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Rachel Brass

1st Secretary, Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Goma
Posted 14 October 2010 by Rachel Brass | Comments

 Rachel on the shores of Lake Kivu (Rachel Brass)

My last blog post was ages ago - lots to catch up on since then. Where to start?

I left Goma after 18 months there at the end of August. Lots of mixed feelings as I packed my suitcases and said goodbye. First, it was hard to leave because there was still so much more to be done. The political and security situation is still incredibly fragile. And it's difficult to read in the news about violence that took place in North Kivu (you'll have heard about the horrible mass rapes that took place recently, for example) without being able to be part of the international community response to dealing with it. I'm sure that all diplomats leave a posting find it hard to switch off from the place they've just left. But after 18 months in the intensity of Goma and knowing a lot of the people affected by, involved in or reporting on these incidents, it's even harder.

Second, I'll miss a lot of the friends and colleagues who I met while I was there. From the local 'tennismen' who I used to play with down at the dilapidated sports club in Goma to the committed MONUSCO (UN) staff, and many others - Congolese and international - working hard to change things in eastern DRC. And the impressive human rights activists who champion such important causes in DRC. Many are threatened daily for speaking out. Some are physically attacked and several in the past few years have been tortured or even killed. The Congolese government and justice sector is unable (and in some cases seems to be unwilling) to protect them. But a surprising number of groups and individuals are still willing to stand their ground, despite all that.

Third, I'll miss the dramatic backdrop of the glowing volcano (Nyiragongo) and Lake Kivu which seemed to change every day. And the dynamism and vibrance of the people and the city of Goma. (Although I certainly won't miss the thick black dust or the lack of roads.)

But it was a hard 18 months and there have been some pleasures in coming home to the UK. For example:

- hot showers and a constant electricty supply

- fully stocked supermarkets with a wide range of exciting food

- the realisation that the loud bangs outside at night on Saturday were fireworks and not gunshots

- spending time catching up with family and friends.

It does make me realise how lucky we are on so many levels here in the UK and what we take for granted. It definitely makes me take stock of where we, as the UK, can have an impact in DRC. And it also makes me realise that it's going to be tough putting on a suit, commuting to the office and sitting behind a computer again. I'm not likely to find much jungle, helicopter travel or many ex-rebels round here in London. But the new job and old way of life here will certainly both have their own different challenges. I'm sure I'll be back in DRC in the future. It's a country that gets under your skin. And I'd love to go back in a few years to find that life has really improved for the Congolese people.

Villagers in Eastern DRC (Rachel Brass)


Rachel Brass
14 October 2010

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Posted 02 August 2010 by Rachel Brass | Comments

Back to ‘normal’ this week, since the ministers have left. I won't say that things have got much quieter, though. My recent activities include:

  1. Breaking in to my own office for the second time in 6 weeks after the lock jammed. Again.
  2. Ordering some wooden frames from the carpenter at the side of the road, so we can mount some maps of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on the wall here.
  3. Stocking up on fruit and veg from the local market. Always chaos. But worth it in the end. The avocados are amazing. The cauliflowers bigger than anything you can find at home.  And the passion fruit are so tasty.
  4. Meeting up with a range of contacts - Congolese, United Nations and NGOs - to catch up on what else has been going on while I've been focusing on the visit. And trying to make enough sense of it all to report back to Kinshasa and London. (This is what I spend a lot of my time doing. The reporting should help all bits of the UK government that are interested in DRC have a better understanding of the context when they take decisions on policy.)
  5.  And heading off to Beni in the north of North Kivu to find out what's happening there. The Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) are conducting operations against a Ugandan rebel group - the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). And there are reports of large population displacements in the area.

Rachel Brass
02 August 2010

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Posted 27 July 2010 by Rachel Brass | Comments

So today has been a quieter day, catching up with emails and admin after last week's ministerial visit.

The day that the two ministers (from FCO, Henry Bellingham, and Department for International Development, Stephen O'Brien) spent in the field with the United Nations last week gave us all a lot to think about. What else can we do to support the United Nations Stabilisation Mission MONUSCO in protecting civilians? How can we ensure the Congolese army (FARDC) can supply its troops to allow it to become more effective in its operations and less of a threat to the civilian population? And what can we do to step up the pressure on the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), given the impenetrable terrain and their proximity to the local population?  Not questions with any easy answers.

The Ministers boarding the MONUSCO helicopter at Kimua

Out on the ground, the ministers really saw for themselves the challenges of the operating environment. I always say that you can't appreciate the size of this country, its lack of roads or the density of its rain forest without experiencing it first hand.  And they really got a chance to do that, visiting two MONUSCO bases and seeing Uruguayan and Indian troops in action. They heard about all the different innovative ways MONUSCO is using to try and protect civilians - market patrols (because it's usually women who go to market and they're often carrying things which are easily stealable), farm patrols (to protect people working in isolated conditions outside the relative safety of the village), getting closer to the local populations through building networks of contacts and using these to monitor future risks to the population.

The ministers heard from displaced villagers in Kimua that MONUSCO is making a difference, simply by maintaining a presence there. They saw a local population in Walikale that was dynamic in its small-scale trading now that road links were opening up after many years of being cut off from the rest of DRC.

But as we flew back to Goma, low over the dense jungle and misty hills of North Kivu, all rather tired and dirty after a long day in the field, it was hard not to be inspired by this country. And really hope that the international effort and the resilience and determination of the local people we met will keep things heading in the right direction.

Rachel Brass
27 July 2010

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Posted 01 July 2010 by Rachel Brass | Comments

*(the chuckadoo is the symbol of Goma, see my blog on 18 June)

As I write this, I'm sitting on the VIP platform just in front of the white painted lines that the parade will march along in an hour or so. So far, everything is on time - which is a surprise. We're just waiting for the top military and the Governor of the province.

Despite it being the anniversary of 50 years of Congolese independence, the celebrations in Goma will be more low-key than it was last year, when President Kabila came.  Most of the attention is focused on Kinshasa this time. And that's where the high level visitors will be. (The King of the Belgians - a very significant visitor, given DRC's colonial past - the UN Secretary General, Rwandan President Kagame and Ugandan President Museveni).

flag marking the anniversary

While we've been waiting, we've had the whole history of Congo since independence. And plenty of fantastic Congolese songs from the 50s and 60s (which you still hear a lot here, in between the modern Congolese music).  And chance to watch the military bands practicing - the music and the style they play it is so much jauntier than anything back in the UK. The conductor is practically dancing as he waves his stick with a big tassle. 

Goma has been getting ready for the 50th (Le Cinquantenaire) for a while now. Women's associations have been out cleaning and tidying the streets. Shop owners have been painting their facades. The golden chuckadoo - a new statue attracting lots of attention in town - was unveiled at one of the main roundabouts. Today the chuckadoo driver is clad in shorts and t-shirt made out of a Congolese flag.  (When we tried to take a photo on the way in, we were told we couldn't - it wasn't officially open yet. Will try on the way out.) 

Golden Chuckadoo in Goma 

The traditional banana leaves have been tied to lampposts. And all sorts of organisations (breweries and phone companies, civil society and the religious communities) will parade alongside the police and military.

The talk of the town in the last month had been the tombola, organised by the province.  I was really surprised how many people scraped together the money to buy the $5 tickets. But not so surprised to see the huge expectation around the prize draw.  Most people were hoping for the first prize of a car. I really wanted to win one of the cows.

I think most people in Goma and North Kivu have mixed feelings about celebrating today.  Life is still difficult for most people here, there's still conflict in parts of the province and few services are being provided by state. But despite all that, there's still a huge sense of national pride. And a real determination to make things better in the next 50 years. 

See more photos of the events in Goma on the British Embassy's Flickr channel.

Rachel Brass
01 July 2010

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Posted 21 June 2010 by Rachel Brass | Comments

I wanted to write back to some of the comments I’ve had so far on the blog.   First, I’m glad that it’s being read - even places as far away from Congo as India might seem.  (Although, given Indian troops within MONUC are the largest contingent here in DRC, it’s understandable that there’s an interest.  And I think it’s important that people in India know what an important role their troops are playing.  See the photo below that I took it in a remote village called Otobora last year.  It was a day after a 20 or so Indian soldiers had been dropped in by helicopter with their tents and a couple of vehicles to help deal with a security threat to the population there.)  


Second, some of the questions made me think I should explain a bit more about the situation here, about what the British government is trying to do and why.

Yes, we’re here because it’s in everyone’s interest (including the UK’s) to see a stable DRC.  DRC is such a big presence at the heart of Africa.  It’s the size of western Europe, straddling west, southern and east Africa, massively rich in potential, and with an estimated population of over 70 million (and growing).  So if DRC is on the right track (economically and politically), it has the potential to bring the region with it.  But conversely, we saw during the war in the 90s and the early part of this decade, how easily surrounding countries can get dragged into conflict here. And what a devastating impact it can have when they do.  Millions of people (some estimates say 5 million) died because of that war and the fall out from it - which the region is still suffering from today.  And we want to prevent that happening again.

So the UK government is mainly here to help stabilise the DRC and to help reduce the high levels of poverty.  (80% of the population here lives on less than $1 per day.) That’s obviously in DRC’s interests as well as the UK’s.  And we’re trying to do it - bilaterally and with the international organisations here - in a constructive partnership with the Congolese government.  I think that the Congolese government welcomes that relationship.  Although we have to make sure that the money we are spending in DRC (£110m last year - on programmes which are mainly managed through UN organisations, the World Bank and NGOs and £80m as our contribution to MONUC costs) is being well used.  We need to know that it is matched with the political will on the part of the Congolese government to do difficult things (for example reform the army or police).   So sometimes we do have to have tricky conversations with them on issues where we don’t immediately see eye to eye.  

As for the Congolese population, I think that they’re more and more aware of the UK as a partner who’s committed to helping the country.  We’ve not got traditionally strong ties here, like we have in other parts of Africa.  And the first time I came to DRC in 2002, people saw us through hostile eyes - as a friend of Rwanda (who at that point had soldiers occupying large parts of eastern DRC).  So they couldn’t see how we could possibly want to help DRC too. It’s taken us a while - and a lot of time putting our money (mostly DFID’s aid money) where our mouth is - to convince them that we’re here for the right reasons. But now, it seems to me that it’s starting to work.  And the interviews that the Ambassador did with Congolese radio stations when he was here last week will have done their bit to help convince people too.

Rachel Brass
21 June 2010

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Posted 18 June 2010 by Rachel Brass | Comments

The Ambassdor and Head of DFID office in Kinshasa came to visit Goma this week.  One of the days, we did a trip out of Goma to get the lie of the land, see UN peacekeeping mission (MONUC) in action, look at some UK-funded development projects, meet the Congolese military operating there and show them a bit of real life for people in North Kivu.  It helped both of them develop their thinking on what more the UK could be doing and what the challenges are in terms of MONUC implementing its new mandate.  (The UN Security Council agreed the mandate at the end of last month - we were pleased with the outcome.  As of 1 July, MONUC will become MONUSCO and will have more of a focus on stabilisation.) It was also a good chance for me to catch up on what's going on.

18 months ago, the road north out of Goma (past the volcano and through the Virunga National Park, to Rutshuru and Kiwanja) was pretty much impassable - there was serious fighting between government and rebel troops in that area.  In Kiwanja itself in November 2008, there was a massacre of an estimated 150 civilians, which the UN was unable to prevent.  They learnt a lot from that incident. And the Indian troops based at Kiwanja have now built up a wide network of contacts in the local communities, which lets them know if there's trouble brewing and allows them to react to security incidents much more effectively.   Having said that, security remains unpredictable on that route.  (In fact the FCO still advises against travel in that area.)  So the whole trip was (as trips always are when I go out of Goma) closely co-ordinated with MONUC.

 But normal life seems to be returning - along the main road at least. Crops are being cultivated, people are moving around largely untroubled, going about their daily business.  Big lorries are coming down from Uganda to Goma, loaded with everything from second hand clothes to salt and plastic buckets.  And trucks piled high with fresh vegetables grown on the hillsides all along that route head in to Goma to feed its 800,000 or so inhabitants.  (Goma chips are the best by the way - the potatoes are perfect for chip-making.)  But it was cabbage and carrot day that day.

The views of the volcanoes are stunning. If you stop at the right spot you can see the two live ones in Congo (Nyiragongo and Nyamuligira) and the rest of the Virunga range of extinct ones which stretches into Rwanda and along its border with Uganda.  But two other things that always strike me on that road are the cows and the chuckadoos.

The cows are such an important feature of life in eastern Congo.  It's all about the cows: the cheese, the milk, the land and of course the ability to attract a suitable wife for your son.  The cows in the photo I took are very typical with their massive horns.  Since the fighting in this area has subsided, they've had more space to roam and make the most of the grazing.  So they're looking particularly healthy.

Cow in Eastern DRC

And the chuckadoos.  They're unique to this part of North Kivu.  Hand made from wood and and old bits of cars (springs and rubber strips of tyres for a DIY suspension system) and more bits of tyres for the brakes.  They can carry a huge weight (see the amount of cabbages on the one in the photos) with quite a lot of help from the strong young men who drive them. It doesn't look humanly possible, especially on the downward slopes....






Rachel Brass
18 June 2010

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Posted 03 June 2010 by Rachel Brass | Comments

I learnt a new word in French today: brake pad. I also know the vocabulary for spark plugs and shock absorbers. Shock absorbers was some of the first vocabulary I learnt when I arrived in Goma. Because that was almost the first thing that happened after a long trip outside of Goma on non-metalled roads and lava rock: we broke a shock absorber. As you can imagine, Goma's quite hard on cars (even robust 4x4s), so ours is constantly going to the garage for repairs.

The FCO gave me some language training before I was posted to Kinshasa. But I learnt most of my working French in Congo. So while I do well in Goma, Kinshasa and other bits of Francophone Africa, I'm looked at slightly oddly (to say the least) when I go for meetings with the French foreign ministry. I do try to speak French with my French diplomat colleague (who I currently share an office with) to keep learning 'French' French.

But most of the French I'm speaking and hearing in Goma and Kinshasa is defintiely African French. And I know I've picked upa lot of words and colloquialisms which give me a properly Congolese turn of phrase. For example, in reply to "ça va?" (How's it going?), French people would reply quite formally: "Oui, ça va merci" (yes, fine, thank you). Kinois (people from Kin) would reply "ça va un peu" (just about ok) and Gomatracians (from Goma) would reply "ça semble aller" (it seems to be ok).

Rachel in Goma

I'm definitely better at talking work than small talk in French though. I can happily discuss military tactics, peacekeeping mandates, the impact of the mining code on artisanal gold miners of South Kivu or political demands of rebel groups before they lay down their arms. I'm also quite in my element negotiating with electricians, plumbers and carpenters (it turns out). But ask me to chat about shopping, films and 'normal' life and I'm a bit lost.

I really couldn't do this job without French. And I use it for large parts of every day, so it keeps improving. (Although I still try my hardest to find ways around using the conditional tense. And doing interviews for local media is definitely still pretty nerve-wracking.)

My next task is to learn a bit more Swahili.....

Rachel Brass
03 June 2010

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Posted 24 May 2010 by Rachel Brass | Comments

Last week, I went to Kigali to have meetings with the High Commission team working on Rwanda.  And then to Kinshasa to do the same with the DRC Embassy team.  I'm part of the Kinshasa Embassy, am working on the DRC peace process and am accredited as a diplomat in DRC.  But Kigali  is only three hours by road (a beautiful drive, have a look at the photo),


so I visit often, and work very closely with the team there. (colleagues there kindly let me use their washing machines from time to time.  In return I take them Goma cheese.)  In any case the border officials on both sides (Congo and Rwanda) know me well now - because I do that journey so often.  They're always very friendly and professional.

I need to understand what's going on in Rwanda if I'm going to properly understand the dynamics of eastern DRC - and particularly of North Kivu.  The relationship between DRC and Rwanda is key to stability in the region.  And although the relationship's been looking good for the past year or so, it's also been difficult at times - particularly in recent history and since the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

At the end of the genocide, millions of people fled to refugee camps just over the border in Congo (which was then Zaire), a few kilometers north of Goma.  The camps were infiltrated by the Hutu militia who were responsible for carrying out the genocide against the Tutsis and moderate Hutus.  Sixteen years later, they are still in eastern Congo, still presenting an ideological challenge to the Kigali regime, and still presenting a daily threat to the Congolese populations in the Kivus.  Villages have been burnt, women raped and large numbers kidnapped and killed.

The presence of the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) has been one of the biggest problems in the relations between the two countries.  In the early days, the Kinshasa regime tolerated their presence.  By the time of the second war (1998), Kinshasa was supporting the FDLR in order to fight back against the presence of occupying Rwandan troops and Congolese rebels in eastern DRC.  Since 2002, the Congolese government has begun to break those links, with the break-through Nairobi accord of November 2007 committing the two countries to tackle the group.  Eventually in January 2009, the Rwandan and Congolese armies surprised everyone by conducting a joint military operation against the FDLR.  The current military operations carried out by the Congolese army and in part supported by MONUC are a continuation of this. (This is a photo I took of what could easily be an FDLR emplacement when we were flying to Walikale in North Kivu a last year.  It shows you how difficult the military operations are in an area this large.)

More another time on the FDLR and what MONUC, the Congolese army and others are doing to get rid of them.

Rachel Brass
24 May 2010

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Posted 07 May 2010 by Rachel Brass | Comments

Just a quick update on my last blog post.  On Tuesday this week, Innocent Balume flew back to Goma and stopped most of the town (again) in the process.  There were thousands of people waiting to welcome him at the airport.  Banners hanging in the streets to say how proud Goma is of him.  (You can see one of them in the first photo here.  The second photo is of the moto drivers who wanted to know what I was doing when I was taking the first photo.) 

innocent balume comes home (Rachel Brass) 

 Goma residents watching Rachel take a photo of Innocent banner (Rachel Brass)

And the town's businessmen laid on a convoy to take him to one of the big hotels in Goma where he's going to stay for a while.  (I don't think he could go back to his old house in Birere without being mobbed by half of Goma.)  So people are still talking about him and waiting to see what he'll do next.  I'll keep watching.

And you can watch one of Innocent's perfomances in Congo SuperStar in the video below!

Rachel Brass
07 May 2010

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Posted 01 May 2010 by Rachel Brass | Comments

At about 9pm in Goma on Sunday night, there was a massive roar which rattled the roofs.  Thankfully not the volcano and not fighting.  It was that Innocent Balume - a 13 year-old boy from Goma - had won Congo Super Star.  You could hear the cheer right across Goma.  Super Star is the equivalent of the UK’s X Factor, sponsored by one of the big mobile phone companies. People across Congo voted in their millions by text message.

The streets were manic until the early hours of the morning -  cars and motos beeping their horns, children running round, huddles of people round TV screens and plenty of beer being consumed.   Basically, a massive street party.  Innocent is from Birere - one of the poorest areas of Goma where the houses are crowded together and there is no electricity or running water.  He was born during the war when Goma was in the hands of rebel forces.  It’s a long way from that to national TV, a $25,000 prize and chance to perform with Akon (a big US star). In the final, Innocent sang a Michael Jackson song and one that he’d written himself.

Innocent Balume (North Kivu provincial government)
(c) North Kivu provincial government

This (in French) is what the very proud North Kivu provincial government said about it.   (I’ve borrowed the photo from their website.)  Five days later people in the streets and the bars here are still talking about Innocent and his story.  And talking about the hope that a 13 year old boy from Birere can give to the rest of Goma.

Rachel Brass
01 May 2010

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Posted 22 April 2010 by Rachel Brass | Comments

I'm currently hot-desking in the FCO main building in London.  I was supposed to fly back to Goma yesterday after taking some leave in the UK.  But, like quite a lot of people around the world, my plans have been scuppered by volcanic ash.  Which is ironic really, given that Goma is about 20km from what are said to be two of the most active volcanoes on the planet.
The last time Nyiragongo (the volcano closest to Goma) erupted in 2002, it wiped out large parts of the town. (Here's a photo I took earlier this year - you can see how close it looks.)

Nyiragongo volcano in Goma, DRC (copyright Rachel Brass) 

The lava engulfed houses, shops and roads and ended up in Lake Kivu.  Most of the population (some estimates say up to 500,000) were displaced when they had to flee the town.  Sadly about 50 people died.  Although this was remarkably few, when you think there are hundreds of thousands of people living in the area.  Of course, this being DRC, people returned to their houses and shops as soon as the lava was cool enough to walk on. In many cases, even when the ground floor had been flooded by lava, they carried on living and working on the first floor.  Driving round Goma today, you can see houses and shops still like that.  In the day, you can sometimes see the constant plume of ash and gas coming from the top. On clear nights, you can see the glow from the lava lake in the crater reflecting orange against the Goma sky.  Pretty awesome stuff in both senses of the word.
In January this year, the other volcano (Nyiamuligira) erupted.  It wasn't as big or dramatic as the Nyiragongo eruption.  Luckily this one normally erupts (on average every three years or so) into the Virunga National Park and usually disrupts fewer people.  But even so, Goma spent a week in a volcanic haze, with really limited visibility and crops were damaged by the ash.
The house that I live in is in an area that was totally destroyed by lava in 2002. But the real estate market in Goma is booming and the prime land by the lake has been snapped up again by businessmen. Hundreds of houses are being built on top of the black lava rock.  There's no shortage of building materials - walls (and even houses) are constructed using chunks of the rock. Very ingenious. Having said that I (and a lot of other people) are working on the assumption that lava is like lightening and doesn't strike the same place twice. I hope this assumption holds true.
The volcanoes are closely monitored by the Goma Volcano Observatory with a team of Congolese and international vulcanologists.  I think everyone sleeps sounder in their beds at night, knowing that they're there and watching.  

Rachel Brass
22 April 2010

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Posted 25 March 2010 by Rachel Brass | Comments

I went for a run this evening, at the end of the working day, just as it was going dark.  I usually do a circuit along the lake, past the MONUC (UN) military base and back through the area where I live and work.  It occurred to me as I was running, that it doesn’t bear much resemblance to going for a run at the end of the day round St James’ Park (which is what I’d do if I was working in the main FCO building). This is why:

The volcanic rock.  Never mind the smooth paths or grass of St James’s.  Trainers don’t last long on the sharp black volcanic stones that make up most of the roads round here. There’s no time to look around or be distracted on this route.  It feels like proper cross-country running – where every footstep is uneven.  Your eyes have to be firmly fixed on the ground.

Goma lake (Rachel Brass)

The scenery.  There’s no Buckingham Palace.   But you get the lake, palm trees and mountains (with the sunset) on one side and the line of volcanoes on the other.  Nyiragongo (which is still active) starts to glow red from the lava lake in the crater at the top as the sun sets.  Absolutely stunning.

The altitude. We’re at 1500m here (about 4800 ft).  So you can feel the difference in the air.  I’m hoping that this will give me a head start when I go back to sea level in the UK.

The support.  It comes in all sorts of different shapes and sizes.  The Congolese women just think it’s hilarious to see a muzungu (white person) running in shorts and t-shirt (practically underwear in their eyes).  So they just laugh, point and make sure their friends look too.  The men – sometimes the guards standing outside the houses and offices – usually shout “Courage, Madame!” as if every step might be my last.  (I’m not that unfit, honestly.)  Last night, one chap ran with me for a while.  “Pourquoi pas?” he replied when I asked him why.  And then there’s the children.  They just shout “Onglee, onglee” (“English, English) like they normally do when they see me out and about.  And then they ask for sweets.

Rachel Brass
25 March 2010

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Posted 24 March 2010 by Rachel Brass | Comments

So, yesterday, I thought I’d come to the heart of Africa.  Dungu felt isolated.  But today in Bangadi, we went one step further.  45 minutes in a UN helicopter north west from Dungu, towards the Sudanese border, over almost totally uninhabited territory.  Just rain forest, grassland and rivers.  And the odd tiny cluster of huts.

Bangadi was attacked by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in October ’08.  (The LRA are a violent rebel group that originated in Uganda over 20 years ago. They abduct children and turn them into fighters, kill and horribly maim their victims often by cutting off their lips and ears as a threat to others.)  Before that, the population had fought off the attacks themselves by forming local defence forces.  The local police (all 7 of them) fled and have still not returned. The Congolese army (FARDC) sent troops there in Jan ’09, but instead of protecting the population, it seems that they lived off them and carried out their own abuses.  It is not until December ’09 that things stabilised in Bangadi, when a new FARDC unit was sent in and MONUC deployed a small contingent in the town. This FARDC seems to have a much better relationship with the local population and told us that they are regularly fed (with rations from MONUC) and paid.  And even though MONUC are only 31 soldiers in Bangadi, it gives the population a much greater sense of security and supports the FARDC in their work.

But outside the security and protection of the village (of about 26,000 people, including those who have been internally displaced), it is just bush and jungle.  This is where the LRA are doing the most damage at the moment.  People can’t go to their fields to plant and harvest for fear of being attacked.  So this means there’s hardly any food.  And because the roads are so insecure and the distances between villages so large, importing food is nearly impossible.  The FARDC have just started to organise escorts for people to go to the nearest big market - in Yambio, South Sudan.  I met a man who’d just returned from a 300km round trip.  He took 3 jerry cans of palm oil with him on his bike to sell (practically the only export from Bangadi these days) and returned with sugar to sell in the village. You can see how important security is in terms of opening up local markets.

So the big question for those of us who made the trip up to Dungu and Bangadi will be asking over the next few days is what else can MONUC and the international community do to help?

Rachel Brass
24 March 2010

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Posted 21 March 2010 by Rachel Brass | Comments

I'm almost exactly in the heart of Africa as I write this. Although I guess it depends how you measure it. Somewhere in the Central African Republic there's apparently a signpost that boasts the same claim.

(It really frustrates me when people quote Joseph Conrad's novel on Congo (The Heart of Darkness) when they write about what's going on in DRC today. It's usually done in a lazy way and without much understanding of what they're saying. (The obvious exception to prove that rule is Michaela Wrong's fantastic book on the fall of Mobutu - 'In the footsteps of Mr Kurtz'.)  But I'm doing it here because I think it's important to look at the positive things in DRC, not just the problems.)

Isiro signpost, Congo (Rachel Brass)

Having said that, arriving in Dungu (in the north east corner of the country) does really feels like you're in the middle of Africa. The town is situated on a plain in the middle of thick and very tropical rainforest. The sky is huge, with a bank of thunder clouds in the distance. It's baking hot.  The roads are all made of red gravel. Most of the houses are round mud huts with pointed thatched roofs. The few brick buildings that exist are from another era and are pretty dilapidated.  And most people are moving round on bikes laden with either a passenger or transporting a precarious load of wood or reeds for repairing the house.  Then there's the odd moto zooming past at top speed, kicking up a cloud of red dust.

But although it feels like we're in the heart of Africa, it still doesn't feel like the heart of darkness.  Everyone's really friendly as we go for a walk over the river to stretch our legs after a long day of meetings. The police chief (now in his civvies after the formal meeting we had with him earlier) stopped us to say hello. The young men playing cards in the early evening chatted to me about who was winning and how long the game would last.  The boys bathing and playing in the river wanting us to take their photos. The women with their super-cool spikey hair and African print skirts riding past on bikes.  Normal life going on, despite it all.  And evidence of such resilience, given how difficult life has been in Dungu over the past few years in particular.

Women in Dungu, Congo (Rachel Brass)

Dungu is where the UN has most of its military effort, working with the Congolese army to protect the civilian population against the LRA (a really violent Ugandan rebel group that's operating on Congolese soil). That's what we're here to look at. But more about the LRA in my next blog when I've learnt a bit more.

Rachel Brass
21 March 2010

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Posted 10 March 2010 by Rachel Brass | Comments

We’ve had no electricity since 1900 last night.  So my brain is starting to ring with the sound of the generator.  (We turn it off at night, though, so I did manage to get some sleep.)  The problem is that with no electricity, often comes no water.  During the dry season I once did three weeks, carrying buckets of cold water upstairs from the magic tap hidden at the other end of our compound just to have a shower.  (That tap must be linked to another water source, because it’s often running when everything else has dried up.)  But then, given that when the water supply in Goma is disrupted most of the city goes to the lake to bathe, wash clothes and some even to collect drinking water, I can’t really complain.

This morning started with the daily military brief at MONUC (the UN peacekeeping mission here in DRC).  I try to go every day, to get an update on the previous day’s military operations, key political and social events going on in the east of the country.  It’s also a good opportunity to have a chat with other UN and international colleagues, to get their take on what’s going on.  After checking my emails and writing some reports, I went to meet a new NGO colleague in town.  He’ll probably be an important contact in the next few months.  His organisation is out in the field, working in some really isolated areas of North Kivu, so has a close-up view of what is going on.  Later in the afternoon, I met up with a Congolese contact from one of the political parties. Understanding their position is vital if we’re going to get to the bottom of what it will take to build a sustainable peace here in eastern DRC.

Last night when I went for a walk by the lake, I was stopped by a group of young Congolese men looking very cool in suits, shades and bright ties.  They introduced themselves as artists and asked me if they could film me for a project they were doing.  It was about love and a broken hearted man being rejected by a girl.  After a bit of discussion, I decided that on balance, a Congolese film career wasn’t really for me.  But I do like that walk by the lake at sunset.  Not only is it stunning to watch the sun setting over the mountains of South Kivu, but I always get stopped by fascinating people.  Another time, in practically the same spot, a stranger stopped me to ask if I’d like to buy a tortoise.  Initially I thought my French was failing me.  But I double checked.  And he was definitely offering me a tortoise. But that's the Congo, I guess: always full of surprises.

Rachel Brass
10 March 2010

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