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Monday, February 11, 2013

2013 #4 – Visiting with Human Rights Watch Researchers and Other Friends

It is now Monday morning in Bukavu.  The lake is still and spotted with two-man fishing boats out fishing to earn a day’s wage.   The birds - this is a bird watcher’s paradise - are busy singing, and one would think this is the most serene of holiday destinations.  Every time I walk out of my room I have to stop along the path, pull out my camera, and take photographs.  It is as if every day the color changes, and although I'm sure I have now taken dozens of photos of the lake and the hills that encircle it, it just takes my breath away and I pull out the camera once again to make this image permanent.

Another remarkable day.  I know I still owe some stories from dinner with Emmanuel, and I promise I will not forget, but what is freshest in my mind was the intellectually full day we spent yesterday with Human Rights Watch.

Ida Sawyer, Lane Hartill, Sebastian, Kaim Kapalata, and Bingi all traveled by car from Goma to Bukavu to host us.  The main office for HRW is in Goma, with Ida based out of the Congolese capital, Kinshasa.  But the M23 rebel fighters took over Goma in December.  They retreated - a whopping five kilometers outside of Goma - after President Obama made a phone call to Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame.  (The rebels are funded by Rwanda.)  The trip to Goma that I have easily made the past two years could not happen this year due to security issues.  Alas, our Goma friends travel to us.

We started the morning very early, with an hour briefing on the DRC provided in great detail by Ida.  Ida is a senior researcher who has been living and working here in the DRC for more than five years.  She gave us a thorough explanation of the violence here and the many players, each with their own forgettable acronym.  To net it out, the DRC is one-third the size of the US.  It is incredibly mineral-rich, blessed with one of the greatest concentrations of natural resources in any single country and certainly the most on the continent.  You name the mineral - gold, copper, coltan, uranium - it is all here and in great quantity.  The Congo River, which runs through the country and empties into the Atlantic Ocean, is second only to the Amazon in water volume and could offer up enough hydropower, if developed, to power most of central Africa.  Everything in Congo is on a grand scale.

Now for the problem: look at its neighbor.  Rwanda is one of the smallest countries on the continent, with the densest population of all the African countries and no natural resources to speak of.  The country is called the land of 1,000 mountains.  Enough said.  Every square foot that can be farmed is.  Over half of their gross revenue comes from foreign aid, provided largely by the US and the UK.  Guilt money from the genocide 20 years ago.  There is nothing Paul Kagame would like more than to grow his tiny country, and the easiest and best option would be to take territory that is now the Eastern Congo – and in the meantime, take as much of the resources as his militias can steal.  It is well documented that since 1996 Paul Kagame has been the puppeteer wreaking havoc in Eastern Congo.  So Ida laid out the different military leaders and described in great detail the violence committed by their troops.  It can be horrifying to hear, but at least we are listening to it second hand.  Suffice it to say that Ida did a tremendous job of laying out the causes for the violence, the players, and the different paths being taken to end it.  It's a long road.  HRW has been covering the DRC for more than 13 years.  They know it's a slow process, but it will only move forward with efforts like theirs that investigate the atrocities, expose those injustices, shine a light on the perpetrators, and work to get the stories on the front pages of newspapers throughout the world and told within the highest halls of power.  Name and shame.  Advocate for change.  Pursue justice.

We moved from our morning briefing with Ida across town to Centre Olame, which sits high upon a hill in Bukavu overlooking most of the city and that stunningly beautiful lake.  Centre Olame ( is a 54-year-old institution dedicated to empowering women and families.  They offer programs predominantly for women that provide training in leadership, community engagement, general education, advocacy, and communications, among other programs, with a goal that the combination of training programs will empower more women and lead to a more peaceful and productive society.  The center is run by a brilliant woman, Mathilde.  She was a former member of Parliament and in 2002 was honored by HRW as a defender.  She is, like Christine at City of Joy, one of the many Congolese heroes.

We spent the day at Centre Olame divided into three groups of eight and rotated through different speakers who had been pulled together by HRW.  Masika traveled to Bukavu with the HRW folks from Goma and was able to share her heart-wrenching story with the group.  Masika might have more trauma in her body than anyone I have met.  The very good news is that both Masika and Dessange (now a sophomore in college) are going to be in the next City of Joy class, which will start on the first of June.  I'm so tempted to come back for that graduation, because I can only imagine the transformation - I've seen what is possible.  Masika and Dessange, although years past their personal trauma, still struggle with eye contact.

We also heard from Father Abbe Benoit Kinalegu, who runs an amazing center to help repair the broken souls of child soldiers.  On my visit last year, I went to a center that does this work and spent a couple of hours across the table from three former child soldiers.  It was the darkest moment of my journey.  I don't think there is anything worse than stealing the soul of a child.  The atrocities that these children are forced to endure I cannot bear to repeat.  Abbe Benoit's center is hours from where we are, located in the northeast corner of the DRC.  Most of the children that make it to his center have escaped from the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA.  (Think KONY 2012 video - it was all true, and the LRA are alive and well in the northern part of the DRC, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan.)  Father Benoit met HRW in 2007 when an entire village near his parish was slaughtered on Christmas Day.  There was only one survivor, and he managed to get to Father Abbe Benoit, who immediately called HRW.  As he tells it, both Ida and Anneke from HRW got on a plane immediately (a four-seater), flew to the region, and then traveled with Abbe Benoit by motorbike.  Together, they counted the bodies and documented each one with the help of the lone elder that had survived (because he had been napping a short distance away).  HRW released a full report on the massacres, naming the perpetrators and identifying every victim.  It will be used at the ICC when Joseph Kony is finally caught and turned over to the court.  

HRW opened and closed our day and it was rich.  We all came back in our caravan to dinner at the Orchid and took over 4 large round tables with our guests from HRW, Masika, Mathilde, and Father Abbe Benoit.  We enjoyed a long dinner of more intimate conversations, while outside the skies opened up and announced yet again that is the rainy season in Eastern Congo.

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