In Congo, there is nothing like a presidential visit to give evidence as to why things here just are not working right now. This last week, people in Uvira began preparing for the visit of Joseph Kabila, the president of Congo.
Kabila’s father Laurent was president, but assassinated in 2001, and Joseph took office directly after, first as a “transitional” president. After 5 years, an election was organized and he took power officially. The election was supposed to be a significant landmark, denoting the division between war-torn Congo and Congo’s peaceful and rebuilt future. Kabila was elected on the basis of his plan called “Cinq Chantiers,” which essentially promised the following: 1) generation of jobs, 2) a massive effort to rebuild hospitals and public buildings, 3) the construction of navigable roads, particularly a large road from the northern border of Congo to the southern border, 4) providing electricity and clean water for all citizens, 5) construction of schools, and compulsory, free, primary education for children. In addition, his campaign promised the “pacification of the East.”
Considering what has been going on in Congo and they way people live day-to-day, it is self-evident that none of these promises have been realized. This is probably why the “Cinq Chantiers,” which means “5 Building Blocks/Sites” are now derisively called Kabila’s “Cinq Chansons,” or “5 Songs.” Sure, bits and pieces have fallen into place (Did you know that you can now spend days on end in Katanga Province without hearing gunshots? Also, don’t forget that there are also at least 60km of paved road between Uvira and Bukavu…) but for the most part things have stagnated and continued to devolve. Militias still run rampant through North and South Kivu, not to mention the ongoing war with the LRA Ugandan Rebels near the northern border. Add to the mix local officials with no regard for human rights or application of the law and government soldiers committing many of the same atrocities as the militias and you can get an idea of the general atmosphere. Administering the Congo is a big job, with a recent history that would challenge anyone to move forward from. Yet, this last presidential visit (the first since the 2006 election) really highlighted reasons why things aren’t getting done here, why standards of living are atrocious, and why peace hasn’t returned in any sustainable way.
Three days before Kabila’s visit, soldiers began lining the streets, taxing an “amende d’état” for any citizen audacious enough to cultivate their fields, open their shops, or even sell bananas from a basket on their head during the anticipation of Kabila’s visit. I was unlucky enough to be in a bus trying to return from Bukavu, and at the numerous roadblocks I saw countless citizens being harassed by the governmental soldiers, who collected $5 from anyone working during those days to feed their families. In Congo, $5 is no small amount of money. Men were instructed to wait on the side of the road. Women were asked to wear fabrics with Kabila’s face on it and form small groups to dance during the convoy’s passing. And mind you, this was three days in advance. Kabila’s people began spreading the rumour of his arrival on Monday or Tuesday, and he finally got here on Friday.
A speech from Kabila was expected. In fact, the football fields, which were used in recent years for executions of thieves and rebels, were prepared for his discourse and the thousands of people who would come to hear him speak. People on the radio commented that they were eager to hear what his plan of action realizing the promises he had made was. How was he going to cope with the surge of FDLR rebels in South Kivu? How come he claimed to have captured 5 FDLR bases this last month, when 3, and possibly 4, are still completely controlled by the FDLR? Why has there been no development of roads, and no clear effort to do so, in South Kivu since the election, except those hastily built by Chinese MONUC soldiers? Why have all government officials continued to violate the rights given to citizens in the Congolese Constitution, enacted upon Kabila’s election? Why has he continued to allow his own soldiers to rape, steal, and kill (the Goma retreat this Fall is a prime example-see the blog post below) without any significant visible effort to change this? Why does Uvira still go on without reliable electricity and drinking water? Why are there no hospitals capable of curing even basic illnesses…?
However, none of these questions had the chance to be asked. I expected a sort of “Q & A” opportunity, a chance for the president to interact and exchange, and possibly even explain some of the difficulties which have prevented him from doing his job. I realize that this is not possible in every town in Congo, but the East is HIS territory. It’s the East which overwhelmingly voted for him in 2006. Had Congolese in the East voted for his rival, Jean-Pierre Bemba, Kabila would have no authority, and no opportunity to make impossible promises. En plus, he was born here, having grown up less than 100km south of Uvira. Ironically, his home (Manono) is considered a major “red zone” and center of ongoing FDLR massacres and pillages. These things considered, one could expect him to feel at home, and to feel an obligation to speak with his constituency. I was shamefully naïve to even think this was a possibility; my friends commented that they have learned to expect little or nothing from their president, and it was just a matter of time before I’d get this through my head as well.
I got a good lesson in Congolese governmental accountability. There is none. Kabila’s “visit,” and the days preparing for his arrival, were justified by a convoy of hundreds of black SUVs brought from Kinshasa, one of which contained the president, preceded and followed by hundreds of “béret rouge” soldiers, the special presidential bodyguards. This convoy stopped to allow Kabila to walk and wave to all of us lining the streets for about 2km, surrounded of course by his heavily armed soldiers and bodyguards. He does, recently, have a lot of enemies here, so I can understand this precaution. After that, he got in his car and sped over the cleared roads out of town before nightfall. I don’t think he even had time to notice that we were without electricity and water (remember the “Cinq Chansons), and had been for the last week.
As he got closer and closer to his home territory due South, things got no better. In Makobolo, people tried to block the street just to get his cars to stop. They didn’t. In, Baraka, where a speech had also been announced but not realized, the convoy stopped, resumed again, and was summarily pelted with as many rocks as people could throw.
So, all our questions stay unanswered. And everyone, besides the rock throwers, goes back to life as normal in Congo. The rock throwers were imprisoned, but I heard most of them paid a “special tax” to the soldiers guarding the prison and were released just after the Roi du Zaïre left South Kivu.
Posted By: Ned
For the last three days, I have been working in outside of Bukavu (north of Uvira) with a local organization called the Association des Femmes des Medias du Sud Kivu (AFEM-SK), which works to develop the next generation of female journalists in Congo, offering young women practical field experience and access to the media which unfortunately isn’t readily available to women in Congo. Listening to the radio and reading through the small amount of print media available here, it is clear that Congolese media is a field largely populated by men, which leads to an often one-sided representation of current news and issues in Congo.
Because of the problems that have overwhelmed women in Congo concerning sexual violence and general second-class status, the approach of AFEM-SK is a necessary one in order to tell the entire story of what is happening in Congo. While making a field visit in Kaniola, the site of a recent massacre in which the soldiers (FDLR rebels) raped the village’s women after killing many of their husbands and their children, I saw one huge strength in AFEM-SK’s approach that I was not expecting: Speaking to a female journalist, in many instances, seems to make it easier for raped women (who often carry the well-known social stigma and shame after the incident) to tell their stories in a clear manner, to a journalist who might sympathize with their pain in ways in which a male journalist could not. As the women working for AFEM-SK are themselves all Congolese, born and raised, they are victim to the same threatening atmosphere and state-wide subjugation of women, and have the same type of fear concerning the rampant sexual violence in eastern Congo. Speaking to the rape victims profiled in Kaniola, I could see the victims relating their experiences in a brutally honest and candid manner, all in an atmosphere free from judgement or stigma. One woman, Bora, talked of being dragged into the forest and raped first by four FDLR soldiers, who then proceeded to rape her using broken-off branches of trees. While this was happening, other soldiers took her husband into the woods nearby and sodomized him. The physical pain has not subsided since, and she mentioned that the emotional pain endured is slowly eased by speaking of her experiences, in particular with other women.
The head of AEFM-SK, Chouchou Namegabe Dubisson, has also been awarded for her work in Congo by Vital Voices, and will be present in Washington D.C. with my friend Marceline. Chouchou has been active in journalism for many years, and is well known for her educational theatre pieces aired on Radio Mandeleo, which spoke of everything from how to protect women from HIV/AIDS to how to increase the amount of equality between women and men in the household. Since beginning AFEM in 2003, she has also worked with her staff to report on sexual violence in South Kivu, attempting to offer the perspective of raped women to audiences across Congo, in order to begin changing the mentality of those who accept rape in Congo as a given, and an unsolvable problem. With her experience, Chouchou also trains other women journalists, hoping to increase the amount of women present in Congolese media, especially in leadership roles. With a staff full of well-trained women journalists, fluent in the local languages as well as French, it seems that AFEM-SK is bound to succeed in promoting women in Congolese media. In addition, many of the staff members are graduates of Centre Lokole’s (Search For Common Ground) “Sisi Watoto” program for young journalists, and thus have gained lots of expertise at a young age even before working with Chouchou. Thus, AFEM-SK provides a valuable space for women graduated from the program, who are often, despite years of experience, blocked from gaining key positions in the media.
Parts of the video footage and victim profiles we took at the site of the Kaniola massacre will be shown at this year’s Vital Voices awards in Washington D.C. if you are interested in seeing the footage.
If there seems to be an overwhelming theme from these last few blog entries that sexual violence against Congolese women continues without any real promise of accountability or justice, I’d agree. However, local NGOs like SOS Femmes en Dangers and AFEM-SK work to change this, and from the last two weeks of work with both organizations, it is clear that the system, with proper pressure applied, can be changed. There are talented women in every town and village with the goal of protecting vulnerable populations. The media has continually proved itself to be an essential tool for forcing societal change, and hopefully increased recognition of those working for this will aid in the process and increase the safety of Congolese women. The FDLR are still here, but they know, as does everyone else, that there are many reporting on their violence and working to empower women to resist and force their society to change. While there is no hope for stopping sexual violence in Congo in its tracks, there is overwhelming evidence, like that which I saw in Kaniola, that there is a real opportunity to slow the tide and force the state to recognize the problem and condemn it, given the proper representation of the problem in the media by groups like AFEM-SK.
So try to get to the Vital Voices Awards in March (the 19th) if you have the chance, and hear these stories for yourselves and find out how you might be able to help Chouchou and Marceline, and in turn Congolese women in general.
Posted By Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)
Posted Mar 28th, 2009