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Bukaru, Democratic Republic of Congo, 04/26-05/20/09

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Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo – 05/20/09

            Wow.  What a different four weeks can make.  When I first arrived in Bukavu, I was in the dumps; I felt unmotivated, caged and homesick.  Now, about halfway into my placement here in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and with only five weeks left in my Fellowship, I’m flying higher than ever.  I don’t know what did the trick this time – whether it was perseverance, patience or happenstance – but I now feel completely comfortable with where I am and what I’m doing.  I still dream about those glorious Rocky Mountains nearly every night, but during the day, I am totally and utterly present.

            Things started to improve mere hours after I finished my last journal entry.  That same afternoon, I was invited to attend a last-minute press conference for the visiting UN Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict, Mrs. Coomaraswami.  Strange political celebrities make it to these parts, eh?  The event was held at MONUC’s Pakistani battalion (MONUC being the UN’s mission name for its peacekeeping operation in the DRC), alongside a wonderful Pakistani buffet spread out on a balcony overlooking Lake Kivu.  It turned out to be a very intimate affair, and I had the unique opportunity to literally sit at the Special Representative’s feet while she spoke.  She reiterated the UN’s commitment to the children of eastern DRC, especially to those who are currently associated with one or another of the region’s armed groups, and I walked away with a renewed sense of interest in and commitment to my own work.  Incredible.

            The next day, my supervisor at Search for Common Ground, Ms. Lena Slachmuijlder, invited me to join her on a visit to ASO, a local rehabilitation centre for disadvantaged children of all types (including orphans, street children and former child soldiers).  For the past few years, Lena – who moonlights as a phenomenal musician – has been instructing the kids at this particular centre in all genres of African rhythm, collected from countries as far flung as Ghana, Burundi and South Africa.  The product has been a troupe of confident young musicians who meet twice a week to jam and compose beats that are representative of the entire continent.  Though these children would normally have nothing to do with one another – and considering their circumstances, would normally have every reason to compete viciously with one another – they have learned to cooperate beautifully, and watching them play was truly a sight to behold.

            The following week, my interviews began in earnest.  As I mentioned in my previous journal entry, I’m here in the DRC to conduct research on the various communication strategies being employed by local and international organizations to disseminate information about the demobilization of child soldiers.  This research process necessitates speaking with some really fascinating (and really intimidating) individuals who are at the forefront of the struggle against child soldiery.

            Initially, I felt too shy to organize these interviews with any sense of enthusiasm; but more recently, I’ve bitten the bullet and have managed to orchestrate talks with over ten different people, including the directors of MONUC and UNICEF’s child protection units, several directors of local rehabilitation centres, a FARDC colonel (the FARDC is the DRC’s national army), a representative of the Pentecostal church, and the chief child rights lobbyist at War Child Holland.  In the process, I’ve improved my interviewing skills, and have even boned up on my French (to repeat: all of my work here in the DRC is conducted in French)!

            The highlight, however, has been an opportunity that I seized two Fridays ago.  Having recently concluded a very successful interview with Mrs. Anna Paola Favero, the Italian director of MONUC’s child protection unit, I decided to test my luck by asking her whether I might be able to join her or some of her staff on a child-oriented field mission sometime in the near future.  I received an immediate reply: the very next day, two MONUC child protection officers would be driving to a FARDC jungle camp about 40km to verify the ages of two alleged child soldiers, and they would be happy to have me tag along as an observer.

            I woke up earlier than usual that Friday to ensure that I reached MONUC’s child protection office with plenty of time to spare.  Walking around the peacekeeping mission’s headquarters is a fascinating honour; as is usually the case in UN buildings, people of all different colours and speaking all different languages can be found, but here, they’re all wearing military fatigues.  The grounds themselves are like a cross between a colonial-era film set (complete with clay-tiled villas and well-manicured gardens) and M*A*S*H* (with green army tents having been erected in the spaced between those colonial villas).  The place buzzes with energy; I feel it would be an incredible place to work.

            At approximately 9:30am, one of the MONUC officers and I set off in a white UN Land Rover to pick up another child protection officer from a local rehabilitation centre called BVES (rather than MONUC sending two of its own officers, I have learned that it is preferable to send delegates from multiple organizations into the field, as such diversity seems to impress upon the commanders of armed groups that the local and international stance against child soldiery is firmly unified and not to be questioned).

            The next step entailed collecting a letter of safe passage from a FARDC commander currently (and curiously) stationed at a luxurious lakeside hotel.  I was told by my new friend from MONUC that the need for such a letter is unusual; most missions are conducted with a high level of cooperation from the FARDC, but in this case, the particular commanders with whom we were going to have to negotiate needed a bit more formal coercion.  This was the first indication that things might not go quite as planned…

            After collecting the letter and stocking up on snacks, we set off for the army camp.  The road was, like most in this part of the world, rugged but spectacularly beautiful.  Driving north from Bukavu, we hugged the side of Lake Kivu for about twenty kilometers, and then turned west into the green hills.  Up and up we went, through heavily cultivated farmers’ fields, until we reached the village of Tshivanga, at the gates of the impenetrable Kahuzi-Biega National Park.  On the outskirts of this village was our army camp: a collection of several dozen large and small green tents, populated by young RPG-toting soldiers and army wives cooking fufu over open fires.  As was the case when I step foot in MONUC’s headquarters, I had the foolish sense that I had stumbled upon a Hollywood movie set.  I suppose this was to be expected; I had never visited the front of a war before, and I therefore had nothing else to which I could compare this strange experience.

            We made a beeline for a small tent in the middle of the camp, which was the temporary home of a FARDC colonel.  He was a very short man, dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt, who sat beneath his canvas tarp listening to visitors with one ear and to the radio with the other.  The two child protection officers and I sat on a wooden bench facing him, and I listened to them initiate the negotiation.  It was a fascinating exchange that I would love to recount here, but unfortunately, I’ve been told that everything I witnessed was strictly confidential.  Suffice it to say that it was an affirmation of everything I have ever wanted to do in life: the practical merging of negotiation with disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR).  Sitting there in the middle of that frightening camp, I saw for the first time what I hope will be my future.

            The negotiations concluded successfully.  A nearby officer was sent away to find our two alleged children, and he came back with two young men in fatigues who looked to be about eighteen and twenty respectively.  The BVES representative took them aside and started interviewing them to determine their age.  At the same time, the MONUC child protection officer suggested that I try asking the colonel a few questions.  This offer took me aback; during the drive up to the camp, I had been told to keep a “low profile” (translation: to keep my researcher’s brain off and my mouth firmly shut), but now I was being afforded the opportunity to speak with a FARDC colonel in his own operations tent.  I composed myself as best as I could and launched into a 15-minute conversation, during which I wound up obtaining some of the most important information for my research thus far.  So much for nerves, eh?

            In the middle of my interview, shouts began to erupt from all around the camp.  The frazzled BVES representative quickly reappeared, saying that he had been chased away from the two alleged children by an uncooperative commander.  When the representative brandished our letter of safe passage, the commander scoffed, saying that it meant nothing to him, and that if we didn’t immediately leave the two young soldiers alone, he would start beating them.  We soon became aware of two major problems in our mission design: first, we assumed that the camp’s commanders would be literate enough to read our letter of safe passage.  Second, we assumed that the friendly colonel would be willing to overrule the decisions of his subordinates.  But this was not the case; illiteracy runs rampant through the FARDC, and on account of a recent process of brassage, which united disparate elements of surrendered anti-government militias under the banner of an integrated national army, colonels (who may have hailed from one militia) are often afraid of asserting themselves over their officers and commanders (who hail from other militias).  I know it all sounds very complicated, but the long and short of it is that we weren’t going to be able to interview the young soldiers any further, in spite of the fact that the BVES representative strongly believed that one of them was only 16 years old.

            Dejected, we bid the colonel farewell and made for our vehicle.  The hope was that we would be able to return and speak with the young soldiers a few days later, when the commander who had written our letter of safe passage would be in Tshivanga camp himself.  In the meantime, we would simply have to wait.

            But on our way back, a very small soldier with an unmistakably youthful face approached us, claiming that he was a 16-year old infantryman who wanted to be demobilized.  Astonished by this unexpected stroke of luck, the MONUC and BVES officers quickly interviewed the soldier and checked his molars to determine his approximate age.  He was, it turned out, 16 years old, and had been fighting with a Mai Mai militia since he was only 11.  A few minutes later, we managed to find his commander and negotiate his release.  In no time at all, our mission had gone from being a bust to a huge success.  Watching the boy disappear behind a vehicle in his fatigues and reappear in jeans and a t-shirt was quite possibly the most striking moment of my Fellowship year, if not of my nascent professional life.

            On the way back to Bukavu where we would be dropping the child off at BVES’ rehabilitation centre, we spoke about many things.  The child expressed strong interest in becoming a mechanic, in finding his older brother (who he believed still lived in his mother and father’s village in North Kivu province) and in obtaining a pair of shoes for his bare feet as soon as humanly possible.  I bought him a Coke and a few bags of peanuts in the hopes that I could make this life-altering transition of his a little bit friendlier.  He was all smiles and ready to be a part of the civilian world again.  What an incredible way to end such an incredible day.

            Many other noteworthy things have happened over the past four weeks, but seeing as how I’ve already written so much, I’ll simply have to list them:

-I was accepted to MA programs in both Geneva and London, and have since decided to pursue the latter; as of September, I will be living in London, pursuing an MA in Conflict, Security and Development at King’s College;

-I’ve twice attended MONUC’s weekly “Welfare Night”, which is essentially a big (and very surreal) party for all of Bukavu’s expatriates; it’s a strange thing to be sipping a Primus and watching blue helmeted Uruguayan peacekeepers teach Congolese women how to dance salsa;

-I received a “care package” from my parents two weeks ago which contained copious amounts of canned tuna, several packages of Cliff Bars, maple oatmeal, whole wheat tortillas, books and the first season of “The Wire” (yes!);

            And I think that’s just about all I’ll bother you with right now!  As I have said, things are definitely looking up and I can’t wait to see what these final five weeks have to offer.  Also, I hope that in my next entry I’ll be able to reflect a little bit more on the importance of patience and perseverance (a common Fellowship theme, it seems) during these particularly manic couple of weeks.  Until then, thanks for reading and I hope all is well, whoever you happen to be!