Monday, 20 June 2011

Masisi Matarajio

The morning traffic is Sunday sparse as we follow pitted roads to the outskirts en route to Masisi, in the hills and mountains about 70km. north and west of Goma. We ride in a 2 jeep convoy for security purposes with me, Mighty Warrior, Mike, and the Programme Manager and driver from Caderco, our proposed partner, in jeep one, the rest of the team in jeep two. We head first south, then west, our destination about 3 or 4 hours away on the bumpy roads.

In Masisi there are about 6,000 displaced persons living in 7 camps around the area, many children amongst them, and we are going to look at the conditions they live in and talk with the locals about the situation there. War Child is planning a new project there and so this is, in effect, a field scouting expedition, with some mad crazy folks visiting from the UK tagging along.

Mike explains the rationale as we slew down the road from side to side to avoid potholes. There is a real problem in Masisi with co-ordination in child protection cases. Save the Children were working here and created networks of child protection, but the methods that they employed – paying members of networks for referrals – may have inculcated unfortunate expectations. Now that they are withdrawing – they’ve run out of funding – there is the chance to try something new, and very simple: a freephone number to a radio operator, who then contacts local teams by radio or mobile to send someone by transport or on a motorbike to the child. This would then avoid the payment expectation and establish a call centre that supports the child. If it worked well, the freephone number could be spread across the province.

Our approach is to engage with local neighbourhoods and the community, with police, local leaders, and others. The key is that the call centre is focused on the problems of the child, and not with calling in troops or police. Caderco have been partners of Unicef for many years and have agents all over Masisi. They’re very tapped into what’s going on, have contact with most actors in the field, are well respected by the authorities, and have about 10 years experience. Rather than simply paying them to deliver every month, we envisage a full collaboration with them.

By this time the War Child Security Officer checks in with Mike by mobile and we confirm that all is going to plan so far.

We’re now on the new road that was only completed last year, and which winds up and switches back over the deep, steep valleys in the long ascent to Masisi. We pass through a village called Sake in an area controlled by mai-mai guerrillas as late as 2008, so the area has not long been stable and secure. The road works, though a little bumpy, but is perfectly good. We come close to the cliff edge at times, and all through the trip our driver constantly honks his horn to warn oncoming vehicles that we are just around the corner.

Our two jeeps make their way up the valley wraithed in dust, a billowy caravan. We are now far above Sake, which is a sheer drop off the cliffside. The area is lush and green, the sole problem being that the hillsides are so steep.

The rich farmland produces haricots verts, petits pois, and potatoes, amongst other crops. But the main deal here is dairy – the steep hills are always dotted with cows who look as if they are about to plunge off the damned cliff.

By the road we see plenty of people on foot, in some cases ex-soldiers in CNDP uniforms, in others traders walking to and from markets – market day is Monday, so on Sunday everyone will be out transporting goods in readiness. Many carry yellow plastic containers of milk, which goes to Masisi for processing into yogurt and cheese.

You may well ask what the government should be doing here. DIVAS is the government social affairs department but it has few resources so, until fully equipped and funded to do this work, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as War Child and others need to work here. War Child was influential in getting Masisi on the agenda at DIVAS headquarters in Kinshasa, although it may have helped that the numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) increased just before contract award. We have a six month contract from July – December. War Child is one of the few NGOs that work in rural areas, although the problems are not just there: the IDP camps outside Goma have 15,000 persons in them.

We stop to stretch our legs outside a small UN encampment inhabited mostly by Kenyans, Indians and Bangladeshis. Mike points out a nice house on top of the hill in which lives Kabila’s mother!!! We decide not to stop in for tea, but get back in the jeeps and move on. Mushaki comes up shortly afterwards, a village in which live Congolese Tutsi and ex-Rwandans. Mushaki is featured in Jsson Stearns's book on the Congo conflicts, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: "October 1993... - he could not remember the exact date - in the muddy market town of Mushaki, in the eastern highlands, he loaded up ten truckloads of young Tutsi and sent them to join the rebellion in Rwanda. Three years later, [Deogratias] Bugera and the young Congolese Tutsi he mobilised would become the vanguard in a second rebellion, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL)." And so goes the story of Eastern Congo, an area next to borders with other countries which has for many years had marauding groups competing for space and for power and resources, and where there have been more mass movements of peoples since World War II. The green and pleasant landscape belies these facts, but apparently many farmers in the area will have mass graves somewhere on their lands. We hold our breaths as we go through a dangerous and uninhabited part of the road where ambushes used to take place frequently.

Our ‘good’ road runs out and turns into a broken, potholed surface, and we start to “slalom the potholes” as Mike puts it as we climb the last few kilometres into Masisi. However, we feel fortunate that it’s not the rainy season – if it was, we would not be able to go up and back in one day!!! Masisi used to be centred in one place but now, with the IDP camps, it sprawls all over the mountains in a disorganised, jerry-built fashion.

Stearns sketches in for us the last 100 years of history of this area:

The problems of North Kivu can be dated to 1908, when the new Belgian colonial government took over the reins from Congo Free State. Under this new administration, thousands of Belgians escaped the industrial drudgery of their homeland to set up cattle ranches and plantations in the province's highlands. In 1928, the government created the National Committee of the Kivus, a charter company that granted itself 'all vacant lands' in the region. In practice, this meant that any piece of land that was not being farmed belonged to the state...tantamount to mass theft. The newcomers got much of the best farm and cattle land, expropriating a chunk of land larger than all of Belgium. The Belgians were then confronted with a lack of labor. The local Hunde and Nyanga communities wanted to farm their own fields, and the Belgians were wary of peasant revolts if they began exacting too much labor from locals. In 1937, they found the solution: by bringing in tens of thousands of Rwandans, whom they had long admired as industrious, the Belgians would create a large pool of loyal workers....Over the next 20 years, [they] imported around 175,000 Rwandans - mostly Hutu, but also many Tutsi - to the Kivu highlands. Unrest in Rwanda around its independence prompted a further 100,000 Rwandans to flee to the Congo between 1959 and 1964....By 1990, an estimated 1/2 million descendants of Rwandan immigrants were living in North Kivu. This massive influx caused bitter tensions with the local Hunde community which had been living in Masisi for centuries....In Masisi, 90% of all large plantations - almost 1/2 of all the land - came to be owned by these immigrants or their descendants.

We make for Camp Bihito in Lushabere, part of Masisi the province and area, where we have a meeting with the local Child Protection Committee. Our convoy comes to a halt before a squat one storey that is mostly orange tarp with dirt floor. Inside the Committee members are waiting for us, fewer women than men because many of them are off at church. Their elder, a local priest, told their story in French with others interjecting occasionally. Mike ably did the translating and summarising, and I took some notes and edited those a bit. Never mind, what he had to say was heartbreaking:

The Priest’s Story

“We have been here since October 2007. We came from Kembe about 30 km. away in Ishunga, an area which is still very insecure now. 20 or 25 families have just arrived in Camp Bihito from different areas, so not everyone is from the same area or comes because of the same reasons. There has been no reduction in those coming here, exactly the opposite, the influx is on the rise. There is an increase in night-time incidents in the Camp probably because of increased tensions; we don’t know where these are coming from.

Now, we would like to go back home. There are 2 problems that stop us. One is the insecurity that still exists. Second, our land has been taken over by others who have kicked us out. That is usually the issue with displaced persons. There are no legal documents either, making it even more difficult.

In 2009, we made a move to go back, but we had a new problem, which was the FDRC moving back the rebels and causing even more displacement problems.

There are 937 families and 4,278 persons in Bihito. 2,834 are children under 18. The main impact of living in this way is on the children. A big problem is that there is no school. There used to be a school, but that’s gone. The ordinary schools in Masisi have no place for our children. Only 113 of them are in local schools.

Lots of children become vagabonds, street children, perhaps even thieves. It’s very difficult to keep track of them. The vast majority of the children are girls. There are a number of dangers for girls in camp. One comes when they go out and gather wood for cooking – they may be raped by armed men. Girls usually start going out and gathering wood on their own about age 5 or 6. That makes them very vulnerable.

A second problem is when they are forced into marriages, early marriages, adultery. They are then not in school and highly susceptible to influence.

Boys have no occupation, no work, are not in school, so they make nuisances of themselves with girls, forage for something to eat, and other things that are much worse.

A further impact of being in the camp is that children lose respect for their parents, who cannot provide for them. Children will often go hungry, stray far from home, and get into trouble. Young mothers, once pregnant, may be reprimanded by their parents. They will usually stay at home as there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do. Conflict often then happens between the 2 mothers and there’s a power struggle between them.

The biggest thing that could improve things in camp would be a school, which would help combat the negative influences and ensure that fewer children live on the street. 40 classrooms would be needed for all school age children in the camp. Classrooms are hardly the only problem. There is little land available, though, and what little space there is has been taken over by displaced families. The result is that young adults will have no formal education and little economic activity.”

In due course, we thanked the Committee and adjourned for a walk around the camp with the Norwegian Refugee Council representative. The NRC are planning to withdraw at the end of the month as their funding is running out. There have been attempts to get schools going locally, but these are not joined up – for example, one agency offered free education while the state were proposing to charge a small amount.

There are teachers in camp, so the camp dwellers could try to help themselves, but then the teachers would have to sacrifice the time that they spent to get water, wood and food. Water usually isn’t a problem, as there’s plenty of it about, but wood is 7km. away.

Walking around the camp is difficult as the paths slope up and back on the hill. The huts, mostly mudbrick or wood and tarp or corrugated iron, punctuate the landscape all around in a somewhat organised fashion so that there are paths and roads, a semblance of ordinary life. We have a look in one of them – most of them cram in 8 people.

There is little for children or, indeed, adults to do other than secure the necessities of life every day. There is little hope for those stuck here and, for their children, even less hope.

But it gets worse. There continue to be successive waves of IDPs in Masisi, and each wave joins previous waves, placing more demand on the shared resources of the camp, so increasing tensions between new and previous IDPs, let alone the permanent dwellers of Masisi. The social upheaval is massive.

The NRC has done their best but other partners are leaving too, and the health centres and water supplies that remain will need to be paid for by the camp dwellers. The World Food Programme has reduced its food allocation to the camps as its focus is refugees, not IDPs. If an IDP tries to return to their previous home to get food, they are often not welcomed. The UNHCR, as good as it may be, is failing to run all the services in the camp and maintain them. The world seems to have forgotten about Masisi.

We finish our walk then go for lunch at the Codelco office. It used to be surrounded by a neat picket fence but this was stolen sometime ago, just leaving a door!

Masisi is surrounded by areas of instability and, apart from other problems, there is a lack of co-ordination in child protection. Over lunch, Mike outlines the priorities for the new War Child project: (i) map who is doing what, (ii) do a gap analysis, (iii) convene a child working group to address. The objectives are to reinforce all the actors in the child protection network; to reinforce co-ordination mechanisms; to implement the freephone number and central radio controller with mobile teams in 8 places in Masisi Centre. The idea is to not to add a completely new structure on top of what is already there, but to work in with projects that already exist, e.g. Save the Children working on sexual exploitation and Medicins sans Frontieres on health. And, most importantly, to work with the state in the form of DIVAS to ensure it continues afterwards.

We end the visit by visiting the site of the new War Child office in Bukambo. Just 15km beyond is Walikale, which is too dangerous for us to visit. The new War Child office structure looks pretty dangerous too, not quite as life-threatening, but definitely lacking a roof and some walls. It’s very environmentally friendly, I joke weakly, as you can gather rainwater and you’re naturally solar heated. However, Mike is very optimistic and positive, but it needs to be up and running very quickly, and nothing in the DRC happens very quickly.

The long drive back to Goma looms ahead of us, essentially retracing our route out in the afternoon light. We break the journey at the Osso Ferme, where there is a local cheese factory that is unfortunately closed on Sunday, but where we met some locals and a fetching little fellow who made friends with Wanda.

Then we slalomed the potholes down the valley towards Goma and even glimpsed the volcano letting off steam in the distance. We were tracked en route by a series of roadside powerlines – word has it that Kabila ordered them built out here because a certain person lives up country…

As we drive back into Goma I see a local sign on a shop, “Viviance and Reconciliation”. It turns out to be a bar. Maybe…back safe in our guest house overlooking Lake Kivu, drinking some Tembo (the local dark beer), we all feel emotionally affected, subdued, transfixed by what we’ve seen.

Thanks for today’s title to for translating the word ‘hope’ into Kiswahili.

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