Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Do They Know it's Christmas?

The crime rate here jumps at this time of year because people are desperate to provide something extra to meet their families' expectations of new clothes and good food on the table. There aren't really any signs of Christmas in the same way you see lights and other decorations in the over-developed world. My favourite local restaurant, Gerda's, (run by a Belgian woman and mentioned in a previous post, March 2006) however is all lit up with fairy lights, Christmassy table mats, a well-decorated tree, red glass baubles and tiny shiny stars swimming in glass bowls on the tables, and a special menu with Coquilles St. Jacques - a delicious addition to an already pretty good menu.

People in North Kivu won't have much to celebrate this year, with hundreds of children being forcibly recruited into the various armed groups who even take children from schools and IDP camps. An estimated 800,000 people are now internally displaced in North Kivu: equivalent to the entire population of East Timor when I lived there in 1997. Fighting goes on. The BBC website (http://news.bbc.co.uk/) has been providing decent coverage of the war, and the recent visit by the head of UN High Commission for Refugees also brought the crisis to the world's attention for a few seconds for those who were tuned in at the right time. The city of Goma appears to be relatively safe and the residents calm, which allowed us to send two of our team this week for a monitoring visit, to see how staff trained last month to work with children in the camps are progressing.

Work slows down considerably for most of us during this time, and I'll be taking two weeks off. First stop is Kigali where I'm looking forward to spending time with good friends, and after that I'll be at the inviting Shaanti Holistic Health Retreat (http://www.shaantihhr.com/) on the Kenyan coast near Mombasa for a week. They offer special rates for those of us working in Africa, and I'm hoping that meditation and yoga twice a day will restore some of my sanity. This is a crazy world where so much luxury and so much poverty exist side by side. I'm grateful for the opportunities to be aware of both and to have the freedom to move from one world to the other. Most people are trapped by circumstances totally beyond their control.

Before I go, a few more photos to show you how beautiful it is here (yet another contrast: the beauty, the poverty, the violence...North Kivu is even more beautiful than South Kivu, where I'm located).

Daybreak over Bagira: Bagira is a suburb of Bukavu, purpose built for government workers by the Belgian colonial government in the '50s.

Taken from the second-floor of the house where I live, near the lake shore. This one looks straight across at Mount Kahuzi and the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, home to some of the few remaining mountain gorilla families. The small buildings on the opposite shore is the MONUC camp for the Uruguayan and Chinese military who patrol the lake. The international border between DR Congo and Rwanda runs the length of Lake Kivu and Congo is sensitive to the possibility of infiltrations by Rwandan military.

My favourite: a rare good sunset over Lake Kivu.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Bukavu Central Prison
Our project provides psychosocial support to boys in prison and when the Clowns Without Borders were in town we invited them to perform for all the inmates. People in the prison are a mix of those who are awaiting charges and those who have already been sentenced. Some may be there for good reason; others may just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time and unable to pay a bribe to get them out of trouble. The entire justice system barely functions; lawyers are beaten up by police; rapists rape with impunity. Women often bring their young children into the prison with them. The government provides almost no food for prisoners, and the majority of boys in the prison were recently found to be suffering from malnutrition, two of them severely. The food issue is a serious conundrum for aid agencies: if we provide food then the government is never likely to take over its responsibility in this domain. Most international agencies here are working more towards long term development and do not have a budget for food aid.

This person with deformed legs – he’s unable to walk – allegedly allowed his house to be used for storing weapons.

Almost everyone enjoyed the clowns’ performance; however these two were clearly uninterested!

This is the gate between the main area of the prison and the boys’ quarter. However as the prisoners themselves control what goes on inside the prison, it is unclear who controls access to this section, and the padlock has to be replaced frequently. Anyone who knows anything about child protection and prison systems knows that children under 18 should be kept separate from adults.

Sometimes aid agencies will provide items for the boys, such as these new clothes, sandals and the football in recognition of the International Day for Children’s Rights. Unfortunately assistance to the children doesn’t last long- much needed items such as mattresses, towels, and soap are snatched away from them all too quickly.

This is the main gate where we entered. The photo is taken from inside. It looks as though anyone can come and talk to the inmates through these bars; however there are soldiers on guard at the outer gate.

There’s a small yard: the covered area on the left is where the men can sit and eat – if there’s food. The area to the right seemed to be dominated by laundry.

Laundry is scrubbed on stone benches, and then the clothes are hung wherever possible to dry.

This tap was broken, and the water poured out continuously. It rains for nine months of the year here, so no one is particularly worried about water shortages. Dark clouds over the courtyard and a dark, dungeon-like interior make this prison a place I was only too happy to leave.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Back of Beyond

You may well imagine that Bukavu is one of those out of the way places, the back of beyond, that no one’s ever heard of and certainly no one who is anyone at all would ever think of visiting. Can you locate it on a map of DR Congo? I doubt that I could before I first came to East Africa four years ago. It’s a surprise to find out the number of people that visit – and I’ve probably only heard of a few.

Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, was in town on November 25th to lead a march, which she had organized, of thousands of women dressed in black marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Also in town last week were a number of Congressional delegates, the fact-finders, researching information about the Great Lakes region conflict on behalf of members of the US Congress. Along with them (possibly just a coincidence, I don’t know) was GW’s former speech writer, the one who coined the term “axis of evil” (used by Bush in his State of the Union Address on Jan 29th, 2002). We were all hanging out (at separate tables, of course!) having drinks and dinner at The Orchid, described by John Le Carré (he stayed here in April 2006 after finishing work on his latest novel, The Mission Song, which uses the war in Eastern Congo as a backdrop) as one of those quintessential places where you find a mélange of expatriates gathered together around the bar*. I was quite perturbed in fact when a friend came over to where I was having a working dinner with a couple of colleagues, and in whispered tones informed us of the identity of the chap in the blue shirt just a few feet away. Had never in my life expected to get this close to the axis of evil!

Yes, Bill Gates has been here too. Haven’t seen much sign of his beneficence yet. And yes, they’re still fighting in North Kivu, barely 100 km from Goma. No end in sight yet.

*”In every trouble spot I have cautiously visited, there has always been one watering hole where, as if by secret rite, hacks, spies, aid workers and carpetbaggers converge. In Saigon, it was the Continental; in Phnom Penh, the Pnom; in Vientiane, the Constellation; in Beirut, the Commodore; and here in Bukavu it's the Orchid, a gated, low-built lakeside colonial villa surrounded by discreet cabins.” http://www.thenation.com/doc/20061002/lecarre