Saturday, January 24, 2009

Shift Toward Peace, Hope for Congo

photo courtesy of NY Times.

General Laurent Nkunka, widely believed to be financed by Rwanda’s extensive business interests in eastern Congo, was captured late Thursday night by Rwandan forces as he tried to flee across the Congolese border.

General Nkunda's capture is a huge step toward peace in DR Congo. Although small, his Tutsi army has terrorized northeast Congo since 2002, leaving brutal rape, senseless murder, and hundreds of thousands of refugess in its wake.

A UN report issued in December, 2008, accused high ranking officials in the Rwandan government of sending money and troops to support his reign of terror. After that report was released, several European nations withdrew financial support to Rwanda, prompting Nkunda's capture and the neutralization of his army. Money talks.

This is an excellent article that explains the complexity of war in DRC and why the atrocities still continue to happen there today. For this reason, I have included it in its entirety.

New York Times article
Published: January 23, 2009

A Congolese Rebel Leader Who Once Seemed Untouchable Is Caught


KIGALI, Rwanda — Overnight, the battle in Congo has suddenly shifted.

Gen. Laurent Nkunda, the Congolese rebel leader whose brutal tactics and Congo-size ambitions have threatened to bring about another catastrophic war in central Africa, was arrested late Thursday, removing an explosive factor from the regional equation.

According to United Nations officials and Rwandan authorities, General Nkunda was captured by Rwandan troops as he tried to escape a Congolese-Rwandan offensive that has taken aim at several rebel groups terrorizing eastern Congo.

General Nkunda had seemed untouchable, commanding a hardened rebel force that routinely humiliated Congolese troops and then calmly gliding through muddy villages in impossibly white robes. But he may never have anticipated that his old ally, the Rwandan Army, would take him away.

The surprise arrest could be a major turning point for Congo, which has been mired in rebellion and bloodshed for much of the past decade. It instantly strengthens the hand of the Congolese government, militarily and politically, right when the government seemed about to implode. But it could also empower other, even more brutal rebel figures like Jean Bosco Ntaganda, General Nkunda’s former chief of staff, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes.

Still, analysts and politicians say they hope that General Nkunda’s capture at the hands of Rwanda means that the proxy war between Rwanda and Congo is finally drawing to a close.

A United Nations report in December accused high-ranking Rwandan officials of sending money and troops to General Nkunda, a fellow Tutsi who claimed to be protecting Congolese Tutsi from marauding Hutu militias. This cross-border enmity has been widely blamed for much of the turmoil, destruction, killing and raping that has vexed Congo for years.

John Prendergast, a founder of the Washington-based Enough Project, which campaigns against genocide, called it a “massive turn of events.”

“Finally the two countries are cooperating,” he said.

Kikaya bin Karubi, a member of Congo’s Parliament, said General Nkunda’s arrest “could be the beginning of the end of all the misery.”

“Look what happened at Kiwanja,” he said, referring to a small Congolese town where United Nations officials said General Nkunda’s forces went door to door, summarily executing dozens of civilians in November.

Now, if Congo gets its way, General Nkunda will have to face the consequences. The government is urging Rwanda to extradite General Nkunda so he can stand trial in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, where he could face a war crimes tribunal and treason charges, punishable by death.

But Rwandan authorities were tight-lipped on Friday about what they would do with General Nkunda. “I can’t speculate,” said Maj. Jill Rutaremara, a spokesman for Rwanda’s Defense Forces. All he would say was that General Nkunda was “in the hands of Rwandan authorities.”

Though General Nkunda never controlled more than a handful of small towns in eastern Congo, he was Congo’s No. 1 troublemaker. His troops have been accused of committing massacres dating back to 2002. General Nkunda recently began cultivating national ambitions to overthrow Congo’s weak but democratically elected government, which threatened to draw in Congo’s neighbors and plunge central Africa into a regional war, something that has happened twice before.

General Nkunda’s confidence may have been his undoing. On Thursday night, hundreds of Rwandan troops cornered him near Bunagana. Congolese officials said he refused to be arrested and crossed into Rwanda, where he was surrounded and taken into custody. It is not clear how many men he had with him at the time, but it appears he was taken without a shot.

Just a few days ago, Rwanda sent several thousand soldiers into Congo as part of a joint operation to flush out Hutu militants who had killed countless people in the 1994 Rwanda genocide and were still haunting the hills on Congo’s side of the border.

Few expected the Rwandan troops to go after General Nkunda. Not only is he a Tutsi, like Rwanda’s leaders, but he had risen to power by fighting these same Hutu militants. Several demobilized Rwandan soldiers recently revealed a secret operation to slip Rwandan soldiers into Congo to fight alongside General Nkunda. He had been trained by the Rwandan Army in the mid-1990s and was widely believed to be an agent for Rwanda’s extensive business and security interests in eastern Congo.

But it seems that the Rwandan government abruptly changed its tack, possibly because of the international criticism it has endured for its ties to General Nkunda. Several European countries recently cut aid to Rwanda, sending a strong signal to a poor country that needs outside help. Rwanda may have figured the time was ripe to remove General Nkunda, analysts said.

Earlier this month, some of General Nkunda’s top commanders split from him, saying they were fed up with his king-of-the-world brand of leadership. One of those commanders was Mr. Ntaganda. Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court have accused him of building an army of child soldiers, a war crime.

But Mr. Ntaganda suddenly switched sides, denouncing General Nkunda and saying that he and his men were now eager to join the Congolese Army, which they had been battling for years. Many analysts believe that the Congolese government promised to try to protect Mr. Ntaganda from being sent to The Hague.

According to Jason Stearns, an analyst who recently served on a United Nations panel examining the conflict: “It’s fairly clear that Kigali and Kinshasa have struck a deal. Kinshasa will allow Rwanda onto Congolese soil to hunt down” the Hutu militants, “and in return Rwanda will dethrone Nkunda.”

Congolese officials are now talking about restoring full diplomatic relations with Rwanda, which had been suspended for years, and reinvigorating economic ties. But many uncertainties remain, including a possible power scramble by other militant groups hoping to fill the vacuum.

“Nkunda’s arrest is part of a larger, radical realignment,” Mr. Stearns said. “There are, however, many unknowns and risks.”

Josh Kron contributed reporting.

With love and gratitude,

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Women Survivors Open Bank Account

Julien sews a child's garmet.

The women at Victoria Center have come a long way since I met them almost a year ago. They now have 10 sewing machines, a large, comfortable room where sewing classes are taught, and a dedicated sewing teacher. They are learning to sew well, and soon they'll be able to sell the garmets they make.

And they have their own checking account. Mecrebu Bank in Bukavu has the reputation of being a solid bank with consistent services, so the women decided to deposit money donated to them in the bank for safekeeping. . . not that they have lots, but things have a way of disappearing, even under the best circumstances.

Pasculine (foreground) and Justine at Mecrebu Bank.

The time I've spent with these resilient women has been a big learning experience for all of us. I had no idea how difficult creating stability would be in DRC. (Maybe that should have been obvious, given the circumstances, eh?) Everyone talks about the danger, but the biggest challenge for me is maintaining what we have built together. I think you could say that about the whole country!

When I met the 20 women survivors, they were being managed by two directors and six committee members. Turns out these people were diverting funds sent from Europe into their own pockets, so the governors are gone now. Gone also are two fraudulent sewing teachers, appointed by the directors, who exploited the women's labor for their profit.

Women share a joke.

With the decks clear, the women are making the decisions about their future. All donated money goes directly into their account, later allocated to projects they decide on as a group. As a group, they voted Justine and Pasculine to be co-signers on the checks, so they opened the center's account.

Donations from friends, family, and kind souls around the world have kept this project going. Our next goal is to get their 84 children off the streets and enrolled in school til year's end (poor mothers cannot afford school fees). After that is accomplished, we want to fund small microloans which will lead to self-sufficiency.

So we're all moving forward together, women from very different cultures and backgrounds, growing with each new challenge, learning to trust that the future will be better.

DONATE NOW. Make checks payable to:

Empower Congo Women
PO Box 60940
Santa Barbara, CA 93111

(805) 722-2661

Empower Congo Women is a 501(c)3 charitable organization dedicated to helping Congolese women heal and prosper. Your donations will be fully tax exempt. Thank you for your contribution to this very worthy cause.

With love and gratitude,

Thursday, January 8, 2009

"The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo"

Lisa F. Jackson is a veteran film maker who travelled to DR Congo in 2007 to interview women survivors of sexual violence.

The documentary that came out of this endeavor, "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo", won Special Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and has since garnered other prestigous awards worldwide.

Flying on frequent flier miles and carrying her own camera, Lisa arranged to travel with UN convoy into war-torn, northeast Congo, where unspeakable atrocities against women and children still continue today. There she filmed the chilling stories of women survivors of sexual violence, many of whom spoke publically for the first time. She also interviewed their rapists, some members of the Congolese national army, who believe rape is patriotic and a priviledge given to soldiers.

This film will take your breath away. Sometimes almost too painful to watch, you are nonetheless left awed by the resilient spirit of these long-suffering women and children. Raising awareness of this deplorable situation through the lens of compassion is this film's genius and Lisa's gift to Congo. A must-see.

To read more about Lisa

To buy this film

With love and gratitude,

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Happy New Year from Bukavu, DRC!!!

What better way to celebrate the holidays than by giving away food!

So before I left Bukavu to come home in mid-December, the women went shopping and bought 100 kilos each of corn flour and cassava meal, 100 kilos of rice, 50 kilos of beans, and several gallons of cooking oil. Much of it they bought in Rwanda and packed in on their backs to Bukavu, a journey of several miles, because they get more for their money in Rwanda. . . and this is a very frugal group!

They used a scale to assure equal portions and measured the oil with a blue tin cup. All brought bags to carry the dried goods and yellow plastic containers for the oil. Nothing was left behind, even a few spilled beans were claimed. Sharing food is a festive occasion, a time for giving thanks and rejoicing. So when all was divided up, everyone danced and sang, smiling broadly as they shouldered their food and went home to their families.

With love and gratitude,