Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Letter from the Congo

From my friend Josh, currently working in the Congo.
By the way, there's also an editorial in the New York Times about Darfur today.

************************************************

The e-mails asking if I’m still alive have started coming in again. I’ve intended to write to you all for a while, but was often busy with work.

Since many of you asked me what I’ve been doing in DRC, I thought I’d write about my work but ended up writing about something else. (See attachment.) Besides what I mention in my update, I also report on the human security and human rights situation in certain areas, write project proposals, and investigate individual cases of abuses outside the courts.

Since I don’t cover everything in this update, please feel free to write me back. It’d be great to hear from you and I’ll gladly respond.

I hope you are all well and enjoying life.

Best wishes,
Josh

Monday, 30 May 2005

When I first saw her body, I thought she was dead. She was lying motionless under the midday sun outside the health center with a thin shawl draped over her face and torso. A peasant woman of 60 years, Lwakasi was one of the latest victims of a group of bandits who had been kidnapping villagers from the Walungu territory in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Known as the Rastas, these bandits had mutilated or killed over a hundred people in the territory of Walungu in the past six months alone with the cooperation of the FDLR, a rebel group that’s at the center of the Congo-Rwanda conflict. The number is relatively small compared to other areas of the DRC, but this group had succeeded in sinking the already destitute population into deeper misery. Demanding ransoms upwards of $2000 per group, the Rastas had stripped most villages of their savings, obliterated many of their crops, and had raped, mutilated or killed hundreds of their children and adults. Those who were spared the nighttime attacks live in constant fear of being the next targets.

Undisciplined Congolese troops added to the toll of pillaging and rapes, committing some of these acts in front of villagers by daylight. And nature—which had blessed this area with fertile ground and beautiful weather—also played a role, ruining swathes of this year’s harvest with the mosaic virus.

The elderly woman I saw, though, was alive but exhausted from the previous day’s journey. She had walked all day through the forest to offer the ransom to release eight of her family members and neighbors that were held captive by the Rastas. Since she had only collected $1050 instead of the necessary $1500, the bandits kept a 14-year old girl, one of three adolescent girls whom they had been raping about four times a day for the past two weeks.

On the long journey home, her husband was too weak to walk from spending two weeks in the forest with little food, regular beatings and being tied up violently. She had to carry him on her back and, at some point during the walk, he died on her back. Those remaining were an elderly man, two adolescent girls, and their parents, who were forced to watch their daughters raped each day for two weeks.

Drained from the experience of the last two weeks, Lwakasi would fall in and out of consciousness when I interviewed her. She wouldn’t cry although she stifled a few sobs when I placed her husband’s half-covered corpse into our jeep next to her. The elderly man who was held captive with the same group rode emotionless in our vehicle, even though he had bone-deep rope burns and lash marks from being been beaten with chains and burning sticks.

Sadly, this woman’s experience is similar to others I had heard over the past few months. Women would speak of having guns and other objects inserted inside them, of having their parents forced to spread their legs while they were raped, of being forced to lie down between rotting corpses to remind them of their imminent death. One adolescent girl I had met asked matter-of-factly if we were going eat her baby, the first of two to be born from rape. Previously a bright student in school, she had been raped or held as a sexual slave since she was 13 or 14. Now at 18, her eyes had the glazed look of someone out of touch with reality. Only the cries of the baby she carried on her back seemed to pull her back to life.

Since November, I had been writing reports on the human rights and the human security situation in Walungu for work. The reports have required regular field trips to the area, about 45 km southwest of my home base in Bukavu, and meetings with military, civil society, local government, rebels, and people like Lwakasi.

Although I have taken risks to meet with rebels in no-go zones, the most indelible experiences have been with these women and with others who’ve gone through the kidnappings. Coming from the West, it’s difficult to comprehend the depth of such suffering and these people have brought me closer to the human reality of the conflict that has wrecked the eastern part of this country.

Others who’ve also seen the conflict upfront are outraged by the inattention the DRC receives. “People don’t know the suffering of the Congolese. Because if they did, they would do something about it,” said a missionary friend who’d been in DRC since 1982 after I had recounted the stories from my most recent field trip. Her comment captured the frustration many humanitarians feel at the inattention the DRC receives. Earlier this year, for example, a survey of top humanitarian officials, activists, media professionals and academics placed the Congolese conflict as the most forgotten humanitarian crisis, ahead of Uganda, Sudan, and West Africa.

The ignorance of the problems in the DRC, though, is not so surprising. Faced with such unfathomable devastation from a country so far away, it’s easy to take a head-in-the-sand approach while living in the West. It strains the imagination to comprehend what’s going on and, unfortunately, the fact that black people from the bush are dying makes it more difficult for many to empathize with this suffering.

Besides, those who do try to help are often disillusioned by the seeming intractability of the conflict. Unlike the tsunami catastrophe that killed hundreds of thousands, the Congo crisis, which has resulted in over 3 million deaths, is man-made and thus more difficult to control. Donors pledge hundreds of millions of dollars for the DRC only to see the creeping progress jerk back several paces because of the actions of the principal actors.

Despite the complexity of the Congo crisis, we can do more. Donor governments and institutions can hold both the DRC government and its neighbors more accountable for their actions. The U.S., the European Union, Belgium, and others can pin their pledges to concrete measures of progress in the transition, such as beginning election registration and more transparent use of government funds. On paper, donors have already promised to take such actions but, in reality, they’ve been dithering in their responses. Many of those same donors can also press Rwanda to hold to its word to facilitate the return of Rwandan rebel refugees from DRC.

Citizens of western countries can do something, too. You can help fund several outstanding organizations that work in this region, including Doctors Without Borders and International Rescue Committee. (If you e-mail me, I can send you information on various organizations that work in my region.) While it will be the will of the political and military leaders in the DRC and the heads of its neighboring countries that will steer this country toward peace, the individual actions we all can provide do mean something. Whether it is through donations or through aid work, they save lives.

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