BUKAVU, DRC – Like everything else, reading material is scarce and expensive here. There isn’t a daily newspaper in Bukavu, and after visiting several libraries and bookstores in different parts of the city, I didn’t see one even from another region. The media that people rely on seems to be the radio, but I’ve met a few radio journalists and they have the same scarcities, which makes it very difficult for them to cover issues and stories (not to mention the fact that journalists who cover controversial topics get assassinated every so often – more on that later).
I’m in Bukavu, in South Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s a big city! About a million people, in the uplands, on the coast of a strange and geologically fascinating volcanic origin Lake Kivu. The city, and the province (which has about 4-5 million people according to estimates I’ve heard and read), have seen too much of too many kinds of violence over the past 15 years. I have wanted to come here for a long time, for various reasons. The main reason is something I’ve felt rather intensely since I got here: communication between this part of the world and the rest of the world is very difficult (as it turns out, communication within this part of the world is also very difficult), and it is hard to tell what is going on from far away. Since being here I’ve had a closer look at the IRC Lancet mortality study from 2006 (Coghlan 2006) but not the one from 2008, which I don’t have with me and don’t really want to try to download with the internet connection that I’m able to muster here every few days. I’m not here for too many more days: I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can to write and follow up when I get home, but I wanted to at least write from here once (which involves typing this up on my laptop at a place that’s using a generator so I can keep my battery charged, saving it to a USB, taking that to a internet cafe in town – which implies finding a way to get to town – that is also using a generator and hopefully has a satellite connection, and upload it there).
Back to the mortality study: after doing the well-established cluster sampling technique (to radically oversimplify asking 19,500 families randomly who they lost and how they died) the International Rescue Committee researchers estimated 3.9 million excess (preventable, conflict-related) deaths that can be attributed to the conflict from 1998-2004. The more recent study found a figure more like 5 million. A fraction of that was direct violence, in smaller or bigger massacres. A bigger fraction is preventable diseases, a lack of potable water, and malnutrition, all of which go untreated because people are unable to move (because of the insecurity along the roads).
A little more about the roads, which are driving me nuts – and which make Congolese life far more difficult, even though people on the roads are unbelievably patient by any human standard. Hardly any roads are paved, but the stones jutting up from the dirt on the roads are in a constant process of destroying people’s cars. They are also evidence that the roads were once in better condition than they are today, which surprised me when I heard it from numerous people now. Infrastructure has actually deteriorated here, largely because of the conflict, and the lack of communication and access, I think, is a major factor exacerbating the deadliness of the conflict (small distances to medical facilities become big distances, carrying massive amounts of supplies on your back on one meal a day means your health will eventually crash, some things become impossible to transport at all, any other infrastructure, like power lines, becomes far more difficult to build, etc).
The cars (and motorbikes) don’t stay on one lane or the other, but meander around on the road trying to find the least destructive path. They share the roads with many many more people trying to walk where they’re going, including women (usually women) carrying very heavy bags of things (stone, sugar cane, flour, bananas, or any number of other things). There are constant traffic jams, mechanical failures, people running out of gas. But here’s where the patience comes in: if you’re driving, people will push your car for you, run and get you a (plastic used water) bottle of gasoline to tide you over, and get out of the way of the car. If you’re walking, you’re expected to get out of the way even though the cars are centimetres from running you over. Each minute on the road generates a hundred incidents that would cause violence among North Americans, who are incomparably less generous to strangers, especially on their roads.
So, what’s going on here now? This region is currently hosting an military operation called “Kimya II”. “Kimya” is Swahili for “silence”, and to understand the politics of this situation it’s necessary to go back over a decade, to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, which is ground zero for the current conflict here in Congo.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees (mostly Hutu) fled Rwanda and ended up in South Kivu (and North Kivu) after the genocide, and among them were the armed groups that had carried it out, one group of whom was called the Interahamwe. Even though the vast majority of the refugees were not involved in the genocide, the Rwandan regime of Paul Kagame that took power in Rwanda after the genocide in 1994 labeled all of the refugees as ‘genocidaires’. In 1996, Kagame’s army invaded the Rwandan refugee camps and hunted the refugees down. Some estimates (cited by Prunier 2008) are that the Rwandan regime and allies killed over 200,000 refugees in that 1996-7 war. But since the war had now reached the Congo, itself weak and unstable (it was the Zaire of the dictator Mobutu) it unleashed hell in Congo itself too. Armed groups of Congolese, including a group called the Mayi Mayi, organized themselves against the invaders. Another group of Congolese, called the AFDL, under Laurent Kabila joined with the Rwandans and Laurent Kabila ended up replacing Mobutu in power (and renaming Zaire to the DRC).
In 1998, Rwanda (and Uganda) invaded the DRC again. The DRC appealed to other neighbours for help, and Angola and Zimbabwe responded. The result was “Africa’s first world war” and the conflict that caused all the mortality documented in the IRC studies.
The 1998 war has continued, in hotter and cooler phases, until the present. There were elections in 2006 that were won by Joseph Kabila, the son of Laurent Kabila. There are currently about 16,000 UN troops here (MONUC is the mission’s name), mostly Pakistanis and Uruguayans, but like other UN missions, there are many countries represented. It feels like a semi-post conflict situation.
Who are the actors in the current, “Kimya II” operation? The Congolese Army, or the FARDC, are fighting alongside the Rwandan, and Ugandan armies, that are back on Congolese soil. Their aim is to destroy the bases and military capacity of the FDLR (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda), who some people still refer to as the “Interahamwe” and who the Rwandan regime refers to as the “genocidaires”. The FDLR have tens of thousands under arms and are deep in the jungle (cities like Bukavu are relatively safe and are where people run to from the rural areas). I’ve heard a lot of angry comments at the Congolese government for inviting the former invaders back in, especially when (terrible) atrocities were committed by every armed group in the conflict.
“Kimya I”, and another operation, “Umoja Wetu” (which means “our unity”, the unity between the Rwandans and Ugandans and Congolese armies) was the North Kivu version of the operation. Its principal effect seems to have been to push the FDLR cadres into South Kivu, hence the need for “Kimya II” here.
As I said, here in Bukavu it is pretty safe: This is where people come when their villages are attacked, for security and for medical care (I visited the exemplary Panzi hospital the other day, where thousands of women have come for treatment after sexual violence). This whole war has had the effect of emptying the countryside and concentrating people in the cities and their hinterlands. The result is intense urban problems here and agricultural and environmental problems in the countryside, as the communities that are left become still more isolated and vulnerable to conflict.
Although everyone talks about the war, certain topics seem to be taboo. Some actors can be criticized relatively freely (the FDLR, the Mayi Mayi), while others are virtually never mentioned openly (mainly Rwanda’s government). The difference probably provides a clue about the relative power of the actors and about who people are most afraid of, although, as I said, every armed group has committed atrocities here (and the majority of atrocities have remained in impunity).
When I’ve asked people what the way out of this conflict is, the most interesting answer I’ve gotten is this: a political opening in Rwanda that allows the FDLR to return and allows power-sharing there, an end to the politics of exclusion. Peace in the Congo isn’t possible without political change in Rwanda: a tall order for both, given how traumatized both societies are. As it stands though, the Rwandan regime seems to want it both ways: on the one hand, it claims its political process is fine and it is not Rwanda that has to change. On the other hand, it claims the right to interfere militarily in the DRC because it faces an existential threat from other Rwandans in the form of the FDLR. It’s a fragile period that threatens to get worse fast, but nor is it without hope: people are struggling mightily for peace, justice, and development here, despite all odds.
Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer.
Colombia’s president, Alvaro Uribe Velez, actually presented a dossier from his intelligence agencies when he visited Canada. The intelligence agencies were claiming, based on a magic laptop, that there were FARC guerrilla cells operating in Canada, masterminded by the cousin of the assassinated guerrilla leader Raul Reyes.
In my question/answer about the Canada Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA), I cited a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), an organization that has a board with people like George Soros, Kofi Annan, Richard Armitage, Louise Arbour, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Lakhdar Brahimi, and Ernesto Zedillo on it – not exactly raging radicals, in other words. The ICG report I cited is called “The Virtuous Twins: Protecting Human Rights and Improving Security in Colombia.” The passage I cited recommended that the international community condition arms sales to Colombia on respect for human rights. Its strongest stance was reserved for the Colombian government’s practice of attacking human rights activists as terrorists:
“Despite some recent measures in reaction to the mounting extrajudicial execution scandal, the security forces have a long way to go regarding accountability, professionalism and full commitment to human rights…an absolute precondition is an end to the stigmatisation by high government officials of human rights groups as linked to guerrillas.”
So, Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe Velez came to Canada and spoke to Canadian politicians in order to try to resurrect the stalled CCFTA. How did he prepare the ground for this visit in Colombia, and what did he do in Canada?
He violated the “absolute precondition” for engagement with his regime and engaged in “stigmatisation” of “human rights groups as linked to guerrillas”. And, like his regime has done in the past with Venezuelans and Ecuadorians, he did so not only with Colombians, but with Canadians as well. Regimes that violate people’s rights don’t stop at any borders. Indeed, for the CCFTA to pass, it is probably necessary that those of us who are against it in Canada receive smears, false accusations, and perhaps legal persecutions the way people in Colombia do.
It started, as it usually does, in the Colombian media, last week. Remember that the CCFTA was stalled in the Canadian Parliament (we won’t say “prorogued”) on May 27/09. On June 4/09, Colombian media outlet RCN pronounced that the Colombian guerrilla group FARC had a “foreign ministry” in Canada. The source? “Colombian intelligence officials”, “who traveled to Canada to confirm suspicion” that a FARC leader’s family members “form the guerrillas’ foreign ministry and keep contact with human rights NGOs and leftist political parties.”
As usual, no evidence except the claims of these unnamed “intelligence officials” was provided. Not even a magic laptop was given.
Coincidentally, a day later on June 5/09, Canada’s latest free trade partner, Peru, was massacring indigenous protesters – over 40 at the latest count, with over 20 police dying as well – for their blockades, which were set up to protest laws enabling the seizure of their lands and the opening up of the Amazon to mining developments that they won’t benefit from, destroying the agricultural and natural lands that provide the means for their survival. This is an ongoing free trade massacre, occurring to ensure that the agreement benefits those who pushed it through. Implementing legislation for the Canada-Peru Free Trade Agreement had been passed two days before (by the Conservatives and the Liberals*). Mining Watch, Council of Canadians, and Common Frontiers argued that Canada should pull out of the Peru Free Trade Agreement. It could be stopped if the Canadian Senate sends the bill back to Parliament for reconsideration. If a massacre like this can’t force a reconsideration, it’s not clear what can – or what motivates decisions like these.
Back to Colombia for more “stigmatisation”. On the day of the massacre in Peru (June 5/09), Colombian Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo, a very strong voice against the CCFTA on economic grounds (Robledo visited Ottawa earlier this year and tried to explain the economics of the CCFTA to Conservatives and Liberals), published an op-ed about President Uribe’s sons benefiting from some government-sponsored deals. The land-turnaround deal for the politically connected is a fairly simple staple in politics: buy a piece of land cheaply, make some improvements to it, its legal status changes due to some political decisions, and then you sell it off at a huge profit. If you know the right politicians and know when to buy and sell, it’s a great way to make money. Having a father who is President of the country doesn’t hurt.
Amazingly, just a few days later (June 10/09), Senator Robledo discovered that he was being investigated by the Colombian Prosecutor-General for links to FARC! The basis for the accusation? The magic laptop, again! Yes, indeed, it was “evidence” found on the computer of assassinated FARC leader, Raul Reyes, that was implicating Senator Robledo, just days after he published an article showing evidence of corruption by the President’s sons! Robledo published a quick reply saying these absurd accusations would not silence him, and reminding readers that the magic laptop had been in the possession of police for 15 months; of his 30 years teaching at the National University of Colombia and renouncing violence consistently throughout; of his membership in MOIR and the Polo Democratico, both of which reject violence. Robledo went on:
“It’s no coincidence that this defamation against me, with the obvious intent to discredit me, occurs when Alvaro Uribe failed to win approval of the FTA with Canada, where my article about the business interests of the President’s sons has been circulating and where the Parliament has just heard arguments from the an international trade commission explaining why it should reject the CCFTA.”
The Harper-Uribe sitdown the next day (June 11/09) saw both men float fantastic stories about FARC cells in Canada and “ideological” motivations for opposing the CCFTA (this from the ideology-free quarters that produced “Seguridad Democratica”, Stockwell Day, and Jason Kenney). This wasn’t the energetic Harper-Uribe handshake that happened in 2007 when they had Bush behind them, however: the photo shows two tired men whose politics never fit well with democracies, but whose nastiness seems especially outdated now that their patron has switched to selling hope and optimism. In Parliament, Uribe treated NDP and BQ politicians more or less the same as he treats Polo Democratico politicians in Colombia: with vague accusations of association to terrorism and smears from the magic laptop. When the politicians brought up the ICG’s point on “stigmatisation” of human rights defenders, Uribe dodged the question with all the skill the Canadian Conservatives have shown:
“The vast majority of NGOs move freely in Colombia. There are some cases of these organizations serving terrorist groups and they have to be investigated… I no longer want to be engaged in personal confrontations with people of these organizations that have something personal against me.”
Conservatives and Liberals both reverted to their usual argument that Uribe was making “efforts to improve human rights” (Liberal) and that critics shouldn’t “dwell on individual cases” (Conservative).
In the Liberal-Conservative world, this is presumably true even if the situation is dismal and the (dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions) of “individual cases” add up to a systematic pattern.
* Thanks to Dawn Paley for this link
Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. His blog is www.killingtrain.com.
The Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA) was withdrawn from the table while being debated for its second reading in Canadian Parliament on May 27, 2009. Stalled for now, the CCFTA will certainly be back: it has not been defeated, and its proponents (the Conservatives and some of the Liberals) await an opportunity to bring it back.
The following set of questions and answers are intended to help those in Canada trying to stop the CCFTA (or see to it that it stays down).