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Election Day Plus Two: Ripples of Trouble

Walter James | Posted November 30th, 2011 | Africa

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After yesterday’s somewhat guardedly optimistic blog about Congolese Election Day, it is becoming clearer that many Congolese people are unhappy about the voting process and the possible outcome, and many more are fearful of violent reactions from political groups.

According to the NY Times, the head of CENI is threatening to disqualify thousands of opposition votes, due to attacks on polling stations in areas mostly loyal to Etienne Tshisekedi and other opposition candidates.  This, along with all the stories of voting fraud and violence filtering in from around the country, is sure to leave many Congolese feeling disenchanted with the entire process.  In addition, many international observers have described the voting process as chaotic and “problematic”.  A few independent organizations have publicly denounced voting irregularities.

In even more interesting news, the BBC is reporting that 4 opposition candidates, including Vital Kamerhe, are declaring the entire election fraudulent and demanding an annulment of the results.  These candidates are specifically accusing the CENI and Joseph Kabila of being responsible for voting irregularities (see the link for a list of the alleged irregularities).  Again, potentially troubling, as further delays and further mistrust in the process may signal an increase in violent confrontations between opposition supporters and state security elements.

Kabila’s constitutional mandate will end on December 6th.  If there is no clear winner by then, or if the loser(s) reject the declared winner of the election, it may be the start of a new era of violence and unrest in the Congo.

At this critical juncture, Congo still has the potential to spiral out of control.  Will Congo descend into the post-election madness experienced by Cote d’Ivoire earlier this year?  Right now, it seems entirely possible.

Yesterday, I spoke with a Bujumbura-residing Uvirois who had went back to Uvira to vote over the weekend; he grimly showed me the ink-stain on his thumb with which he certified his ballot.  He told me that Uvira was calm and violence-free on Election Day.  However, he expressed strong dissatisfaction with the entire election process, based on the numerous accounts of fraud and violence from other regions.  He also bemoaned the lack of international election observers in Uvira.  While not a representative sample, the angry words and angry actions being expressed by many Congolese across the country are testament to a common spirit of discontent with the voting process for those who are hoping to unseat Kabila.

Election Day Plus One

Walter James | Posted November 29th, 2011 | Africa

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Well, it is Election Day Plus One in the Congo.

Acting on the advice of the UNDSS and several others, I have left the Congo and will be finishing up things in Bujumbura, Burundi, before leaving Africa.  I really wish I could have stayed in the DR Congo as an election observer, but for a simple humanitarian, it was the best decision to sit things out.  Maybe I will be back for the next presidential election.

Across the country, polling has been marred by violence and accusations of fraud, but fortunately I am hearing nothing out of Uvira so far.  No news is good news.  However, there are reports that large parts of Fizi Territory did not receive election materials as of yesterday, which makes sense, considering how large parts of Fizi are still zones of combat.

In Lubumbashi, there are reports of up to a dozen or so people killed when armed men opened fire on several polling stations.

In Kinshasa, the Election Day mood was “tense”, as the governor decided to cancel all demonstrations on the last day of campaigning.  This infuriated many UDPS supporters; there were several violent clashes between the police and Tshisekedi supporters.  The EU condemned the cancellation as a violation of free speech and free assembly.

The allegations of voting fraud have mostly been about the following: ballots where Joseph Kabila’s name has already been checked, ballot boxes being already half-full even before the polls opened, poll stations opening late or not opening at all, observers not being allowed to monitor polling stations and inspect ballot boxes, voters not finding their names on the registration lists, soldiers blocking access to polling stations or forcing people to vote their way, and tampering with ballot boxes after they had been collected.  In some cases, accusations of fraud have lead to polling stations being attacked by angry mobs in North Kivu and the Kasai Provinces.  The irregularities are occurring in many places across the whole of the country, according to one observer.

According to the BBC (see below), voting has been extended in some areas, due to polling stations opening late and ballots not arriving.  In one part of Kinshasa, the legislative ballots were a staggering 13 pages long; the amount of resources needed to put on this election at rather short notice has been overwhelming.  In particular, there are concerns about how accessible rural polling stations have been in a country with so few roads.

Checking the latest headlines, both the CENI (Congolese electoral commission) and UN envoy Roger Meece are so far satisfied with the way elections are going.  Whether this is the opinion of the man (or woman) on the street, however, is another matter.  Nonetheless, I think everyone knew going into Election Day that things would be rough, and fortunately so far it has not been as bad as it could have been, considering historical precedence.  However, we all know that Congo (or any country, for that matter) deserves better.

To keep up-to-date on what exactly is going on in these perilous days for the Congo, I would advise you to visit the following websites:

Radio Okapi

Probably the best news source on anything in the Congo.  Check out the nifty, interactive election map, which gives population data, number of candidates, etc., on each province.

Congo Siasa

Jason Stearns is in Bukavu right now as an election observer, and he has lots of interesting updates from around the country.

BBC News: DR Congo voting extended in some areas

The latest BBC news on what’s going on with elections.  Make sure to check out the cool series of maps at the bottom.

Charlie Walker

Ms. Walker has just written blog entry on a series of tragic incidents that happened in Uvira just before we left, and what some of the women of Uvira have done to respond.

Sud Kivu Election Diary IV: Joseph Kabila comes to town

Walter James | Posted November 8th, 2011 | Africa

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Yesterday, Joseph Kabila Kabange arrived in Uvira on a presidential campaign stop.  I was able to see the Chef de l’Etat Congolais twice: yesterday when he arrived in Uvira and today when he gave a speech to a large crowd next to the Cathedral.

Yesterday morning, I knew something was up when I saw large groups of soldiers wearing red berets and sporting a lot more equipment than the normal, ragged FARDC soldier that we are used to seeing in this part of Sud Kivu.  It turned out that these were members of the Presidential Guard.

I later went to the Rond-Point, the entrance to Uvira proper, and encountered a large crowd sporting blue and yellow, the colors of Kabila’s campaign.  I conducted interviews for the better part of the afternoon next to the Rond-Point, watching as the crowd grew larger and larger.  Police and soldiers ran up and down the road, trying to keep the path clear.  People were holding signs, waving flags, and hoisting photos of Kabila above their heads.  A brass-and-drum ensemble was loudly farting out bouncy tunes, keeping the crowd’s spirits high.  At one point, when I was trying to cross the road, I was stopped and questioned by a surly member of the Presidential Guard.

“I’ve seen you wandering around here, Mzungu.  What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“I am here to see the Chef de l’Etat,” I said, with an obsequious smile.

“No, what do you DO here in Uvira?” he reiterated, the scowl on his face growing deeper.

“I am a humanitarian,” I said, trying to keep the mood as light as possible, but probably only succeeding in looking like a mzungu airhead.

The surly soldier let me go, but warned me not to take any pictures.  I was a bit impressed with his equipment; he was the first Congolese soldier I had seen with an assault rifle, several banana clips in his webbing, and, to top it off, a sidearm.  In addition, he looked like someone who drank lots of beer while pumping lots of iron.

As the first vehicles of the presidential convoy started arriving, I took up a post on a hill, so I was afforded a broad view of the road.  Standing next to the road were several provincial deputies, the Territorial Administrator (in a blindingly white suit with a gaudy Congolese flag sash), and the mwami of Uvira (wearing a golden crown).  All of a sudden, a group of police trucks came screeching past with red-and-blue lights blazing, and before I knew it, President Kabila and his wife, Mme Olive Lembe Kabila, were walking right in front of me.  The president stopped briefly to shake hands with each notable person standing by the side of the road, pausing every few minutes to do a double-handed wave to the crowd.  Mme Kabila was putting more of an effort to excite the crowd, jumping up and down and flashing a broad smile as she waved.  The intimidating Presidential Guard, their assault rifles at the ready, closely followed the president and scanned the crowd.  President Kabila was a little shorter than I thought he would be, and also a little skinnier than the brawny figure one sees in most presidential portraits.

As soon as it happened, it was over.  The president walked past my view, and presumably got back into one of his SUVs after passing the crowd at the Rond-Point.  The crowd at this event was obviously very excited, but it was also clear that most of them were ardent Kabila supporters that were brought to the Rond-Point to give the president a warm welcome.

The next day, my roommates and I received news that President Kabila was going to be giving a campaign speech.  Earlier that morning, the presidential helicopter (the Congolese equivalent of Marine 1) was observed flying in tight evasive combat circles very close to our house.  We had heard that Kabila’s was speaking at the Cathedral, so we decided to go up and see what the Chef de l’Etat had to say.

We arrived at a large, open space between the Cathedral and the accompanying Catholic school, where normally a group of schoolchildren would be playing soccer on an ordinary afternoon.  There was about a crowd of 2,000 present, and on the small incline next to the Cathedral an impromptu stage had been set up.  There were definitely a lot of Kabila campaign banners/flags present in the crowd, but they were somewhat diluted by the vast numbers of people present.  Unlike the crowd at the Rond-Point the day before, most people were not wearing Kabila campaign paraphernalia.

As we arrived, the microphone was handed to Joseph Kabila, and he began speaking to the crowd in clipped, but warm, Kiswahili.  He spoke of how he carried Uvira and the rest of Sud Kivu in the 2006 election, and he asked the crowd to vote him in again.  Most of his speech centered on the Cinq Chantiers, and the efforts he had made to realize them.  Of course, for most Uvirois, the Cinq Chantiers are a complete joke, a promise that has never been fulfilled, and most Uvirois who plan to vote with the opposition cite the Cinq Chantiers as the reason why they won’t vote for Kabila again.  However, Kabila made some serious overtures, promising to pave the road from Bukavu to Uvira and all the way down to Baraka.  He promised to build more schools; indeed, about a month ago, Mme Kabila had visited Uvira to inaugurate a new primary school in Kasenga.  Kabila pointed out the Congolese state’s investment in the old Belgian sugar factory in Kiliba, which is about to start operating again after many years of disuse and disrepair.  At the end of each long paragraph of oratory, Kabila would pause and large speakers would blare out his earworm-of-a-campaign song: VOTEZ VOTEZ VOTEZ, KAAAABIIIIILAAAAAA.

After about 10 minutes, Kabila apologized for his short visit to Uvira and bid farewell to the crowd.

Two things to note about the event:

1)     The reception of the much-larger crowd at the Cathedral was lukewarm, at best.  Sure, there were plenty of Kabila supporters near the front, but the level of cheering and applause could hardly beat out what I normally hear from local soccer matches.  The crowd of mostly young men with which I was standing was making cynical and sarcastic comments during the speech, especially when Kabila spoke of all the improvements he claimed he would continue bringing to Uvira.  When Kabila was saying his goodbyes, a young man near me exclaimed “anamaliza?! (He’s finished already?!)”.  However, I was struck by the overall calm nature of the crowd; even those who were openly unhappy with Kabila were not “acting out”, interesting news when election-related violence is rising in Kinshasa and Katanga Province.

2)     Kabila’s tone seemed almost pleading.  Kabila’s reputation has suffered quite a bit in Sud Kivu, and it appeared that he was doing his best to win over the crowd for their vote.  Despite the fact that security is still bad and the Cinq Chantiers are a distant fantasy, Kabila sought to assure the crowd that he would continue trying to accomplish his goals.  Overall, he came off as someone who was desperately trying to ingratiate himself with a population where his support is slipping.  This is quite a contrast to, say, his father, who was prone to take ironfisted positions when faced with declining support.  Again, while Kabila is obviously engaging in some dirty tactics in order to stymie his opposition, he also seems to be campaigning like a man who just might lose.

For further information, check out the amazing Charlie Walker‘s thrilling account of Kabila’s visit.

Sud Kivu Election Diary III: Young Democracy

Walter James | Posted November 3rd, 2011 | Africa

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In 2006, the Democratic Republic of Congo held its first multiparty elections in 46 years. At the time, the Congo was emerging from many years of war, involving all of its neighbors and other African nations. There was a fragile peace, or, in the case of the Kivus, none at all.

The 2006 election was largely financed by international donors, who accounted for 90% of the financial burden. In addition, MONUC, UNDP, and other international agencies provided much-needed oversight and guidance. After all, this was a country that had just been recently reunited through a weak peace agreement, and many of the major players still had armed groups at their disposal.

Now, the situation is quite different, as Joseph Kabila and the rest of the government represent a much stronger, democratically-elected Democratic Republic of Congo. Things may still be bad, but they are still better from the cauldron of chaos of the late 90s/early 2000s. However, there are still signs of trouble.

One particularly eyebrow-raising development of 2011 election process has been the recent changes to the Congolese constitution, which, among other things, has altered the presidential election system from a 2-round, majority-wins election to a 1-round, plurality-wins election.

When the Congolese National Assembly and Senate passed these controversial amendments, there were immediately allegations of bribery against President Kabila. A 1-round plurality-wins election would make things easier for Kabila to divide the opposition and win with a much smaller percentage of the national vote. In addition, it appeared suspicious that these amendments were passed so quickly through the Congolese legislature, given its reputation as a body that usually works grindingly slow. While there is nothing inherently wrong with a single-round election (or with the changes to the constitution, if indeed there was no bribery), the problem is that it appears to have occurred only to the benefit of Kabila. The sole argument, it seems, for the public benefit of these electoral changes is that it will save money for the Congolese state, which is now carrying 60% of the cost of the election.

A report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) released back in May gives a rather pessimistic image of the 2011 elections: opposition supporters and journalists are being harassed and beaten during demonstrations, there is a considerable lack of much-needed international involvement, the CENI (the national electoral commission) is politically biased, there is not enough election security, and the proposed November 28th election date is too soon to organize a free-and-fair election. However, if the date of the election is pushed back, there is sure to be controversy, as Kabila’s term expires on December 7th by constitutional mandate. There are already rumors that members of the opposition (notably Etienne Tshisekedi) are planning on demanding a power-sharing agreement if there is no clear winner by the date on which Kabila’s term ends.

So, what is going on here in Uvira? All over town, posters are plastered onto walls and kiosks, and men on foot or bicycles are advertising for various candidates via megaphone. Things are calm so far.

Sud Kivu Election Diary II: In the other corner…

Walter James | Posted October 31st, 2011 | Africa

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So, who will be running against Joseph Kabila in the presidential election? There are so far 11 registered candidates, several of whom represent strong competition for Kabila in the election. I have chosen to highlight three particular Congolese political figures, of which 2 are registered as presidential candidates. There are many, many more notable Congolese opposition leaders, but I am limiting myself just to demonstrate the fragmented nature of the opposition, as well as for the sake of brevity.

Etienne Tshisekedi, nicknamed the “Sphinx of Limete”, is an old and experienced player in the Congolese political arena, having cut his teeth as one of Mobutu’s foes. Tshisekedi’s party is the UDPS. Among the opposition, Tshisekedi is noteworthy for his adamant position that he is the only opposition candidate who can face Kabila. While other opposition candidates have called for inter-party negotiations in order to rally support around a single candidate, Tshisekedi has made it clear that he will compromise with no one. He has persistently called on other opposition leaders to fall behind him and support his candidacy, going so far as to visit Jean-Pierre Bemba in prison in the Hague to try and gain his (and hopefully the MLC’s) approval. So far, Tshisekedi has garnered a large coalition of politicians to support him, although this has been tempered by the fact that no one in his coalition is relevant or influential. Here in Sud Kivu, many view Tshisekedi as “too old” (he is 79) and not representing the interests of the East (he is from Kasai Province, and his base is largely in the West).

So far, there has been quite a bit of friction between UDPS supporters and the PPRD/Congolese state, punctuated by violent confrontations in Kinshasa on September 5-6 between UDPS supporters and PPRD supporters/state security forces.

Vital Kamerhe is an MP from Bukavu, and a former Speaker in the National Assembly. His party is the UNC. In 2009, Kamerhe was forced from his Speaker position due to his criticism of Kabila’s decision to conduct joint military operations with the Rwandan army in the Kivus. He remains critical of Kabila’s government, although some see Kamerhe as merely an overambitious politician who challenges Kabila purely for his own political gain. Kamerhe, as a native of Sud Kivu, retains a certain level of popularity here, though he still lacks enough political influence outside of the East. Kamerhe has built some crucial alliances with other Congolese political parties, notably with fellow presidential candidate and President of the Senate Leon Kengo wa Dongo, although there are still major leadership issues within these alliances.

In 2006, Joseph Kabila faced Jean-Pierre Bemba in the 2nd round of the presidential election. Bemba is the leader of the MLC, a rebel movement during the 2nd Congo War that morphed into a national political party once peace was declared in 2003. Bemba is almost universally despised here in the East due to his alliances with the Ugandan military and the horrendous human rights abuses committed by MLC troops in the East, including allegations of cannibalism. Today, Bemba is in prison in the Hague pending trial for war crimes at the ICC. Nonetheless, he is still considered the exiled “leader” of the MLC. The MLC has not fielded a presidential candidate for the 2011 election, despite the fact that Bemba made statements that he would run for president from his jail cell in the Netherlands. Bemba’s continuing (though declining) relevance and his persistence are good examples of the strange and surreal nature of Congolese politics.

Overall, the picture that one finds of the opposition is of a squabbling and unorganized group, divided by ethnicity, region, and individual ambition. As the presidential election will be a 1-round, plurality-wins affair this time, it is crucial that the opposition can unite around a common leader if they realistically want a chance to beat Kabila. A major point of compromise will be the promise of positions in the new government depending on support of a common candidate, as well as input in the policy-making process. However, so far there are few signs of unity, despite the fact that the election date is getting closer and closer. There are also concerns that Kabila is using “dummy candidates” to take away votes from opposition candidates, although it is also common for opposition leaders to accuse each other of being “dummy candidates” that have been “bought off” by Kabila.

Some in the opposition, like Tshisekedi, have unequivocally stated that whoever the opposition is, Kabila will lose. On the other hand, Kabila has stated that he is supremely confident of victory in November. So, no one is really willing to give up, and, although the cards are stacked in Kabila’s favor, anything is possible come November 28th.

How are sentiments on the ground here in Uvira? A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a group of young Uvirois at a popcorn stand, and the conversation drifted into politics.

“We have had enough with Kabila, there are no jobs and no security,” said the young Congolese. I asked them whom they were voting for.

“Vital Kamerhe,” they responded unanimously. I asked them why they thought things would be different if Kamerhe was elected.

“We don’t know if things will be better, but Kabila had his chance, it’s time to give someone else a chance, and Tshisekedi is too old.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Again, this is only the 3rd multiparty presidential election in the Congo’s history. How is this time different from 2006? There are a few notable changes to the political situation, as well as some changes to the election system itself. In my next blog entry, we will take a look at some crucial aspects of the 2011 election process, including changes to the constitution and the decrease of international involvement.

Sud Kivu Election Diary: Part I

Walter James | Posted October 28th, 2011 | Africa

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In less than a month, national elections are scheduled for the Congo.  Yesterday, official campaigning began all across the DRC.  Here in Sud Kivu, we are all holding our breath a little bit.  This will only be the third national multiparty election in the history of the Congo.

So far, many observers see this election as a referendum on incumbent President Joseph Kabila, who took over as interim president when his father was assassinated in 2001 and won Congo’s first real national election in 2006.  Kabila’s political party is the PPRD.

In 2006, Kabila easily carried Sud Kivu Province, as he was considered a “native son” (as opposed to “people-eating” Jean-Pierre Bemba) who reunited the country and ended the Rwandan occupation.  However, since then, Kabila’s reputation in Sud Kivu has suffered for a number of reasons:

1)     Many “autochtone” Congolese (Babembe, Bafulero, Bashi) are angry that Kabila “shook hands with the devil” when he improved relations with Paul Kagame in Rwanda.  During Operations Kimya II and Amani Leo in 2010-2011, the boots of Rwandan soldiers were once again on Congolese soil to assist the largely unmotivated and ineffective FARDC in pursuing the FDLR.  The population of Sud Kivu, who will not easily forget how badly they suffered under brutal Rwandan occupation, are not ready to forgive Kabila for this compromise.  Even after official Rwandan presence has all but disappeared from Sud Kivu, many “autochtone” still feel that the Rwandophone ethnic minorities hold too much power in the regional governments and in the armed forces.  It doesn’t help that many high-ranking PPRD members in Sud Kivu used to belong to the rather unpopular RCD regime of the late 90s/early 2000s.

2)     The lack of development in Sud Kivu (as well as in the rest of the Congo) is still astoundingly awful for a country so rich in mineral resources.  Early in his regime, Kabila promised great developments in the “Cinq Chantiers”, a series of improvements to five aspects of the Congo (schools, roads, etc).  However, in Sud Kivu, unemployment rates are still high, the roads are awful, and the education system is in a dismal state.  Having promised great things, many Congolese people now see Kabila responsible for the failure of development in the Congo.

3)     Security remains very bad in Sud Kivu.  The FDLR has been pushed back further into the jungle in the past few years, but the local populations have suffered under the hands of FARDC troops.  Furthermore, there has been no real resolution to the war and insecurity, despite the fact that many armed groups have been induced to join the FARDC through promises of cash and impunity.  Many people in Sud Kivu dissatisfied by Kabila believe that he should try harder at making a deal with the FDLR, instead of continuing what they believe is a “Rwandan” war.  Thus, many hold Kabila responsible for the lawless, violent, and undisciplined behavior of state-endorsed troops, as well as the lack of resolution to the “fires in the East”.

The discontent with Kabila’s regime explains why groups such as Mai Mai Yakutumba maintain a certain level of popularity in Sud Kivu, particularly among the Babembe elite in Fizi Territory, who resent Rwandophone ethnic minorities and feel disenchanted by their perceived lack of political power at the national/regional level.

Kabila’s growing unpopularity in the East has also fueled a number of myths about his intentions and his origins.  It is easy to find Congolese people in Sud Kivu who will tell you that Kabila is (my goodness) a “Tutsi spy”, a puppet installed and kept in power by the Rwandan government.  There are many circulating stories about Kabila’s mother being a “Rwandan Tutsi”, which, despite their apocryphal nature, may actually be possible, given what we know about the women who orbited around Laurent-Desire Kabila.  Of course, does it really matter where Petit Joseph’s mother came from?  No.  This kind of xenophobic name-calling, unfortunately, is rather counterproductive and does nothing to improve the image of Sud Kivutians as racist Génocidaires 2.0.

I have explained why Kabila is a rather unpopular choice here in Sud Kivu.  However, there is still the possibility that he will carry Sud Kivu in the election, given the dismal state of the political opposition.  In my next blog entry, I will write about those who will be running for president against Major General Joseph Kabila Kabange.

Weekend Update, Sud Kivu Edition

Walter James | Posted October 28th, 2011 | Africa

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More news from Uvira/Fizi:

On 10/24, Mai Mai rebels attacked a FARDC position in the village of Kabumbe, next to the village of Mukwesi.  In the attack, 4 civilians were killed and 3 injured, and the FARDC suffered 2 dead and 2 injured.  Kabumbe/Mukwesi is about 2 hours south of Uvira, close to the town of Mboko.  The attackers allegedly belonged to Mai Mai Pascal, an armed group loyal to Pascal Bwasakala, a former protégé of Yakutumba.  The day after the Mai Mai attack, FARDC troops arrived to reinforce the position.  However, the attack prompted massive IDP movements away from Kabumbe/Mukwesi, leaving the villages virtually empty of inhabitants.  OCHA is cautioning all humanitarian workers passing through the Swima-Mboko area to only travel in vehicle convoys.  Furthermore, OCHA warns that if the situation persists or deteriorates, agencies will be forced to travel with a PAKBATT escort.

There are continuing inter-ethnic tensions in Tulambo and Maranda, two villages in the Massif d’Itombwe, a large forest in the Haut Plateau of Fizi.  Just since 10/21, clashes between the Bembe and Banyamulenge communities have left 4 wounded and 3 dead.  This next week, MONUSCO and several local NGOs are poised to launch a Joint Assessment Mission to the area.

On 10/21, the population of Kahanda, a village in Uvira Territory close to the town of Lemera, fled due to the arrival of Mai Mai Bede, a small band of armed men loyal to ex-FARDC commander Col. Bede Safari.  Col. Bede defected from the FARDC in 2010, and his troops only number in the dozens.  However, his arrival still precipitated a panicked IDP movement of around 64 households.  FARDC troops stationed nearby went to Kahanda to hunt down the Mai Mai Bede, but the rebels were warned in advance and fled before the FARDC arrived.

In addition, there are further reports of violence and insecurity occurring just this week: 2 nurses killed in Buhonde by unidentified armed men, 3 civilians kidnapped in Kalungwe, and a traditional chief shot in the night in Kitundu.  This is all just human-on-human violence; this past week rainy season floods have also destroyed part of the town of Sange, on the Rusizi Plain in Uvira Territory.  The damage includes the destruction of 500 houses, 3 schools, 1 bridge, and several fields.  The casualty toll from the flooding currently sits 5 dead and 2 severely injured.

Wars and Rumors of Wars

Walter James | Posted October 24th, 2011 | Africa

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So, what is the situation in Uvira/Fizi these days?   There are wars and rumors of wars.  With the elections approaching, the activity of armed groups, most notably Mai Mai Yakutumba in the Ubwari Peninsula, has reached its highest level yet in 2011.

Vacillating internal displacement has created a host of humanitarian concerns in/around the Ubwari Peninsula, where the most concentrated fighting has occurred between FARDC forces and the allied Mai Mai Yakutumba/FNL/FDLR rebels.  As rumors of combat sweep through the villages and towns of the Ubwari, civilians will flee before fighting turns up in their locality.  Alternately, IDPs will return home immediately if fighting has ceased or has not occurred in their area.  However, this has created a yo-yo effect, with civilians fleeing and returning home multiple times over the last several months.  In some cases, returning IDPs are crossing paths with fleeing IDPs from their home areas.  An additional concern is that there is not enough of a humanitarian presence in/around the Ubwari to monitor the situation and respond to humanitarian concerns resulting from the back-and-forth IDP movements.

In one of their most recent monitoring reports, Arche d’Alliance reported that between 8/24 and 9/22, approximately 2,375 persons fled to Baraka alone; these IDPs arrived from the Ubwari, as well as from towns such as Kazimia and Sebele.

Since August, battles between FARDC and allied Mai Mai/FNL/FDLR forces have been reported in the following locations: Nemba, Talama, Yungu, Kikonde, Katenga, Sebele, and Karamba.

Due to the large numbers of IDPs fleeing the Ubwari, MONUSCO deployed Egyptian troops to Sebele to set up a TOB (Temporary Operations Base).  However, on October 19th, MONUSCO recalled the Egyptians, despite the request of the humanitarian community in Fizi Territory to extend the TOB.  According to OCHA sources, civilians in Sebele are now afraid of reprisal due to the lack of a MONUSCO troops presence.

On October 9th, gunshots were heard in the proximity of Baraka, sending the population into a panic.  For a while, reports were that Mai Mai Yakutumba were fighting the FARDC in the streets of Baraka, and therefore poised to take the most important town in all of Fizi.  However, it was soon revealed that the rumors were false.  Nonetheless, commerce through Baraka remains difficult because of Yakutumba’s presence on Lake Tanganyika, and prices of basic goods are reported to be soaring.

OCHA sources in Baraka report that since the increase in combat (and increase in FARDC fighting forces in their area), there has been a rise in human rights abuses committed by troops against civilians.  Monitors have cited multiple incidents of arbitrary arrests, extortion, and general harassment.  One must remember that there is quite a bit of mutual distrust and suspicion between the FARDC troops, many of which are not from Fizi, and the local population.

An interesting effect of the rising (and continuing) violence and warfare is that Congolese refugee repatriations are all but nonexistent in this area.  Since the days of the Congo Wars, people from Uvira/Fizi have fled to neighboring countries, in particular Burundi and Tanzania.  Despite the fact that President Joseph Kabila has claimed that the “fire in the East is only embers”, the news of continuing unrest has reached the ears of refugees, and they are not ready to come back to a region where lives and livelihoods are still at risk.  Another sad aspect of the entire affair is that the Tanzanian government is starting to use coercive methods to “encourage” Congolese refugees in their country to repatriate.

In general, the recent increase in the activity of certain non-state armed groups is very disheartening.  Many of these armed groups, including so-called “local defense leagues”, continue to commit acts of sexual violence and paralyze the economy through extortion and larceny.  Their behavior mirrors the well-documented human rights abuses of the FARDC, many of whom were formerly members of rebel groups themselves.  There is nothing that “new” about these groups; the non-state armed groups, such as the various “Mai Mai” movements, have existed for over 10 years in eastern Congo.  However, possibly the most disturbing aspect about the actions of these non-state armed groups is the excuse that their violent behavior is but a means of political expression, communicating through robbery and rape their dissatisfaction with the Congolese government.  No roads?  No hospitals?  No jobs?  Rape women!  That will get Kabila’s attention!

The current pre-election conditions in Uvira/Fizi are indicative of a number of Congolese problems: the lack of faith in elections and the political system, the continuing impunity of armed groups, the lack of effective security resources, the staggering injustices resulting from deep-seated gender inequality, and the use of violence as a means of political expression.

As the election date grows closer, we hold our breath.  There is not much hope that the outcome of the election will necessarily signal a change for improvements in the Congolese political system, no matter who gets elected, but one wishes that the “Fire in the East” would be extinguished instead of downplayed and ignored.

King Leopold’s ghost

Walter James | Posted October 19th, 2011 | Africa

‘Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell’

-Vachel Lindsay

Attack on NGO vehicle in Fizi Territory

Walter James | Posted October 8th, 2011 | Africa

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Vehicle rented by SOS FED that is similar to the Eben-Ezer vehicle that was attacked
Vehicle rented by SOS FED that is similar to the Eben-Ezer vehicle that was attacked

Vehicle rented by SOS FED that is similar to the Eben-Ezer vehicle that was attacked

On Tuesday, October 5th, I awoke to the sounds of wailing coming from outside my house.  I stepped outside to investigate, and was greeted by a crowd of people loudly mourning outside of the office of Eben-Ezer Ministry, right across the street from my residence.  There had been an ambush the night before, and the director of Eben-Ezer, along with several of his staff, had been killed.

Eben-Ezer Ministry is a local faith-based NGO that works primarily in education in Fizi and Uvira Territories.  I have been introduced to several of the members of Eben-Ezer, and would see them across the street and wave to them on a daily basis.

On October 4th, around 17h, a vehicle belonging to Eben-Ezer Ministry, containing 14 passengers, was ambushed by Mai Mai Yakutumba.  The attack occurred in a remote area known as Echibe, about 18 km from Baraka on the road to Fizi Centre.  In the attack, the Mai Mai allegedly fired an RPG 7 rocket-propelled grenade at the vehicle.  7 people were killed, 5 of them workers for Eben-Ezer.  According to the Territorial Administrator of Fizi, 3 others were wounded by gunfire and 4 women were kidnapped by the assailants.  The survivors of the attack have alleged that among the perpetrators were members of the FNL (a Burundian rebel group exiled in the Congo) and the FDLR (a Rwandan Hutu nationalist group).

The Territorial Administrator also asserted that the FARDC was able to chase down and kill two of the perpetrators responsible for the massacre.

On the same evening, just before the Eben-Ezer ambush, a motorcycle taxi carrying a policeman and a FARDC soldier was attacked nearby.  All three persons were killed.  It is believed that the same armed men who attacked the Eben-Ezer vehicle were also responsible for this incident.

The UN has released a statement condemning the attacks and calling for the Congolese government to do more to protect humanitarians.  During the subsequent days after the attacks, I could hear quite a few UN helicopters going back-and-forth between Uvira and Fizi.  According to the UN press release, there have been approximately 140 reported security incidents involving humanitarian workers in Nord Kivu and Sud Kivu since the beginning of 2011.

The local FARDC commander, Col. Delphin Kahimbi, condemned the Mai Mai for “missing their targets” in attacking civilians.  Col. Kahimbi said that the Mai Mai had the time to verify the object of their “ambush” as being a group of civilians, and therefore have no excuse.  While Col. Kahimbi’s words ring true, his statement is somewhat ironic considering the conduct of the FARDC during Kimiya II and Amani Leo and their own disregard for the rules of engagement.

One stark reality is that there is very little security for anyone traveling in Fizi Territory, especially considering that the MONUSCO troop presence is weak and the FARDC troop presence can be quite ineffective.  Every day, humanitarians, along with the ordinary citizens of Fizi, must risk their lives in order to carry out their work.  This latest incident, though sadly preventable, was probably inevitable, considering the lack of security and the increasing level of combat between armed groups in Fizi Territory.  One wonders if the Congolese government and MONUSCO will start to take things a bit more seriously in terms of taking preventative action, instead of arriving at the scene too late to prevent murder, torture, and rape.

Another sinister dimension to the entire sad affair: there are quite a few people that believe that the Eben-Ezer vehicle was targeted by the Mai Mai because it belonged to a “Banyamulenge” NGO.  In 2011, Mai Mai Yakutumba leadership has released several statements demanding the removal of “Rwandan” (i.e. Rwandophone) troops from South Kivu; Yakutumba has used widespread resentment against abusive Rwandan/Rwandophone troops to build support for his agenda, to the detriment of relations between Congolese Rwandophone communities, such as the Banyamulenge, and the “autochtone” tribes of Babembe, Bafulero, and Bavira.  A prominent Banyamulenge leader, Enock Ruberangabo, has called this attack “ethnic conflict at a local level”.  However, one must remember that as long as armed groups operate with impunity in the Kivus, all civilians, regardless of ethnicity, are at risk of being attacked.

Over the past few days, my neighborhood has been filled with a constant stream of mourners coming to Eben-Ezer Ministry to express their condolences.  The sounds of pained wailing have disappeared, but there is still a heavy spirit of bereavement hanging over the quartier.  The humanitarian community in Uvira/Fizi has suffered a great loss, and we are all reminded of the risks that must be taken in order to assist vulnerable populations, fight for social justice, and struggle for development in the Congo.


Jungle path in Fizi Territory
Jungle path in Fizi Territory

Jungle path in Fizi Territory

Fellow: Walter James

SOS Femmes en Danger


advocacy project africa amani leo arche d'alliance baraka congo corruption CTLVS drc dr congo elections etienne tshisekedi fardc fdlr fizi fnl gender equality great lakes region haut plateau human rights joseph kabila justice kifaru kikonde kikoze luvungi mai mai mass rape mboko monusco ocha pprd rape refugees sexual violence sos fed sos femmes en danger south kivu sud kivu tanganyika unhcr uvira violence war women's rights




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