Kinshasa, May 4, 2003

Hear no evil. Speak no evil. See no evil. kin-sunset.jpg

Well, this week I really got a lesson in what NGOs are all about.  I was given an amendment to my contract, a sort of in-house rules in which I am banned from talking or writing about what I see or do.  Basically, anything I think, write or photograph during my tenure with the Foundation, as well as after my contract is terminated, is their property.  I am told this is fairly standard in NGO contracts.  It seems a bit absurd not to talk about what I see given that I am supposed to be training reporters.  It becomes less absurd when you think of what I see and how it can hurt some of the Foundation’s donors.

The bottom line is getting the money.  That is the other lesson I learned this week; the NGO’s are run by their administrators.

Alex is a French speaking Swiss and must be in his thirties.  He wears round glasses, is going bald, speaks with a snobbish accent; his nose more than slightly raised in the air and when he laughs, it comes out like three honks from a goose.  He was in Kinshasa for a week, his first time ever in Africa, to check the books.  He is the one who handed me the in-house rules, hot off the press from Lausanne.

I told him the rules were as strict as the CIA and did not seem applicable to me, nor fair. I pointed out some of the things I had seen and asked him in one case how I could do a story which would encourage Rwandan Hutu refugees (Interahamwe) to turn themselves in if they risked being tortured and how could I not report the torture at the hands of the Congolese Army, which is due in large part to lazy, incompetent and over-paid Military Observers not doing their job?

You’re not here to report.  You are here to train Okapi reporters.  This is a Congolese radio by the Congolese, for the Congolese.”

Well, I understood right away that I was dealing with someone who knew little about the Congo (even though his newly-wed bride is half Congolese), knew nothing about reporting and cared even less whether ethics was part of what I am trying to convey.  He made the ‘bottom line’ clear: “If we go upsetting those who finance us, they will stop financing us and we might as well close shop.”   He also made it clear that if I did not like the terms, I did not have to work with the Foundation.  This is a humiliation I will bring up with the Foundation when I have finished my contract.

In this sense, the logic, if taken to its ultimate conclusion, means the Foundation becomes an entity whose raison d’etre is its self-perpetuation. Fortunately, up till now, the Foundation’s work in Congo has been remarkable. I am not saying I cannot be bought off.  I probably have a price but nobody has paid it yet. As a result, I still have a professional conscience.  It would help if there were somebody with whom I could talk to about this but I was unsuccessful in getting the new Okapi Director into a conversation (he has not yet read the paper) nor a Swiss director of magazines here on contract (who had not read the paper either). Neither one of them have strayed outside of Kinshasa and thus have not seen what I have seen. So, I will just have to keep all of this penned up inside me for the next seven-and-a-half months.

This oath of secrecy can be (almost) excused for some NGOs who have to swallow honor in order to remain in an area where they can help.  This is the case for the Red Cross for example, who always ask: “Whom would it serve if we were thrown out of the country?  You can accept this or not, but one thing is certain; they would be thrown out if they denounced everything they see.  They are always being robbed by the armed groups responsible for the suffering they are trying to alleviate.  They accept this as the price to pay to stay where they feel they are needed.  Fine.  (I don’t think I could work for the Red Cross.)

skinny-me2.jpgI lost nearly ten kilos in Kindu

But the Foundation I work for cannot operate, according to its charter, if there does not exist a space in which the birth of a free press can operate.  This is why they shut down Star Radio in Liberia.  The space for the embryo of free press exists in the Congo thanks to the presence of the UN.  It is not always without hardships but it is working and making a difference.  The problem with Okapi is not that it will be thrown out by the armed groups if it tells the truth (that is its job and sometimes reporters are arrested, threatened and beaten) but that it will lose its funding; that is to say, those who give the money to operate the station to promote press freedom also risk being hurt by the truth.  Thus, I am led to understand that the whole truth cannot be told, which seems to me to take a lot of the meaning out of what Okapi is supposed to be doing.  The truth is all right if it hits the Congolese but don’t upset the UN, or the Americans (I have not seen anything really bad about the two Swiss soldiers in the country, nor the Canadians whose MilObs are fat and harmless enough and probably win the best camouflage uniform contest).

The most incredible thing is that the those here to introduce rule of law, human rights and peace are incapable of applying one of the basic precepts of a capitalist media giant: there has to be an impenetrable firewall between finance and the news room.  We can discuss whether this is a reality or not, and I think we have begun to address this in the Iraq war coverage debate.  The point is not whether capitalist media giants really do apply the theory in their operations.  The point is the need for the capitalists to use such rhetoric to maintain credibility before public opinion, which the creditors of the Foundation seem to feel they do not.  Perhaps, as nobody cares about the Congo, they feel there is no public opinion to keep satisfied.

I have all ready mentioned the two schools-of-thought confronting each other over Okapi.  Those who think it should be a radio to promote the UN in Congo, and of course, they do not want any of the bad stories being reported, and those who think this is in fact a Congolese radio promoting peace and press freedom.  In order not to anger too much the former, the latter tend to lift their feet off the gas-peddle when it comes to reporting Monuc scandals.  As I write, the confrontation of schools-of-thought may be coming to a head.  Not a Foundation versus UN confrontation either.  The two schools-of-thought are battling within the UN by UN personnel even though it takes on the form of a conflict of persons, or two persons I should say.  It would be sad if the future of Okapi were decided on who wins out in a UN internal power struggle.  That in itself would make a good story.

We must now take it as read that I cannot talk about Okapi, the Monuc or the Foundation.  Lets change the subject then.

Kim is very tall and skinny; so tall in fact he walks with a permanently curved back, which I can only attribute to his constantly ducking under doors even though I do not rule out just plain old youthful bad posture.  He is a twenty-four-year-old blond kid from Montreal working here at the Monuc.  He says he got the job because the UN Okapi Chief (if you have paid attention you can recognize this one) is a friend of his father’s.  So, Kim, with no university education but a love for computers (a sort of a genius like so many kids including my youngest) and a passion for photography and downloading music, works pretty much as a go-for from what I can tell.  His salary?  Eighty-thousand-dollars a year, he told me.  Perhaps now you begin to understand why people want to work for the UN.  I do.  At least he admits he is very lucky.  He does not pretend to deserve such money.  He has no desire to go to university either.  He was just born into the right family with the right friends in the right places.

Oh, but I said I was not going to talk about the Monuc.

Did you know that this week Kinshasa hosted the meeting of Africa’s nuclear energy agency called AFRA?  Twenty-eight African countries took part and ten of them have nuclear reactors believe it or not.  And this includes the Congo.  There is a one-megawatt reactor at the University of Kinshasa built in 1974 by the American General Atomic. 

According to Professor Fortunat Lumu Badimbayi-Matu, the General Commissioner of Congo’s Nuclear Program, “there is nothing to worry about.  The reactor is quite safe and no accident is possible.”  Try telling that to the people around Chernobyl or Three Mile Island.  When I pointed out to him that some of Mobutu’s officers wanted to blow it up as they retreated in 1997, the Professor said: “You can’t just blow up a reactor.  You have to know what you are doing.  There was never any danger.”  I have read that the reactor is enough to wipe out Kinshasa and Brazzaville but perhaps the authors, like me, (not to mention the Americans, French and Belgians who maintained troops across the river just in case) were worrying for nothing. 

Radio Okapi vaguely alluded to another scandal involving Monuc contingents this week and I suppose because of the mass outcry.  There were demonstrations of anger in Kisangani because rumor has it (it is always rumor as long as the Monuc cannot verify.  Please see preceding papers about the UN’s problems with verification) that the Moroccan contingent has been paying prostitutes to perform sex with dogs while they film it.  Well, everybody knows about the rumors.

A Mauritanian with the UN told me the rumors are unfounded; that the UN conducted an investigation and found no grounds for the stories.  To begin with, he says, “The Moroccans don’t have any dogs.  And anyway, the dogs have to be trained.”  It is quite possible that the rebel groups could spread such stories to discredit the Monuc.  And then again … since when do you have to train dogs to fuck?

There are many problems concerning the tremendous number of children in this country.  One widespread practice being reported is people getting rid of unwanted children by denouncing them for witchcraft.  The village people actually kill the kids in many cases.  The luckier of them are merely run out of town to fend for themselves.  I insist, this is far from an occasional occurrence.  The other problem, of course, is the tens of thousands of child-soldiers being used by all the factions in the country.

I have never denied considering myself lucky to have been born a white American in the post-World War Two world.  Perhaps not as lucky as Kim by far, but light-years ahead of these people who have no hope in Hell in their lifetimes.  The hopelessness breeds desperation.

The beggar kids in Kinshasa are getting more aggressive: opening car doors, surrounding you, groping at you and threatening you.  In a few years they will be armed robbers killing you.  They are going to be very bad news and nobody seems concerned about it.  Nothing is being done to convince people to stop having kids they don’t want, don’t need and can’t feed.  And nothing is being done for the ones who are all ready here.  This is a problem which is only going to get worse and in a very few years there will be a new kind of violence in the Congo.

The other day I was walking in the street with a Radio France International reporter of African (Burundi) origin.  In normal times, he makes a good deal more than I do as we are so badly paid at AITV by anybody’s standards.  But the kids were all around me.  Not one was asking him for money.  When I told them to “Fuck Off!” one called out: “You whites are only here to take our money!  Now, that was one kid who deserved 100 Congolese francs.  He was thinking.  But it will take a lot more thinking before he realizes that the only mess he has known in his short life is an African made mess and the ones taking Congo’s wealth directly are other Africans.  That is much too complicated to try to explain to hungry, barefoot kids literally dressed in filthy rags who sleep on the streets waiting to be picked up and made cannon fodder.

I am not denying that whites are not a link in the rip-off chain.  I pointed out in an earlier paper how necessary Coltan is to our everyday lives and to making wars such as the one against Iraq. But I am not convinced that the ‘whites’ would not prefer a stable government to extract Congolese riches for them.  Mining production in the Congo is at an all time low, except for diamonds.  The war is making it next to impossible to extract the ores from the country and is increasing the price of doing so.  The ‘imperialists’ would actually gain from a stable government and a peaceful Congo.

However Rwanda and Uganda have profited from the extraction of Congolese wealth.  I saw an interesting figure the other day of the large gold exports from Kampala since 1998.  However, Uganda has no gold mines.  And Rwanda is not buying new MI 24 attack helicopters and furnishing its 45 thousand-man army with the latest hardware by exporting its banana production either.

I was just wondering when the UN was going to ‘confirm’ or ‘verify’, depending on the day’s vocabulary, what everybody else seems to have documented or seen.  This is a bit unfair when it comes to robbing the Congo of its natural wealth.  The UN published a major study and named names.  And, so far, that is all that has come of that.

I had previously written that if it were not for the Monuc, there would be no economy at all in places like Kindu.   This remains true.  But this money is creating and encouraging all kinds of devastating evils. People making at least fifteen thousand dollars a month (basic salary plus 138 dollars per day) are coming into a country where per capita income has fallen to 85 dollars a year (the IMF puts per capita income at only 68 dollars per year in 2000).  The Congolese were hoping to see the money create a formal economy.  This has not happened.  However, the informal and illicit thrive.

MM is a young Swahili speaking Congolese woman from inside the country.  She is educated and bright. She lives with her husband and three children and thanks to her job as cleaner and cook indirectly financed by the UN, she is able to put her children through school, pay the rent, keep the family clothed and fed.  I also believe she has no intention of having more children.  MM says the Monuc have done nothing good for the country.  

They came in here with their dollars and all the prices went sky high.  We can’t afford food or rent.  The young schoolgirls are prostituting themselves and getting Aids.  There was never such a problem with prostitution.”

MM explained to me how a girl in her daughter’s school had a nice watch, new clothes and some cheap jewelry.  Her daughter asked the girl how she got it and the explanation is as you guessed; she met a nice foreigner and had fun with him and he gave her things.  Don’t worry,” the schoolgirl said.  He told me he had been tested for Aids and that he was clean.”  They always say they are ‘clean’.  And even when they are not, they still like 13-year-olds because of some belief that you are protected from Aids with the younger kids.  I have to say this is especially a phenomenon among the Black Africans here with the International community.  I am not saying pedophilia is a Black phenomenon as the sex-tourism businesses in our countries testify.  But one should think that an organization whose very being is dedicated to respecting international law would do something to see that its own personnel respect such laws.

MM feels “the UN came to this country and just look on.  And they don’t even see what everybody else can see.  They don’t do anything.”  MM says that all the Congolese feel the same way.  She fears there are going to be new riots in the future against foreigners, read ‘whites’, like the ones in 1991 and 1993.  But she knows the rioters will also loot her home because they know she works in connection with the UN and figure she makes a lot more than she really does.  Of course, they will first go after the usual suspects: fat, rich Lebanese operators.

By the reaction of the street urchins, from the protests in Kisangani to zoophiles and in Kindu to pedophilia, from what people like MM are saying, those riots may not be that far off.  Unless, of course, somebody does something to get this country out of the dark rather quickly.

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