Tag Archives: Goma

#240 — Trip to Rwanda and Burundi– August 22, 1013

          Here are five observations from Gladys’ and my recent two week visit to Rwanda and Burundi:

Peacemaking is tough: When I was in Gisenyi, Rwanda, talking with the people we work with in Goma in North Kivu, Congo (it is too difficult for me to get a visa now to enter North Kivu as I have to get it in the US where I don’t stay), they told me that on the next day, August 13, there was going to be a general strike for peace in Goma with parades and demonstrations indicating that the people were tired of all the fighting. I remember in 2002 when AGLI’s AVP facilitators who were in Bujumbura, Burundi, participated in a similar action with the Friends church and others. Here is Zawadi’s report on the strike:

Oh my goodness, you heard about it? It was planned that the peace activists would do a demonstration but it did not take place. The government issued a warning to those who would get involved. Shopkeepers got scared and closed their shops in fear of looting. But in the afternoon a MONUSCO [the UN peacekeeping force in the Congo] car hit a pedestrian who died instantly and the local population in retaliation mixed with anger beat up a MONUSCO soldier almost killing him. Some say he later succumbed to the injuries but we cannot confirm that. Now the situation is calm.

Housing above Gisenyi: As I drove down the steep hill into the town of Gisenyi, Rwanda, on the border of Lake Kivu, I noticed a town where there were many new houses with shinny corrugated iron sheets. I had been told when I had seen them a few years before that the Rwandan government had moved people off the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains so that they would not be killed by landslides and gave them a plot in the town, and funds to build a new house. They were like the houses favored by the elite in the region with very steep roofs which I estimate take twice as many iron sheets as a regular roof would – iron sheets are one of the most expensive items in building a house. As they were when I first saw them a few years ago, most did not have doors or windows and were empty. The peasant farmers with their allotment had built much bigger houses than the funds that they received and so they were monuments to the African custom of dreaming bigger than the reality of the funds available. The countryside in the region is filled with partially completed houses. I sometimes say that if every house in the region which had been started were completed, then the population would be well housed.

Tale of tress in two countries: As I traveled the steep climb out of Bujumbura to the top of the mountains of the Rift Valley, I noticed that men were laboriously digging out the stumps of the ancient large tress which had long before been felled for firewood. The stumps were being used to fire bricks as there was a lot of building going on in Bujumbura and the surrounding communities. As a result there was hardly a tree thicker than four inches since all had already been cut down — even small trees were being cut to make poles for roofing. Eucalyptus trees grow about ten feet per year in this region even as they suck the moisture out of the ground. It wasn’t until I was about forty miles from Bujumbura that I began to notice more mature trees.

          Rwanda around Kigali had the same problem. About five years ago, the Rwandan government banned the making and burning of bricks. People were required to build with cement blocks which are much more expensive. The result, though, is that now there are many trees in the area around Kigali that are six inches in thickness and in future years will grow much bigger. Whenever roads are rehabilitated, one to three rows of trees are planted alongside the road so that, where they have become six inches in thickness, there is a pleasant wooded roadway.

A success story – Kibimba Hospital: I first visited Kibimba Hospital, owned by Burundi Yearly Meeting, in 2000 or 2001 when the civil war was still hot. The hospital was a disaster as one would expect in the war torn countryside where active fighting was taking place. There was no doctor – at one time there was a Congolese doctor, but, after one month at the hospital, he vanished. I remember seeing the incubators for the premature babies. There were four of them, all broken with only an electric light bulb to warm them; there was also a fifth one which was no more than a carton with a blanket at the bottom, another light bulb, and a top with some holes in it. The staff was doing the best it could with its limited resources, little medicine. I remember that one the AGLI work camp teams from the US took four 70 pound boxes of medicines, donated by one of those NGOs that specializes in this activity, to the hospital. I had been somewhat concerned when I saw that lots of this “medicine” was no more than vitamin pills. But the next time I visited the hospital I was told that the vitamins were extremely useful. The area around the hospital had a malaria epidemic and where normally they would have about 4,000 cases of malaria in a year, they were suddenly swamped with 46,000 cases in a few months. When patients came with severe cases of malaria, if they were given the vitamin pills along with the malaria medicine, they recovered much more quickly. So I was wrong – the vitamin pills were useful.

          Now the hospital has metamorphosed. There are five doctors and thirty nurses. The number of beds has expanded from sixty to two hundred and the beds were full. The premature room was heated with eight functioning incubators – and the hospital had a back-up generator if the electricity from the grid failed – each with a premature baby and a woman taking care of the really tiny babies. What a difference! All the buildings – and there were many newly built ones – were tiled with ceramic tiles on the floor which made the hospital look bright and clearn and, as Gladys noted, makes cleaning the floor easy. In addition there were ceramic tile “benches” along all the walls where patients could sit and tiles up to five feet on the walls. I asked about family planning and was shown the falling planning office where all methods of family planning were available at the choice of the woman. Since the mostly Catholic hospitals in the region would not dispense family planning methods, this was facility was quite busy with 150 or so women coming in each month.

          How did this happen? Dr. Elisee Buhenda was born in the hospital a few years after it had been opened in 1952. He was a doctor there from 1990 to 1993, but had to flee when the civil war broke out. He went to Ivory Coast where he had done his medical training and worked there until 2006. The peace treaty in Burundi was signed in 2005 and so he returned to the hospital. In a previous visit in 2007 or 2008, I was told that he had to fight off interference by the leaders of Burundi Yearly Meeting in order to develop the hospital. He has been supported by Mid-American Yearly Meeting in the US, an evangelical Friends yearly meeting who had done much of the missionary work in the past in Burundi. Friends of Kibimba Hospital (kibimba.blogspot.com) is the organization founded to support the hospital. Their mission statement includes, “Our desire is to make available both medical and spiritual healing for the community by improving staffing, facilities and equipment at the hospital.”

I like their passage from the bible, Mathew 9:35, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.”

Work camp community celebration: From June 24 to July 18, AGLI and HROC-Burundi held a work camp in Mutaho, Burundi, with Rema, (meaning “to be comforted”), a women’s group at Mutaho Friends Church led by Pastor Sarah Gakobwa. Rema had already built a social hall so the task of the work camp was to build the first two of eight rooms so that people could spend the night at the facility – I hope in the future when I visit Mutaho, I can stay there rather than the Catholic monastery five miles down the road. The work camp had ten Burundian youth – five Hutu and five Tutsi – and two international work campers from the US plus a number of the women who would come each day to help. The work camp began with a basic HROC workshop and the four main projects in Mutaho – Rema itself, the bio-sand water filter coop, the Peace and Democracy Group, and the women who received goats — each gave a presentation on their work, again attended by the local administration. The people of Mutaho are saying, “God had remembered Mutaho and sent us ‘wazungu’ [foreigners]. The last wazungu who slept in Mutaho were the missionaries in 1934. Isn’t this amazing.”

 At the end of the work camp a community celebration was organized that included the local government officials and the AFSC Burundi director (the AFSC had helped with financing part of the work camp). A historic soccer match was held which brought two teams of mixed Hutu and Tutsi players on each side – something that had unsuccessfully been tried by the country’s vice president.

I met with the Rema women on Saturday, August 17. At the same time the local commune (the smallest governmental level in Burundi) leaders were having a gathering nearby to recognize all the recent accomplishments in the recent past – the 2015 election campaign is already beginning. Pastor Sarah was then called away to the gathering to be honored by the government officials because of the work she had been doing in the community. According to the government plans there were six guest houses planned for Mutaho and the Rema guest house was the third. AGLI, HROC-Burundi, and Rema are planning another work camp for next summer.

#232 — UN Takes a Wrong Turn — June 12, 2013

The United Nations’ Security Council has authorized an African army to take offensive action against the various armed groups in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I think that this is a major mistake for two reasons, locally and internationally. Let me first describe the situation as I see it and then cover the reasons for the mistake.

There are numerous armed groups in North Kivu. The first is the Congolese army. This consists of soldiers from other areas of the Congo so the soldiers do not know Swahili and cannot communicate well with the local population. The Congolese army is part of the problem because they have looted, raped, destroyed, and killed people in North Kivu including, for example, 130 women and girls raped when the army fled to Minova after leaving Goma when the M23 rebel group conquered the city last November. Moreover, some local Congolese army commanders control North Kivu mines and exploit the people and resources just as the other rebel groups do.

There are a large number of various rebel groups in North Kivu. The latest one of note is M23, which is a Tutsi controlled group that has conquered the area north of Goma. For two weeks in November last year, it invaded and conquered Goma before it was forced to evacuate by international pressure. Rwanda and, to a certain extend Uganda, are accused of supporting this rebel group. The genocadaires who were responsible for the Rwandan genocide are still another significant rebel group – more than once the Rwandan army has tried to attack them in North Kivu with little result except the death of more North Kivu civilians. Then there are a number groups, collectively called Mai-Mai, which often are based on the local Congolese tribes from North Kivu. These gangs thrive because they control one or more mines and illegally export the minerals through Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya. Control of the trade routes also allows for “taxing” the minerals as they pass through – one of the main reasons the M23 rebel group wants to control the area north of Goma. These groups are ever changing and shifting alliances depending upon the current conditions.

The United Nations has a peacekeeping force of 1700 soldiers in North Kivu called MONUSCO, but they do not have a mandate to take offensive action so they were ineffective when the rebels invaded Goma. At other times, they have supported actions by the Congolese army. I remember one incident a few years ago when a rebel group invaded Sake, 15 miles west of Goma, and the UN forces used helicopter gunships to kill over 100 of the rebels. While they claimed victory, it is really hollow because these “rebels” killed were mostly very young men, even boys. The next day the rebels could easily replace their dead soldiers with new recruits from the numerous youth who have nothing to do and no prospect for a bright future. In addition, UN peacekeepers from India were accused of participating in a sex ring and others peacekeepers were accused of selling weapons and ammunition to various rebel groups.

When the MONUSCO forces were unable to keep the M23 rebels from conquering Goma, there came a call to have a new force, which would have the offensive capability of attacking the M23 and other rebel forces. This was enhanced by the seeming success of the Ugandan, Burundian, Kenyan, and a few others armies in stabilizing Somalia, at least in the major cities. The UN Security Council approved of this (“created a special intervention brigade that has an aggressive mandate that allows it to fight armed groups, rather than merely defend civilians.”) Three thousand soldiers mostly from Tanzania and South Africa, are beginning to arrive in Goma for this intervention army.

Locally, as has happened so often in the past, this intervention brigade is going to be just another foreign army, adding to the fighting in the province. Usually in the “fighting” in the area, the combatants don’t face each other, but the weaker one “evaporates” into the local population. Many people flee as can be seen from the numerous pictures of people carrying whatever they can. But some people – the sick, elderly, and pregnant women — cannot flee and others contract diseases, starvation, and other problems which causes some to die. Civilian deaths in these operations far exceeds those from the actual fighting. Then when the “invading” army leaves, the rebel groups return and take revenge on the local people for “supporting the enemy” so more civilians are killed. Locally, the result of this new armed force is going to be more civilian deaths and little change in the dynamics of exploitation in North Kivu. There is also the possibility that the new forces will see the loot available in North Kivu and become just another armed exploiter. Tanzania, which already is the conduit for the transit of illegal minerals from South Kivu, can hardly be considered a neutral actor in this drama.

In the long run, though, it is the UN precedent that is most dangerous. This is the first time that the UN has approved offensive action for its forces. Where will this lead in the next five or ten years? If the North Kivu intervention is “successful” – which I doubt – it will be used as a precedent for further armed forays in international involvement in domestic affairs. If the invention force fails, there will be appropriate rationales for its failure, which will be “rectified” by the next intervention.

An offensive force is not neutral and therefore the UN will begin taking sides in armed disputes as it has in the case of North Kivu. The smaller, weaker countries already consider the UN as an arm of the five major powers on the Security Council – the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China. This development is going to erode the UN stance as a neutral world body even further.

The alternative to fighting is talking – talking to everyone involved. This should be done right there in Goma and should include civil society, women’s groups, religious leaders, youth organizations, businesses, and everyone else with a stake in a peaceful North Kivu. A peaceful, prosperous North Kivu would be so much better for those involved – including the armed groups which could then participate in legal activities which would create more wealth. Currently a small pie is being divided up by the armed groups, while peace would bring a much bigger pie where everyone would benefit.

I am sure that over the next months and years, I’ll be giving you my analysis of this intervention force.