People are Dying While the Politicians are Talking

Aid workers prepare rations of sorghum (AFP, Giulio Petrocco)

Aid workers prepare rations of sorghum (AFP, Giulio Petrocco)

As negotiations are slowly underway in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, humanitarian crises worsen. Internally displaced persons in camps in Jebel Marra in North Darfur, have no aid or relief access. Also spiked water shortages in Zam Zam camp are leaving displaced people without water. The local authority have reduced the fuel quota for water stations manned by UNICEF and at other privately owned stations. The crisis has increased the price of a barrel of water to 10-12 Sudanese pounds inside the camp, and aggravated long queues in front of the eight UNICEF stations, which are only operating for three hours a day. People in Kokaya in East Darfur have also been suffering water shortages for the month following the failure of the only water station in the area. A citizen of the area told Radio Dabanga that the lack of water has killed livestock including donkeys and cows. Meanwhile, Tolom refugee camp in eastern Chad has been suffering from a lack of water for the past four days after a pump stopped working, leaving 25,000 people without access to drinking water. Also shortages of drinking water in Seraf Umra, Dankoj and El Nasim camps for internally displaced people is getting worse as pumps are failing and other stations have reportedly been sabotaged by unknown groups. As if things couldn’t get any worse, there is also a famine threat in the Nuba Mountains with thousands left without access to food, water, and assistance.

Meanwhile, the peace talks between Sudan and South Sudan are said to be yielding slow progress despite reports of fresh clashes on the ground and questions about Sudan’s withdrawal from the disputed Abyei region.  Tensions were high as the latest round of negotiations opened with a South Sudanese demand for sanctions against Khartoum.

“The government of Sudan did not withdraw from Abyei within the two weeks as required.  This is a violation. We also asked the representative of United Nations to report this violation, and this non-compliance by the republic of Sudan, and we expect Sudan to suffer sanctions and measures from the Security Council as promised.” South Sudan’s Chief Negotiator, Pagan Amum.

Although recent negotiations are a great cause of celebration and progress between the two countries, my concern is with the dire need of the people on the ground who are facing humanitarian crises and water shortages everyday. I hope the leaders and mediators spend each day of negotiation wisely, realizing that with every day passing, humanitarian conditions are worsening.

The Complex Web of Violence Gets Messier in Congo

Congolese residents flee fighting in Eastern Congo amid fears that Rwanda is backing the mutineers (AFP/File, Junior D.Kannah)

Congolese residents flee fighting in Eastern Congo amid fears that Rwanda is backing the mutineers (AFP/File, Junior D.Kannah)

The eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, particularly the provinces of North and South Kivu, has long had the reputation of being one of the most violent and chaotic places on the continent. Furthermore, recent splurges of mass violence mark a definite deterioration in the already critical humanitarian situation, especially with regards to troubled relations with Rwanda.

A leaked internal UN report seen by the BBC and Global Post on Monday accused neighbouring Rwanda of supplying weapons and soldiers to rebels linked to General Bosco Ntaganda in eastern DR Congo. UN officials interviewed 11 rebel deserters, all of whom claimed to be Rwandan citizens. They said they were recruited and trained in Rwanda earlier this year before being transported across the border to join a rebellion, dubbed March 23 Movement or M23, kick-started by Ntaganda, who is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. After training, some of the recruits said they were told they would be fighting the Congolese government while others were told they would be defending Congolese Tutsis against persecution.

“All those who have been arrested after the last fighting are telling the same story,” Lambert Mende, Congo’s communications minister said, adding that an inquiry was under way and Congo government itself was not accusing Rwanda of supporting the rebels. Rwanda is denying it, and we don’t have any reason to doubt what they’re saying at this time,” he said.

In turn, Rwanda has rejected the claims made by the recent UN report. The Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Louise Mushikiwabo, called the report as “categorically false and dangerous rumours.” She criticized the international community for “neglecting real issues of stability by limiting itself to symptoms instead of the root cause of suffering in our region.”

Mushikiwabo slammed the UN force in DRC (MONUSCO) stating that “the billion-dollar-a-year operation makes up one quarter of the UN’s entire peacekeeping budget, and yet it has been a failure from day one. Instead of pursuing its mandate to eradicate the FDLR menace and help stabilize the region, MONUSCO has become a destabilizing influence, primarily concerned with keeping hold of its bloated budgets and justifying its ongoing existence.”

Rumors of Rwandan support for the new rebel movement have surfaced for weeks, but the UN debrief of deserters offers the first evidence that will likely ratchet up already tense relations between Kinshasa and Kigali.

The two Great Lakes neighbors have a troubled history and now again it’s going to get even more messy. Rwanda in the past has accused Congo of harboring Rwandan Hutu fighters who fled across the border after carrying out the 1994 genocide. But Rwanda in turn has backed a succession of rebellions in eastern Congo over more than a decade of violence that has claimed the lives of over 7 million Congolese.

In 2008, U.N. investigators accused Rwanda of arming the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), led by renegade Congolese Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda and later Bosco Ntaganda, which after 2009 peace deal integrated the rebel troops into the Congolese army and made Bosco an army general. This brief period seemed to usher in a new era of cooperation between the two countries, but after international pressure to arrest Bosco spiked a few months ago, not only has violence exponentially started again but neighbor tensions between Rwanda and Congo have created more complexities to the already thorny causes and effects of conflict in Congo. It is extremely exasperating seeing the cycle of violence repeat itself while the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the DRC has now reached more than two million as of March 31, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Peace Negotiations, An Oxymoron While Conflict Continues

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is greeted by supporters during a visit to an immigration center in the migrant workers community outside of Bangkok on May 31, in Mahachai, Thailand.

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is greeted by supporters during a visit to an immigration center in the migrant workers community outside of Bangkok on May 31, in Mahachai, Thailand.

A new peace negotiating team, led by Burmese Railways Minister Aung Min, arrived at Mai Ja Yang, the second largest town under Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin state, at 3 pm today, according to Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) officials.

The meeting, the first between the KIO and government peace negotiating team in two-months, is intended to be a discussion rather than political negotiations, said a high ranking KIO officer in Mai Ja Yang.The previous meeting with government peace negotiating team led by U Aung Thaung, in Ruili (or Shweli), in China’s southwest Yunnan province, failed to achieve any lasting results. The government wants to sign a ceasefire with the KIO before they will discuss political solutions to the conflict, which started on June 9, after they ended a 17-year ceasefire. There are an estimated 75,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), most living in KIO-controlled territories.

Moreover, Naypyidaw’s leading peace negotiator is scheduled to hold informal talks with a senior member of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) on Friday amid ongoing fighting between Kachin and government troops in northern Burma.

Although government and KIA officials say they are hopeful they can reach an agreement, there have been reports in recent days that the conflict has spread to the well-known jade mining center of Hpakant. The escalation of the conflict comes less than a month after the formation on May 3 of a new government peace-negotiating team led by President Thein Sein. The new lineup consists of a working committee and a central committee that includes Thein Sein and Burma’s military chief, Vice Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi has embarked on her first international trip since 1988.  She feared that if she ever left Burma’s military government would never let her return home. She put up with 15 years of house arrest rather than risk becoming an exiled irrelevance. Suu Kyi is currently in Thailand to attend a World Economic Forum summit on Friday. Around 2.5 million impoverished Burmese have fled their country to Thailand in search of jobs. Next month she will travel to Europe, collecting while there the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her in 1991.

Trying to Find Effective Solutions and Compassionate Responses to the Deteriorating Situation with Sudan and South Sudan

A woman walks towards a cave shelter in Bram village in the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan April 28, 2012. Fleeing aerial bombardment by the Sudanese air force thousands of people have abandoned their homes and made make-shift shelters between the rocks and boulders. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters)

A woman walks towards a cave shelter in Bram village in the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan April 28, 2012. Fleeing aerial bombardment by the Sudanese air force thousands of people have abandoned their homes and made make-shift shelters between the rocks and boulders. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters)

“It is high time the international community realise that Sudan is the real problem and it is time to put strong pressure although the government is obsessed with sanctions. There is actually a need to put powerful and effective sanctions. The African Union should take [the] lead”, said Luka Biong, a senior South Sudanese official.

A UN deadline for Sudan and South Sudan to resume talks on oil and other critical issues looked likely to pass without action on Wednesday, as South Sudan accused Khartoum of stalling. The South’s lead negotiator, Pagun Amum told AFP that Juba has sent a letter to the AU mediator, former South African president Thabo Mbeki, saying “we have been ready to resume talks and we are waiting.”

But according to Pagan, the Sudan and South Sudan could not reach an agreement on their oil relationship. South Sudan was willing to pay a transit fee of $0.69 per barrel to use Sudan’s oil pipelines. Despite the generous sum compared to other international oil agreements, Sudan disagreed, demanding a sum of $36.00 per barrel.

Meanwhile, almost five million people in South Sudan, more than half of the population, face increasingly severe food shortages after their government ceased oil exports in a row with the country’s neighbour, Sudan.

On a bed of sticks in one of the many straw huts in Yida, Younam, a 14-year-old boy, told the story of how his family fled bombings of their village. When his family and other refugees reached Jau, a town on the border with South Sudan, Bashir’s soldiers attacked. Hiding under a tree, Younam witnessed the rampage. “They cut the babies; then the young people,” the boy recalled. “Then they stoned my parents until they died.” Days later, Younam arrived at Yida—naked, hungry, and scared. “I’m worried there is no one who will ever be able to love me like my parents did,” he said, rubbing his eyes to hold back tears.

Adding to the desperate situation, the U.N.’s refugee agency has refused to recognize Yida as a formal refugee camp, setting up two smaller rival camps to the south. Refugees say the other camps are built on swampy, treeless land and that they are unsuitable for living. Refugees, meanwhile, keep pouring into Yida.

It is overwhelming to bear witness to these heart-breaking atrocities and to maintain compassionate responses but let us try to absorb the essence of Ubuntu and realize that what dehumanizes others inexorably dehumanizes us. As an external observer, it is important to be emotionally present and self-aware to be able to find appropriate ways to help those in need.

Realizing the Gravity of the Situation in the Congo

A refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo reacts to camera as she arrives at the Nyakabande refugee transit camp in Kisoro town 521km (312 miles) southwest of Uganda capital Kampala (REUTERS/James Akena)

A refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo reacts to camera as she arrives at the Nyakabande refugee transit camp in Kisoro town 521km (312 miles) southwest of Uganda capital Kampala (REUTERS/James Akena)

 “There were so many of them. They came at 1:30 p.m. We were almost done with the school day. [The fighters] asked us to exit the room and then they took us behind the school building. They tied my hands with a rope. All of us were tied up. Then they marched us to the hill…. They told us we would fight for Bosco [Ntaganda]…. They informed us that we would liberate our country by giving our support to Bosco Ntaganda. We must support him so that our Congo would not be taken by others.” A 17-year-old student at Mapendano secondary school told Human Rights Watch.

A new Human Rights Watch report says Bosco Ntaganda’s troops, an estimated 300 to 600 soldiers who followed him in his mutiny, forcibly recruited at least 149 boys and young men around Kilolirwe, Kingi, Kabati, and other locations on the road to Kitchanga, in Masisi, North Kivu province, between April 19 and May 4. At least 48 were children under age 18. Human Rights Watch Senior Africa Researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg says much of the forced recruitment has targeted schools.

In mid-April, Ntaganda and fighters under his command told those living in towns and villages under their control that children and young men were needed for their forces. One woman from Birambizo told Human Rights Watch that Ntaganda personally came to her village and said, “Since you [villagers] have been with the government, you’ve gotten nothing. Why not join me?” The woman said: “[Ntaganda] asked us to give our children, our students, to him to fight. He came to our village himself, like [detained rebel leader Laurent] Nkunda used to do. But we refused and said our children should go to school.”

Now that the situation is exponentially getting out of control, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has decided to expand its charges on Bosco and also pursue the arrest of Sylvestre Mudacumura, military commander of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) militia.  ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said Monday he wanted to add charges of crimes against humanity for murder, ethnic persecution, rape and sexual slavery. He also sought war crimes charges for “intentional attacks” against civilians that led to murder, rape, sexual slavery and pillaging. And for Mudacumura, military commander of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) militia, the prosecutor is seeking five counts of crimes against humanity — murder, inhumane acts, rape and torture — and nine war crimes charges. This is hopeful and encouraging news, but why did it take the ICC this long?

Both of these very dangerous men have killed millions over the past 20 years and they were charged with much less than what they commited, like Thomas Lubnaga. Luis Moreno-Ocampo said that an examination of the evidence collected during the Lubanga trial has led the Office of the Prosecutor to request an expansion of the arrest warrant against Ntaganda for murder, persecution based on ethnic grounds, rape, sexual slavery, attacking civilians and pillaging. Ntaganda was a close associate of Lubanga, who in March became the first person to be convicted by the ICC.

“The followers of Ntaganda and Mudacumura have to understand that it is time for them to demobilize and stop their crimes, even help in arresting the leaders,” the ICC prosecutor, whose term of office comes to an end next month, said.

Kachin Refugees are Facing Food Shortages in Burma

A Kachin child at a temporary shelter for refugees in Laiza, Kachin State. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

A Kachin child at a temporary shelter for refugees in Laiza, Kachin State. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

Despite the positive changes that have emerged under the new government led by President Thein Sein, critics say much more needs to be done before refugees can return to Burma and peace and security become a reality for Burma’s citizens.

Case in point, thousands of Kachin refugees are facing food shortages as fighting between Burmese troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has escalated, preventing UN aid agencies from transporting supplies to camps along the Sino-Burmese border. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) sent aid in March and April, but has been unable to do so this month because the government army has stepped up its offensive near Laiza, the headquarters of the KIA, according to the Kachin relief group.

With no end to the conflict in sight, there are also growing concerns about how the refugees will cope in the coming rainy season. So it is not surprising that a dozen ethnic armed groups, including those who have signed preliminary ceasefire agreements, like the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) that urge the US and Europe to keep their sanctions on Burma. These ethnic leaders realize that Burma’s military shouldn’t be rewarded for ongoing aggression and human rights abuses.

“It is necessary for the international community to oppose and pressure the [Burma Army] for its wrong actions. They are calling on the international community “not to suspend or lift the remaining political, military, financial and economic sanctions.”

The UNFC have now set a deadline of June 10, 2012: If the Burma military doesn’t’ stop its aggression by then, the other existing ceasefire agreements will possibly be suspended.  This could lead to a complete breakdown of ceasefire talks and a widespread escalation of violence in Burma.

“The US government should not reward the Burmese government’s nascent and untested changes by allowing an unregulated business bonanza,” John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

The Real Hunger Games is in Sudan/South Sudan

Many thousands have been been displaced along the border with South Sudan.

Many thousands have been been displaced along the border with South Sudan

“I was running from the sound of the Antonov (aeroplane), carrying my baby, when the bombs dropped and cut my leg,” a civilian, Juad, said.

Sudanese armed forces are continuing to bomb the Nuba Mountains area in response to the rebels fighting them. Sudan has used hunger as a weapon of war, driving people from their farms.

There is no food, this is what we eat,” Juad said, displaying a tin bowl of chopped leaves and dry seeds.

“Since the war started, the people have been terrified, living in caves. There’s no way to grow anything or graze our cows… nothing is here,” said Ahmed Tia, a local commissioner of Buram county, sitting on a leather office chair under a tree.

The region is too volatile for the international community to supply aid, so no food is coming into the area that way either. Hundreds of refugees per day are embarking on the three- to seven-day journey to get to refugee camps on the other side of the border in South Sudan.The rainy season begins in a few weeks and will last until October, effectively trapping them without any supplies.

The same exact situation is unfolding in Blue Nile state. More than 200,000 people are in dire need and elderly and children are already starting to die. Many people live in caves in the hills to avoid aerial bombing, which happens day and night.

Rebels and Malawi’s leader have zeroed in the main culprit, President al-Bashir. One new rebel group the Sudan Revolutionary Front aims are:

“They want to change the way Sudan is governed, and that means overthrowing Bashir’s Islamist regime in Khartoum. That might seem slightly ridiculous — the idea of this funny little rebel group that no one’s heard of fighting its way to Khartoum. But they seem to be notching up some victories against the northern army.”

They’ve forged alliances with other rebel groups, including rebels from Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile with the goal of representing a united presence of resistance from the eastern to the western border, Tristan McConnell, GlobalPost’s correspondent said.

Malawi’s new President Joyce Banda has said she does not want Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, accused of war crimes, to attend a summit in July.

Despite the pressure, Sudan is continuing its aerial bombing campaigns on innocent civilians. How do we attempt to provide some hope and security to a place that is desperately unsafe?