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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 (, 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.

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