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.