a region, a state, a country all sprinkled with these activist women who have found their voice.  They are part of a class, a cohort, that will attend CoJ together, learn together, share their stories and gain strength from one another.  They will come with their children and all will be put in CoJ school.  So much will be learned.  Businesses will be spawned.  The ideas are endless and the community holds so much promise.  It's exhilarating and I'm bursting with ideas of businesses these women can start. It all starts here at the City of Joy.  An endless rich resource of women who want to work.  We will spawn women cooperatives like the Green Mamas just in the outskirts of Bukavu. The time has come to stop raping our greatest resource.

Eve of course brings the house down.  Selfless generosity and activism like no other. Stephen Lewis also takes us to another place.  "Four years ago something happened in Bukavu.  Women who had been raped came together with an idea.  To build a community, a shelter, a safe place for them to come together to take back their lives.   Now we have not just a glimmer of hope but a ray of hope, and if this ray can spread through the Congo it will change the fabric of society in this country.  This is a historical moment when you see the tide turn.  The tide is turning."

It's getting late and I must get some sleep.  Suffice it to say we ate a great meal together.  We hugged and kissed these beautiful women good night.  We were then fed and bedtime was well past midnight.  The days are so long and they fly by with joyous energy.

Tomorrow we visit Panzi hospital and Dr. Mukwege.  Google him.  We then head to the country where the villages coat the hills and valleys.  We will meet with the Green Mamas, a women’s cooperative of 1800 women, young and old, all victims of violent rape.  They have purchased two acres of land and they farm it together and leave together, protecting one another, praying for peace.

This day we were all emotional creatures. And there were many V-men there with us.  As we drive home, the sky is pink.  Eve told me once, after flying home from a brutal stay in Kosovo interviewing so many young girls that had been violently raped – she had gone to open a shelter and was inspired to write "Necessary Targets" – that when she boarded the plane and as it took off she looked out the window.  The sky was pink.  And pink is the color of healing when you look at your wound.  She knew it would begin to get better.  And so it goes in the Congo tonight.

Arriving in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Surrender.  Welcome to Bukavu and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The final sentiment shared by Eve the evening before our journey departed for the DRC.  Like Eve, surrender will be perfectly fitting for this time.  In the DRC you leave your expectation for a well-organized schedule at the border along with any thoughts of a GPS, a map, any sense of order or surroundings.  Whatever you do, don't lose the lead vehicle!

We are a caravan of some 15+ vehicles. Traveling like a funeral procession, emergency lights flashing, staying as connected as train cars as we serpentine on red dirt roads to avoid the potholes that would wreak havoc on far more than our backs.  We finally arrive at the border with Rwanda but first have to secure exit from Burundi.  Patience and totally enjoying the layover with this extraordinary group of activists.

Mission accomplished.  We all know each other a little better, drive about 100 yards, and we get to start all over again, now to have our transit through Rwanda granted.  Christoff, our Rwandan fixer, acts brilliantly to speed up the process.

Rwanda is a tidy country.  Everything has order and each little hut, home, mud-and-grass structure appears tended to with the utmost care.  It is the most densely populated of all the African countries, and as you drive through the countryside on roads that are smooth and paved and brought to you courtesy of China, you feel that each resident is so grateful for what they have.  Rwanda is an anomaly here.  The lawlessness of the early 90's is almost completely absent.  Totalitarian rule, Kagami's iron hand.  There are pluses and minuses.  Freedom of expression is largely suppressed, its people quiet.  A raw wound that desperately tries to heal somehow.  But it is a country of great beauty, and the drive through Rwanda at times takes your breath away. 

We finish our transit and pass out of Rwanda effortlessly.  We literally drive across a short rickety bridge.  Welcome to the DRC.  Put your cameras away.  You can't openly take photos in the DRC. Soldiers are scattered everywhere, and taking a photo of them can get you into a spot of bother.  You also can be chased down by Congolese that might not want to be in your photos.  And when I say chased down, our caravan crawls through a mass of humanity with small children often close to the vehicles.  So it wouldn't be hard for someone to be grabbing at your door, which happened yesterday as we crawled from one side of Bukavu to the other.  While stopped for quite a while in a "traffic jam" (hundreds of people in between our cars), a man approached the front passenger door, opened it as quickly as he appeared, and caught Susan in the front seat by surprise. He only wanted her blackberry, maybe her bag.  But he was weak enough to be pushed away, and we quickly locked all doors. We then watched as he continued the same effort on our sister vehicles in front of us.  No proper means to warn them.

Our trip into the DRC took a few more hours than expected.  Hotel check-in can wait.  The rain has come.  We file down a little dirt road and head to the dock on Lake Kivu.

A boat ride on Lake Kivu will be our welcome to Bukavu and the area known as South Kivu. The lake is surrounded by green hills and mountains.  The French and Belgians once called this city and the surrounding area the Switzerland of Africa.  Everything grows here. You see European houses up on the hillside overlooking Lake Kivu.  You see poverty on a level that might only be matched by Haiti.  The water is polluted, the lake a burial site for countless victims.  Lake Kivu also boasts one of the greatest reservoirs of methane.  Some swim in the lake, but caution must be exercised.  When the methane is floating above the water, the gas will kill you.  As we motor around the lake, little fountains of bubbles can be seen exploding on top.  But still it is beautiful.

The best part of the cruise is the V-men band playing under a plastic tarp on the bow of the split level boat.  They have a great African beat.  The music is so beautiful you can't stand still.  Joining us on this welcome ride is the governor of South Kivu and the Congolese ambassador to the US, her excellency Faida Mitifu.

We disembark after a spectacular rain storm and head back to the vehicles.  Off for dinner at Coco Lodge.  Delicious food – thank you Eve for all the vegetarian options.  Delicate fish from Lake Kivu are served, as are large white balls the size of softballs.  They are similar to polenta, made from white cornmeal and a filling staple of the Congolese diet – if one is fortunate enough to have a meal. 

After a couple of days here, I realize they don't serve dessert after meals.  Sometimes, sometimes fresh fruit is served.  A country that doesn't know abundance when it comes to food does everything with a bit more lightness.  It's actually nice.  Our meals here are far apart but always made with love.

The most filling part of this trip  for me so far has been my travel partners.  Naomi Klein, who authored the beautiful piece in the Guardian after the oil spill last summer, "A Hole In The World."  Her father-in-law, Stephen Lewis, who led the world crusade to fight AIDS under Kofi Annan and is in the same league as Paul Farmer.  The list continues with one amazingly wonderful change-the-world person after the next. 

Checked in to the Orchid.  We are such a big group that our cohort is spread over three hotels, all lovely and on Lake Kivu.  The African night sky lights up as if someone had thrown stardust to the heavens.  The city descends into utter darkness.  Street lights don't exist here.  Hard to believe that we will sleep so peacefully and so many tonight will not.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Arriving in Africa

Arrived in Bujumbura, Burundi late last night. The DRC can be a challenge to fly in and out of, so this trip begins by road from Burundi via Rwanda, and we will cross the border into the DRC some hours from now.  Although our ride from the airport last night was brief, a taste for the potholes was served. It reminded me of the old gravel country roads in Indiana where I grew up. Full of bumps and deep potholes and plenty of curves. I'm not one for dramamine but I am happy to have it handy today.

When we disembarked last night, walking down the stairway rolled over to our plane, you step out and smell Africa.  It is always the same.  Campfire, cooking fires, land being set afire to clear the growth and prepare the ground for the next crop.  It isn't the scent of a wood burning fire that we would have at a campground.  It is the smell of burning anything and everything, even things that we shouldn't burn.  

The night sky here is also like that all over central Africa.  There is very little light pollution, and star gazing is on steroids.  I look forward to nighttime again with great anticipation.

We gathered around the pool last night at the Hotel Club du Lac Tanganyika.  Here is an odd coincidence:  if you google nyt travel from the January 2011 Travel section you will see this VERY remote hotel listed as one of their top 10 favorite hotels ever visited by a New York Times travel writer.  The spot is quite breathtaking on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.  Eve greeted us at the airport along with her director of the City of Joy Project, Christine.  There are nearly 100 of us here.  We have traveled from all over the world to be here with Eve, to celebrate the women of the DRC who for decades have been invisible.  We don't know what the trip or day will bring.  We are in a part of the world where to exist with peace we must surrender expectation.

Over the next few days I will try to share with you some of the stories of the people who have come.  I am standing in the shadows of some of the most incredible women’s rights and human rights activist alive today.  Rada from Croatia, who first took Eve to Kosovo nearly 20 years ago.  Rada, who opened the first shelter in Bosnia for the masses of women being raped there.  Rada, who hosted the first production ever in 1997 of the Vagina Monologues that played first in Zagreb.  Rada, who is the woman behind the very emotional monologue “my vagina is my village” from the Vagina Monologues

Our caravan is about to leave.

I told Eve last night that she should be so proud – to throw a party in a faraway place and, mind you, one not easy to get to – and look at the crowd of friends.  The only thing I know for sure is that today we will all be emotional creatures.