Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Part III

After I left Congo for the second time and returned to Rwanda, the hours, days, months seemed to slide like water through my hands.  Every day was the same - blue sky, brilliant sun, rain in the afternoon.  Eternal summer, slow, unrelenting and intrepid, without the breath of autumn chasing at its heels.  Somewhere in those lost summer days, I stopped paying attention.  I began to let things happen as if they were happening to someone else.  Memories are a gray river with small glimpses of color tumbling past, around a bend and out of sight.  Standing on someone’s crowded porch listening to a former army soldier who lost a friend in Iraq tell me how he was certain that American marines were training the Rwandan army on the border of DRC so that they could take over the mines.  A weekend trip into Mount Mikeno with friends and Congolese rangers, walking through a vicious ant mound by mistake, our guides telling us to run and everyone tearing off their clothes afterwards trying to get the biting things off.  The gorillas were beautiful and majestic and as a fine mist poured down through the trees, the light was gray and green filtered through thick leaves and I was in awe.  A large silverback grunted and indicated for the group to move out, away, and we didn’t follow anymore.  The rain poured down and I ran and slid my way back down the mountain on trails that were really just muddy paths over piles of thick vines and branches.   We weren’t walking on the ground at all.  That night I fell asleep in my tent to the sound of people laughing and talking around a fire nearby, at the base of the mountain.  One of the few nights when sleep came easy.

There are darker pieces of memory that float up from that time.  Arguments, usually long-distance by phone with the man I was in a relationship with.  I broke up with him often and then days later, would recant.  Those things are easy to forget because they seemed melodramatic, even at the time.  A way of feeling something when the days were running together, crowding each other, making it difficult to tell them apart.  At the end of that gray river all of the water rushed out and I was standing at the edge of the falls and I could follow that water down or I could walk away.  I never thought that I would walk away.  My whole life, the big dream was to travel, do something that would make a difference, and write.  From the time that I was in college and had my first opportunity to cross the ocean, until this point, I had always said yes to opportunities like this.   I was offered a job as the Programs Director for the non-profit I worked for in Goma.   This position would have given me the chance to mold and shape programs in eastern DRC for the organization.  By then we had a 10 year Title II USAID project starting in South Kivu and programs in the north as well.  It would have been the kind of work that mattered to me and I am still stunned that I said no.  I have left behind family, friends, boyfriends, dogs, and trucks in order to travel.  There has never been a single thing that could keep me from getting on a plane, anytime I had the chance.  But suddenly and unexpectedly, the idea of a home and quiet and the smell of rain became the thing I wanted more.  Touching down in DC that time, for what I thought might be the last time, there was a new and strange sense of relief.    

Driving from the airport through eastern Maryland along Route 40 I came across a small valley.  It was intensely green against the gray sky and a white blanket of fog hung several feet off the ground in mid-air.  As I drove through it, the car was shrouded in soft layers.  They say that ghosts inhabit such places.  Rolling down the window, I breathed in the smell of her.  The smell of earth and smoke and rain.  Celeste.  In the quiet places where I would try to make a home, I would think of her often.  I would tell myself that I had an obligation to do something now.  I had to try to find redemption if possible. 

In the months that followed, I spent time in West Virginia and then in New Mexico.  The feeling of relief that accompanied my first weeks at home gradually wore off and I began to miss my work, the chaos and my friends.  It was only a few months before I was back on a plane crossing the ocean again.  In the interim I got married.  Then he got a job in Uganda and I began to travel back and forth, many times alone, five weeks there, five weeks at home.  It was a strange feeling.  Having one foot on each continent.  I didn't like it.  I felt divided because I had a job with a nonprofit at home, but I was also trying to find something useful to do in Uganda.  By the time I would have started to adjust and get to know people, I would have to leave.  The gap made me feel as if I was always starting over.  In Kampala I spent time talking to local artists, digging through artwork, finding out who local painters were and wondering how I could connect them with the art world in New Mexico.  One artist took me all over the city in an afternoon, down sidewalks, behind buildings, into places I wouldn't have found on my own.  Meanwhile he told me how he discovered art as therapy, how it filled that space that otherwise would have been filled with darkness.  I met a taxi driver who told me that he was putting his sister through school with the money he made.  Talking in English without a translator, I could ask so many more questions than I could have in Congo and even Rwanda.  He told me that people could tell what tribe he was from just from the way that he spoke Luganda – that even if you wanted to, you couldn't pretend to be anything other than what you are.  He told me that he fed a stray cat every night outside of the room he rented, that he saved small pieces of meat for her.

I had a lot of free time in Uganda.  In that space of time, I read.  I was obsessed for a time, with reading about war and how different people react to it.  How we participate or ignore, how far removed we are from it in the US.  I read The Good Soldiers by David Finkel, War by Sebastian Junger, Where Men Win Glory about Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer.  I watched The Hurt Locker.  I've always thought that humanitarian workers and soldiers were at opposite ends of the spectrum.  I never understood what would motivate someone to enlist to kill people.  Reading these books made me see things very differently.  I saw that many people who enlist are trying to escape poverty, crime-filled neighborhoods, a bad family life.  Many aren't thinking about the people they might have to kill.  When they are taken into places like Afghanistan and Iraq, into surreal situations that pit people who have more in common with each other than they would ever imagine, against each other, the result is death, loss, suffering.  War makes no sense at all.  The way things are on the ground and the way that it is interpreted by the media and politicians is completely different.  I read how conflicted many soldiers were about what their mission was, and what they had to do.  Some were horrified when they found out that their fellow soldiers had ransacked Iraqi homes and left children’s clothing, books and food items strewn on the floor after home searches.  Others were angry because they had lost friends and wanted revenge on anyone they perceived to be on the other side.  Just like humanitarian workers some started out on one side of things and ended up on the other.  Some started out super-patriotic only to realize that they had been sold a pack of lies by their government.  Some humanitarians start out believing they genuinely care for the people they are serving only to find out later that they actually don’t.  This is all human nature, the good and the evil ways of reacting to stressful situations. 

Perhaps what fascinated me most were the accounts of a few soldiers who said that they only felt truly alive when they were out there, with a gun, in the middle of a firefight, laying down next to a fellow soldier, not sure if they would live or die.  Adrenaline of a kind much more intense then rock climbing, running marathons or sky diving.  These men wrote that coming back home was impossible.  Everything here was monochromatic and only when they were a thousand miles away and in mortal danger, did the world grow brighter.  There is some small part of this that resonates for me.  The most dangerous place in the world that I have ever lived in was Goma and it is also the place I felt most intensely alive.  When I think of Goma I think of color and music and energy and survival and it is not because this is the only place where these things exist, it is simply the only place that made me pay such close attention.  There is something about knowing on a gut level that each day could be your last, that lends weight to moments you might have overlooked otherwise, that makes every interaction more significant.  Now that I am back at home, in a quiet place, I often feel as if I am only half-alive and half-awake.  I try focus on the moment, to really see the beauty in this place but it is sometimes a struggle.  I came back from Congo so used to listening for the sound gunfire at night, shots ricocheting off rock walls, that I would practically dive under a table when the neighbors set off fireworks.  When I spent months alone in my new home in New Mexico, I would sometimes drive to the parking lot of the hospital down the road in the middle of the night, park near the emergency room, and just sit for hours because the house, the street, was all too quiet and the sound of the house settling, or tree branches scraping the side of house was completely unnerving.  Still, I know that if I had the chance, I would go back, commit to another year or two, to be in that insane stressful place, working with people who are so incredibly brave that I just want everyone in this country to have the honor of seeing their faces and hearing their stories so that we will all know what true courage is.  But then the lights come on and I remember my responsibilities here.  I remember that leaving has always been the easiest thing and staying in one place the hardest.  So I close the pages of job searches in central Africa.  I tell myself that the restlessness will pass, that there is such a thing as home and that most people find it comforting.  That every time I hear about the fighting in Congo, I don’t have to be the one to go there, that I can do my part here.  That my mother needs me to visit her more.  That I would have been miserable if I had chosen to stay alone over there.  That I will eventually find people here that I can actually have a conversation with.  That I should make an effort to get to know the neighbors.  That the best most inspiring people I have known in my life are not just the ones I met over there.  And I half believe these things.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Part II

What we run away from and what we run toward, is very often the same thing.  To pretend that it is not is a kind of closing of the eyes and turning away.  Every time my father tells the story of how by the grace of God, he somehow managed to survive terminal cancer the year that I was born, I say, “That’s really incredible” but in my head I think, You should have died.  You really should have died.

My life is not better or worse than any other because I had an irresponsible father who treated my mother in a way that was breathtakingly callous and who was no father at all to my siblings.  He has suffered for his choices as we all do and I no longer hate him – though there are still moments when I wish that he had died when he should have, so that my mother could have had a much different, possibly much better life. 

In Africa the sun throws down its brightness on your head so hard that you need to find a big leaf to cover yourself or it will drown you.  But when darkness comes, it comes just as hard.  And there is nothing that can make it undark before its time.  I should have known what was waiting for me when I went back to Goma.  Now when I think of it, I realize that she was always there and I was always riding towards her on an inexorable trajectory that intersected with hers on a dark night at the end of a dark road.  I do not know her name and so I call her Celeste.  A heavenly body fell from the sky that night and though I should have caught her, I did not.

The work that I did, the things that I saw and heard, they all should have prepared me.  They should have forced me to have a plan in case I came upon someone in trouble.  But I never came up with a plan because I never thought I would do anything other than the absolute right thing.  Fear never crossed my mind.  I was foolish and incredibly deluded.  Night fell down and covered everything up and riding on a dark road with a dear friend and coworker I was in the middle of the most important choice I would ever have to make in my life and I wasn’t even aware of it until it was almost halfway over.  I never doubted that when I saw a woman dragged off in the night by four men that I would do everything in my power to stop them.  I never for a moment thought that the anger that had grown up so strong around my throat from all of the stories, would fail me.  I never understood what it means to be truly frightened and how that fear can determine your actions.

I told myself that I did not get out of the car because of the guns pointed at us and because I loved my beautiful Malawian friend and because I knew they would kill him before they killed me.  I needed for that moment to believe that I was saving his life, even though I was not saving hers.  You will tell yourself anything in those moments to give yourself an excuse to back away.  But I know that the truth is that I did not want to die, at least not in that way, on that night.  I can talk about how many things I did that night and the next day and how I launched an investigation and the death threats that my coworkers and I received.  But none of that mattered because I knew that she would never be found.

I live in a quiet, quiet place now.  So quiet that you can hear the branches moving in the trees when the wind blows through them.  Darkness falls here too but it is a soft darkness full of deer and coyote.  In this place of quietness, Africa is both a dream and a thing that haunts me, a place I love and a place that reminds me of all I failed to do.  I am not brave, not strong, at least not anymore so than anyone else.  I didn’t get out of the car when I should have, and therefore, I didn’t die with her as I should have.  My greatest fear has always been that I might one day become like my father.  Staring at my hands I used to wish them darker, so that all traces of him might be erased.  But it was not my father staring down at her that night.  It was me.  And I made the choice to turn around, not him.  So whether or not I am my father’s child was always my own choice to make.  And all that running away I did, brought me back around to face the thing I feared the most. 

We cast shadows on the truth and bear up lies to hide ourselves from knowing.  I can’t do that anymore.  I have to take responsibility for what happened because I know that there is only one way through this place and it goes down that dark road to a small woman in a white t-shirt.  When I see her, I feel as if I am hopelessly lost, as if I will never ever be able to see anything else again.  As if she will be forever superimposed on my line of sight so that I must look through her to see anything else.  But I have learned that losing hope only causes me to add to the pile of things that I must atone for.  A friend of mine said that you should only hold as much guilt in your heart as is beneficial to motivate you to do something good.  So I am holding that part, the part that will allow me still try to do something good.  We are at all times engulfed in pain and beauty, in tragedy and grace.  I will not focus on one and ignore the other.  I know now what is waiting for me further down the road.  I know that another chance will come and I am better prepared for it. 

There is such exquisite beauty all around us.  Beauty that renders us voiceless and hushed.  And I am in awe of everything that is good and kind and loving and gentle and peaceful.  And I can’t hate my father for his selfishness and cruelty anymore because I know that we can all be selfish and cruel at any time.  There is only one thing that matters in this world and it is the love that we have for others.  When you get to the heart of all of the religions that have lasted, it is that love that is at the core of every one of them.  I pray every day that I will one day learn what it means to really love someone, to love in the face of fear and to render fear powerless with compassion.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Part 1

In the darkness, there are ominous sounds crawling across my consciousness.  Grasping hands and hearts, dragging me, half paralyzed with fear, to the window, to the door, to the staircase.  Gunshots ricocheting from buildings down the street from the hotel.  A truck colliding into a tree in front of the apartment – the driver unconscious and bleeding.  A man screaming, “fuck you” over and over again in my face while I desperately cling to him - terrified that he will leave me alone in the middle of the night.   

Perhaps it was inevitable that the shadowlands would engulf me in Rwanda.  I was lucky despite the heartbreaking chaos to have lived a life filled with a sense of wonder in Congo and the pendulum had to shift to keep this experience balanced, so that I would not bring false glory to this life and believe that it was too easy.  It is tempting to glaze over the details of how I came to leave Africa, of how I reached the point at which borderlines were crossed and darkness began.  How do I explain the way the pendulum of fear can shift in a moment and how a moment of hesitation can change your life forever?  It is painful and uncomfortable to talk of such things.  And so I don’t.  But there are words that must be said and these words hold me hostage in my bed at night and insist on taking form. 

In the years that followed my initial foray into the world of development in Congo, I continued to work with the same project that provided a platform for women to talk about the horrors they had experienced as a result of war and violence.  Through radio programs, documentaries, plays, song and dance, they told their stories and they demanded that the government do something to protect its citizens.  My work took me to towns and villages all over eastern DRC, from Bunia in the north to Baraka in the south.  In Rwanda and Burundi, I traveled from one end to the other, listening to stories, assisting with filming and recording, touching hands, shoulders, faces.  Bearing witness.

It was not unusual for me to travel between three countries in one month.  The trips were exciting at first, I felt incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to see people and villages that were so remote.  I would wake in yet another little hotel room after a long day of driving rough dirt roads to look out and take in the vivid green trees and hills and the smell of morning fires and I would think, “I can’t believe that I am this person standing here in this place.”

Only later did the loneliness of a life on the road catch up with me.  I would sit beside Lake Tanganika, on white sand and think of how this place looked like the beginning of the world to me, as if the dawn of time had never passed, the way I used to feel in the Marshall Islands many years before, as if I was seeing something secret and old.  Certain old habits move me.  A mother carefully wrapping an infant in cloth and tying him to her back.  The songs of the fishermen at dawn as they draw their wooden canoes across the lake.  It moved me to observe small gestures of kindness, moments of grace when I watched an old man help a small child cross a busy street in town.  But I couldn’t turn to someone and ask, “Did you see that?” and so rather than be alone all of the time, I started to go out at night when I was in town. 

Drinking alone in cities like Bujumbura and Goma is probably not a good idea.  But I took what I thought were reasonable precautions.  I always brought a book which usually kept me safe until I could decide if I felt like actually talking to people or if just being in the presence of others was enough.  I have never been any good at small talk.  If there is someone that I want to talk to, I have to sit and think of what to say and the questions that present themselves to me as a means of making conversation are always inappropriate. So reading my book, I would drink one vodka tonic and then pay and leave and hail a motortaxi to take me to another restaurant.  In such a way, I would make my way to different places and by the end of the night, I would have gotten past using my book as a shield and would have actually talked to several people and had interesting conversations.  There was the aid worker from France who revealed that she had slept with the two men at a table nearby on consecutive nights and that she was afraid of turning into one of those older UN women who never marry and never have children because they are always traveling and who sleep with a string of younger men until they are too old to carry on.  There was also the older American man on a field visit to Baraka who went with me to a local bar filled with men.  There were so few women that the men were dancing with each other aggressively, in the way that young men will when they are mocking not only each other but also themselves.  As we watched them in a dark humid space covered by a low thatched roof, he told me the story of how his wife had died of cancer, his grief still raw, and any words I could think to say were inadequate, so we walked back to the hotel in silence under the light of stars.  As we walked I thought of how consuming love is, how a connection like his – lifelong – must have been at the cellular level.  And it made me sad to think that even his cells must miss his dead wife and it made me wish I had someone to tell this to.

The women’s stories.  I still see their faces.  Brown, black, gold, beautiful smiles and sad eyes, hands reaching out to touch my hand, arm, shoulder.  I can hardly bear to think of the women I spoke to.  Justine, Grace, Jeanette.  To see their faces, to hear their names is to remember their stories.  We met in cold empty concrete buildings, sitting in a circle in chairs.  We met in a small dark hut in Bunia where there was one wooden bench and they made me sit on it.  We met outside of schools, churches, clinics, in the middle of communities encircled by mud brick homes, under trees, in the rain under a tarp.  They sang to me, hugged me, called me their sister, danced as they came to meet us on the road and I felt humbled, ashamed, because I knew that I was not the good thing that they were dancing for.  I knew that I would not change their life in any significant way.  I came to listen only.  To touch when I was brave enough.  

I heard my first story in Bunia, on the side of a green plowed hill next to a newly built house.  She was old and her face was lined, she was small and yet she seemed strong.  She had just finished putting the mud bricks on the sides of her home.  Her family was killed by a group of armed men from another tribe.  Her husband and sons were shot in front of her.  Her daughters were raped and then killed.  Only one daughter survived because she was not there that day.  As she told the story of that terrible day, tears rolled down her face and fell onto her shirt.  She made no effort to wipe them away.  As I stood listening to this story, I felt as if a boulder had dropped onto my chest.  I thought I knew pain.  I thought I knew suffering from my own little tragedies.  I had never heard of anything on this scale.  So I wept.  Uncontrollably.  Tears falling behind my sunglasses onto my shirt.  I held her hand and I felt a kind of fury mixed with sadness.  It was heavy and I could barely stand beneath the weight of it.  This was the first and only time that I cried while listening to stories.  After that it was as if the emotional side of my brain shut down when I went to work.  Even though I wanted to empathize and mourn with these women, I knew somehow instinctively, that if I did that every day, I would lose my mind and then I would be of no help at all.

So I listened and I recorded and I took notes and I talked and analyzed and tried constantly to figure out what would help women to be less vulnerable in this part of the world.  And underneath all of that, an anger that was born the day I heard that first terrible story, began to grow and wind itself around me like the branches of a tree.  I would hear many versions of this story in the coming months.  Sometimes the attackers were from the FARDC – the government army, sometimes they were from the rebel Lord’s Resistance army in Uganda or the FDLR.  At last count there were over 20 armed factions operating with varying agenda’s in North and South Kivu and all were notoriously ruthless.  They raped and killed, tortured and mutilated, men, women and children without discretion.  They stole whatever they wanted and destroyed communities in the most brutal of ways.  And they got away with it.  This was what astounded me.  There was no one that the survivors could call for help.  The police?  They were corrupt.  The government?  They were corrupt.  The court system?  It was corrupt.  The rape of a six year old girl by 5 soldiers in a village in Congo was ultimately settled with a case of beer delivered to her father.  The UN forces camped nearby?  By most accounts, they sat by and watched villagers being attacked through their binoculars but did nothing to intervene.  Not their mandate.  The army?  Many times the army was the perpetrator.  Mobutu began the trend of sending armies to prey on their own people.  He asked why they needed to be paid a salary when they had guns.  So they remained unpaid, left to seek out payment in whatever form they might decide to take it, with their guns.

I began to find it hard to breath sometimes when I would lie in bed at night.  I would feel as if the ceiling was too low, like it was caving in and like the walls were pressing in on me and I wanted to destroy the men who had done these terrible things and yet I knew that I was powerless to do anything more than listen and do my job so I began to feel like a fraud, like I was offering false hope by my presence.  As if they might start to believe that people in the western world had started to care about them when in fact they had not. That help might be on its way, when in fact it was not.  

Friday, December 5, 2008

Rwanda Stirs Deadly Brew of Troubles in Congo - NY Times Article

This article pretty well summarizes what is being talked about around here in terms of the Congo/Rwanda conflict.

Sent to HPPC - Central Africa

December 4, 2008
Rwanda Stirs Deadly Brew of Troubles in Congo
KIGALI, Rwanda — There is a general rule in Africa, if not across the world: Behind any rebellion with legs is usually a meddling neighbor. And whether the rebellion in eastern Congo explodes into another full-fledged war, and drags a large chunk of central Africa with it, seems likely to depend on the involvement of Rwanda, Congo’s tiny but disproportionately mighty neighbor.
There is a long and bloody history here, and this time around the evidence seems to be growing that Rwanda is meddling again in Congo’s troubles; at a minimum, the interference is on the part of many Rwandans. As before, Rwanda’s stake in Congo is a complex mix of strategic interest, business opportunity and the real fears of a nation that has heroically rebuilt itself after near obliteration by ethnic hatred.
The signs are ever-more obvious, if not yet entirely open. Several demobilized Rwandan soldiers, speaking in hushed tones in Kigali, Rwanda’s tightly controlled capital, described a systematic effort by Rwanda’s government-run demobilization commission to send hundreds if not thousands of fighters to the rebel front lines.
Former rebel soldiers in Congo said that they had seen Rwandan officers plucking off the Rwandan flags from the shoulders of their fatigues after they had arrived and that Rwandan officers served as the backbone of the rebel army. Congolese wildlife rangers in the gorilla park on the thickly forested Rwanda-Congo border said countless heavily armed men routinely crossed over from Rwanda into Congo.
A Rwandan government administrator said a military hospital in Kigali was treating many Rwandan soldiers who were recently wounded while fighting in Congo, but the administrator said he could be jailed for talking about it.
There seems to be a reinvigorated sense of the longstanding brotherhood between the Congolese rebels, who are mostly ethnic Tutsi, and the Tutsi-led government of Rwanda, which has supported these same rebels in the past.
The brotherhood is relatively secret for now, just as it was in the late 1990s when Rwanda denied being involved in Congo, only to later admit that it was occupying a vast section of the country. Rwanda’s leaders are vigilant about not endangering their carefully crafted reputation as responsible, development-oriented friends of the West.
Senior Rwandan officials do not deny that demobilized Rwandan soldiers are fighting in Congo, but they say the soldiers are doing it on their own, without any government backing.
“They are ordinary citizens, and if their travel documents are in order, they can go ahead and travel,” said Joseph Mutaboba, Rwanda’s special envoy for the Great Lakes region.
But according to several demobilized soldiers, Rwandan government officials are involved, providing bus fare for the men to travel to Congo and updating the rebel leadership each month on how many fighters from Rwanda are about to come over. Once they get to the rebel camps, the Rwandan veterans said, they flash their Rwandan Army identification cards and then are assigned to a rebel unit.
“We usually get a promotion,” said one fighter who was recently a corporal in the Rwandan Army and served as a sergeant in the rebel forces last month. He said that he could be severely punished if identified and that Rwandan officials and rebel commanders told the fighters not to say anything about the cooperation.
Another cause for suspicion is Rwanda’s past plundering of Congo’s rich trove of minerals, going back to the late 1990s when the Rwandan Army seized control of eastern Congo and pumped hundreds of millions of dollars of smuggled coltan, cassiterite and even diamonds back to Rwanda, according to United Nations documents.
Many current high-ranking Rwandan officials, including the minister of finance, the ambassador to China and the deputy director of the central bank, were executives at a holding company that a United Nations panel in 2002 implicated in the illicit mineral trade and called to be sanctioned. The officials say that they are no longer part of that company and that the company did nothing wrong. Nonetheless, eastern Congo’s lucrative mineral business still seems to be heavily influenced by ethnic Rwandan businessmen with close ties to Kigali.
Some of the most powerful players today, like Modeste Makabuza Ngoga, who runs a small empire of coffee, tea, transport and mineral companies in eastern Congo, are part of a Tutsi-dominated triangle involving the Rwandan government, the conflict-driven mineral trade and a powerful rebel movement led by a renegade general, Laurent Nkunda, a former officer in Rwanda’s army.
Several United Nations reports have accused Mr. Makabuza Ngoga of using strong-arm tactics to smuggle minerals from Congo to Rwanda and one report said that he enjoyed “close ties” to Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame. This week a rebel spokesman said that Mr. Makabuza Ngoga was on Mr. Nkunda’s “College of Honorables,” essentially a rebel advisory board. Mr. Nkunda’s troops recently marched into areas known to be mineral rich — and areas where ethnic Rwandan businessmen are trying to gain a foothold.
Mr. Makabuza Ngoga said in an interview that he was not doing anything illegal.
“I’m just a businessman,” he said. “I work with them all.”
A Tale of Two Africas
Rwanda and Congo are polar opposites, a true David-and-Goliath matchup. Crossing the border from Gisenyi, Rwanda, to Goma, Congo, is a journey across two Africas, in the span of about 100 yards.
The two-minute walk takes you from one of the smallest, tidiest, most promising countries on the continent, where women in white rubber gloves sweep the streets every morning and government employees are at their desks by 7 a.m., to one of the biggest, messiest and most violent African states, home to a conflict that has killed more than five million people, more than any other since World War II.
While Congo is vast, Rwanda is packed. While the Congolese are often playful, known for outlandish dress and great music, Rwandans are reserved. While Congo is naturally rich, Rwanda is perennially poor. Yet Rwanda has emerged as a darling of the aid world, praised for strong, uncorrupt leadership and the strides it has made in fighting AIDS and poverty.
The fates of the two countries are inextricably linked. In 1994, Hutu militias in Rwanda killed 800,000 people, mostly minority Tutsis, and then fled into eastern Congo. Rwanda responded by invading Congo in 1997 and 1998, denying it each time initially but later taking responsibility. Those invasions catalyzed years of war that drew in the armies of half a dozen African countries.
When the Rwandan military controlled eastern Congo from 1998 to 2002, it established a highly organized military-industrial network to illegally exploit Congo’s riches, according to United Nations documents.
A 2002 United Nations report said that top Rwandan military officers worked closely with some of the most notorious smugglers and arms traffickers in the world, including Viktor Bout, a former Soviet arms dealer nicknamed the Merchant of Death who was arrested this year.
“I used to see generals at the airport coming back from Congo with suitcases full of cash,” said a former Rwandan government official who said that if he was identified, he could be killed.
Rwanda may have a lot going for it — a high economic growth rate, low corruption, a Parliament with a majority of seats held by women. But many people here say they do not feel free. When the former government official was interviewed at a Kigali hotel, he abruptly stopped talking whenever the maid walked by.
“You never know,” he whispered, nodding toward the young woman who was smiling behind a plate-glass window smeared with soap suds. “She could be a lieutenant.”
Scarred by a Genocide
Rwanda is tiny, tough and intensely patriotic. Like Israel, it is a postgenocidal state, built on an ethos of self-sacrifice. Its national motto is Never Again.
One oft-cited threat is the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, also known as the F.D.L.R., a mostly Hutu militia that is based just across the border in the green folds of eastern Congo. The militia is thought to number 5,000 to 10,000 fighters. Some of its leaders are wanted “genocidaires” who fled Rwanda in 1994 after massacring Tutsi.
“These guys want to come back and finish the job,” said Maj. Jill Rutaremara, a spokesman for Rwanda’s Defense Forces.
Mr. Nkunda, the rebel leader, has used the presence of the Hutu militia and the Congo government’s failure to disarm it as a rationale for his continued armed struggle. His forces have routed Congolese government troops in the past two months and pushed the region to the precipice of another regional war.
United Nations officials say he has not acted entirely alone, either: they said they observed Rwandan tanks firing from Rwandan territory to support Mr. Nkunda’s troops as they advanced in October. Rwandan officials denied this.
Rwandan military officers admit, when pressed, that the Hutu militia has little chance of destabilizing Rwanda. The last time it attacked inside Rwanda was 2001.
Some Western diplomats, Congolese officials and Rwandan dissidents now believe that the Rwandan government is simply using the F.D.L.R. as an excuse to prop up Mr. Nkunda and maintain a sphere of influence in the mineral-rich area across the border.
“These are people who want to make business, and they cover it up with politics,” said Faustin Twagiramungu, a former Rwandan prime minister now in exile in Belgium.
Congolese officials say that that the Rwandan government is making no efforts to bring the Hutu militiamen back into Rwanda because Rwanda wants to make sure that any Hutu-Tutsi violence plays out in Congo.
“What’s happening in eastern Congo is a Rwandese war is being fought on Congolese soil,” said Kikaya bin Karubi, a member of Congo’s Parliament.
Rwandan officials dismiss these claims with a confident chuckle.
“We want to deal with these guys here,” Major Rutaremara said. “We want them back.”
Mr. Mutaboba, the Rwandan government envoy, said the allegations were part of “an organized campaign to distort the whole problem and give it a regional dimension.”
“It’s not,” he said. “It’s a Congo problem.”
Ethnic and Business Ties
But it may be hard drawing a fine line between Congo and Rwanda, despite the lines on a map. There is a long history of ethnic and business ties that seamlessly flow across the colonially imposed borders, especially among the minority Tutsi who dominate business on both sides, yet at the same time, feel threatened and a heightened sense of community as a result.
For example, several demobilized Rwandan soldiers in Kigali said the vast majority of volunteers who recently crossed the border to fight with Mr. Nkunda were Tutsi. Some of the soldiers said that they had relatives living in eastern Congo and that it was like a second home to them.
According to four soldiers and one employee at the Rwandan demobilization commission, at the end of their monthly meetings, officials at the commission ask for anyone fit and ready to fight to stand up. Sometimes the commission provides bus fare to the border, the soldiers said, and other travel costs. The soldiers usually travel unarmed, picking up weapons on the other side, they said.
One demobilized Rwandan lieutenant who just got back from fighting in Congo looked surprised when asked why he went.
“Why? I am Tutsi,” he said. “One hundred percent Tutsi.”

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Bus stop in Uganda
The streets of Kampala
Climbing Ngong Hills in Kenya
Lions in Nairobi
Rhino in Nairobi - he looks so sweet and ancient - one of my favorite creatures
Airport in Bujumbura
The road from the airport into town - Bujumbura
Bujumbura town
People crowd into a small school in Cibitoke to see the screening of our first documentary on women in post-conflict in Burundi

Boys in Cibitoke watch the documentary through an open window
Cemetary just outside of Bujumbura

When planes fall from the sky

We slide into a false sense of security so quickly. The smaller risks adding up to larger ones until you no longer feel fear at the things that frightened you before. This increased risk taking typically occurs at the field level. Not saying anything to the crazy driver who navigates the vehicle at an alarming speed over potholes, across the median, around the winding mountain roads. Arguing with gun slinging soldiers instead of being polite like you were at first. And then there are the plane rides. The really scary ones. Through storms and turbulence. Getting all the way to Bunia and then turning around because there is a problem with the landing gear. Pilot friends will tell you that you have nothing to worry about. Planes can handle turbulence. There is a GPS and other instruments that guide them in a storm. Pilots are cautious, they aren’t going to crash unless a series of events go wrong. Then, people you know, people you have met at parties, people you have talked to, hugged hello and goodbye, crash into a mountain on a rainy Congo day and you feel sick every time you think about it and you can’t stop thinking about it because it could have been anyone you know, it could have been any of the people that you love and care about and it could even have been you sitting on that long leg back to Goma, thinking one more stop to go and then, from out of nowhere, death in the form of a rugged mountain peak in Bukavu, slams into you.

One year and one day before this latest crash in Congo, another plane went down and those of us who knew the pilots were frantic. The sight of Alex and Tristan climbing down out of the rescue plane the next day at the airport in Goma with muddy clothes and wild hair is probably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. After that, I realized that there are no guarantees that life will continue for any of us. In a second, you can go from talking about your plans for the evening to final silence. So the only way to live is to be completely alive in every moment that you have. Take all of the risks and challenges that come along, do the difficult things, the right things, so that you never have any regrets. Being alive in the moment was so easy in Congo. Everything about that environment was completely in your face daring you to look away. So you dive into it the same way you dive into the onyx waters of Lake Kivu at night. Head first, laughing, in awe of the space that you are allowed to inhabit, if only for a moment.

Whether I’m taking in the view from the top of the Ngong Hills or pushing through a mass of people on the streets of Kampala, or driving past an overgrown cemetary in Bujumbura, it seems that lately I’ve become more aware that life, as short as it is, is often filled with marvelous things. Wild and vivid situations, sudden moments of revelation, and opportunities to live a life of compassion in the face of adversity. On these grounds there is no room for suffocating anger. We are all just birds spreading our wings for a moment in the sun, before the final ride on that comets tail across the universe carries us away, trailing dust and cosmic embers in its wake. In the end, death always comes too soon and so we must fly as high and as far as we can go and never look down. These are some of the lessons that I am still trying to absorb as I travel down this long road through Africa.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Goma traffic. The Pakistani UN troops wear blue turbans instead of helmets.

Through the kaleidoscope darkly

In waking, I find myself dreaming, in dreaming, awake, for an eternity of muted visions straining my definition of providence. The sky is brilliant blue to the north. Sunlight, golden in the afternoon, bathes the muddy paths in glorious light. To the south, dark clouds are crawling fast. The effect is striking. A sky divided. Ominous darkness on one side rapidly eating up the blue. The tree where the black-headed herons live is swaying violently back and forth. The mothers hunker down on top of babies inside their unsteady nests. The wind pushes me back from the balcony. A warning. Time to go inside and close all of the windows. But I am reluctant. I move closer to the edge and look down at the street. The rain is starting to pour down. I don’t want to go inside. I want to be alive for a moment, in the rain, in the wind, watching the last vestiges of sunlight as they are devoured by the dark clouds.

Increasingly it seems that time is racing past me, beyond everything that used to serve as milestones. I don’t own a vehicle, a house, a pet, the list could go on. I am freer than I was 2 years ago. I’ve learned to travel lighter. Lately I move between three countries per month. Rwanda to DRC to Burundi and back last month. Rwanda to Kenya to Uganda and back this month. What is the purpose of all this movement? Crashing into other cultures, trying to with hold judgment on everything. Sleeping in one hotel room after another. Guessing at the truth behind polite conversations. What are you not saying to me? What do I not say to you? What sand traps lie in the middle of what we don’t say to each other? Hugging, kissing, touching foreheads with strangers. Welcome to the rabbit hole. A beautiful, delicious, fevered, exhausting collision into humanity. There are days when I am ready to exchange this brown olive skin for something that will allow me to blend in better, something that will keep me from the weight of a hundred of eyes that follow every move. The anonymity that I crave is not found here. I need to move to Peru where I will be myself again and not the strangest of beasts, a circus freak, the creature with pockets full of cash. If an ATM machine sprouted legs and walked down the street, it would be treated exactly the same as I am every time I walk to the store. I want to find the words to explain in Kinyarwanda, Swahili, Kirundi: I am not white and I don’t have loads of cash. Even if I was white, that still doesn’t mean that I would have money. Stop stereotyping me based on the color of my skin – which really isn’t all that much lighter than yours anyway.

But these thoughts are poisonous and circular. If I feel this way, why stay? That’s what they would ask me. That’s what I ask myself. But I’ve made up my mind by now and the reasons are carved in stone. I will not leave until it is time. I stare at the ground a lot when I walk now. So that I can ignore the spectacle that I make as I carry my groceries home in a bag on my shoulder. I pretend to myself that the stares are friendly curiosity but on some days it’s just intrusive and abrasive. For a while I would have staring contests with people to see who would blink first. But I would always win because I would end up glaring and the other person would look away in confusion and then I would feel like shit. I’m tired. After 6 months without time off I will be ready for R&R in July. One week off. I’m planning to go to Kampala where I still might be stared at but probably not as much and at least I will be able to communicate with people and that makes all the difference in the world.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

On the road to Sake, DRC.

Little girl in Sake.
Our team films men and women in Sake discussing women's rights for documentaries that will be produced by the project and screened in the same communities.

The market in Sake

On the road to Cibitoke in Burundi. The mountains in the background are Congo.

Women from Cibitoke dancing at the launch.
Kibuye in the morning, on the shore of Lake Kivu.
May 3 Kigali
The light bulb shifts from bright to dim, flickering back and forth like a malfunctioning lightening bug caught in a thunderstorm. Outside, lightening flashes over familiar terrain turning it into an otherworldly landscape. Invisible dragons soar over the hills, white fire exploding from their mouths, the smell of scorched earth in their wake. I drift in and out of sleep.

May 5 Goma
Across the chaotic border, Goma roars to life. A full-on assault on the senses. Ten minutes ago the tranquility of rolling hills and waterfalls lulled us all to sleep and now someone has pushed the fast-forward button and cranked the volume up high. The cacophony of motorbikes dodging vehicles and pedestrians, money changers calling out, and planes rumbling overhead in the blazing sunlight overwhelms us. Bienvenue, the driver yells. I can’t stop smiling.

After the ceremony marking the launch of the project in Goma, the coordinator tells us that the government officials were annoyed because they didn’t receive money for the speeches they made, other than the transport money that we gave to everyone. He said they probably won’t come to any of our functions again. The project manager told him that he did the right thing in not paying them. You shouldn’t have to pay government officials do their job. Especially when the project is already supporting the government by doing the very things that they say that they want to do. The problem is that other NGO’s pay government officials to attend their functions. So they expect it from us too. It’s really annoying how some of them throw money at people to get them to participate in their activities. That is not development. We have faced this problem of money as motivation for attending workshops and trainings in all three countries. People will come if they are paid and they will participate but after you leave they are not going to continue doing those activities. There will be no motivation. We want people to participate for the right reasons. The PM tells us that he would rather have 10 committed people participate in this project because they want to solve problems in their communities, than 100 people who show up just for the money.

May 10 Kigali
The tiles are coming up in the living room. It’s as if there was a small volcano under the floor. It happened overnight. I made the mistake of telling the landlady about it. She completely loses it. She says the tiles will have to be shipped from South Africa, that I have to pay for everything. It doesn’t matter that it happened overnight, that I didn’t do anything to make them come up. In the end I evaluate the cost and stress of moving from a place with a really great view to someplace new with unforeseen disasters waiting to happen. I decide it’s worth it to pay to fix it. But I do research. I take a piece of the tile, jump on the mini-bus and in 15 minutes I am in town, on a scavenger hunt for the store that sells the right kind of tile. On the bus I meet another muzungu. A slightly drunk elderly Scottish man. He is wearing a white fedora hat with a black band, a daffodil yellow shirt and khaki pants. He squeezes in beside me and asks me where I am from. I say, the US and he begins a monologue that lasts all the way to town on how Americans aren’t really as bad as everyone says they are and that most of us are pretty good people, generous, just a bit misguided on how to help people development-wise. I smile and nod a lot. The conversation amuses me and I can’t feel the least bit insulted when I am so enchanted by his accent. When we get to town he pulls out a tiny slip of paper with his number and email address. He says, I would like to have coffee some time and talk some more. Then he says, you’ll have to excuse me, I’ve had some beers. Its 10 AM. Of course I’ll have coffee with him. I like hearing him talk, plus I want to find out what an old Scottish guy is doing in Kigali. In town, I finally find the right tile store. They have my tiles. They aren’t too expensive and they certainly do not have to be shipped from South Africa.

May 19 Bujumbura
Sunlight is filtered down through a permanent haze of dust. Its fading fast when I finally reach Pacific Hotel. A shabby set of buildings with a built-in restaurant. At $17 a night I can’t complain. But there is no towel in bathroom, the bed takes up the whole room and the mosquito net is full of holes. The fan works though which a necessity in the Burundi heat. Also on the upside, it is so loud that it drowns out the sound of shelling and any other mischief that the rebels might be up to at night. I sleep on top of the covers, not willing to venture underneath the ragged bedspread.

Evenings in Burundi stretch out longer than usual. I don’t know anyone in Bujumbura. So I sit by the water at Circle Nautique and talk to the stray cats. I eavesdrop on conversations in Italian and French. I watch a small family, a white UN type guy with an African wife and beautiful little boy. They are lost in a private domestic little world. I wonder what their lives are like. I wonder if they are happy. Taxi’s are cheap so I float from place to place, stopping anywhere that looks interesting. At first I let the driver choose the restaurant for me. But that didn’t work out so well because they took one look at me and drove me straight to the Chinese restaurant. One night I lost my phone and spent several hours retracing my steps in a vain effort to find it. I knew I wouldn’t find it but the taxi driver was nice and didn’t mind driving me all over town. It was the second phone I had lost in less than a month. The first one broke when I threw it across the room.

The road to Cibitoke follows the Congo border. The Country Director tells us that this road is exceptionally dangerous in the evenings. In fact we will have to leave Cibitoke by 2pm so that we can get back to the city before dark. He says that rebel soldiers often ambush vehicles along the road. He tells a story about a minibus driver traveling towards Rwanda who was stopped by rebel soldiers. They asked him to give them money. The driver said that he didn’t have any money because his minibus was not working well and he had repaired it several times and it cost a lot of money. The soldiers asked if he was refusing and he again said that he didn’t have the money. So they told everyone to get off of the bus and then they set fire to it and burned it up right on the road. Then they said to the driver, now you won’t have to worry about your vehicle costing you money anymore. The moral of the story is that you always pay the soldiers when they ask, you never say no. Apparently the rebels simply cross the border into Congo whenever they are pursued by government soldiers.

May 27 Kibuye
The road to Kibuye curls around the Rwandan hills in an unyielding embrace. It has so many sharp turns that people often become sick when the driver goes too fast. Our vehicle turns a corner and we pass through a small town. Coming towards us are two men on motorbikes driving side by side in the same lane holding hands. It was an unusual sight and made an impression on me. There may be some aspects of this culture that I don’t like but I do appreciate the part of the Rwandese culture that allows men to be openly affectionate with each other.

Rounding the final bend in the road, Lake Kivu unfolds in all its glory before us. The turquoise green water and little islands just off-shore are tempting. A wooden boat is parked at the dock and a boy calls out, only 5000 francs for one hour. But I’ve already been out on the boat and today I have too much work to do. We chat with journalists and camera men from Kigali. The journalist gets distracted, so he asks me to take notes for him on the launch. No problem. I write down everything about the project that I want people to know. It will be on the news tomorrow. I don’t have a television so I won’t know if he used my notes or not, but either way, It’s all there.

It’s dark when we reach the outskirts of Kigali. Small lights are glowing on a thousand hills. A Townes Van Zandt song comes to mind. “Living on the road my friend, was gonna keep you free and clean, but now you wear your skin like iron and your breath’s as hard as kerosene.” Sometimes I’m not sure if this life will lead me further down the wide road to destruction or if in the end, it will serve to purify me. I’m gambling on the last one. Mostly because this life does not allow me the dangerous luxury of forgetting the suffering that exists all around us. If I can not learn to stretch out my hand and touch the sick and the sad, the wounded and the oppressed in this place, than I will never learn to do it. God help the unbelief that clouds my mind at times, and lead my feet to trod on the narrow rocky path, that leads to paradise.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The road from Goma to Rutshuru goes through Virunga National Park. It is really beautiful and filled with wildlife. Through the trees you can just barely see a refugee camp at the base of the moutain.
This little boy came and stood beside the vehicle I was in and wanted some food. Before I could give him anything, the Congolese driver, gave him 50 francs. That really impressed me.

This is a typical IDP hut. A whole family will live in a little hut like this. This is in Bunia and it is not an IDP camp. It is a group of IDP's living within a village. This is a bit better than being in an IDP camp because although they have to live in this tiny hut, the community is able to help support them.
village in Rutuboko where we conducted the baseline survey
The road to a tiny mountain village in Rutuboko, Sake Territory, Eastern DRC - This area is controlled by Nkunda's rebel soldiers.

Friday, March 14, 2008

into the lion's den

The road bends and the path that unravels in front of you is completely different from anything that you had in mind. It’s death staring you in the face. It’s vomiting 10 times in one night. It’s the earth shifting beneath your bed. Its breaking all of the promises that you made to God.

Suddenly the thrill of crossing into rebel territory isn’t so newsworthy. It’s just another tale to tell. A conversation starter. I was in a tiny remote mountain village controlled by Nkunda’s forces. It was beautiful, lush, holy, pristine and almost all of the people that lived there, now live in IDP camps along the road to Sake. The camps are full of miserable little straw huts clustered together with pieces of UNHCR tarps clinging to the tops. Rounded alters built to the god of war. The most desperate kind of living imaginable. Pure survival. But so many don’t.

A new survey by NRC tells us that 5.4 million people have died of conflict related causes in DRC since 1998. 45,000 people continue to die each month. And in the US of A people are stressed out because they think that they are too fat or too thin. They are afraid that the person they love doesn’t love them or that the person that loves them will find out that they are cheating on them. They think that the lines on their faces make them less beautiful. I know this because every time I go home I become one of those self-absorbed people. It is so easy to let a depressive fog settle over you and to forget what it means to live on the edge of darkness.

There is a quote that rings in my head over and over like the tolling of the bells in the church steeples on Sunday. “There is a way to be good again”. This is a quote from one of the characters in the book, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. It’s a man telling another man that there is a way for him to redeem himself after he betrayed his friend in the most terrible way. It reminds me of what this work has come to mean to me. It is more than just curiosity now. It exceeds my desire to expand my views and my mind. It exceeds my need to travel, the never ending restlessness. There is a purpose slowly taking shape. It has something to do with finding goodness. Not in myself because that is not where goodness lives. But within the outrageousness, the tragedy, the brilliance, the unbearable lightness of life lived in constant metamorphosis. It lies within the people that I see on a daily basis, who continually reinvent themselves in order to survive and who continue to try to work for peace, in a region that most of the world has given up on.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

in the shadow of the lake

it took me a year to start this. one whole year in the congo. and then the realization. i have to begin now. so here it is.

it took almost three hours for the sun to rise this morning. it seemed as if the sky was frozen into place, paused. silver blue with pink edges. skeleton trees in silhouette. it was fitting. this is exactly how my life feels at the moment. after a year in africa, i am home. the strangeness is in how nothing seems to have changed. its as if i never left. as if i stepped into a time capsule when i got into the plane a year ago. before i came home i caught myself wondering many times: what is more real, my life in africa? or my life at home? i thought i would be able to answer that when i got here but now i realize that it is a meanless question. they are all real when you are in them. and when you are not, the other life seems like a faraway dream.

goma was a riot. it was undiluted life at full volume. i vastly underestimated how it would affect me. i should have known, in retrospect, that it would change everything. what i come back to, when i consider my time there is this. music. music i hated at first for all the trumpets and the brashy brassness of it all. music i couldn't figure out how to dance to at first. and then, suddenly, it all made sense. i had to see it live to appreciate it. the blaring trumpet, the slow swing, the guitar man so chill, the cadence, the rhythm, it came alive. what got me was that it had no minor notes. no, it was all upbeat, kick up your heels, major notes. not usually my style but so what. there was the chaos of dallas (local club). the rain at coco's (ex-pat club) pouring down on the dance floor through the thatched roof. we danced anyway. the energy at parties where the you danced until you forgot yourself, you danced until people were swinging from the trapeze, jumping naked into the lake, or dancing with fire. goma is crushing music and fierce energy.

i traveled to beautiful places while i was in congo. by boat, plane, helicoptor and most dangerously of all, by vehicle. from the sky the mountains are bright moss green bumps rising like the backs of ancient beasts. rivers are winding clay snakes, easily confused with roads. on the ground its a different story. you see the mountains in all of their grandeur and shining rivers from the back of a lurching landcruiser rumbling over potholes precariously close to the edge of giant cliffs. you think, i might die, but then, it wouldn't be a bad place to go.

uvira was a lined brown hand stretched out to heaven and lights on invisible hills across tanganika. baraka was hot dusty streets and refugees piling out of UNHCR trucks. beni was a mosque singsong praying at five in the morning. bunia was a border town. sake was riddled with bullet holes. that is what it was to me. it would be something different to you.

moving to kigali meant an entirely different world. it meant trading the lake for a thousand hills. living in the office with a curfew for my own apartment with two balconies and a view. and volunteer work for my first real contract. i will still travel to goma. sit beside the lake. drink a mutzig with dave or sean or luke, whoever is still around. watch another glorious sunset. talk about all the people that used to be there. i'll take a UN flight to bunia, conduct a baseline survey, work with our new team there. but something tells me it won't be the same as living there. rwanda is very tranquil. i miss the breathless energy.

there is alot more to tell. stories of crashed planes, heroic pilots, illegal plane rides, bribes, entanglements with UN soldiers and other escapades but those will have to wait for another time. i should have started this earlier.