Travel Notes — Goma/Rutshuru, DR Congo

Below are travelogue excerpts from a recent field research trip to the eastern DR Congo (Jan 8 – Jan 22), offered here simply as a glimpse into some of the interesting conversations and experiences.

The purpose of this trip was to conduct a series of in-country interviews with diverse individuals and organizations in order to identify and vet non-violent measures that may help resolve the ongoing conflict and prevent further escalation of conflict. This in-country research supplements extensive desk research conducted by Pragmora. The next step will be the development and launch of a comprehensive and pragmatic peace campaign for the DR Congo. (More on The Pragmora Process)


Wednesday January 8, 2014

  • Flew into Kigali, Rwanda last evening and stayed the night at the Step Town Hotel.

  • This morning, a driver picked me up at 9am to take me to Gisenyi, which is on the border with Goma in the DR Congo (my destination).

  • The driver, Pierre, speaks French and basic English. (Name changed.)

Pierre tells me he is Hutu.  His father was Hutu and his mother was Tutsi. Because of this mixed marriage, the Hutu extremist génocidaires killed his parents and six of his seven siblings during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Only Pierre, age 14, and a younger brother, age 11, survived.
His father’s family was in Uganda and his mother’s was killed so there was no one else left. They were alone.
After two days the two boys buried their family in the ground and then walked to a refugee camp in Tanzania.
Three months later they decided to return to their village. I asked how they survived with no family and no money. “We ate mice,” Pierre said quietly. His eyes teared.
A while later Pierre heard that the government was offering free education for all. On this basis, he and his brother walked from their village to Kigali, the capital. They were put in school with opportunities for basic education, and also, importantly, for livelihood training…like driving a car.
Today, Pierre owns his own car and a house, is married and has three children ages 2, 8 and 10. The older two are in a good school for which, he proudly tells me, he is able to pay the fees. His younger brother owns a big shop in Kigali and is well off (as far as I can figure).
While thankful for the education, peace and economic opportunities Rwanda now offers, Pierre has harsh words for President Paul Kagame. He believes Kagame has become a dictator who disposes of his enemies. “There is no democracy in Rwanda,” he says.
I ask Pierre about the situation in neighbouring Congo. He fears the FDLR who hide in the forests there whose numbers he estimates at around 2,000 FDLR. (The FDLR is a remnant Rwandan Hutu extremist group responsible for leading the genocide and killing his family.) “If they cross the border into Rwanda,” Pierre says resolutely, “I will take my family and leave the country immediately.” No one in the international community believes that such a thing is possible, but for Pierre, 20 years later, the terror is not gone.

  • The entire 3-hour drive to Goma is beautiful among the Rwandan hills, villages, and farm land. Not a spec of garbage anywhere. Plastic bags are banned in Rwanda.

  • We arrive at La Grande Barrier – the border between Gisenyi, Rwanda and Goma, DR Congo. The border is nothing more than a wooden bar across the road. It is raised manually for vehicles; but like myself, most people walk across the border dragging their luggage over a curb, across 4 feet of sand, and over a second curb.

  • The change is instant. Rwanda to Congo. Two different worlds. From the cleanest country I’ve ever been in to garbage everywhere. From sharp uniforms to shabby officials. From orderliness to arbitrary.

  • The DR Congo immigration kiosk at the end of an awkward single-story yellow brick building up an outdoor flight of narrow stairs. Behind the window grill is a small elderly man in a white uniform shirt. It’s several sizes too large so the sleeves slip down over his fingers. He has a ledger in which he is writing down the coming and goings of each person crossing the border.

  • This immigration official examines my passport intently, asks what I will be doing in Goma. He corrects my French grammar, and then tells me my visa expires in 2 days. Now my visa very clearly states that it expires on February 9, 2014—more than a month away. I find the needless hassle annoying and feel embarrassed for the official and for the Congo. But I suspect the immigration officer appreciates these minutes in which he holds power over a tired Canadian who has travelled a long way to conduct research in Goma. It starts to rain. He scrutinizes my Letter of Invitation, processes others, then finally records my name, citizenship, passport number, and occupation in his ledger book. He hands me back my passport. I take this as a sign that I am free to go.

  • My Congolese colleague, Guelord, has joined me at some point during this demonstration of arbitrary power. We drag my luggage down the narrow stairs and then walk up the slight hill on the only paved road in town to the VIP Palace Hotel. As suspected, it is neither for VIPs nor palatial.


Thursday January 9, 2014

  • A sleepless night. I can hear the hotel waitstaff talking in the outdoor restaurant and kitchen below my window.  A powerful thunderstorm unleashes with clashes of thunder overhead and rain pounding down on my room’s tin roof. At 6am a rooster starts up and just won’t quit.

  • The internet is not working.

  • I decide to move to Hotel Nyira up the road where I have stayed on two previous visits. Cheaper ($50/night) and has always had good internet and a good outdoor workspace. I’m given the same room as on both of my previous visits. Feels good. This time the bathroom includes two yellow plastic jerry cans filled with water so I have access to water for washing and for the toilet when the power/water are out – which is frequent.

  • Guelord and I make plans to take a day trip up to Rutshuru tomorrow.

  • I run errands (e.g., buy a cheap unlocked phone with a local phone number), send out emails for meeting requests, and sleep when the jetlag cannot be refuted any longer.

[After a few days I cotton on that I’m the only guest at the hotel. Getting a strange ‘Hotel California’ vibe. The manager tells me tourists stopped coming to Goma when the M23 rebel group emerged in 2012. He hopes they’ll return now that the M23 has surrendered. Meals take forever no matter what I order. It finally dawns on me that after I order from the menu, someone has to run out to buy the food at the local market – eggs, cheese, avocado, fruit, whatever.]

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Friday January 10, 2014  Rutshuru

  • Guelord and a driver pick me up at my hotel at 9am. I take a few photos of the road outside while I wait.

  • I’m keen to see Rutshuru and the villages along the way. Until their surrender last November, the M23 rebel group had made the Rutshuru region the epicentre of its power, resulting in the area being emptied of people who fled their homes to escape the brutal violence.

  • It’s a dusty pot-holed dirt road and I bounce non-stop in the back seat of the 4×4.  The road was once paved, but I see only the occasional faint reminders of those days.

  • A few kilometers outside of Goma we’re stopped by a branch barrier across the road.  The M23 rebels had road tax stops along the Goma-Rutshuru road, but this is a new government road toll. The official tells us it’s $10 – an outrageous sum in a country where the average monthly income is $19 per person. Guelord gets out of the vehicle and goes over to the kiosk where he is charged $2 and given a receipt. The road toll is intended to repair the road but given the state of the road, it seems more likely that much of this money is being diverted to other purposes.

  • During the stop, the driver and I talk a bit. I ask him about the prospects for peace. He talks about the conflict. He was a young boy in 1996 when all-out war erupted in eastern Congo. With his family, he walked the 600 km road from Goma to Kisangani – a 15 day trek to try to get to safety.

  • Not long after we pass through the ‘tollgate,’ Guelord receives an urgent call on his cell from a friend who warns him “There’s trouble in Goma. There are many people in the streets. I’ve heard gunfire. You should plan to stay overnight in Rutshuru.” He doesn’t know what it’s all about.  We drive on. [We continually to try to get more information but it’s hours before we hear that the mass jubilation in the streets of Goma is because Rwandan President Paul Kagame has died. And it’s not much later when it’s confirmed this is a false rumour (as suspected) and Goma is returned to normal. youtube]

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We arrive in Rutshuru around 11am and I have a long day of informative meetings ahead. Three of those meetings are described briefly below.

MONUSCO’S DDRRR Program

I met with a representative from MONUSCO’s Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation, Reintegration and Resettlement (DDRRR) program . MONUSCO is the UN peacekeeping mission in the DR Congo. The DDRRR program is aimed at illegal foreign combatants in the Congo and their dependents. These foreign combatants include Rwandans in the FDLR rebel group, Ugandans in Joseph Kony‘s Lord’s Resistance Army, as well as other foreign fighters in various rebel groups that operate within the Congo’s borders. (There is a separate DDR program for Congolese rebel fighters.)
MONUSCO airdrops colourful leaflets in the forest where foreign fighters are known to be. The leaflets provide a list of phone numbers that a fighter may call collect if he wants to demobilize. It is dangerous to make the call. His fellow fighters must not discover his desire to surrender.  In case you are wondering, yes, I too am surprised to learn that the FDLR fighters have cell phones are able to get a connection from their location in the remote forests. Once contact is made, MONUSCO arranges to meet the fighter and the formal process of DDRRR can begin.
[Later, an NGO worker in Goma tells me that the role of MONUSCO in DDRRR is problematic since MONUSCO is also fighting the rebels and it’s not easy for a combatant to separate MONUSCO peacekeepers who are there to fight from MONUSCO’s DDRRR blue helmets.]
There is a camp for internally displaced persons right outside the walls of the MONUSCO headquarters. When various waves of rebel groups swarmed the region, people fled their villages and headed to the peacekeepers in search of safety. The makeshift camp is now several years old.

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UPDECO – rescue and reintegration of former child soldiers

Guelord and I meet with Jacques, Director of UPDECO, a Congolese non-profit organization that reintegrates former child soldiers (Congolese) into their families and communities, and with Raphael, a UPDECO Program Manager. Here’s a bit of what I learn about how they go about their extraordinary work. (UPDECO -> Union pour la paix et la promotion des droits de l’enfant au Congo.)
“Child soldiers” are age 17 and younger, both boys and girls, may have been with a rebel group or with the Congolese Army itself. Some voluntarily joined an armed group, while others were forcibly taken.  Getting the children out is a difficult process and many organizations are involved.
The MONUSCO peacekeepers identify potential children, and then UNICEF’s local partners (like UPDECO) actually extract the kids. The commanders fill out an ID form and make a list of the children in their ranks. Based on this form and the lists, UPDECO staff try to see the children and get physical control of them.  Jacques describes this mediation process as “an art” and that you have to know how to communicate effectively to be able to take the children. It’s delicate.
The former child soldiers are immediately put in the hands of child protection agencies in an Interim Care Structure, or with trained host families.  (If the age of someone turns out to be 18 or older, they are put into a different stream, the DDR program for Congolese adults.)
The children cannot be immediately returned to their families. The children may have killed or raped or committed other crimes. A transition phase is necessary to give the children the psychological care they need. It is also necessary in order to provide mediation with the child’s family and community so that they can understand what the child has done and has suffered—this helps reduce the risk of retaliation by victims of these former child soldiers. UPDECO tries to prevent children from being returned to families that living in areas of ongoing conflict where the child would be at high risk of being “re-recruited” and instead try to negotiate settlement in a safer community.
After reintegration with their family, the youth receive ongoing support to help them obtain skills to find employment, vocational training, or an apprenticeship.
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Caritas Transit Camp for the Socio-Economic Reintegration of Former Child Soldiers

The Caritas transit camp is for Congolese youth age 17 and younger who have been part of an armed group. This camp I visited is a little south of Rutshuru and is in a lovely quiet setting reminiscent of summer camp.
Most youth stay for 3 months although there is some flexibility on that. The children sleep in simple ‘barracks’. This camp includes two girls. Their room is in a different building from the boys and is sandwiched between the sleeping quarters of Caritas staff on both sides.  The Director mentions past sexual violence the boys may have committed and the girls were victims of while in the armed groups, but right now he seems more concerned about the classic camp scenario of teenage girls and teenage boys sneaking out together.
The youth here are given structure, security, psychological counselling… and an opportunity to play.

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MEETING QUOTES

It’s rare that we demobilize girls. They are the wives of commanders. It’s very difficult to get them out.

Some children refuse to leave the armed group they are with. Armed group life is easier for them than what they left behind. They can access opportunities, like food and protection.

Impunity is the greatest risk to security in eastern DRC. Local justice is not working.

Another problem is the poverty […] Those without means create criminal groups, armed groups, that do illegal activities like kidnapping. Violence becomes a job. We need to create organizations to help young people learn to live together. Right now they are left to themselves. This is a new phenomenon that did not exist before the war began in 1996. The violence is not inevitable.

The international community has put a lot of money into the DRC but it has not been effective.  […] Their actions are uninformed […] People can resolve the problems of the Congo, but the international community must involve people in the communities. The solution will not come from the outside. It must come internally.


Sat Jan 11, 2014

MEETING QUOTES

People have lost their sensitivity between good and evil.

The negative side of international aid is that it doesn’t encourage people to take up their responsibility. Give a man everything he needs and he will lose his self-worth.


Sunday January 12, 2014

Lovely morning. Sun with a slight coolish breeze that carries the promise a hot dry day – even though it rains every afternoon and will again today.

Three “prines” for breakfast. Exquisite. No one seems to know what they are called in English. They are not prunes. I suspect passion fruit [and later confirm with images on yahoo). This country has such an extraordinary wealth of food, wildlife, nature, minerals…

No internet connection at the hotel this morning. Wandered the streets in search thereof. Finally settled at Deo’s Café for a couple of hours. Worked and watched life go by.

Felt that particular Sunday calm that is universal. Almost no traffic on the streets. No hauling of things to and fro by vehicle, chukudu or on foot. No steady parade of white UN 4x4s going who knows where with an inherent ambiance of importance. Instead, families in their Sunday best are walking to church. The women in joyful colourful attire. Young girls in prim dresses and proper shoes – so sweet.

Walking down the main road, hymns carry across the large church parking lot, across the wide boulevard, to the sidewalk where I stand… and into the neighbourhoods beyond. Clear, jubilant, spiritual.

All of what a Sunday should be.

Need to remember this when inundated with pervasive and penetrating evidence of this broken society.

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Mon Jan 13 – Fri Jan 16, 2014

A long week of highly informative interviews in Goma. A few of organizations I met with:

La Lucha  link
Search for Common Ground link
MONUSCO Stabilization Unit
ADECOP / Congo Youth Action link
Pole Institute French link
Save Communities in Conflict
Mennonite Central Committee
Norwegian Refugee Council
Africa Justice Peace & Development

MEETING QUOTES

Peace needs democracy in the Great Lakes Region—Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo. This is the most important thing to change. We need real democracy with real elections. The people are not the problem.

The future is in our hands – the young. We are not corrupt.

Participating in MONUSCO peacekeeping troops is a reward. Governments can maintain a large army they couldn’t otherwise have. They’re not ready to put themselves in harm’s way.

There is no peace. No military operation can bring peace.

Kinshasa is not a good negotiator with key stakeholders. To talk to Kinshasa you need guns.

Negotiation with armed groups is not a long-term solution. It legitimizes control these groups have over territory and in the Army. It’s not a good idea.

To help the Congo you must address the absence of the state as the crucial problem.

[President] Kabila weighs the pros and cons of a strong army. He’d have to take out anyone who’d become a military hero.

The problem with a strong Congolese Army is it can ‘go Mobutu’ on everyone’s ass.


Tues. Jan 19, 2014

Return drive to Kigali. Meeting at the Kigali airport with Rwandan colleagues to discuss an exciting new venture. Then flight home. Exhausted, but very productive trip.

[Planned field trip to South Sudan is postponed due to ongoing violence.]

Next Steps

Continue working through The Pragmora Process — a meticulous research and analysis methodology that produces a set of advocacy actions most likely to help resolve the conflict  and foster long-term stable peace .  These actions will be incorporated into Pragmora’s next advocacy campaign for the DR Congo.

The next concrete step is to formalize and finalize a comprehensive inventory of all non-violent actions that have been suggested for resolving the conflict in the DRC. Then each action is systematically evaluated against three specific criteria:

  1. Could advocating this measure do harm?
  2. Is there a possibility of success?
  3. If implemented, to what extent would this action foster peace?

Additional research and fact-checking are done, as required. January’s field interviews in Goma and Rutshuru added to new options to our existing list of potential advocacy action. Some of these were vetted by the experts during our interview. Good progress.

We will end up with a Short List of actions that is then subjected to vetting with diverse experts and another evaluation using the three criteria.

In late February or early March, Pragmora will launch an international campaign for conflict resolution and peace stabilization in the DR Congo. Pragmatic. Global. Effective.

Peace IS Possible

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One Response to Travel Notes — Goma/Rutshuru, DR Congo

  1. Barb Bagnell June 6, 2014 at 9:14 pm #

    Great newsletter, Glenys. Uncomfortable that they may be, I still envy you your interesting travels in these countries. bb

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