History Shouldn’t Repeat Itself, Especially Not in the Congo

Newly arrived refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo queue at the Nakamira transit camp near Gisenyi in northwest Rwanda after fleeing the Masisi region in Congo's North Kivu province

Newly arrived refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo queue at the Nakamira transit camp near Gisenyi in northwest Rwanda after fleeing the Masisi region in Congo’s North Kivu province

“When the soldiers started to shoot, I ran. I thought my family was following,” a 15-year-old told UNHCR after arriving at Rwanda’s Nkamira Transit Centre.

He is just one of more than 6,000 Congolese to have crossed into Rwanda in the last 10 days due to increased violent clashes between the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) and a large group of mutineers loyal to General Bosco Ntaganda. History is repeating itself, and this time it’s the Congolese who are fleeing to Rwanda. And perversely, these innocent Congolese civilians are trying to get away from ex-Rwandan/CNDP rebels who waged genocide in Rwanda eighteen years ago and escaped to neighboring Congo to evade justice and the consequences of their actions.

“The transit camp cannot cope with that number (of refugees) because the number is increasing on a daily basis. We have gone beyond the capacity of this camp. We are trying to construct more shelters. We are expanding the water and sanitation facilities,” said Richard Ndaula, the U.N. emergency team leader in Nkamira.

Others have fled to Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province, from their homes in the Masisi and Walikale territories where fighting has intensified the most in the last month. The United Nations estimates about 58,000 were displaced within the province between January and March, a U.N. statement said. Statistics can be numbing sometimes, but this staggering statistic of 300,00 people being displaced throughout the country in the first three months of 2012 should serve as a burning wake-up call. Despondently, for Congolese, this isn’t the first time in the lives that they have been displaced, the cycle of violence is never-ending.

“It is nearly impossible to believe that, year after year, the lives of people in eastern Congo continue to be destroyed. The international community must commit to ensuring this region becomes safe and finally free of the armed groups, interested only in its natural resources, who prevent innocent civilians from living in peace”, said JRS Great Lakes Director, Tony Calleja SJ.

In addition, renewed attacks by the LRA in Orientale province has displaced more than 2,500 people, most of whom have fled to Dungu or nearby sites for internally displaced people (IDP), where they receive help from UNHCR and its partners. Just Wednesday, at least three people have been killed and 51 abducted, including 16 children. LRA fighters have built up a reputation for their random spurts of violence,looting, rape, and abducting people from the villages that they terrorize.Long-term security is the most important concern for the displaced.

Why is Congo plagued with such relentless bloodshed?

As we celebrate Mother’s Day here, let us commemorate the power of mothers and women in the Congo. Noella, displaced from the war, now manages a medical center, the Sofepadi Association. She says,  “Women contribute a lot to the peace process. They are the mothers at home. They can easily influence their households. And when you have influence in your home, you may also have influence outside.” Watch the video to learn more:

"Women are a force which can change the world”

“Women are a force which can change the world”

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Burma

The issue over Burma’s sanctions has been a hot topic of debate since Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrival in parliament.

Many human rights groups are urging the West to move slowly as it re-engages with Burma, saying the country’s partial return to democracy is not cause for celebration. Burma’s elected rulers today are the same men who just two years ago led a military government condemned as tyrannical by much of the world for jailing more than 2,000 political prisoners, conducting brutal counterinsurgency wars against ethnic minorities and failing to hand over power to a democratically elected government.

On Monday, the biggest rollback yet will take place, when the European Union is expected to temporarily lift most sanctions against Burma. The United States is under pressure to follow suit. Norway last Sunday decided to remove all limits on foreign aid, financing and visas.

“We’re doing this to send a positive signal to those behind the reforms of the last year,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere told reporters. “The changes we’ve seen in the country during this period are more than anyone could expect.”
However, uneasiness over a continuing offensive by Burma’s military against ethnic Kachin rebels in the north is a major concern of those urging a lifting of sanctions. This past week, the U.S.-based activist organization United to End Genocide released a report as part of a corporate responsibility project warning that rushing to invest with Burma might only make the country’s problems worse.

President, Tom Andrews, said “There is no evidence of reform for many desperate people in Burma. In Kachin state, the ethnic minorities saw bullets, not ballots, on election day. Tens of thousands of people have already been displaced, and now the Burmese army is actively increasing its troop presence.”

I think it’s important to create incentives for further reform and democratic progress.

As If Widespread Conflict Isn’t Enough, Now Food and Price Challenges Plague South Sudan

A local farmer harvests sorghum. (Photo Courtesy Fred Noy/UN Photo)

A local farmer harvests sorghum. (Photo Courtesy Fred Noy/UN Photo)

Thousands of civilians have been displaced following ground clashes between the SPLA and the SAF and aerial bombings by Sudan. As if that wasn’t enough despair, the rising fighting has more than doubled the price of basic commodities and food for Southern Sudanese living in the areas of Unity, Upper Nile, Northern and Western Bahr al Ghazal states. For the last month, traders who usually import foodstuffs from Southern Kordofan in Sudan to South Sudan have been victims of violence en route.

“A 20 litre jerry can of cooking oil rose from 20 to 40 dollars in the last two weeks,” said Simon Kenyi, a teacher in Bentiu.

The official death toll from the conflict is not known, however, but Unity State Governor Taban Deng Guy said this week that 75 people had died in aerial bombardments in his state alone.

On top of that, Sudanese authorities have seized and impounded more than 60 vehicles carrying food across the border to South Sudan, Sudanese justice minister, Mohammed Boshara Dosa, said on Thursday while inspecting White Nile State. He warned that Khartoum intends to rigidly enforce a ban on smuggling to the southern neighbor and that the seizure is meant to signal the fact that Khartoum considers smuggling of food to South Sudan as “a crime tantamount to supplying the enemy with arms.”

To top it all off, on Thursday the UN decided to reduce the number of soldiers and police in the joint UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) by 4,000, citing improved security across parts of Darfur. However this is incredibly far from reality and I cannot believe this option was even mentioned when UNAMID confirmed bombings taking place in North Darfur at the beginning of this month. Displaced and refugee activists told Radio Dabanga ‘improved security in parts of Darfur’ is inaccurate and the daily rapes, looting, murder and displacement of civilians along with impunity for perpetrators and militants continue to terrorize them with no end in sight.

The coordinator of camps in North Darfur, Umda Ahmed Ateem described the humanitarian situation in the camps for internally displaced people at the very least as ‘disastrous’, stating that famine, the impune rule of government militia, murder, intimidation of civilians and rape as a weapon are widespread and part of everyday life. He said it is shameful that the UN security council has not implemented any of the 17 resolutions drafted on Darfur.

It’s frustrating and difficult to understand how and why there is a disconnect between what is being done and what thousands of displaced, starving, and devastated civilians need.

War Criminal Bosco Ntaganda Stirs Never Ending Trouble in Congo- 5,000 Flee North Kivu

DR Congo rebel General Bosco Ntaganda is pictured in 2009 (AFP/File, Lionel Healing)

DR Congo rebel General Bosco Ntaganda is pictured in 2009 (AFP/File, Lionel Healing)

A few weeks back, I covered the story on General Bosco Ntaganda and his loyal soldiers’ defection and how it could shake DRC’s very fragile peace and lead to massive unrest. Regrettably that’s exactly what has happened this week. A BBC reporter in the Goma area says thousands of people are fleeing fierce fighting between government forces and soldiers loyal to Bosco. To  be exact, 5,000 people, mostly women, children and the elderly, have been displaced (src) in Congo’s North Kivu province, the United Nations refugee agency said Wednesday. The reporter saw a constant stream of families loaded with mattresses, kitchen utensils and suitcases on the road between Sake and Goma.

“There has been a lot of shooting, this is why we have fled,” an elderly man who fled Mushake told the BBC.

Bosco’s arrest warrant by the ICC was issued in 2006, but three years later Ntaganda and his fighters were made part of the Congolese army as part of a peace deal. President Kabila has previously refused to arrest him for numerous reasons but said Bosco should face a military tribunal in Congo and there is no need to hand him over to the International Criminal Court.

“We’re seeing now that people are suffering from that. It was predictable. You don’t integrate a former human rights abuser into the military.  They will continue the human rights abuse,” Kambala Musavuli, a spokesperson for Friends of the Congo.

However Ntaganda has continually denied any involvement in the new mutiny:

“I am not involved in what happens here (Masisi), I am an officer in the army of the DRC (Congo) and I obey the orders of my superiors,” Ntaganda told a journalist in Goma who works for Deutsche Welle. “My problem is between me and my superiors that I have promised to solve it.”

According to Musavuli, the scope of problems in Congo are huge and thus one of the solutions is the most important:

“We must bring these rebel leaders to justice so that they don’t continue to repeat these crimes,” he said. “There needs to be an end to the culture of impunity.”

“Only Time Will Tell in Burma”

Suu Kyi joins parliament

Suu Kyi joins parliament

To follow up on last week’s parliamentary stalemate, Suu Kyi and National League for Democracy party chose to compromise for now, jointly reciting the oath in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, as the ruling party and the army looked on. The NLD had refused to take its seats in the assembly last week because they opposed wording in the oath that obliges legislators to “safeguard” the constitution. The party, which has vowed to amend the document because it enshrines military power, wanted the phrasing changed to “respect.” But it is a new era for Burma as Aung San Suu Kyi took a historic oath yesterday to join the parliamentary system.

Although President Thein Sein’s government has been widely praised for instituting sweeping reforms over the last several months, including releasing hundreds of political prisoners, signing cease-fires with rebels, easing press censorship and holding the April 1 by-election that allowed Suu Kyi’s party to enter parliament, there is much more to be done.  More than half a million refugees remain abroad, hundreds of political prisoners are still behind bars and fierce fighting continues with ethnic Kachin insurgents in the north.

But as Suu Kyi believes, “only time will tell…I have always been cautiously optimistic about developments. In politics, you also have to be cautiously optimistic.”

Suu Kyi’s rise to public office marks a major reversal for not only the country but for a woman who became one of the world’s most prominent prisoners of conscience, held under house arrest for much of the last two decades. So there is much to celebrate about as she and her party debut in parliament this week.

Political Stalemate in Burma

A “technical problem” regarding the parliamentary oath has created a political stalemate in Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her political party are refusing to take their seats in parliament over the oath’s wording, from “safeguard” to “respect,” a move that risks unraveling the fragile and unprecedented detente between the opposition and the military-backed government.

They have vowed to amending the wording of the 2008 constitution because it was drafted under military rule and ensures the army inordinate power. Suu Kyi said she hoped the “problem will be smoothed over without too much difficulty before too long, and that we’ll be able to serve our country not just outside parliament — as we have been doing for the last 20 odd years — but also from within the national assembly.”

However, the dispute over the oath could spiral into a major setback before the National League for Democracy (NLD) party even enter parliament.

“It’s a very high-risk strategy for political gains that are not quite clear,” says Richard Horsey, a former United Nations official in Myanmar. “It’s wasting precious time that could be spent on actual policy making.”

I don’t know if it’s worth it to debate over constitutional semantics when Burmese are concerned with lack of jobs, healthcare and educational opportunities.

A Different Kind of Story from Democratic Republic of Congo

Congolese Freddy Tsimba creates symbolic sculptors from bullet castings

Congolese Freddy Tsimba creates symbolic sculptors from bullet castings

“For me it’s a matter of memory…War happens everywhere, but people have a tendency to forget, and then it starts again.” Freddy Tsimba told Reuters in the garden of one of his two workshops in the capital Kinshasa.

A very passionate and talented Congolese sculptor Freddy Tsimba has stirred attention in DRC capturing the trauma and healing of war through his art. His main theme is turning death into life.

Tsimba has experienced his own suffering of war having lost a brother during the fighting like thousands of his countrymen. He combs his home’s battlefields for relics of conflict before returning to his studio to create what he sees as works of against-the-odds optimism.

“Congo is like a pregnant female, made of spent cartridges, but who will give birth to a child… For me it’s life that restarts, rising from elements that take away life.”

Tsimba’s sculptures, in which the rusting cartridges are welded seemingly haphazardly together, eventually produce an intricate, web-like effect have caught the imagination of western art-lovers. His works have been displayed in Europe, the United States and Canada.

Violence is reaching new levels of savagery in Congo, where competition for control of mineral resources has drawn in several armed groups that have used rape as a strategy to intimidate, punish and control the population. But I choose this poignant and heart-rending story to illustrate the sheer resilience and healing capacities of Congolese despite what they have endured. Tsimba’s art is paving the way not only for the recovery process for Congolese but also to move the rest of the world by capturing the remembrance of revivification of DRC’s complex past and present. As pertinent it is to discuss the atrocious consequences of war, it is equally important to talk about and celebrate the stories of preserving survivors.