16 September 2013

Hoping to beat the APC rush hour…

The walk to work this morning was a bit surreal. There were police everywhere. Potentially they were soldiers. Sometimes it can be a bit difficult to tell. If I’m not mistaken, there were also additional peacekeepers outside of Monusco House. There was some unrest over the weekend betwixt the police and taxi men, so I suppose they didn’t want to take any chances. ‘Taxi men’ is how we broadly refer to the young toughs who seem to always be itching for a riot, as the majority of their number drive motorbikes. They are the football hooligans of Bunia. Late Saturday night, an apparently drunk taxi man ran into a car and was killed. The driver of the car was savvy enough to hightail it out of there (variously, he either sought shelter with the police or at his home), but the damage was done. The car was torched and the taxi men engaged in a mini-riot, clashing with the police all over town. Gun play continued for the better part of the night, and on Sunday the funeral procession for the lost taxi man snaked its way through most of Bunia, ending at the football stadium (I told you they are hooligans). We were warned to stay in our compound as a precautionary measure (I tried to go to mass before that word came down from our security focal point and my guards very gently suggested that might not be the best idea. Our guards are the sweetest).

I would like to say that this amped-up security was totally out of the norm, but I would be lying. On any given day lately, my walk to or from home is held up by some sort of military footprint. Yes, this morning it was three pickup trucks full of FARDC soldiers toting AKs and rocket launchers (this was a bit shocking in and of itself, since the Bunia police are normally outfitted in riot gear that looks like they simply stuck a flip visor on a batting helmet. Some only have a single clip of rounds and I suspect their back-up weapon is a rape whistle). Friday, though, it was a UN APC flanked by tanks (which did some really fabulous things to Bunia’s ravaged roads).

Instead of the taxi man riot, I suspect that all of this troop movement is related to the most recent outburst of fighting in Irumu (technically, Bunia is in Irumu, but the conflict is southeast of me). The closest skirmishes are about 12 km away (we could actually hear some combat-related detonations Sunday) and there are IDPs everywhere.

Just to offer a bit of context, late last month the FARDC launched a surprise offensive against Cobra Matata’s (remember him?) FPRI militia. There is all manner of speculation about why (it is interesting that no one seems willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are performing their sovereign duty by tackling sub-state armed actors, but whatever). The pet theory of most of the expat community is that Congo has finally decided that it wants to get its paws on the oil in Lac Albert (given that the bulk of the Lac and its oil belong to Congo, this doesn’t seem unreasonable) and the FPRI is standing in their way. As you might have guessed, I find this to be a positive development. Don’t’ get me wrong – I have no love lost for the FARDC. That said, you can’t pretend to be a functioning country when there are some dozen rebel groups in the span of 400km that are hijacking your natural resources willy-nilly and terrorizing your citizens with impunity. Development and security are two sides of the same coin, two of the heads of Cerberus (I suspect that the third head is a functioning civil society. As to why I selected a hellhound for that analogy, I have no idea). So cheers, FARCD, for finally finding some stones. But let’s try not to rape too many people or pillage too many villages once you ‘liberate’ them, mkay?

What is less great, assuming the assaults and ransacking are kept to a minimum, is that it was truly a surprise offensive – they didn’t even give the NGOs a heads-up, so a ton of people got stuck behind the front lines during routine field trips. One friend ended up sheltering in a MONUSCO APC for five days. Two of our supervisors had to flee to Uganda and make their way back to Bunia through North Kivu (you know things are bad when your escape route takes you through a Kivu). Another had to hide out in the clinic at which she had been conducting a training for midwives for nearly a week until we could organize a rescue mission. Of course, in the process of springing her, we managed to deliver a whole host of medications and hygiene kits, giving us bragging rights at the first NGOs on-site. Silver lining, I guess?

Currently, OCHA is estimating that there are some 100,000 new IDPs in Irumu. While the numbers might be inflated a touch (there are only 140,000 people who lived in that area originally), that’s still an awful lot of people hiding out in schools and churches and trees and wherever else they can find a ghost of shelter. For fun, I checked the major humanitarian news outlets for word on the fighting in Irumu. The only Congo news I could find was about the renewed peace talks in Goma. And I’m not talking about BBC. This was IRIN and Alertnet. 100,000 displaced in the last two weeks, and no one cared. I know that it’s nothing next to Syria, but come on y’all. Over the weekend, I was asked by visitor from HQ if we were having trouble finding funding because we lack an in-country communications officer. Sweetie, if even the UN news outlets aren’t paying attention to that many IDPs, we’re effed.*

In fairness, there might simply be a lot of Congo-fatigue among humanitarian journalists. After all, when you start actually chatting with the IDPs, it becomes quickly apparent that these people have been displaced multiple times. So many, in fact, that they’re pretty good at it. The nurses who staff the clinics, for example, made sure to stop by the abandoned health centers and grab what vaccines and medical records they could carry (I know this because they were able to present them to our teams when they arrived for an assessment, pointing out the most at-risk IDPs). There are mothers who mark their children’s ages by the times they’ve had to flee. Pastors who know which potential host villages have the best trees under which to set up impromptu worship services. It would be inspiring were it not so astoundingly depressing.

To add insult to injury, while all this is going on (in fact, perhaps because all of this is going on) the Ugandan army is still chilling inside Congo. They’re not doing anything in particular, mind you – our staff is joking that they’re here on holiday. Again, motives are a bit sketchy (the official line is something transparently absurd about where Congo is building their customs house), but the prevailing theory is that if the FARDC is actually able to clear a path to Lac Albert for oil, Uganda will suffer (given that they are merrily pilfering said oil and have been for years). So, apparently, the UPDF is there as a rouse to distract from the FPRI offensive. It’s not working, and they don’t seem interested in doing anything else. It’s just…uncomfortable.

Likewise, it is actually more the politics than the actual violence that has made the situation tricky, work-wise. The FARDC claims that the INGOs, with their medicines and shelter and food distributions, are actually aiding and abetting the rebels. This is a classic humanitarian catc-22. If insurgents integrate with a population of IDPs, do you feed everyone or no one? This is why the UN would not allow registered IDPs to leave the camps in Sierra Leone and was perhaps best exemplified by the cross-border strikes of the Interahamwe following the Rwandan genocide. The bungling of that particular aid mission is a large part of why North Kivu is such a hot mess today. But I digress. Back to the present moment, when the army is using this as an excuse to fairly arbitrarily deny access to various NGOs to reach the most vulnerable communities. On the other side of the front line, the FPRI feels that MONUSCO is assisting the army, rather than remaining neutral (the specter of the Intervention Brigade is everywhere, despite their not yet having engaged any rebel group. Nowhere is its presence more a cause for both optimism and trepidation than Goma, of course, where the M23 – hilariously – has suggested that the Brigade needs to work in areas distinct from normal peacekeepers so as to avoid confusion, observing that “It’s a very complicated situation for us”). The rebels will actually reference SCR 2098 before claiming that the aggressive stance of the peacekeepers means that the entire international community is arrayed against them. Then they won’t let the aid workers pass, either, and may in fact threaten them or even open fire (the rebels are a bit less predictable than the FARDC, and that is saying something). So the movement of our teams has been bit restricted of late.

Limited, that is, for the Congolese staff. Most of the area is still strictly off-limits to expats. This, honestly, is problematic for me. Is it a statement that my life is more valuable than those of my Congolese colleagues? Or that I’m so obnoxiously white that I would actually put the rest of the team in danger? The latter I can deal with. The former I find unconscionable. It’s a question that I haven’t been able to answer for myself and no one seems interested in discussing it.

With all of the shenanigans taking place at Bunia’s doorstep, coupled with the general antics of the taxi men, the shadow of the Incident looms large. I know I’ve mentioned it in passing, but the Incident last November occurred in part because Goma was getting sacked and the UN was perceived as doing nothing. It encompassed several days of massive riots and the sacking of NGO houses and offices and culminated in the evacuation of the bulk of the expat community. There exists some (reasonable) concern that it will happen again because of the war in Irumu. Yes, we are legitimately worried that the town will begin pugnaciously rioting against an increase in violence. Let that sink in for a moment.

While I readily admit that this is a very real possibility, what strikes me as a bit absurd is the paranoia of those who were here last November. They are, by and large, still so afraid, and were even before things got tense. The sound of a rock being thrown at the gate sent one to shaking. They are fearful and they are angry. I can’t help but wonder how can you serve, or even just work with, people you distrust to the point of almost hating them? They also absolutely despise the UN; that APC trundling down the main street serves as reminder of what they perceived as the UN’s failure to protect them (never mind that they fed and housed almost the entire NGO community for three days and then made sure they got to the airport for the evacuation. How is it the UN’s fault that FARDC or rioters or someone apparently shot at you? Whether or not they were actually shot at is a point of great consternation, even today). They refuse to even drive past the UN base camp, which in my mind is pure silliness – it’s the best place in Bunia to go for a run.

Again, I don’t totally mean to downplay where they’re coming from or suggest that security isn’t a worry. Going over our incident report template is frankly terrifying. It is astoundingly comprehensive, including options for security, corruption, protection and abuse. For each type of incident, there is a sub-range of colourful options including abduction, detention, looting, armed conflict, sexual assault, landmines and UXO, militia attack, collusion, kickbacks, and my personal favourite – near miss. We have contingency plans for all of these eventualities (one could argue that they went haywire during the actual emergency, but still, they exist).

Moreover, even outside of Ituri, the array of armed group is dizzying. The names change and alliances shift so often it feels like looking through a kaleidoscope at an AK (this is an old list, but it’s still fun reading). We’ve even had word that Al-Shabbaab is in the Grand Nord (that’s the area that encompasses South Irumu and the north of North Kivu). Given that only about 10 per cent of the population here is Muslim, I’m betting it’s just rumors of the one ADF-Nalu guy who converted.

*IRIN did have something they posted right after the offensive, but nothing since.