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Sunday, February 5, 2012

#9 - The Mountain Gorillas


On Tuesday afternoon, four of us piled into a land cruiser with our luggage and headed for the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge in Ruhengeri, Rwanda.  The lodge looks out over Volcanoes National Park.  Breathtaking views in all directions.

We arrive in the very late afternoon and are greeted by Ann and hot cups of ginger tea.  The lodge is extremely pleasant.  It’s much cooler up in the mountains, and we are kept warm at the lodge with roaring fires to heat our rooms and hot water bottles (also known as bush babies in Africa) tucked into our beds by the staff while we eat dinner in the dining hall.  The lodge is run completely by generators, and you are told at check-in the hours – early morning from 5-7am, 12-1:30pm, and again from 5:15-11pm – that the generator is on.  So if you want to charge your iPad or phone or camera, or read by light, those are your hours.  Everyone tends to be out of the lodge by 6:30am, as the reason to stay in such a remote lodge is to gorilla trek in the park.

After dinner we walk the paths with flashlights back to our rooms, small bungalows that are scattered all over the property.  I love to star gaze in this part of the world.  Light pollution is almost non-existent.  The Southern Cross visible clearly in the night sky.

We had breakfast Wednesday morning, a bountiful buffet as food is much more plentiful in Rwanda.  The county is the most densely populated in Africa, and farming is done by nearly every family, each growing what they need and taking the rest to markets.  We drive through the hillsides on smoothly paved roads, and in all directions are neatly divided farm plots on the flat lands and row after row of terraced farming up the steep slopes.

This particular area where we stay is the part of Rwanda where potatoes flourish.  We see field after field of potato plants covered in white, blue or purple flowers, depending on the type of potato.  But what is so striking is watching how the harvest is transported.  Farmers are digging up the potatoes and transporting them to large piles, those mounds to be transferred to large sacks that are at least 4’ by 2’ in size and weigh well over 100 lbs.  We drive slowly by as women walk up sides of the road with these bags draped over their heads.  Again, yellow jerry cans everywhere in this part of the country; everyone in the house goes for water generally two times per day.

We arrive at the park entrance.  80 people per day are permitted to see the mountain gorillas.  We are joined by 4 other trekkers to make our group of visitors eight and are led into the park by our guide John.  There are about ten families of gorillas that can be viewed from this park.  Each group of eight visitors is assigned to one family.  Today we are to see a family of 14 gorillas, including two Silverbacks, which are adult males over the age of eight years.  Females that are eight (the age they can begin to reproduce) and older have black backs.  The life expectancy of the mountain gorilla is about 45 years.  This family has four babies and a host of adolescents, which are generally two to six years old.  We drive for about 45 minutes on dirt roads; as we get closer to the national park the roads get very bumpy and rocky, the drive covering us in dust.  Once parked, we are met by porters who charge $10, a great wage and how they make a living, to carry our backpacks.  We are offered walking sticks that really come in handy on both the climb up and down.  We are hiking to see mountain gorillas, so that means up.  The starting point for the hike is 2,500 meters, and we climb from there. Out of the cars, we hike up through farmland for 45 minutes and then reach a wall, which is a pile of stones about eight feet high that marks the boundary of the park.  Once we climb over the wall, it is important to keep our voices low and stay in a line following our guide.  All sorts of animals live in park, including elephants and buffalo (which can be quite dangerous).  Walking in front of John are one armed park ranger and two porters with machetes that hack away making our path.

We hike about 45 minutes on our first day into the jungle, where we meet the trackers who very early every morning go into the park and locate the particular family they are tasked with tracking.  They are in constant radio contact with John, directing him where to lead us.  Once we reach them, we leave our walking sticks and any pack we may be holding, and we go in with only our cameras.  The gorillas are curious and if they smell food they might want to take it from us; walking sticks can make them curious and nervous.  We are given final instruction on how to behave and what to expect.  If the gorilla comes toward us, you step aside and let them pass.  You are not to get too close; the guide takes care to keep a safe distance.  We have precisely one hour to spend with the family.  It is thought that spending any longer might stress the gorillas, and so one hour per day is all that is permitted.

We don’t go but two more minutes, and you can hear the gorillas cooing and making happy grunting sounds.  Our porters hack our way into the gorillas’ large nest of stinging nettles.  Most visitors are wearing gloves and gators.  I am not.  I pull my hands up into my sleeves, but it only takes me one second to push a nettle away with my hand tucked into my sleeve and I’m feeling the sting like crazy.  Fortunately, John showed us a plant on the hike in that produces a salve for the sting.  It grows next to the nettles and resembles an aloe plant, with flat leaves of deep eggplant at the center changing to deep green as the leaf juts out.  I start breaking the leaves off and using the milky salve to coat the side of my hand.  Relief comes immediately.

The first gorilla we see is a bit startled and heads right toward us, so John pushes us to the side.  But once in their nest, we are soon surrounded by the family.  The Silverbacks don’t move too much, either laying on the ground or sitting up looking at us.  The young ones are full of energy and spend their time climbing over the adults, eating, swinging, looking adorable.  It’s truly a magical experience to be in their home watching their behavior.  The babies snuggle in the arms of the adults, they scratch where they itch, they lay down on their sides and rest on their elbows, side of face in hand, they pull the plants up and eat them, stinging nettles and bamboo being two of their favorites.  The hour flies by, cameras clicking.

The second day we head in a different direction by car, again with our same guide, John.  We see a family of 23.  The highlight is the number of babies, including one that is three months old.  A black-back mommy holds the tiny baby, its head the size of a grapefruit.  Lots of infants in this family, swinging from vines, wrestling with other, chasing and playing.  The older members mostly nap stretched on their backs, mothers nurse infants, Silverbacks sit up just watching us.  Their faces each different.  Occasionally you make eye contact with one.  There is no doubt we are all related.

Both days have been unforgettable.  I am so grateful to Marsha for booking our excursion.  It has been a great treat and wonderful final two days of this journey.  I hope to send photos from Marsha and Emily as they are the photographers in our group, and I know mine just won’t do the gorillas justice.  So stay tuned.

We are back at the lodge by 1pm for a quick shower and lunch.  Gina and I will begin our long journey home tonight with a flight departing Kigali at 9pm.  We are picked up at the lodge by our driver, Gerry, at 2pm.  No sooner are we in the car than Gerry talks with us about what we would like to do in Kigali later today.  He knows that we have a couple of hours to spare before we have to be at the airport.  I visited Rwanda in 2006 for a week.  I am always cognizant of one thing in Rwanda: anyone you meet that is 20 or over is a survivor of the 1994 genocide.  Everyone has a story.   No family escaped this tragedy.  Gerry asks if we have been to the Kigali Memorial Center, which we say we visited last week.  He tells us that his mother’s and sisters’ photos are on display in the center.  He proceeds to tell us, the story trickling out over the hours we will spend in the car, that both of his parents, his two sisters, their husbands, and each of his sister’s three children were all killed in 1994.  His parents and one sister and family are buried along with the other 200,000 victims at the memorial, and his other sister and her family are buried at a village outside of Kigali.  He and his twin brother survived only because they happened to be in Kenya working in the tourist industry.  He came back to Kigali after the genocide in 1994.  He stayed for four days, then left to go back to Kenya.  It wasn’t until years later that he felt he could return home.  He has two children and was married.  His wife died in childbirth, giving birth to their youngest, a boy.  You never escape the reality of maternal mortality in the Third World.  Everyone has a story.  We asked if he drives in the Congo as well as Rwanda, as most of our drivers in the DRC are Rwandans.   He does not.  He is 6’5” and looks clearly Tutsi.  He said that he will not cross the border into the eastern DRC, as the Hutu militia that carried out the genocide live in the hills of eastern Congo.  He fears they would kill him.

We have a long conversation with Gerry about the Gacaca courts.  He reminds us that those convicted of the genocide only served ten years in prison, unless they were the very high ranking officials that led the genocide.  The leaders of the massacre got 35 years.  Most of those convicted are now out of prison and living back amongst the families whose members they brutally murdered.  He reminds us that no one ever forgets or forgives, it’s not humanly possible.  They go on because at some point the killing has to stop and it has to start with both sides saying no more.  They go on.  They go on because they never want the next generation to live through this history.  Indeed, he looks forward to 50 years passing and Rwanda being populated with people who have no first hand memory of the genocides. 

Emily and Marsha go for Indian food, as their flight isn’t until Friday noon.  Gina and I say goodbye to Gerry at the airport.  We check in for our flight to Brussels and, famished as we haven’t eaten in several hours, go looking for some bread rolls and cheese.  There isn’t much of a selection at this tiny airport.  We are so looking forward to the food on the way home; once in Europe we can enjoy fresh fruit and vegetables again.  I down one bread roll and then break the other in half to share with Gina.  When I break it in half, I see that the bottom is covered in green and black mold.  Oh god.  Gina looks at it and then looks at me and says “oven dirt.”  I just laugh and hold my stomach. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

#7 - Masika and her center in the village of Minova


Monday morning and our day begins with a one hour visit to the local office of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Institute (ABA ROLI), located a mere three minute drive from our hotel.  ABA ROLI is an organization we learned about through Gina Maya, as her brother Michael is the director of the Africa division.  Their headquarters is in Washington, D.C.  ABA ROLI works within the existing justice system in country (no matter how weak) to build the human infrastructure and talent: lawyers who will try cases; counselors who work with victims to persuade them to come forward; counselors working with victims to explain Congo’s very progressive laws against rape and torture and the government’s obligation to investigate these crimes; and mobile courts that take justice out into the rural areas where people can see justice – which is SUPER important here.  They even have a program to manage scholarships for Congolese students who show a desire and aptitude to study law.  Their staff in the DRC totals 130, of which 46 are lawyers operating out of 22 offices.  This morning they host us in a large upstairs conference room, and I would guess that of the more than 20 staff who attended, at least half were female, including three women lawyers.  There are too few women in this country in college, let alone getting law degrees.  So three female lawyers here this morning is fantastic.

Charles Guy Makongo (who goes by “Guy,” which is pronounced the French way, like “ghee”) is the director of the DRC office and is utterly impressive.  He gave us a thorough and concise overview of their mission here in the Congo, including some recent successes on rape prosecutions of high-ranking military officials.   We had a good Q & A and then our hour was up.  I can’t do this meeting justice, as I was without my note pad and was taken aback in the early part of the meeting when Guy introduced two law students, both women and in their fifth year, who are in school thanks to scholarships.  I can't tell you how far the dollar goes in this country.  Law school here is only one year.  That year, all in, costs about $2,000 per student.  I love to see the advancement by women in a society where they live under unspeakable repression.

Guy was fantastic, as was the entire staff, and we ended the visit with a photograph of all of us together out front taken by one of our drivers.  A souvenir for Gina's brother.

We head directly back to the hotel, where we board a boat for Minova, a town about an hour and a half from Goma driving on very rugged roads.  Last year we drove; this year, with so many of us here, it proves much easier to go by boat, although we miss a lot of slow sightseeing.  We dock ten minutes from Masika's center.  Our vehicles are waiting for us.

I sent a video around to some of you that was made by a British filmmaker, Fiona Lloyd-Davies, who profiled Masika’s center: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/witness/2011/08/2011830114234479922.html.  On the same site is a profile of Desange, with her story: http://masikarebeca.wordpress.com/blog/.

Masika doesn't get a lot of visitors, but she is an incredible find in the world of gifts to humanity, and HRW tries to take the few people that come to the DRC (Fiona, Adam Hochschild, Mindy and the eight women traveling with me this year) to visit her.  She runs a “listening center,” where victims of rape and torture who are from her part of the Congo (people come from quite far away as there really aren't any centers like this) come for help.  HRW has been coming here for the past several years.  I believe Ida discovered her center through word of mouth; when she was working on the issue of mass rape in the eastern Congo, she found that Masika's center was a key spot for interviewing victims.

When I visited last year, approximately 40 people were living at the center – 18 adults and maybe 22 children.  Fast forward to February 2012 – there are nearly 160 people living here.  I estimate about 60 women and nearly 100 children.  All, all the children are the product of rape.  All the women, survivors.  When we arrive at 11:00am, there is a celebration in our honor.  Our three vehicles pull off the side of the road, rocking back and forth as we come to a stop, and park on the shoulder.  We climb out of the cars and walk up to the center, where drums are heard and voices are singing.   A group of perhaps six children are beating drums made of all sorts of things.  The rhythm is infectious, the energy astounding.  The drummers are surrounded by dozens of children who are dancing by moving their shoulders up and down quickly and moving forward in all directions with their feet.  Even the toddlers.  The women are making that beautiful trilling sound they do with their tongues. Our group, as if on cue, jumps right in to the middle, Frannie and Emily leading the way, dancing wildly. We spend about ten minutes dancing and celebrating and hugging, and then it's time to get to work.

We have come to Masika's to do several things: we will hear testimony from women living in the center; we will hear Masika tell her story; we will wander across the road and see the farm that has been added since my visit a year ago; and we will hear what plans Masika has for the coming months and year and how things have been going.

We leave while the dancing and music are still going on and head to a small mud and stick building, new since my visit a year ago.  Inside are wooden benches, and we all crowd in and take a seat – our group of nine and the HRW staff.  Masika greets all of us and gives us an overview of the center and the changes from March 2011.  She expresses her gratitude that we have come and she introduces us to her secretary (a man), whom she was able to hire last year.  He helps her keep everything in order, to the extent that is possible.  We spend about ten minutes and then divide in to three groups of three, again.

Our groups will do the following rotation:  Anneke will hear testimony from girls and women in the center; Ida will stay with Masika in her original listening room and Masika will tell her story; and Claire will take the groups across the road to see the farm and learn about what the women are growing.

Anneke takes Bingi to translate Swahili and goes to a small round structure.  It’s in the shape of a yurt, but the mud walls only go up about three feet and the thatched roof is supported higher over head by taller wooden posts that line the round wall.  You can stand up inside easily.  There are five white plastic chairs where Anneke, Bingi and the three visitors sit, and a small wooden bench, maybe four feet long, where three girls at a time from the center, varying in age, come in and all sit down together.  Anneke has come to hear testimony; we sit in and bear witness.  This is all we can do, but it matters very much to those telling their story.  This stop will prove the most difficult of the day.  Each girl only tells her story once; nine girls will give testimony.  Anneke will document.  We are all welcome to ask questions if we can manage to talk.

Marsha, Frannie, and Lauren start at Anneke's station, and when I see them after an hour, when our groups rotate, they are all in a state.  One of the three girls they heard from, Siuzike, a 19 year old, has been begging them to please take her daughter, Cynthia, who is in the room trying to hold on to her mother but is being pushed away.  Siuzike keeps repeating in Swahili that she wants them to take her daughter.  She doesn't love her or want her.  I didn't get a brief on the other two girls from that session, but when Frannie described Siuzike to me, I understood immediately.  I met Siuzike last year.  Her left hand is missing, only a stump at the wrist.  She had been captured and held for six months months in the jungle with militia raping her.  She tried to escape but was caught, and they burned off her left hand.  She has never left my mind.  In fact, before leaving for this trip I had been racking my brain for weeks, what could I bring for Siuzike? What do you bring from far away that says you have never for a day left my mind?  Desange in college was so easy, but Siuzike, so deeply in pain.  I could think of nothing to comfort her besides taking her left arm and holding it in mine.

Well here is the news I was able to share with Frannie and Marsha and Lauren: HRW folks were present for graduation day at City of Joy.  Both Thomas and Bingi had come.  Thomas told me that Masika had nominated 10 or 15 girls for the February 14th cohort.  Siuzike was on the list.  When I saw Mama Baccu on the last night over dinner at CoCo Lodge, I asked her how the selection process would take place, and we talked about Masika's list.  I told her about Siuzike, and she knew more about her than I did.  She knew about her daughter Cynthia, she knew about her left hand.  She knew that Siuzike just wanted to die and that Cynthia had suffered from all sorts of health issues, including malnutrition and psychological issues.  She told me that Siuzike would be admitted to the February 14th cohort, and she would bring Cynthia.  City of Joy is not yet equipped at all for children, but the plan is to have Cynthia go every day to Panzi Hospital, right next door, and attend its pre-school program (she is 4).  In the evenings she will come to City of Joy to sleep with her mother, which will also be a first for City of Joy.  Mama Baccu told me the most important thing will be to help Suizike love her daughter, and if City of Joy can succeed (and we know it can happen), Suizike will reclaim her ability to love and be loved, and can turn the page on her life.  As soon as Frannie described Suizike, I told her what I knew and no one else did; Suizike herself won't hear until next week.  A miracle in the making.

Ida and Jean Baptiste accompanied Masika to her “listening area.”  It is a space located in the front room of Masika's modest one-story house.  Erin, Belinda and Emily sit and hear Masika tell her story.  I didn't describe her story last year in my blog because it is too difficult, but if you watch the short film on her you will learn some of it.  Here is a brief profile: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/witness/2011/08/201183172929198555.html.

Andrea, Gina and I follow Claire and the secretary from Masika's center across the road to see the farm.  The farm is covered with neat flourishing rows of cassava.  We can hardly believe that these plants have only been in the ground four months; already they are well above my head and loaded with branches bursting with leaves.  The farm is located on the side of a steep hill – I would estimate a 10-15% grade.  It’s a climb.  We decide to walk the plot but get halfway up, are completely out of breath, look down and see how far we are above the road, and make the decision to hike back down.  The soil under our feet is soft and loose, like walking in rich compost.  What is sort of hard to comprehend is how much work it is to farm and plant and harvest on such a steep hillside.  But this land was for sale and close to the center, and there is no doubt in any of our minds that this plot is the epitome of fertile ground.  While we wander the field, women from Masika's center come over and harvest leaves from the plants.  Some will be sold at market, and the women will give two big bundles of leaves to our drivers to take home.  I'll post photos when I come home.  There are so many unforgettable moments on this trip.  The woman harvesting the leaves, Congolese fabric wrapped around her body, and a perfectly tied head scarf wrapping her crown. Yes, the fabric a bit worn and the colors not as bright as they once were, but stunning against the green field nonetheless.  She had such a beautiful face.  When we asked if we could take her picture (you must ask), she smiled and obliged.  When we told her how beautiful she looked, you knew from her expression this wasn't the first time she had been told.

Almost every day on this trip I have eaten cassava in one form or another.  My favorite is when they chop the leaves and sauté them, like one would sauté spinach.  A dish called saka-saka.  They also pull up the roots (not all of the roots of the plant, but some) and harvest them like potatoes.  Then they stick the plant back in the ground and it grows new roots.  The roots are white tubers and can be dried and then crushed into a powder that is mixed with water and steamed for a long time (necessary for detoxification) to make very dense dumplings.  The dumplings are eaten with fingers and used to scoop up other things if present on the plate.  It's a filling starch with not much flavor.  They also dry the tubers and grind them very finely to make cassava flour.  Nearly every ounce of this plant is edible.  Masika now has a huge plot of neat rows of cassava plants.  An orchard really.

After visiting the farm, it was my turn to hear from Masika.  She looked completely different from an hour ago when we had pulled off the road in front of her center to great excitement.  Her energy low, she looked worn out, worn down.  She had a crying baby in her arms.  I could tell instantly that telling her story to the previous group had just drained all the joy of an hour ago.   Ida asked if it would be okay, since I knew Masika's story and could share it later with Andrea and Gina, if we could just talk about the center.  I was relieved.  In one moment Masika was passing the baby from her arms to another woman, and then in came Baby Esther.  When I saw Baby Esther last year, she was barely alive, after surviving on her own for an estimated four to seven days without food or water.  She was maybe six months old, her parents had been killed, and she had been found on the ground in the bush by Masika.  I was THRILLED to see her alive and well and crying for Masika.  Once she was in Masika's arms she was content.  Within ten minutes Masika stood up, bent forward at the waist, slid Esther onto her back, and quickly tied a cloth around, securing her to her back.  I never tire of seeing this maneuver.  Esther went right to sleep.

Masika spoke about the dormitory she wants to build, as there are so many women and girls now living at the center and no one has a place to sleep.   The dormitory will hold 200 women – but not by 100 bunk beds.  The girls are all accustomed to sleeping next to each other, and anywhere from two to four girls would sleep together in a twin bed and be very comfortable.  She spoke about the sewing room to be built for all the sewing machines that have arrived and an instructor being hired to teach the trade.  There are so many older women living here that would love to sew to make clothes for the center and create a small business.  They are also learning to weave baskets.  We talked about hiring a teacher for the dozens of pre-school age children at the center.  Children in the DRC do not start school until the age of seven.  Any younger is felt too young to walk the distance.  There is a mud structure in the back complete with long benches that could be used as a pre-school.  I pulled out my camera and showed her photos of Desange taken on Saturday at the university in Bukavu.  She was so proud.  We talked about Gaylor, Desange's son now living at the center under the careful eye of Masika.  We talked about Masika’s grandson Stevie, now 10 and a good student going to college one day.  She beamed.  We spent our hour talking about the good things that are happening and those to happen.  And all too soon our time was up.  Masika would be telling her story again to the final group, and I hoped that we had given her a little rest from her daily burden.

My final session was with Anneke.  Three girls, the first only 13.  She had never told her story and had just arrived at the center a week before.  The next girl was maybe 16 and with a baby.  She had been taken by soldiers while she was walking home from school one day with several other girls and two boys from her class.  The soldiers killed both the boys shortly after taking them.  They had attacked one girl so badly she couldn't move and was left to die on the forest floor.  This particular girl had managed to escape with a few others after a couple weeks in the soldiers’ control.  She had heard about a woman named Masika that would help her.  Once there, Masika took her to the hospital for treatment with the other girls who had escaped, and this girl was pregnant.  The only one.  The baby, Elizabeth, nursed on her while she spoke and then fell asleep without being burped.  The third girl had survived an attack on her village, only she and her mother escaping, the rest of the family killed.  She and her mother had fled in different directions, and both been raped.  They had both found Masika's, having no idea that the other was alive.  A small miracle, but a miracle nonetheless.   After the three girls finished and we hugged and held them, Anneke brought in one more girl who wanted to tell her story.  Passing it through, hopefully in some way lightening the burden.

In what felt like a blink our visit at the center came to an end.  The drums were beating again and the children dancing.  I took dozens of photos during the afternoon (at Masika's request) of all the women and children eating.  Every day there is a big bowl of rice and beans served midday.  I have no idea if they eat two meals a day.  I wonder.  I know it isn't three.  Which reminds me: there was an error in my post about City of Joy a couple days back.  Two meals a day are served, not three.

We made our way up to a parish on the hill above Masika's center.  There we presented Masika and many of the women in her center with the 13+ large duffel bags we had brought with us for those living at the center.  It will help.  The goods will be kept there in a locked room, and the women will come up every so often and take what they need.  It is for security reasons.  To all of you reading that sent goods our way, they ALL made the flight.  Even the one bag that was lost made its way to Kigali via British Airways a full nine days later, and is being delivered tomorrow to Masika.  Thank you isn't quite enough, but it will have to do.

We leave Masika with hopeful hearts.  I cannot begin to capture the despair these women and girls feel.  They all said that everyone who lives in the town of Minova knows that those who live at Masika's have all been raped.  When they walk to school people point at them and make fun.  When they leave to carry loads on the road, the same.  My friend Emily had the most wonderful thought, which she had Bingi translate to several of them.  "Every time someone points at you, know that the truth is they are pointing at a woman who is both strong and beautiful.  So when they point at you, realize that they are saying you are strong and beautiful and just smile back at them."  I hope that message circulates over and over.

The day has again been a day of extremes.  Marsha reminds us all of why we should be hopeful: many of these girls will be going to City of Joy soon, and we have seen what results from six months at City of Joy.  Just think – if even one of the graduates we saw in Bukavu comes back to this center.  Now think about five or ten of those graduates.  Every six months.  Later this year, Masika's will be bursting with women who have reclaimed their lives.  Women and girls that have turned the page and no longer live in despair.  This is the broader vision for City of Joy, to spread the love and strength and power village by village, house by house.  These girls coming back and making a smaller City of Joy at Masika's.

I will go back again next year to see Masika and those living at her center.  My spirit never leaves.  The transformation from last year to now was amazing.  I look forward to seeing another transformation because of the miracles of City of Joy.

Last Saturday at the graduation ceremony at City of Joy, Eve spoke to the girls, and it is the sentiment that I wish for these women and girls at Masika’s: "My dear daughters, you are rising miracles.  You triumph over evil and harm.  You are proof that transformation is possible when you give what you want the most.  You are the reminder that what you have suffered is not acceptable.  You have taken back your minds, your hearts, your vaginas, your bodies and your future.  You are from the garden of joy.  Rising.  Spreading.  You are the lotus in the center of my heart."

Friday, February 3, 2012

#8 - Virunga National Park

Tuesday morning.  Our trip with HRW will come to a close today, and on this final day we will go visit the headquarters of Virunga National Park (www.gorilla.cd).  The oldest park on the African continent, founded in 1925, and the one of the oldest in the world, Virunga spans 300km from north to south, crossing the equator.   It lies along the Albertine Rift, the East African Rift.  Virunga plays host to over half of the bio-diversity of the sub-Saharan Africa, including hundreds of mountain gorillas.  To the north, snow-capped mountains, and to the south, active volcanos.  The park is laden with natural resources.  The curse of the Congo.  For more than 80 years, the Congolese have worked to protect this park.  Often, the staff is made up of family members – grandfathers retire, their sons take over as park rangers, and their sons after that.  It is work that only those who have dedicated their life to preserving this forest will be able to bear.  In the past fifteen years, 120 rangers have lost their lives protecting this park.  We will hear from the staff about the ongoing work to preserve the park, which will include an alternative energy project designed both to protect the forest and to help women.  We will hear about the cost of human life to save this park.

First, the human aspect.  Four million people live within a day’s walk of the park.  Why does that matter?  The city we are in today, Goma, where the headquarters lies, is a city supporting nearly one million people, and like Bukavu, it was built to support a population of roughly 50,000.  There simply isn't enough energy to support the population.  So what happens?  What energy will be used to cook?  Charcoal.  Illegal charcoal harvested by cutting down trees in the forest.  Who does this work?  80% of the work is done by women.  Women walking into the park and coming out with bags of charcoal that they will sell.  The vast majority of these women will experience violence, often being raped while going into or coming out of the park.

In 2007 there was a family of seven mountain gorillas in Virunga Park that were shot at point blank range.  Why would someone kill a family of gorillas who are so docile and harmless?  Why kill them execution style?  Nothing was removed; clearly they were not shot for food or for their hands or feet.  Not the work of poachers.  The Congolese community mourned and many around the world joined in their grief.  An investigation was launched to find out who and what was behind the killing.  At the root of this massacre was the charcoal trade.  The illegal industry of harvesting charcoal from the park.  In Goma, 92% of the energy fueling nearly a million people is charcoal from the park.  The park rangers had been cracking down on this illegal trade, and the massacre was a vindictive killing in response to the crack-down.  The investigation exposed that the FDLR, in conjunction with members of the Congolese army and a senior park ranger and his cronies, had been involved in the trade.  The size of the charcoal trade coming from the park is $35 million annually.  That money was being used to fund the FDLR (former Hutu rebels that fled to the Congo after the Rwandan genocide).  Protection of the forest was about protecting the gorillas, so killing the gorillas was meant to scare the rangers so that the protection would stop and the charcoal trade could continue.  The massacre got huge press.  The story and photographs appeared on both the cover of Newsweek and National Geographic.  The images of Silverbacks, being carried out of the park tied to stretchers by a crowd of park rangers, tears coming down their faces, was heartbreaking.



The Congolese government was forced to take action.  The investigation resulted in a new head of the park and the firings and prosecutions of those involved in the illegal trade.  Once the park came under a new leader, everything changed.  Pay for the rangers changed from $25/mo. to $150/mo.  Believe it or not, a living, albeit modest, in the Congo.  The training to qualify as a park ranger became much more rigorous, the number of rangers was reduced, which cut down on corruption and made the “battalion” easier to manage.

In 2011, a total of 19 soldiers and ICCN (park rangers) were killed in a dispute when the park rangers asked the Congolese army to leave the park.  The Congolese army wanted to continue in the park; they were taking bribes and the dispute was about corruption and money.  The ICCN park rangers knew that the corruption, and the illegal trade of both charcoal and fishing from the lakes, would diminish if the Congolese army left the park.  After a great deal of bad press that the killings brought to the Congolese government, the head of the park and his counterpart in the army were forced to resolve the dispute.  To quote the man we met at the park, nothing good will ever happen in the Eastern Congo until the rule of law is established.

Anneke chimed in at this point and noted that after 13 years covering the DRC, she is constantly astounded by the courage of the Congolese.  There are a lot of good people in this country, who want to see the country move forward and its people and resources protected under the rule of law.

We inquired about the greatest needs at this moment to preserve the park.  The park needs to build a great relationship with the Congolese army.  In the US after WWII, the President created the Army Corp of Engineers.  We had tens of thousands of military men that needed to be put to work, and the government formed the Corp and put former soldiers to work building some of the largest infrastructure projects in the country.  They built roads, dams, and bridges, and they helped America progress.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could move the Congolese army from a combatant role to an army of engineers?  Get the army to do something useful for the population.  An idea was presented to fund a small battalion of the Congolese army that would build a road in the park.  (Today like the rest of the DRC, there are very, very few paved roads, let alone decent dirt roads.)  If it works, it could serve as a model of what is possible.  It could begin to turn the page of history.

We hear a second need from speaking to individuals and some NGOs.  The park needs help in a fight between tourism and oil interests.  SOCO International is an oil company based in Great Britain and listed on the London Stock Exchange, which is illegally doing surveying in the park looking for oil.  Surveying in the park means drilling in the search for oil, something that all too soon could pollute the rivers that run through the park.  The source of the Nile, Lake Edward, is located in Virunga, as are the rivers feeding this lake.  SOCO has a license to mine oil reserves in the area, but Virunga is a World Heritage Site so under international law is protected from all extraction of any resources in the park.  Nothing can change that, not even the Congolese congress.  (The DRC is a signatory to the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.  Virunga was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1979.)  The park desperately needs help to bring this corruption to the front of the world stage and to force SOCO to pull out of the park.  The Congolese government looks the other way.  You figure that one out – oil companies.  A PR campaign gives birth.

There was a touching story about one of the three sector wardens, who had been a child soldier from Rwanda in the early 1990s.  He had walked from Rwanda to Kinshasa (DRC) and back and finds his mother.  She tells him he must immediately leave the army and he does.  He goes to school and completes his primary and secondary and then university degrees.  He recently earned a master’s degree.  While patrolling he was approached by two English men in the park, who offer him a bribe so that they can survey for oil.  He phones HQ and says you won't believe this – another example of a ranger, incredibly honorable and so committed to preserving the park.  We are told even after 2010, when so many rangers were shot in the park, not a single ranger refused to go back into the same areas and patrol.  The courage of the Congolese.

Our final stop at the park HQ will be to see the Munigi alternative energy project (http://greatervirunga.org/?p=330), which is aimed at creating cleaner energy for the Congolese and ending the charcoal trade from the forest.  The project is a based on a small $15 cooking stove that is fueled by round compressed pellets or fuel briquettes, which are made of recycled materials held tightly together by water and a press.  The wooden press that makes the briquettes costs about $300, and a team of four to six people can manage the press, making several hundred briquettes per hour.  The briquettes burn cleaner than the charcoal, use recycled materials, and provide much more efficient cooking heat while ending the need to cut trees from the park.  Making the briquettes can easily and safely be done by women, thus ending their vulnerability that comes from having to go into the park.  The briquettes are easily marketable; this is a brilliant funding source for those engaged in the work.

The other project under way at the Munigi center is the making of charcoal briquettes from the charcoal dust left behind from where charcoal is sold.  The dust is collected from the markets, and several tons are deposited every day, mostly by women, at the center.  The dust is sorted through so that rocks are removed.  Then what is left is mixed with cassava powder.  The cassava powder serves as the glue; boiling water is slowly poured into a large open mixing bowl, just as you would do to mix concrete.  As the mixing bowl rotates, the mixture forms small clumps of charcoal, which will burn cleaner and more efficiently than charcoal strictly from wood. Both projects create jobs that create cleaner energy sources that help protect women.

The wonderful man that runs the alternative energy center, Eric Balemba, is a gem.  He played soccer professionally for the DRC (and he looks like it), and now because of his love for this park he is running this center to help preserve it.  He also runs a soccer program for the children that live around the park.  Look for my email that will be going out to collect gently used soccer shoes of all sizes.  I'm planning a shipment of soccer balls, shoes and shirts to ship to him via Kenya.  I'll include the short video I made of Mr. Balemba showing us the alternative energy project.  What a way to end this portion of the trip.  A center of joy.  Extremes.

Later today I will say goodbye to most of my traveling party and drive off with Gina, Marsha and Emily to spend two days in the Rwandan highlands seeing the mountain gorillas – an adventure I have wanted to do for years, but I always felt the need to come straight home at the end of a trip.  Now with most of our household in college, Harry and Matt will survive without me for two more days.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

#6 - In Goma with HRW


It is another early morning.  I cannot begin to tell you how long the days are.  But they absolutely fly by.  The senses are heightened all the time and I'm so fortunate to be traveling with an incredible group of friends.

We depart from the Orchid at 6:15am to catch a 7am boat that will take us to Goma.  Last year my boat trip was such a crazy adventure; this time Thomas informs me that we are on a more luxurious boat, six seats across and a bathroom on board.  The Kivu Queen.  She has been chartered as the ferries don't normally run on Sunday, but the company has managed to sell most of the seats making the trip reasonable.  It will take us a mere 2.5 hours to reach Goma, and the trip goes off without a hitch.  A smooth ride.  I was able to write the whole way, which helps me very much to process my experience and emotion.  To be in the Congo on this type of trip is a roller coaster ride.  You hear horrors that are almost unbearable and you witness the victim telling their stories.  You see will that is so powerful it can only come from living in struggle.  The highs and lows are extreme.  The conversations I have every day with these women and the tapping of keys on my iPad are my salve.  I don't want to be numb to any of it; I want to hear it, actively listening so I can properly take it in and then pass it through.

Once in Goma we are met by Anneke Van Woudenberg, the director of Congo for HRW.  Ida is there as well, as she has traveled from Kinshasa where she is now based.  We also meet Claire, our new HRW researcher based in Goma.  Thomas and Bingi have traveled with us from Bukavu.  They are so helpful as passports and visas are constantly checked, and it's never just a matter of handing over your passport and being waved through.  Having HRW at this point is a help.

The first thing you notice in Goma is that the temperature is warmer.  Maybe we are closer to the equator here?  The dirt is black and the lack of rain is evidenced everywhere.  The dust is much thicker than in Bukavu.  Nearly blinding when following a car.  Goma  sits on the shore of Lake Kivu to the north of Bukavu.  The region is called North Kivu; where Bukavu sits is South Kivu.  The whole region is known as the Eastern Congo, and it shares borders with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.  Surrounding the rest of Goma are many volcanos (eight I believe), including two that are active.  In 2003, the city was ravaged by a lava flow and from the air you can still see the path of the flow, which grew to 80 meters wide before dividing into two steams.  The roads are much worse.  The potholes like a rash.  The drivers need to be really good here.  They are driving on sharp lava rock.

Oh, one thing I forgot to mention.  There has yet to be a day on this trip when we haven't had to grab one of our own and pull them from the path of a 4x4.  These vehicles are everywhere and they back up, go forward, turn, whatever they want, wherever they want, and it seems the drivers rarely give notice of someone standing in their way.  One minute you’re standing outside your car, and the next someone is yanking your arm or yelling your name because you are about to be run over.  It's a little nuts.

We first head to our hotel, Lodge Ihusi.  It's the nicest place to stay in Goma and again, we are perched right on the edge of Lake Kivu, about 50 meters from the Rwandan border. The room is modest and the bed comfortable.  I'm grateful for the air conditioner to cool the room.  After everyone is checked in and bags dropped, we go for a quick lunch at the hotel.  Anneke gives us a full briefing on the issues that HRW is addressing here, as well as a primer for the afternoon schedule, which HRW has packed at our request.  We're not here for leisure.

We divide into three groups to head in three different directions.  Goma is a bit rougher than Bukavu and has seen more violence in the past few months.  HRW feels it will be safer to have us not in a convoy and as noticeable but in three seaprate SUVs that look like all the UN, UNDP, ICCN, UNHCR, etc. vehicles on the road.  The tracks are Justice, Child Soldiers, Rape and Torture.  Marsha, Gina and Emily will travel with Anneke on the justice track, Andrea, Erin and I will be on Child Soldiers track, and Lauren, Belinda and Frannie will go on the Rape and Torture track.  We will meet back at the hotel at 7pm for cocktails with the top diplomat from the US State department, followed by dinner down the road.

Child Soldiers.  Years ago I read "A Long Way Home" by Ishmael Beah and had the privilege to host a dinner with him.  If my memory serves, he was from Sierra Leone and had been taken as a child soldier at a young age.  His story was like a horror movie but his recovery and reform so full of hope and promise that there was no doubt that good existed in the world.  He was in his late 20s when we met.  I thought I would know what to expect on this afternoon.   I had in my head that we would be meeting with people, like Ishmael, who had been reformed and would share their stories.  Even though Ida said we would be going to a center that rehabilitates child soldiers, I don't know what I was thinking.

We arrive at the center just on the edge of Goma.  Once through the gate we see a big black field of lava dust and pebbles with makeshift soccer goals without nets on either end.  There are about 20 boys playing soccer, shirts and skins.  Some are barefoot, some with flip flops.  The ball – well, they are playing on crushed lava.  In the middle a referee, plain-clothed but using a whistle.  I watch as they play aggressively with spirit and look to be enjoying it so very much.  I wished I had soccer balls with me.  We take a tour and see the dorms where they sleep, the classroom, the rooms for counseling.  We pass an outdoor area where one boy strums a guitar and two others play checkers and mancala.  It's too quiet.

We sit for an hour with the ED of the program, who has been serving in this role for many years.  Currently the center has 24 boys, but many times they are full to capacity at 140.  Since its opening, they have helped more than 5,352 boys and 120 girls.  The boys typically stay for three months, but can be here longer if they are not ready to go back to their families or a host family.  In some cases, there is no family to return to.  Most come to the center via MONUSCO (the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the DRC.)  It is against international law to take children under 18 and force them to be soldiers, and the military and rebel forces in the DRC are all told to abide by this law.  Obama has even held back tens of millions of dollars in aid to the DRC until the government demonstrates that they are turning over child soldiers.  They are often taken by either the FDLR or the CNDP.  The FDLR is the remnant army largely made up of Hutu rebels and refugees that fled to the DRC after the Rwandan genocide.  They now live in the hills and jungle of the eastern Congo and pillage mines and villages, raping women and killing civilians.  They won't go back home to Rwanda for fear of being killed by the Tutsi.  It's very complicated here.  The CNDP is the Congolese army, which is an amalgamation of both the Congolese army and Rwandan rebels that are against the FDLR, who the Congolese government decided to integrate into the Congolese Army, with the thought that “the enemy of your enemy is your friend.”  The last group we will learn about is the Mai Mai, local Congolese villagers who band together and arm themselves to fight off either the FDLR or the CNDP, as they don't want to answer to any militia forces.  All three of these groups take child soldiers, and it is no small problem.  (You also may have heard of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army).  The LRA is based well north of here and comes in across the Ugandan border.  This army is brutal beyond your wildest imagination, and there is an active campaign to stop them by the Obama Administration.)  The children are often told that if they try to escape they will be killed.   Invisible Children is an NGO based in San Diego that does great work to help raise money and build centers for these children to be reformed and reintegrated into society.  They also run media and communications campaigns here in the DRC to end the practice and to help convince child soldiers of the LRA that they can leave and will be safe.  It's very difficult to leave – they want to, but they will be shot or beaten to death in front of the others if caught.

After our briefing and tour we move to a "listening room," where three boys step slowly into the room and take seats only after being asked to sit.  First they sit in chairs that are against the wall, while we are all seated at a table in the middle of the room.  Ida asks them ever so softly in French (and Jean-Baptiste translates to Swahili) if they will join us at the table.  They again slowly move to the table, not a one looking up at us.  Once they are seated, Ida tells them who she is and who we are.  She lets them know that she works with Human Rights Watch and we work to stop the practice of child soldiers and are pushing at the highest levels to hold accountable those guilty of the practice.  We work to bring justice through the prosecution of those responsible.  She then asks them each to tell his name and age.  The first is so tender, 13.  The other two, both looking young, are 17.  When they look up and tell their names and ages, I have never seen the look I see in their eyes.  It's as if their souls are dead.  The horror of this practice – it serves only to destroy the life of a child.  Ida tells them that she is here to take their testimony and we will talk with each of them individually.  She asks if they are alright with this and willing to talk.  They all nod their heads.

Ida, Erin, Andrea, Jean-Baptiste and I move to a smaller room where the boys will come in, one by one.  The first to come is the 13 year old.  I wish I could remember his name.  He tells us his village.  He is Congolese.  He was taken with a friend walking home from school, 3 years ago.  He was 10.  He has not seen his family since.  He was given a gun at age 11.  He had to carry heavy loads of supplies to the front lines.  He hated it.  He always wanted to escape.  Finally, after three years they were in an area that was familiar.  He knew the paths.  He and his friend made a run for it, and they made it to a town.  They turned themselves over to the Congolese army, who took them to MONUSCO.  MONUSCO has just brought him to this center the week before.  He really has no experience to tell his story.  He answers the questions that Ida asks, very quietly and always looking down.  When she asks him about school he says he doesn't have a head for school and just wants to work on the farm with his family.  She finishes the interview, taking careful notes, as these cases must be documented if the armies that do this are to be held to account.  At the end of the interview, she asks if we have any other questions.  I don't have a question but I say that “You do have a head for school.  You have escaped and only someone very smart could do that and when you do go home your mother is going to be so happy to see you."  Ida translates to Jean Baptiste – English to French – and Jean Baptiste to the boy – French to Swahili.  Although his eyes are looking down his lips come together and the sides of his mouth go up a tad, the glimpse of a smile, a little life still in there, the reaction no doubt to hearing how happy his mother will be.  I can't imagine what it is like to have your child disappear.  The hell this boy has lived and the miracle that he is alive and here.

The other two boys come in one by one.  The stories are so hard.  One was 14 when he was taken.  He was farming in the family field and two soldiers, one in front and one from behind, capture him and take him away.  Three years pass before he manages to escape.  God, the bravery of these boys and the instinct to survive.  The last boy was Rwandan and has no idea if his family is even alive.  He is hoping the center can find his brother, who also escaped.  I can't imagine how alone they are.  He seems to have very little family and no place to call home.  What huge tasks for all involved.  Many of the boys that attend the center will come back again.

I was not prepared for this testimony.  Or maybe one is never prepared.  Or maybe it was the look in their eyes.  All had just arrived at the center in the past 2 weeks.  Raw like a wound that has been open for a long time, that you just want to treat and wrap and see that it heals.  I will never forget their faces.

Later in the evening, the 12 of us tucked in around a large square table at a restaurant just down the road.  Once drinks were poured, we went around the table to share what we each had learned.  I said I wasn't sure why I felt this way, but these boys had a higher hill to climb and I hope they harbored the strength that the women of City of Joy had shown.  I don't know how they have survived.  The towel should never, ever be thrown in on these children. 

Tomorrow we will visit Masika at her listening center.