The last month has been busy as usual, and I was actually fortunate enough to work with other AP projects and partner organizations in northern Uganda and eastern Congo. However, moving around kept me from updating this blog on any regular basis, which is why there has been a month-long gap in entries. Don’t let that fool you into thinking nothing was happening in eastern Congo and the surrounding areas. I’ll try to update what I was up to and what has been going on since my last blog entry.
Since about 1986, northern Uganda has gone through a number of internal conflicts, with the most intense and prolonged conflict occurring in Kitgum and Gulu districts. Travel four hours North from Kampala, and you are in Gulu, where a rebel insurgency led by Joseph Kony has engaged in a long battle against the Ugandan government forces, and ironically, against the Acholi people of northern Uganda, whom he claims to be fighting for. Kony currently resides in eastern Congo, where it seems all rebels end up at some time or another, but the effects if his insurgency are easy to understand during even a short visit to Gulu.
While in Gulu, I worked alongside the Gulu Disabled Persons’ Union (GDPU), who lobby for an increase in accessibility to public and private services for people disabled during the years of heaviest fighting in the North. Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) created a situation in northern Uganda bound to lead to abnormally high rates of disability and disfigurement by their well-documented use of land mines and maiming to intimidate the population. GDPU works with wounded Ugandans to pressure the Ugandan government to offer them social services in line with their unique needs created by years of war in northern Uganda. The current campaign centered around the creation of a “Declaration on Accessibility” to be signed and distributed by district leaders interested in ensuring that disabled persons in northern Uganda improve their standard of living and access to social services, government offices, hospitals, etc. This is a project supported in reality by an NGO called Survivor Corps (SC), and SC works in close conjunction with AP, which explains my presence at their field sites. I was very much encouraged by GDPU’s efforts, and viewing Gulu, it is clear that accessibility needs for disabled persons are far from being met. Hopefully, the declaration me, Mendi from AP, and SC’s Uganda representative, John Francis Onyango wrote will be an effective lobbying tool and make some headway in the Gulu district courts and public offices in terms of increasing accessibility for those still suffering the effects of the years of all-out war in northern Uganda, particularly in Gulu district.
Returning to Kampala to finish up some of the GDPU work, I was quickly going back to eastern Congo, where I was headed to work with the World Peasants/Indigenous Organization (WPIO), which works to protect the human rights of indigenous people, or “Pygmies” in North and South Kivu, before going “home” to Uvira.
Near the border between North and South Kivu, the WPIO has been working to free enslaved indigenous people (called banja) and provide them with the means to make a living. The Pygmies we interviewed and met with had all been recently freed by WPIO efforts in the mines throughout North and South Kivu, where they are forced to work without pay, are victims of torture and sexual violence, and often lose their lives in the notorious drive for mineral wealth in eastern Congo. Abducted from their homes or born into slavery, these indigenous people are taken to mines and forced to work, despite the rampant insecurity due to the roving militias in the region. In fact, it is often the various militias that occupy mining lands and enslave the indigenous people living there. For a good description of the situation, check this article, which was published this last November:
Congo’s Riches, Looted By Renegade Troops
The WPIO documents the cases of enslavement, then engages in negotiations with slave-holders (called murhambo) and mining companies employing slave labor in order to free them and offer them alternatives. The work is slow-going, as the system is completely entrenched. Slave owners are often openly hostile to the idea of giving up their source of free labor. In addition, the WPIO provides land and agricultural training to the freed slaves, as they have had their land taken by those who enslave them. Currently, a campaign is in action to provide those maimed during their slavery (severed limbs due to accidents and removing them as punishment for “bad behavior” is common) with sewing machines to allow them to earn money despite their inability to cultivate, which is the traditional way of earning money in most indigenous communities.
We spoke with 15 recently freed slaves, who spoke candidly of the atrocities they had suffered during their slavery on in many ways continue endure. One woman had her eye removed by a mine manager for refusing to have sex with a miner who had unearthed a large piece of tantalite, a mineral common in eastern Congo. She was offered as a reward, or “bush wife,” for the miner’s find, which is one of the ways female Pygmy slaves are used in the mines. She has 5 children, all products of the bush wife system, and thus has no support from the fathers, whom she doesn’t even know. Another woman had, just a few months ago, her murdered husband’s head brought to her doorstep by a militia soldier in the area, as he had voiced discontent with the sexual violence his wife had endured while enslaved in the mines; her children are currently enslaved in the same mining area by the same militia. Handing her the severed head, the militant mentioned, “Your dog is dead.” She is 25 years old. The stories all resembled each other in terms of their brutality and ongoing trauma for those left to piece together broken families.
We were not just working, however, to gather gruesome stories. Unfortunately, morbid histories in Congo are found everywhere, thus one needn’t go deep into the Kivu forests to uncover them. We wanted to take these stories, once well documented, and apply them to a current WPIO campaign to take the mining concerns complicit in this process to task. We hope that by engaging these companies in dialogue, by showing them the stories we have compiled, and by making these stories known to the international community, these mineral brokers will be obligated to take a stance against the enslavement of indigenous people. These companies are not as remote as you might think. When you follow the trails of the minerals unearthed by Pygmy slaves in North and South Kivu, you end up in China, western Europe, and even the United States. Sure, the minerals pass through a middle-man in Bukavu or Goma, but the foreign buyers are more than aware that enslaved Congolese are the first step of the bloody mineral trade in Congo, and profit hugely due to the fact that there is no payment made to those owning the land and mining for the minerals they buy. Please check this blog again, as soon we will have all the research compiled and put into report form, which we will certainly publish here. I’d like to thank Freddy Wangabo Mwenengabo from the WPIO for showing me to the field sites and keeping a close eye on my security and well being in the region, as well as allowing me to stay with his family, who were more than welcoming and helpful in gaining access to the freed slaves we were able to meet with. I am hoping to be back within a month to make a follow-up, as well as refine the campaign to mark those enterprises profiting from Pygmy slavery and call on them to reform their policies.
But, as I mentioned, things continued to devolve in throughout eastern Congo during the month long gap in this blog. Rather than recount everything that has been going on, I’ll just provide some links and basic headlines of the news coming from eastern Congo. In summary:
1. CNDP rebels have continued a murderous campaign in eastern Congo, with massacres and human rights violations being reported throughout the eastern provinces, most notably in Kiwanja. This massacre in particular has been highlighted due to the fact that large MONUC deployments were less then 1 km away but more or less sat on their hands, which adds to arguments marking the complete inability of MONUC to control the situation here or generate any positive turn-around. Human Rights Watch Kiwanja report-December 2008
2. New hostilities have broken out in northeastern Congo, as African troops from Congo, Uganda, and S. Sudan launched attacks i in order to try to flush out LRA rebels hiding out in Congo, near Garemba Forest Reserve. South Sudan, Congo, and Uganda Launch Offensive Against Kony’s Rebels in Congo
3. Talk of further regional destabilization has been going around, due to the inability of Congolese president Kabila to put an end to the rebel movement or keep his own forces (FARDC) from committing atrocities. Congo Warlord Linked to Abuses Seeks Bigger Stage
The New York Times has been covering all of these developments relatively well, as has NPR, and these are definitely good sources to go to check on updates. Today, reports have been coming out that a new massacre has been committed (possibly by LRA rebels) in northeast Congo but the reports have yet to be “officially corroborated”.
Possibly the most revealing aspect of the last month was that the most common question asked of me throughout both Congo and northern Uganda has been, “Is anyone over there listening to this?” As far as questions go, it’s a good one, as months have passed and eastern Congo continues to boil over, with no real end in sight and a seeming lack of attention and concrete action on behalf of the international community. IS anyone listening to this?
Posted By Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)
Posted Dec 27th, 2008