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The CTLVS and a lesson in economics

Walter James | Posted April 1st, 2011 | Africa

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On March 23, I attended my first CTLVS (Commission Territoriale sur la Lutte contre la Violence Sexuelle) meeting at OCHA headquarters. Up until that day, the Uvira CTLVS had 25 member organizations; however, my presence at the CTLVS meeting added SOS FED to the roster, making the final total 26.

The CTLVS is meant to be an official entity that coordinates the efforts of local NGOs working on SGBV (Sexual and Gender-based Violence) in Uvira and Fizi Territories. There are four sub-clusters under CTLVS, each headed by a member organization that specializes in that area:

-Judicial (Arche d’Alliance)

-Medical and Health (l’Hôpital d’Uvira)

-Psychosocial Assistance (PSVS)

-Socioeconomic Assistance (ASJPED)

Currently, the CTLVS is collaborating with UNFPA on a data-mapping project, trying to get a clearer picture of incidents of sexual violence in South Kivu, so better response efforts can be coordinated. One member organization, Arche d’Alliance, is charged with collecting information on incidents of sexual violence recorded by each member organization. However, it was clear at the meeting that this information was not being given to Arche, even when someone was sent around to each member organization’s office to collect it. The CTLVS director, Mme Bernadette Ntumba, expressed her frustration at the lack of cooperation. The reason given by some of those present at the meeting was “on n’a pas des moyens” (“we don’t have the means”).

Two days prior to the main CTLVS meeting, I attended a scheduled meeting for the sub-cluster concerning psychosocial assistance, at the headquarters of PSVS. I was surprised at the low attendance; besides a PSVS staff member and a secretary for another local org called AJID, I was the only other person in attendance. When I inquired why so few were attending a scheduled coordination meeting, Ms. Aimée Birindwa, the PSVS focal point, told me that it was hard to motivate member organizations to send people to meetings. Why weren’t the other local organizations motivated enough? She told me what I have heard from countless organizations: “on n’a pas des moyens” (“we don’t have the means”). The story over and over again in South Kivu is one of missing financing, not enough money to keep things running. However, there is never a shortage of NGOs that work on building peace, assisting victims of sexual violence, educating communities on SBGV, and building economic activity. Quite a few of the directors of these NGOs have bulging waistlines, travel on enormous per diems, and are building three-story houses in Uvira. Who am I to believe?

Perhaps this warrants a closer look at the economics at work in South Kivu.

Since Mobutu’s “Zairieanisation” in the 1970s, the economy of Zaire/Congo has been in a state of rapid decay. The war starting in the 1990s shattered what remained of economic activity and security in places like South Kivu. Most people in South Kivu have been poor and oppressed since colonial times, but the war and continuing insecurity means that there is little hope at the end of the tunnel. It is a little astounding to hear older people talk about how things were “better” during the Mobutu Era.

Even today, peasants flee their fields at the sound of gunfire. Internal displacement and the disruption of agricultural activity have had severe effects on public health and food security. The education system is in shambles and the roads are non-existent. Mineral extraction and smuggling has enriched the pockets of fat politicians and generals from Kinshasa to Kampala to Kigali and back, while fighting over these mineral resources continues to breed insecurity in the regon.

So, what is one source of income that continues to trickle into South Kivu? Aid money, development money, financing for humanitarian assistance. Granted, the deep humanitarian crisis in Eastern Congo merits attention, and I believe we have an obligation to help alleviate suffering and fight for social justice in one of the most troubled regions of the planet. However, it appears that money coming to South Kivu from international donors seeking to help the Congolese has created an atmosphere rife with competition, corruption, and deception. There is amazing work done by dedicated individuals in South Kivu, but there are also those who only seek to line their own pockets, whether out of desperation or greed.

Thus, you have two stories: NGOs that do little more than serve as ATMs for their corrupt directors, and NGOs that have decent projects but can’t find the financing to sustain them. There are many shades of gray between these two extremes; some organizations are very functional and do decent human rights work, but still use some of their financing and resources in ways that are improper and somewhat unethical. Some of the local NGO elite, especially up in Bukavu, are internationally recognized for their previous work and are therefore well-financed, but when the mzungus aren’t looking, they engage in some fairly dirty tactics to make sure that other local NGOs do not cut in on their action. Some organizations have good projects and some financing, but refuse to cooperate with other organizations doing similar work.

So, NGO work has become a business in South Kivu, at least for some. The sad reality is that such corruption and disregard for ethics from some NGOs are what discourage a lot of international organizations from taking a chance on good NGOs in South Kivu. Conversely, some local NGOs want the financing from abroad, but none of the required oversight that may accompany it. Since there are many local NGOs and few sources of funding, competition and jealousy overpower most efforts at cooperation. There is a corrosive mutual distrust, which ensures confusion and inefficiency. This is not a condemnation of either all Congolese NGOs or all foreign donors. The aid game is tricky, and all of us in the humanitarian assistance/international development community are still trying to figure out a better way of doing things. The history and simple economics of a place like South Kivu have created such a situation, and it is our job to be better informed and keep up the work, not to give up.

This is not new news to me; Ned Meerdink had to deal with the machinations of the bad NGOs for years, including when I was here in 2009. In Haiti, I had plenty of exposure to the corruptions of even the most well respected NGOs and religious organizations. With my background and experience, I think I can objectively state that SOS FED is not one of the “bad NGOs”. However, it is always tough to remain on the straight-and-narrow in a place where the good guys often finish last.

This is not a diatribe against anyone in particular; in this forum, at least, I will refrain from naming names. This is also not meant to be a grand commentary on the state of international development and humanitarian assistance. For that, you can go talk to high-minded economists like Bill Easterly, Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Collier, and Dambisa Moyo. In the meantime, here at SOS FED we will start faithfully submitting our monthly data to the CTLVS.

Uvira, South Kivu, DRC
Uvira, South Kivu, DRC

Uvira, South Kivu, DRC

“Morphology and Resentment”

Walter James | Posted March 14th, 2011 | Africa

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South Kivu is home to quite a few ethnic groups, and with any area with fragmented identities, there are low-level tensions between these groups.  In Uvira and Fizi, there are many different tribal/linguistic groups, such as the Bafulero, Babembe, Bavira, Banyamulenge, Bashi.  Here is a little guide to the prefixes:

One person: Mufulero

Many people: Bafulero

Language: Kifulero

For example:  Josephine is a Mubembe.  She belongs to the Babembe people, and she speaks Kibembe.  There are a couple of exceptions to these grammatical rules; for example, the Banyamulenge speak Kinyarwanda, as their ethnic group came to the Kivus from Rwanda a few hundred years ago.  People from Rwanda are called Banyarwanda, people from Burundi are called Barundi (or, more commonly, burundais) and speak Kirundi.  In the Kivus, most everybody knows Kiswahili, as is the case in Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, and Tanzania.  Kiswahili has become the lingua franca in areas where people from many different ethnic groups are found, such as Uvira town.  In addition, most people know at least a little bit of the language of other ethnic groups.  Despite slight regional differences in vocabulary, one can get most anywhere in East Africa if one speaks Kiswahili.

One has to be extremely careful when talking about ethnicity, especially when it comes to the various armed groups.  Ethnic issues oftentimes are connected to political and military actions, but no armed group’s motivations can be explained entirely along ethnic guidelines.  Looking for a political motive is more worthwhile.

When the Rwandans invaded the Congo and continued to have a presence in the Kivus, part of their explanation for their invasion was to prevent the “genocide” of their “Tutsi” brothers, the Banyamulenge.  Simmering ethnic tensions already existing between the Banyamulenge and the “autochtone” tribes (Babembe, Bafulero) were one of the reasons why South Kivu was invaded, catalyzed by the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda and by the fact many of the perpetrators fled into the Congo and were regrouping there.  Depending on whom you talk to here, you will always get a different response as to who is the truly “victimized” ethnic group in South Kivu.  While political and rebel movements may be along “tribal” lines (the FDLR, for example, is a “Hutu” nationalist group), ethnicity may be simply be an excuse to further a selfish agenda. Politicians and military leaders exploit these differences; in South Kivu, the Banyamulenge can be portrayed either as bloodthirsty killers of the “native” tribes or as victims of “genocidal Congolese” and their “Hutu genocidaire allies”.  Neither portrayal is correct. Members of one ethnic group may be quick to recall the massacres of their tribesmen at the hands of another tribe, but won’t be able to recall the massacres committed by their own ethnic group against others; I’ve heard this quite a bit from Bembe people in Fizi Territory, who are quick to point out sites where Babembe were massacred by the predominately Banyamulenge RCD, but would be hard pressed to recount the anti-Banyamulenge pogroms/massacres that have also occurred in the area, before and after the RCD takeover.

Of course, this is not to say that ethnicity/tribal affiliation is something to ignore; one only has to look at the 1994 genocide in Rwanda to see the perils of ignoring ethnic tensions and how they can be exploited for murderous intent.  Ethnic divides can ignite hatred and suspicion, since it is that much easier to hate the “other” who doesn’t speak your language, looks a little differently than you, and practices customs slightly different from yours.

The FARDC in South Kivu consist of many Banyamulenge, including quite of the officers.  The Mai Mai are comprised of members mostly from the “autochtone” tribes, the Babembe, Bafulero, etc.  The fact that the conflict is delineated along ethnic lines is one reason why the Amani Leo troops are implicated in so many rapes in Fizi Territory; there is a lower mental/cultural threshold to cross for a Banyamulenge soldier to rape/assault someone of the “other” ethnic group, especially for someone they see as the “enemy”.  Same thing goes for the FDLR rebels and their general attitude towards the Congolese population.  The Banyamulenge are not inherently evil, and not all members of their ethnic group can be labeled as rapists and murderers, despite what some members of some other ethnic groups may tell you.  It is easy to see how the situation could be reversed if the FARDC ranks were mostly commanded and made up of members of another ethnic group.

This is not to say that all sexual or gender-based violence goes perpendicular to ethnic lines.  The second-class status of women in a patriarchal society make Congolese women all the more vulnerable to the designs of all predators, be they a soldier from a different region, their next-door neighbor, or even a member of their own family.  Taboos on denouncing perpetrators and the lack of a functioning law enforcement/justice system make the situation all the more difficult to gauge and ameliorate.

When I write about the Congo, I mostly try to avoid attaching ethnic labels to political/armed groups, except when necessary to possibly explain the reasons around a group’s actions/platform.  The point is that ethnic/tribal divides often exacerbate conflicts over land, mineral mines, or even cows.  Ignoring them only perpetuates ignorance, but simply attributing all the violence to “ethnic conflict” misses the point.  The war has political, economic, and military implications that extend beyond the region and even beyond the continent.

In the States, I’ve had to endure listening to many an American talking about “crazy uncivilized Africans” killing each other because of “tribal animosity” that existed “long before we [white people] got there”.  I greatly resent this sort of sentiment, mostly because of colonial legacy (remember, it was Europeans who created the whole “Hutu” and “Tutsi” false dichotomy) and the modern problems of Africa that have more to do with economics and politics than tribal affiliation.  Oftentimes these modern problems involve the actions of governments, corporations, and individuals outside of Africa.  I’d say that our culpability as Non-Africans is pretty well established.

It should be noted that the grand majority of Congolese people I know are fairly chilled out when it comes to ethnic differences; people from all different tribes and ethnic groups interact with each other everyday in the Congo without incident.

Many civil society organizations in Eastern Congo work to try and break down these ethnic barriers, reminding everyone that they are Congolese citizens first and foremost, and tribal differences should not be an excuse for violence, mistrust, and marginalization.  SOS FED makes no distinction between beneficiaries in terms of language or tribe, and all are welcome.

Security briefing

Walter James | Posted March 13th, 2011 | Africa

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On February 28th, a vehicle belonging to CCAP, a local NGO based in Uvira, was stopped by bandits up near Magunda, in Uvira Territory.  CCAP coordinates the efforts of 28 local NGOs working on food security, civil society, health and sanitation, and sexual violence.  The bandits took money, cell phones, and the clothes of the passengers.  Fortunately, no one was hurt.

The zone where the CCAP vehicle was taken is by no means safe as churches, but it was still a bit disquieting to learn of such an incident so close to Uvira in an area considered not near as dangerous as it was back in 2009.

According to UN sources, Amani Leo troops are pulling out of some of the smaller villages in Fizi Territory and moving into the bigger towns for re-organization and training.  On March 5, we got a call from the ANR in Kikonde to tell us that the Mai Mai had just moved into Kikonde, which means that our visit there for March was cancelled.  The Mai Mai are not implicated in near as many rapes as the Amani Leo troops, who are truly a scourge to the civilian population of Fizi Territory, but their unpredictable behavior makes it difficult to travel and work in areas they control.

On February 26th, the FDLR raped around 50 women (and a few men) on the road to the market in Milimba.  This is the 6th case of mass rape in the Haut Plateau in 2011.  The number of reported rape cases in the Haut Plateau is around 150 just since January 19th.  Chew on that statistic a little bit and tell me there shouldn’t be more done.  Médecins Sans Frontières responds to many of these mass rape incidents, but the simple truth is that there isn’t enough being done to stop the violence, particularly against women.

Just how difficult is it to bring security to South Kivu?  The answer is very difficult.  The FDLR is very well entrenched in the remote areas, controlling mineral mines and fishing around key areas near the border with Katanga Province.  They are adequately trained and equipped, and can simply melt into the jungles when attacked.  In Fizi Territory, the roads, where they exist, are terrible.  In the Haut Plateau, most places are only accessible via footpath or helicopter.  The MONUSCO troops do not have a substantial presence in Fizi, and therefore are unwilling to send what few troops they have there out to get ambushed in the jungle.  When I asked the UN people why there isn’t a greater troop presence in Fizi, they told me it is because of lack of resources.  Fizi is far away from Bukavu, where MONUSCO is headquartered in South Kivu, and therefore the lines of supply and communication are stretched.

MONUSCO is the largest UN mission anywhere, but the Congo is such a vast country with so little infrastructure that it remains difficult to keep the peace, especially in areas like Fizi Territory.  This problem is greatly compounded by several other facts:

  • The rebel factions and militias (various groups of Mai Mai, FDLR, FRF, etc.) are numerous, complicated, and have shifting alliances.
  • The FARDC is undisciplined and resented by many in Fizi because of ethnic unbalances within the ranks and the fact that many of FARDC troops are comprised of soldiers of previous Rwandan-backed rebel groups that ravaged the civilian populations of the Kivus (AFDL, RCD, CNDP).
  • The illegal mineral trade has implications for governments, generals, and politicians beyond the Congo’s borders.

What does this mean for small NGOs like SOS FED?  The lack of security in Fizi Territory makes work difficult, to say the least.  SOS FED had to shut down their reception center in Kazimia because the FDLR and Mai Mai are camped too close to ensure the security of the staff.  The Mai Mai looted the reception center in Mboko back in 2009, although no one was hurt.  Visiting the SOS FED reception center in Kikonde is very difficult because of continued Mai Mai and FDLR presence in the area.

Mass Rape in Fizi

Walter James | Posted January 26th, 2011 | Africa

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A fight breaks out in a bar in the dark of the night in the town of Fizi, deep in the territory that bears the same name. The argument is between a civilian and a soldier of the 43rd Sector, over a woman. In the resulting melee, the soldier shoots the civilian. This sets off a riot, and an angry crowd lynches the soldier in public.

News of the lynching reaches the troops of the 43rd Sector. To “avenge” their fallen comrade, a group of soldiers descended upon Fizi for a massive campaign of rape and destruction. So far, 50 cases have been confirmed, but as more people return the official number is expected to climb. The real number is probably much higher, since many women will not report that they have been violated.

The 43rd Sector is part of Amani Leo (“Peace Now”), a military operation charged with dealing once and for all with the marauding FDLR rebels who continue to ravage the Kivus. Their commander, Lt. Colonel Kibibi Mutware is a former CNDP rebel who was integrated into the FARDC as the result of a 2009 peace agreement. He commands a group of Kinyarwanda-speaking Banyamulenge troops, often resented because of the role of their ethnic group in the Rwandan invasion of Eastern Congo.
Lt. Col. Kibibi claims that the perpetrators of this mass rape were soldiers disobeying orders to stay on base. However, as the people of Fizi recounted the horror they survived, it became clear that more than a few witnessed Lt. Col. Kibibi urging his soldiers to attack the people of Fizi, directing them in committing unspeakable acts of violence. These accusations were serious enough to be included in a UN report on the Fizi mass rape. Also, it is not the first time that Lt. Col. Kibibi has been accused of human rights abuses.

It is a well-documented phenomenon when FARDC military commanders spur their troops to ravage the very citizens they are sworn to protect, and the latest incident in Fizi is quite possibly another instance of such a sickening perversion.

MONUSCO troops now patrol Fizi town in order to maintain order, and a Congolese military spokesman has stated that all who were responsible for the carnage have been arrested. The Congolese military supposedly has a “zero-tolerance” policy towards human rights abuses, and yet it begs the question why something this massive and atrocious occurred in the first place.

The general apathy of the Congolese government and the international community towards human rights abuses committed by the FARDC is bearing bitter fruit. Human rights training, reprimands, and the removal of some commanders who condone rape have not been extensive enough to cut away the cancer that plagues the Congolese military. Amani Leo is quickly becoming a joke at the expense of the people of Eastern Congo.

When does this end?

Time To Vote

Walter James | Posted January 22nd, 2011 | Africa

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A presidential election is supposed to occur in 2011, and current president Joseph Kabila faces some strong competition from Congolese politicians Vital Kamerhe and Etienne Tshisekedi. However, this last week Joseph Kabila “convinced” the National Assembly to change the Constitution in a way that basically guarantees his re-election this year.

Previously, the Congolese Presidential Election was a two-part election where the two top candidates from the first voting stage faced each other in a run-off (majority decision). Now, the Constitution is changed to a one-part election where victory is based on a plurality. Thus, Kabila can basically flood the candidate field with his people and guarantee a plurality for himself. Usually, the DRC National Assembly takes months and months to deliberate the stupidest petty law. However, by paying $20,000 to each MP voting yea, Kabila was able to get the constitutional changes pushed through in the fastest legislative action in Congolese history. The changes passed by a vote of 334 yeas, 1 nay, and 2 abstentions. 163 of the MPs walked out in protest. No one knows how much he paid the much-smaller Congolese Senate to pass these changes, but rest assured it was much more.

It is perfectly clear that Kabila is carefully calculating the demise of what little democracy is left in the DRC in order to maintain control. He is also consolidating control among the provincial governors, to the point that any provincial governor who displeases him can be immediately dismissed. Thus, the government far away from Kinshasa in an area like South Kivu has even less power and will to enact development action and improve the daily lives of the citizens.

Strong opposition to Kabila’s political maneuverings from the Congolese people would surely result in a brutal backlash from the military, adding more violence to an already war-torn region. Thus, the Congo seems to be destined to another six years of destitute poverty and harmful compromise sustained by a self-serving government that refuses to aid its citizens. Roads will not be built, clean water will not be provided, and the military will continue to prey on the citizens they are sworn to protect.

Greetings from Uvira

Walter James | Posted January 21st, 2011 | Africa

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So, here I am in Uvira, South Kivu Province, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Things are a bit different since I was here last time, but I think most of the changes are due to the fact that I have arrived in the middle of the rainy season this time around. In general, this means life is hot, muggy, and fairly dirty. Already I’ve surprised myself with my own odor and hustled off to find some water to wash. Fortunately, office decorum here in the Congo is a bit more relaxed than in the States, so even if there isn’t much water to wash with, folks don’t mind it too much.

I live in a house in the very crowded Kimanga neighborhood. My housemate is Amisi Mas, SOS FED’s able field officer. This house is hooked up for running water and electricity, however unreliable they are. From my caged-in “porch”, I can see a small slice of Lake Tanganyika; the distant, murky shore of Gatumba is barely visible on the other side of the skinny lake.

At night, you can sit and listen to the deafening buzz of insects. Under the insects’ chatter, you can just hear the soft undercurrent of Kiswahili conversation in the houses next-door, like listening to a quiet brook flowing in the dark. Not much gunfire, thank goodness.

Uvira in general seems a little more prosperous, a little more secure. More motorcycles clogging the roads, but the main road running through town is really starting to crumble into nothing. Since it is rainy season, sections of the road are dominated by puddles the size of your average backyard swimming pool. Mosquitoes are very prevalent, and I wonder how long I can go without contracting malaria.

Right now Ned, Marceline, Amisi, and I are working out what needs to be done for 2011. I am pretty happy to be back among the Congolese people, that is for sure. Stay tuned for more.


Walter James | Posted December 5th, 2010 | Africa, Uncategorized

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Kitagi miyazi, rafiki yangu.  So, I am headed back to the Congo.  After three months of documenting and reporting on the work of several civil society organizations, I left Uvira in August 2009 with a bad case of dysentery.  However, the violence and oppression in Eastern Congo has never been far from my mind.  I have tried to keep track of the human rights situation in the region, and now I am presented with the opportunity to work with SOS Femmes en Danger, a courageous local NGO based in South Kivu province that assists survivors of sexual violence.  Over the summer of 2009 Ned Meerdink and I produced a mini-documentary that showed the importance of SOS FED’s work.  Now, The Advocacy Project, SOS FED, and Zivik are embarking on an ambitious risk-reduction campaign, helping women decrease the probability of attack and enslavement.  Ned Meerdink has been laying down the groundwork for this project for months, and now I will be switching spots with him for about 12 months or so.

Here are some news articles and reports that give some background on the current situation in the Congo:

-UN peacekeepers ‘failed’ DR Congo rape victims

BBC News article on Atul Khare’s report to the UN Security Council on shortcomings of UN peacekeepers in preventing sexual violence committed by the FDLR, highlighted by the August 2010 mass rape in Luvungi.

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Fellow: Walter James

SOS Femmes en Danger


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