A Christmas letter from Goma. Fr. Gerry Clarke SJ from Ireland works with JRS in Eastern Congo. Gerry is a past pupil of Gonzaga College and they will remember him in a special way at the Gonzaga Christmas Mass in 2008.
Living on Lava:
Goma, Eastern Congo and the Jesuit Refugee Service
This Christmas the sun shines brightly on the fields around Goma, the capital of North Kivu, a province in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo where it borders Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. But the rain is never far away as it is the wet season here and almost on a daily basis great thunder clouds gather and dump torrential rain on the tin roofs of the city and the temporary shelters around about which house 142,000 refugees from the recent conflict. Surprisingly there are no rivers in this region as the run-off from the storms percolates down through the volcanic soil and feeds the huge and beautiful Lake Kivu: one of the lakes which give the name Great Lakes to this part of Africa. Sitting on the northern shores of Lake Kivu, Goma has often been at the heart of conflict in this area going right back to the events which led to the terrible genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Rwanda which is only 500m away from the Jesuit Refugee Service offices (in Goma) is one of the most highly populated countries in the world and one of the most fertile. In some years there are three, even four harvests of beans on the volcanic soil which is so mineral-rich. But ethnic tensions in Rwanda have destabilized this region for decades now and the division between Tutsi and Hutu is apparently still at the heart of the conflict on this side of the border. However a more careful look tells a different story.
During and after the genocide in Rwanda experts reckon at least 1.8million people fled to the Congo (or Zaire as it was then known). They were Tutsi who were fleeing the Hutu “genocidaires” and later the “genocidaires” themselves fleeing the revenge of the new Tutsi regime in Rwanda. They settled in the two Congolese provinces which border Rwanda, north and south Kivu, and coexisted in an uneasy occupation of a region which they discovered to be very rich in produce. The plains to the west of Goma in Masisi, and to the north in Rutshuru supported these refugee populations, along with a massive international intervention. But tensions rose again which led to the downfall of the president of Zaire, the infamous dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. A rebel army marched the width of Africa westward to the capital in Kinshasa and took power. From that moment the country became the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a new flag was designed and something of a new start was made.
However peace was not to last long. The Congo is not only a country rich in food produce, it is unbelievably richly endowed with mineral wealth. Uranium, Copper, Gold, Diamonds, Cassiterite and Columbite-Tantalite (Coltan for short) are found in vast quantities here and mining is one of the chief industries of the nation. It was not long before the warring factions discovered how lucrative mining activity is and found a strong and sustained source of income to maintain their war against each other and against the Congolese state. Laurent Nkunda, a renegade Congolese general has a special liking for Coltan because, like narcotics, Coltan yields huge profits fast. This is linked to the worldwide demand for electronic products like Laptops, DVD Players and Mobile Phones which use Coltan in their electric components. Worldwide demand for Coltan peaked around the year 2000 with the explosion of laptop use and unless the world crisis deepens drastically demand will continue to grow and mining in the Congo will expand. It was Congolese uranium that fuelled the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and it may be Congolese Coltan that fires up your mobile phone!
The sad reality here is that mineral resources are financing the conflict in Eastern Congo and it has drawn in its neighbour Rwanda for ostensibly ethnic reasons when in fact it is for reasons of economic profit. Laurent Nkunda is a Tutsi and claims to be protecting the Tutsis in North Kivu from local militias called the Mai Mai and the Congolese national army called the FARDC (Forces Armées de la République du Congo). There is evidence that these latter groups join forces against Nkunda in order to push him back from the territory which he has successfully occupied in North Kivu and there is uncontrovertible evidence that these groups, the Mai Mai and the FARDC, have inflicted terror and war crimes on the local population whom the FARDC, at least, are supposed to protect. A recent article described the FARDC (the Congolese national army) as more dangerous in retreat than in attack. Every FARDC offensive leads to a rout and they pillage shops and houses, rape and kill as they run. On the other hand, Nkunda has every reason to be proud of his well-uniformed, well-armed and well-paid troops; they even cock a snoop at the United Nations forces which are attempting to back up the FARDC and the reason is because they are backed by Rwanda, financially, militarily and morally. As they say in Northern Ireland: “even the dogs in the street know” that Nkunda’s troops are Rwandans or refugees recruited and trained in Rwanda. And a very recent UN report has at last spoken the truth. This has led Holland and Sweden to stop financial aid to Rwanda and perhaps they will be only the first to pull out. The fact is that all of that Coltan and all the other minerals which should be exported to the profit of the Congolese people is being secretly transported across the border and sold from Rwanda to the profit of the Tutsi regime in power there.
But whatever the reasons behind the conflict the consequences for people in the fertile regions of Masisi and Rutshuru and the mining areas of Walikale have been catastrophic. Tens of thousands have had to leave their homes for fear of rape, pillage and murder. And many of these are children who have been the targets of rape, murder and forced recruitment. They stream to all points of the compass but the majority towards Goma where there are large refugee camps at places called Mugunga, Buhimba, Bulengo and Kibati. Here and around Goma, many Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) have gathered to offer humanitarian assistance. Some of them like Doctors without Borders, Concern, Save the Children, OXFAM, the Red Cross and UNICEF are familiar names but there are many others like Heal Africa, Alpha UJUVI and the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) which are lower profile organizations but dedicated nevertheless to offer their expertise and help.
Jesuits are probably best known for their dedication to education and the JRS is no exception to this. Our programmes in the camps around Goma focus on the educational needs of children both at primary and at secondary level. The main challenge is to ensure access to the local schools and then to organise teacher training. You can probably imagine how the arrival of an extra 20,000 children might skew the graph of any local educational provision. Displaced pupils arrive at the school door but there is no room and what is more they bring no money to pay the teachers who, for the most part, receive no governmental salary. This is where JRS steps in. We organise extra desks, teaching materials, school books and even roofs. Some of the schools need concrete floors (often they are just a level fields of lava lumps!), others need roofs or grilles on the windows to protect the contents from theft. (Desks make good firewood and unfortunately displaced people and locals will go to any lengths to obtain fuel for their cooking fires.) An effective means of encouraging teachers to welcome displaced children is to offer them food supplements. A simple deal is struck: if you welcome more displaced children into your classroom we will give you, on a monthly basis, 10kgs of rice, 5kgs of beans and 2½ litres of cooking oil!
Food preparation is of prime importance to displaced people and the search for firewood has led many unfortunate women into areas where they have become vulnerable to sexual violence. JRS also offers long term support to such victims. We have programmes of training for vulnerable people in the camps so that they can be re-inserted into normal society after the trauma of rape or sexual violence. Often training in hairdressing (normally the domain of men in the Congo, not women!), in bread or soap-making will be the bridge to a new start in life.
Teacher training is also a great need in this part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the State and its services have been largely absent owing to the conflict and the country-wide decay of social institutions and infrastructure since the terrible years of “Kleptocracy” under the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. JRS is running a series of teacher training sessions in the new pedagogy for all schools subjects but also in a new topic: Education à la Paix or Education for Peace. I can see huge needs arising in the area of reconciliation and re-integration of combatants back into Society whenever the situation returns to something closer to normality.
But often the main thing JRS offers is a listening ear and very often that is something which refugees simply don’t find despite all the NGO’s attempting to ease their situation. Our aims are to accompany, to serve and to speak up for refugees and displaced people and we like to do this over the long term. So here in Goma we are settling in for a period of 2 or 3 years if the needs are still there, that is, until the refugees can stream back to their homes in the North and the West of Goma. Perhaps then the fertile volcanic soil of North Kivu will yield its multiple harvests to the benefit of a stable political regime whose only fear will be the glowing crater of the volcano Mount Nyiragongo which today casts its shadow over the tin roofs and temporary shacks of Goma and a people who have got used to living on lava.
Gerard J. Clarke,sj