Kisangani, June 22, 2003

leon-and-kids.jpg Leon and the kids at the school he ran

This week Malaria kept me in the hospital (see Malaria, June 17) so I was unable to observe very much but I do have a couple of good stories to tell you: UNICEF finds a way to help the warring parties improve forced conscription, young Rappers lash out at the war-lords and Kisangani gets the cell phone before the stage-coach.


UNICEF declared June 16thThe Day of the African Child” and in the Congo, they found no better campaign than that of registering children with the administration. Only one percent of the children are registered at birth. We are in a country where males are forced into militias as young as eleven and twelve years old; where villagers are rounded up by the thousands and forced to do hard labor without pay for weeks on end, especially in the interests of the military although the authorities say it is in the interests of the “cause”, which means in the interests of their keeping power and filling their pockets.


I pointed out to the UNICEF representative in Kisangani that this would just help the warlords know where the people are to round them up.  I said you are helping them find the resources to wage war and the proof is in the enthusiasm with which the RCD-Goma people took up the campaign along with UNICEF.  The Rwandan backed dictators hardly ever join the international community in an effort to improve the lives of the people.  I suggested that the registration could be done when peace comes and it is time to draw up lists of voters for the elections.  I also suggested that lists of births exist in the churches where the children are baptized and that these lists could be used to help in voter registration when the time comes.


The UNICEF man was appalled that I was not going to put Radio Okapi one hundred percent behind their drive.  Yet, he had no answers to my objections.  To make matters worse, the RCD-G people make parents pay one dollar for every child registered.  This is a lot of money for the people here.


When the reporters asked people in the streets why they do not register their children all of the above reasons were given.  They also said, “why should we pay one dollar to the RCD when they don’t even pay the civil servants they make work for them?  Yet, further proof that people can see where their interests lie and they are not in the RCD-G “cause”.  Fortunately, the campaign was a big flop and the radio raised all the right questions.


A Canadian with UN Public Information came through town this week.  Sebastian is a very young man who wears his blue UN cap like a gum-chewing kid and looks like he would be more at home on a college campus than in the Congo jungle. He shaves every fourth day hoping the stubble will give him a more mature air. He is also a fairly useless guy who spends his time licking the ass of his superiors and talking on the phone with friends.  While I was in hospital, he did nothing to help out the reporters even though Radio Okapi is included in his functions, but from what I am told it is just as well he left them alone. I think his place is on a skateboard somewhere in Toronto and definitely not here in the Congo.


He was brought out of Butembo where the Mayi Mayi were threatening to take the UN people hostage because the UN did nothing to stop the RCD-G offensive in North Kivu against them and the RCD-K/ML allied with the government.  But Sebastian had special treatment.  Accused by the Mayi Mayi of being a Rwandan agent, he was simply to be put to death.  So, the UN brought him out of Butembo, three days before it was taken by the RCD-G, and are sending him to …. Bunia!

  prison-front-1.jpgKisangani Prison built by the Belgians, not repaired but still in use

There were also reports on RFI and the BBC that the South Africans allowed the RCD-G to seize three of their armored vehicles fully equipped.  The UN denied this. It would be nice if some day somebody verified something in this country.


As the fighting continues, the different battling factions signed yet another ceasefire on June 19 in Bujumbura.  The International Community puts a lot more importance on signing papers than the Congolese do.  Like children who say “I’m sorry” and go right back to doing what they are yelled at for doing, the Congolese factions sign the papers they are told to sign and ignore them royally, just to sign another one a week and thousands of dead later.  And for the moment, despite their obvious direct involvement (reports of MI-24 helicopter gun-ships and tanks), the Rwandans are not being called to account at all, at least not publicly.


On Sunday, June 22, the New York Times ran an article on Bunia, in which they said the United States feels more troops in Congo is not what is needed.  What is needed, Washington says, is greater political pressure.  It does not look like the US is ready to stop their Rwandan friends.  This is a far cry from the US attitude concerning Iraq.


On Saturday night, the Public Information Service organized a competition of local Kisangani Rap groups on the theme “Rap for Peace”.  It was a great success with a full house of 350 people and hundreds more outside hoping to get in.  The show was also rebroadcast on one of the two local TV stations.  This is amazing because the message from these young rappers would have landed them in jail even in France.  They called on youth to refuse to go into the military and told parents to send their children to school.  They chastised the warlords for waging a useless war, filling their own pockets and causing misery for the people.  Nobody likes the RCD-G and they know it.  That is one reason why they are sabotaging the peace process.  They do not stand a chance of getting elected. 


But few people express openly their hostility to the RCD for fear of detention, torture and even death.  The fact that the rappers did this with the Governor and the Mayor (both appointed) in the concert-hall shows a great deal of courage.  I am sure the RCD got the message.  The following day I sent the Okapi reporters around to the homes of all the groups that took part to make sure none of them were arrested during the night, something the PIO had not thought of.


Another interesting thing about the concert is the attempt by the Governor to prevent it.  He said the groups had not paid the taxes they have to pay in order to perform in public.  He also wanted the UN to pay a tax for holding the event and include them in the list of sponsors but of course without contributing any money.  The PIO told the governor in no uncertain terms: “ if you want to hold a concert nobody is stopping you.  If you stop ours we will tell everybody you did and why.”  The Governor backed down.


A reporter with Le Nouvel Observateur and Le Monde Diplomatique, Rene Lefort, paid us a visit on June 21.  He spent a week in Kinshasa, is spending a week in Kisangani and will spend a third in Bukavu to write on Congolese survival strategies.  I tried to tell him he was visiting the wrong places, because in fact, the Congolese are not surviving; they are dying like flies.  But he will write about the cities where people have gardens in every corner that gets a little light and where fighting is rare and will not visit places like Kindu, where the RCD-G refused to let people out into the fields to farm and where every morning, they brought out the dead as I described when I was there.  Having strategies for survival means you are in a fairly safe place under the eyes of internationals.  He is visiting three cities where he can get decent accommodation, edible food and get in some tourism too and still write something about the Congo, which will make the French readers ouh and ah.  Of course, you cannot do everything in three weeks.  But would it not be more interesting to go to Kalima (see report from April) where the Coltan miners are dying of radiation sickness and their families of hunger and do a portrait of the town?  His article would not be on survival strategies but rather on how do any of them survive at all?


It is amazing to see how the people here will do nothing to invest in their futures or their country’s future but seize on anything modern when it is offered to them on a platter.  After nearly six years with no telephone service, a private cell phone operator on Monday, June 16, opened shop in Kinsagani.  Mr. Bilal, a Lebanese businessman based in Rwanda and therefore in with the RCD-G, was given a license to operate after paying a fee reportedly of 140 000 dollars.  His company is called Celtel and allows people to even call internationally using satellite.


The Okapi reporters all bought their cell phones even though they do not need them for work given they are all issued Motorola walkie-talkies.  They wear them hanging around their necks and play with the different rings and enjoy being seen talking to each other in public.  A number of locals have opened distribution shops to sell the phones and the recharge cards, too many for the available market.  You have as many as four distributors on one street.

  Mr. Bilal is well known in these parts.  His mother company, Société Lara, also runs the Lac Kivu company, which the RCD-G gave the monopoly on the diamond trade.  This has made the local Congolese diamond traders very upset.  They threatened to go on strike but cancelled their movement when they realized nobody would notice.


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