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Friday, February 11, 2011

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.

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