Sunday, May 29, 2011

Postcard from the DRC 2

So we’ve survived 3 weeks in the DRC and one week here in Beni. The flight from Goma was a brilliant, bumpy journey over jungle and little villages without a road in sight. Goma is a grey town. The roads are rocks and volcanic ash. The UN, NGOs and the profiteers of Congo’s mineral wealth live behind huge walls in big compounds guarded by full security teams. The place is awash with military carrying AK-47s, machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades etc. I asked Barady if I could take a picture of these guys. He said ‘Yes, but they will shoot you’. So sorry for lack of interesting pictures. You’ll have to take my word for it! Overall the scene is of massive contradictions between the haves and have-nots.

From the beginning Beni seemed more like Africa. The surroundings are green, the pot-holed roads are a dusty red colour and the women are colourfully dressed. It could be a small town anywhere in Africa. Reminds me of Jandira! Unfortunately some people have experienced suffering more intense than you could imagine.

Beni is a UN ‘red zone’. Western nationals aren’t supposed to be here.. However, for us it feels completely safe, not like a war zone at all. We walk around feely during the day to the great entertainment of the locals who stare, laugh and shout ‘Mzungu’ often accompanied by ‘give me money’ (the only English they know). I haven’t seen any other white people walking around which is a shame. The people we have got to know are incredibly welcoming, friendly and helpful. The fact that Paul speaks Swahili as well as the locals impresses them greatly and always attracts a crowd. I just stand there like his mute friend.

There are some funny encounters. The other morning a little boy was jabbering away in Swahili about me having a big nose. He was pretty well endowed in that department himself and I was about to ask him if he’d ever looked in a mirror…then realised that he probably hadn’t. When I went for a run the locals were in complete stiches laughing at this white man running. At one point I had 15 kids running after me shouting and laughing.

There is no running water here but I’m becoming an expert at washing from a bucket. Electricity comes on at 6pm and ends at 11pm so no late night partying. Daily schedule is work, dinner, work, beer, bed. Our accommodation is basic but safe and comfortable. This is in stark contrast to the living conditions of the young people we are helping.

We are working with a local organisation called CERAO who are partners of World Vision. We are completing two group interventions, one with around 50 former boy soldiers and the other with around 50 girls who have been working as prostitutes in the ‘Quartier Generales’ (brothels). With each we will complete 15+ sessions of group-based trauma-focused Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. The CBT has been ‘africanised’ and so includes lots of culturally relevant activities.

We have developed this intervention over the past year and will be evaluating it in a Randomised Controlled Trial. This is too boring to explain but basically we measure levels of PTSD, depression, anxiety, conduct etc before and after the intervention, compare with a control group who don’t get intervention, determine if there is a significant change, then give to control group. Most of the time in Goma was spent translating measures into Swahili and French and validating to make them as culturally relevant as possible.

Everything is completed through local people so children will be more open. We employed 5 locals for a week to do post-intervention individual interviews. We then started our groups yesterday with a local counsellor, social worker and interpreter who we hope will continue on the intervention after we leave. They have been amazing and worked so hard. There is no way the project would be happening without them.

We are working with the girls on Mon, Wed and Fri mornings and the boys on Tues, Thurs and Sat mornings. In the afternoons we will work with the local partner to try and encourage them to get the girls out of the brothels and the boys off the street. This may involve providing incentives (mattresses, food, hygiene kits etc) to host families to encourage them to take these children in. We are also hoping to start an income-generating project to encourage girls to leave brothels. Many of the girls have their own babies as a result of their work. They have no-where else to go. If they left the brothels they would be on the street and could not feed their child. Would love it if Joy and Laura could come out and teach bead making!!

The past events and current situations of the young people are more desperate than I had ever imagined. The descriptions below are disturbing but this is the reality and hopefully will help people to pray specifically. I’d love to show you pictures of the young people so you have a face for the stories but obviously I can’t post online for security and confidentiality reasons.


All of the girls have worked in the ‘Quartier Generales’ (brothels), some from the age of 10. Many of them are still working in the brothels. Most of them have lost or been rejected by their parents or caregivers and have no-where else to go. They rely on brothel owners to feed them and their child. The girls may be made to sleep with up to 20 men each night, often with more than one at a time. Sometimes a group of men will just turn up and take turns.

Some of the girls are paid a small amount while others only receive a little food. They are traumatised by their war experiences, parent’s deaths, rape and sexual violence, forced abortions and many other events


The boys are the roughest, toughest bunch of lads you could ever imagine. If the wee lads in East Belfast think they’re hard they should meet this crew! Due to their experiences they’re more men than boys really, mostly aged around 16-17.

The majority are former child soldiers who have only recently been released or escaped from the rebels. Some of them are living in a CTO while the UN tries to locate their parents. The CTO basically consists of 3 dirty mud huts where boys from different armed groups and of different ranks are left. Most of the other boys are living on the street.

They have spent anywhere from 6 months to 7 years with the armed groups. In the rebel armies the rule was kill or be killed. The same boys that I kicked a football around with today have have witnessed and carried out many rapes, murders, beatings and mutilations. Some have been involved in grotesque ceremonies such as cutting up and cooking bodies and drinking the blood of the person they killed. They are tormented by nightmares and haunted by guilt for the innocent lives they have taken.

A significant number of both boys and girls have expressed suicidal intent. Many have lost hope and say it would be better that they were dead. I’m not sure there is anything more sad in life than the loss of hope.

I pray that we can help to provide some hope through the intervention and through bringing a spiritual dimension to the psychology work that is much more accepted in Africa than in the UK. Thankfully this project is bigger than just our psychosocial work. It is a privilege and a pressure to be here at the very start. We also hope to assist in finding host families, setting up vocational training, providing incentives and, as mentioned, starting some kind of micro-finance co-operative.

Some nights I look up at the unreal African stars and wonder how the Creator of the universe could allow the pinnacle of his creation to suffer in the this way. At the same time I cry out to the same Creator to rescue them. If you are the praying kind please pray for the young people that we are working with- that they can find physical, emotional and spiritual freedom. That in the situations that appear so hopeless, they will find hope.


We met the president of CERAO today who is also pastor of the local church. The ‘Big Man’ culture pervades every aspect of society here so this man is revered by folks in the area. He arrived with his following to meet the two Mzungus. The conversation went something like this:

Assistant: John, c’est la president!

Me: Ah..bonjour monsieur, je m’appelle John, comment ca va?

Pastor: Ca va bien, enchante. Mon nom est Pinis

Me and Paul together: PENIS!??

Pastor: Oui, Pastor Pinis

Me: Nice to meet you Pastor Penis….

Then descended into uncontrollable laughter that reminded me of being back in school with Gav and Procs. One of those where you’re crying and can’t string enough words together to make a respectful sentence. Thankfully no-one speaks English but don’t think Pastor Pinis and his entourage were too impressed with their first experience of these white men!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Postcard from the DRC 1

I don’t really know where to start writing about a week in which I’ve travelled through 3 countries into a place unlike anywhere I’ve been before. Electricity is intermittent here so will be difficult to keep in touch by internet. We’re planning on travelling even more remote so not sure if there will be connection. Will try to write weekly updates though if possible. Sorry for lack of pictures but we've been told it's not a good idea to take photos around town. I'll try and get a few sneaky pics this week.

Thanks again to all who came to the fundraiser last Friday and to all those who made it happen. We were blown away by how much people wanted to get behind this project and promise to be accountable for every penny and to give it where the need is greatest.

So…the day after fundraiser we flew from Dublin to Entebbe, Uganda. Slept the night there then got up early to catch bus to Kigali, Rwanda. We missed the bus so spent a day in Kampala, randomly banging into Joseph, a former teacher at Source of Light and great friend to all Emmanuelites! Was so good to hang out with him.

Apres ça we caught the overnight bus to Kigali. This was a bumpy 11-hour trip with Ugandan dance music blaring through speakers the whole way. The lowlight was reaching the border at 4am. Basically at this lovely place you get turfed off the bus and have to fill in leaving card. In the meantime the bus, with all your bags, money, passport etc, drives off into the darkness. No-one tells you what to do but you begin to walk across ‘no-mans land’ in pitch darkness from Uganda to Rwanda while being set upon by dodgy characters trying to sell dodgy money. Luckily when we emerged from no-mans land our bus was waiting and bags were intact.

We spent 1 night in Kigali as we attempted to get a visa for the DRC from the crooks in the embassy. Anyone who has watched Hotel Rwanda or Shooting Dogs could not fail to see the recovery in Rwanda as truly miraculous. It is known as the ‘country of a thousand hills’ and is truly beautiful. Everything in inner city Kigali is perfectly clean and the roads are more akin to Europe than Africa. The bus journey to the DRC traverses the unreal Rwenzori mountains. Seriously have to go camping here with the lads some day! Development is occurring everywhere here in Africa’s success story. For Rwandans, the price for residing in such relative prosperity is living under a dictatorship that rules with an iron fist. A price worth paying? It’s a big question but there’s no doubt that, while the Rwandans are a quiet people, it is obvious they proud of how their country looks in comparison to their African neighbours.

I could have stayed in Rwanda for 2 months but time is of the essence so the DRC adventure began. I ended up having to pay $275 for the privilege of entering a country that seems entirely decrepit and forsaken at first glance. When we got to the border the smiling emigration folk locked Paul into a room and tried to make him give all his money to them. We were both carrying over $1000 in cash. Thank God they took him and not me as he managed to sweet talk (and lie) in his best Swahili and got us both away without losing a single dollar!

We were met at the border by the only contact we had made in the DRC, Barady Benda. He is a wee legend who we’d be completely lost without. In fact we have employed him as our Project Manager with responsibility for interpretation, being our guide, translating questionnaires, finding NGOs and stopping the locals from taking our money through scam or force!

Almost no-one here speaks English. My French est tres mauvais and my Swahili consists of ‘Jambo’. I’d be completely screwed without Barady and Paul to communicate.

Goma, where we are currently shacked up, is unlike anywhere I have seen before. A Google search should give you more information about the war that has raged around here. In Eastern DRC, 5 million people have died in the past 20 years as a result of the war…almost the entire population of Ireland. It has been much more stable over the past 2 years but is still the centre of the largest UN operation anywhere in the world. Rebel groups and government soldiers are still raping and pillaging rural areas around here. The town itself is safe but evidence of the surrounding conflict is everywhere. Almost every vehicle that is not a ‘boda boda’ is a UN or NGO machine or a military vehicle full of armed soldiers. Every half hour a plane or helicopter flies overhead carrying people, food, aid, weapons or minerals.

As if the people here hadn’t suffered enough from being raped and pillaged, half the town of Goma was destroyed by a volcano ? years ago. The basalt and ashes from the lava are everywhere. The roads (a generous term) consist of large rocks and stones from this eruption. They are difficult to walk over never mind drive on. Boda Boda journeys are great craic!

We stayed for a few days in the middle of the town, in first dodgy hotel we came across. After 3 nights of feeling insecure, no water or electricity and being kept awake until 5.30am by the neighbouring nightclub we have moved a few minutes out of town to a nice wee place on the shores of Lake Kivu. Will be based here for a few days arranging more meetings and finishing the translation of our questionnaires and interviews with Barady and Jacqui (the only English speaking girl we could find in Goma!)

The past few days have been spent meeting with various NGOs and local initiatives who are working with war-affected children. These include UNICEF, Caritas, Don Bosco, World Vision, Human Rights Watch, the Red Cross and others. Don Bosco was incredible. In one compound they run a massive school, feed 3000 local people, have a reception centre for war-affected children, have an orphanage for babies abandoned on the street and much more. It seems really run-down and under-funded which angered me and moved me in equal measure. In one room there were over 30 babies lying side by side on the floor like sardines. Mattresses in the dorms were worn down to the yellow cushion and were torn and soiled. It is a place I would love to donate some of the funds from last Friday if you are all ok with this?

Sorry for long update, so much more I could write. We have to decide in the next few days where, and with who, to carry out our intervention. UNICEF and Don Bosco have expressed a keen interest but the one we are currently considering is a World Vision project that is about to begin for former child soldiers and girls forced into prostitution. This is north of here, in Beni, A flight with the UN or private plane would be required to reach here, as there are practically no roads in the DRC. It would be a trip into the wild, bringing us much closer to rebel territory. It would also bring us much closer to young people who have massive needs but are unreached by the international community. Would appreciate prayers as we make a decision on this one.

Au Revoir pour maintenant