Archive for August, 2010


clap, duck and drum

Some hand-clapping photos, all taken by Agnes, one of the counselors based at Dukanure Center. This is from the same visit in July that I blogged about below.

Ben missed the beat early and got thrown in hand-clapping jail.




project dukanure for the rehabilitation of female former child soldiers

Project Dukanure

The Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Torture Survivors in Chicago has been providing mental health care to refugees and asylum seekers for over twenty years. One of its former directors, Mary Fabri, had been working on a project in Rwanda in 2004 to provide trauma counseling to victims of the 1994 genocide who were infected with HIV/AIDS. One of our colleagues, Scott Portman, travelled to neighboring Burundi (“the country just south of Rwanda”) in 2006 to do research and speak with local aid organizations to see if the service model in Rwanda could be adapted to the Burundian context. Scott submitted a proposal to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor in 2007, and received a grant in 2008 to assist female former child soldiers. Right around that time, I was wrapping up two years at the National Immigrant Justice Center, another Heartland Alliance program. When I heard they wanted to send a French-speaking expat, I jumped at the opportunity.

My transition to Heartland’s International Programs is rather easy to explain. It was a natural fit: my parents were both executives in a clock-making company and my brother is an investment banker, so *of course* I would end up in central Africa managing humanitarian assistance projects. I’ve probably got a lot of ground to make up.

There were also some interesting convergences. That Spring, I had been accepted to the Fletcher School near Boston to study international relations, but I wanted to defer my attendance until I gained some field experience; the direct switch from office to classroom didn’t appeal to me. Ultimately, I was pulled in by that reliable trinity of wanting to put something off, wanting to see something new and…speaking French. Those three combined almost certainly lands a person in Francophone Africa doing development work.

As it turns out, one of the faculty at Fletcher, Academic Dean Peter Uvin, had just been in Burundi in 2007, and he had produced a report for the World Bank on the post-demobilization economic circumstances of former child soldiers. One of the most striking features of the report for me was the disparity between girls and boys. In all, Prof. Uvin spoke to 63 former child soldiers, but only two were female. The problem is linked to perceptions of what constitutes a ‘child soldier’. In popular portrayals of child soldiers such as the movie, “Blood Diamond” and Ishmael Beah’s account of being a child soldier, one gets the impression that child soldiers are all gun-toting boys jacked up on drugs. But as set forth in the Cape Town Principles, child soldiers can also be cooks, porters, spies, cleaners, just as in any army. Girls face an added dimension of sexual abuse, sometimes coerced to be soldiers’ “wives” or sex slaves. And while the Cape Town Principles do not consider whether a child joined voluntarily or not as the basis of criminality in deploying child soldiers, there *are* many instances of children joining voluntarily. In some cases, children view military groups as a political or ethnic cause or a means to wealth or power. Others join a certain group to gain revenge against that groups’ enemies, who may have harmed the child’s relations. Ironically, some children join because they have nowhere left to go once a military group has slaughtered all of their relatives.

For me, this is another major strength of Heartland Alliance’s strategy toward program development. It’s not simply about helping those in need, but helping those with the greatest need, those who may never have received help at all. There is innovation in the approach and by operating  the program on a small-scale pilot scheme, it invites constant refinement and strives to identify effective practices that will be adaptable to other contexts. To my knowledge, there is no other residential program that is entirely dedicated to female child soldiers’ needs in the region (and likely on the continent). Yet, girls and young women require very specific types of services relating to very specific experiences that are often incompatible with services for boys or young men. Already male child soldiers struggle through demobilization processes that are targeted toward men; girls then barely register as an afterthought. In this region, demobilization processes do not account for the presence of girls in armed groups, so many end up going home on their own with no reintegration assistance.

Numbers are difficult to come by in such a context, but given the broad scope of the Cape Town Principles, there are certainly more female former child soldiers (FFCS) than the 50 that UNICEF identified and demobilized from 2006 to 2008. Fifty over a 15 year period is not a credible figure especially in this mode of conflict where civilians are specifically targeted to gain psychological and logistical advantages. Our rounds of site visits to local communities to identify potential cases confirms this; we had surpassed that figure within the first week of interviews with community members. A large majority of the young women we spoke with are still traumatized by their war experiences but have received almost no attention or assistance for their suffering. Through a case-by-case review, we tried to select cases that seem most dire, that may have suffered grave mental or physical injuries and that now have very little family or community support. Only a few of these cases were  child soldiers who joined voluntarily or carried arms. Some of the people who resisted the project’s launch initially based their objections on the possibility of helping people who may have committed violent acts. But I think it helps to think of the main beneficiaries of our project as girl victims of the war rather than active perpetrators of violence.

Project Dukanure officially launched in October 2009, 15 months after I arrived in Burundi. Many of this blog’s stories relate to my experience of registering Heartland Alliance as a legal non-governmental organization (NGO) in Burundi. My favorite posts usually involve a guy named Felix. Fifteen months. Sometimes, I wonder if I can sue the government to give that time back to me but just the thought of going through that nutty bureaucracy again makes me fall to the floor in a daze.

‘Dukanure’ means ‘we are opening our eyes’ and the meaning suggests that the participants are regaining control of their lives. But the meaning also extends to the community and family members who are increasing their knowledge about this topic and learning ways to facilitate the girls’ rehabilitation. Project Dukanure aims to help 200 female former child soldiers by providing mental health counseling, social education and job skills training in a safe setting at a residential facility. Groups of 24 girls stay at the Center for 15-weeks at a time while taking courses and participating in individual and group activities led by Burundian female mental health counselors. At the end of their stays, we provide a kit that builds on their job skills to help them start earning their own income. We also provide follow-up home visits to make sure the reintegration process is proceeding well. To date, we have helped 48 female former child soldiers reintegrate into their communities and are now assisting a third group at the Center.

July 30, 2010

These are photos of a site visit  the day after the Sange trip, which I blogged about earlier. The contrast in mood couldn’t be more evident. Our work in Sange is an emergency response to a catastrophic incident. The entire community is still experiencing collective shock and it shows. Project Dukanure strives to equip young women with the tools to reintegrate socially and to become income earners – massive challenges considering their circumstances. The objective here is to create long-term gains by providing very attentive and supportive care in a safe environment. These services will hopefully help the participants rebuild their lives even as the country transitions out of the ‘post-conflict’ context into a development phase.

As mentioned, this is our third group of participants to stay at Dukanure Center. Unlike the first two groups (which I will write about later), this group came from Cibitoke Province in the northwest of the country. Its close proximity to eastern Congo results in a proportional uptick of lively dancing, music-making and general mischief. The two preceding groups were from central Burundi and I am told that people from that area are much more reserved. They are not kidding.

Usually, there’s some coordinated dance routine to welcome visitors (pretty much just my colleagues and me) and often it’s very structured with rows of dancers moving at square-dance speed. This time, when Ben, Molly and I walk up toward the courtyard, it is louder than any 24 people should be legally loud. The dirt’s kicking up, the girls are in a spinning circle. They have a drum. It’s fantastic.

We really have no choice but to join in. The song the girls are singing is the “Jeff, Ben and Molly – Come Sing and Dance with Us!” song. Plus, it’s another two hours before lunch is ready.

Speaking of lunch, it’s our open secret that we love the lunches that the Center’s cooks conjure up. It’s mostly stews – cabbage stew, stewed bananas that taste like potatoes, stewed greens, stewed beans, plus rice. It’s Burundian food, hearty and simple and equally easy to cook for five or 500. It’s food that’s readily available at most restaurants, but here, it’s different, it’s *better*. I don’t know why, I can’t explain how. Maybe it’s the coarse salt or maybe it’s the fresh chili peppers. I think it’s the comforting experience of eating in a dining hall. It never gets old.

A snap of the Center and the plots where the girls have been growing vegetables through their agronomy class. These cabbages will be used to supplement the girls’ diets during their stay. Subsequent groups of participants will also benefit from the ongoing gardening projects. Around 90% of Burundi’s population is engaged in subsistence farming.

For the better part of the visit, we join the girls in a raucous game of…go-around-the-circle-high-fiving? It’s kind of hard to explain – but it’s really funny to look at! (Photos of that soon.)

After the game, Molly works with the counselors for a bit on data collection methods. Then I meet with them and explain a photography project that we want to try out with the participants. I show them how to operate the digital cameras that we will be distributing over the next week to pairs of participants so that they could document each other’s activities at Dukanure Center. I can’t wait to see what they produce and I’m sure there will be wonderful shots that I can post here soon.

Christine (with badge), our Project Coordinator for Dukanure, getting the farewell treatment:


ma bell

august 3, 2010. uvira, south kivu, drc.

A joke heard in the Congo (loosely translated): Ronald Reagan, James Callaghan, Saddam Hussein and Joseph Mobutu are sitting together in Hell.

That’s it. That’s the joke.









Alternate (full) version: The four are sitting around (in Hell still) when all of a sudden Reagan’s phone rings. He picks up and after a few seconds, shouts out, “Oh, I just heard Osama bin Laden is down here! Has anyone seen him? If it’s true, I must let the White House know!” The three others are all stunned, Saddam, in particular. They all start running around looking for bin Laden, but no one finds him. Saddam is ecstatic: “I must call my Arab brothers upstairs to let them know bin Laden is still alive!” He takes out his phone and speaks to his former deputies for three minutes, explaining what happened. When he is done, he gets a phone bill for two million dollars. He is so incensed and shocked, he starts foaming at the mouth. “I must warn everyone back home!” Reagan thinks, so he calls up the White House and speaks for three minutes to brief them. He also gets a phone bill for two million dollars. Then Callaghan makes a call to the Home Office and sure enough, another bill for two million dollars. Mobutu then gets on his phone and calls up his old buddies, a few former Ministers, some generals, and a gaggle of his many many children. He ends up talking for over three hours. The others are just shaking their heads, expecting the very worst. When Mobutu’s bill arrives, it’s for two dollars. The others are outraged. They all yell, “Why is his bill only two dollars and he spoke so long??”

Mobutu flashes them a mighty grin and says, “Local call.”


heartland alliance in general and sange in particular

Maybe it was the WBEZ interview and being asked engaging questions about my work that has got me thinking or more likely it was this past week’s events, but I’m going to shift the focus of this blog to some work things. It’s a task I’ve meant to complete for over a year now, but Life has often conspired to prevent me from writing critically about Work. Work does that, too; I do work, I don’t write about it.

So I’m going to load some photos of my World Cup Safari and my two weeks in Chicago on Facebook instead. I figure most of my blog’s readership is probably linked to me on FB already. If not, just search for ‘Jefferson Mok’. Now, you might notice there are two of us – that’s okay; I’m the one in Burundi. (I also want to point out that I have reached out to this other “Jefferson Mok” but he hasn’t reciprocated the kindness. I’m distraught.)

First, Heartland Alliance’s approach to humanitarian assistance. I often find describing Heartland’s approach to programming unwieldy because it’s fairly broad. So while an organization like Doctors Without Borders has a clear mandate based around advanced medical care in emergency contexts, it’s more challenging to pin down Heartland’s philosophy. Part of that has to do with Heartland’s origins. Heartland Alliance grew out of the Hull House in Chicago and Jane Addam’s pioneering work to assist recent immigrants and other populations in need with social services. Since 1888, Heartland has firmly established itself in Chicago and around the Midwest to provide quality human services to populations ranging from housing, medical aid, legal services and mental health counseling. It’s hard to exaggerate that legacy – Addams is to social services in the U.S. what Clara Barton was to the Red Cross. However, Heartland’s versatility also inhibits an easy description of Heartland Alliance’s services.

I used to list off Heartland Alliance’s services and the corresponding list of populations that it reaches, but I’ve maxed out my comma-usage quota through the next century (and it played really poorly as a self-introduction at parties). Now I think I can do a bit better. In very short, we provide human rights-based protection services to highly vulnerable populations. A little longer: we provide critical protection and rehabilitation services principally for victims of human rights abuses or to strengthen the human rights context. In a given country, this package of services can vary by project or by region or by need, but the design process still proceeds from a human rights framework, an agile responsiveness to the context and a focus on high quality care. Very often, the most significant need is mental health care such as trauma counseling for women and children victims of conflict or violence. This happens to be an area in which Heartland Alliance is very strong, based on its extensive work with torture survivors in the Midwest. For me, one of Heartland Alliance’s key attributes is its ability to draw from a vast network of highly trained and experienced professionals from the Chicago-area. Lawyers, doctors, psychologists, researchers – it’s a heady roster that supports a panoply of humanitarian aid activities abroad.

Heartland Alliance’s current portfolio in the African Great Lakes region includes a female former child soldier rehabilitation project, an anti-human trafficking project that covers both Burundi and South Kivu Province in eastern Congo, a transit care shelter for victims of sexual violence in South Kivu and operational support for sexual minority associations. It is not by chance that Human Rights Watch has produced reports about Burundi on child soldiers in 2006 and the LGBTI community in 2009.

This evolution is exciting on a personal level after two years out here. As this blog testifies, I literally just showed up in Burundi one June afternoon in 2008 with a bag and a few well chosen words of encouragement. To see an actual Program(me) take shape over that time is more than satisfying. Heartland has only been involved in international development since 2004 but already, I can tell it is a highly effective operation and its ability to respond quickly to needs and gaps in humanitarian services to the most vulnerable populations is impressive. (I say all this not to just toot my own horn, but to acknowledge the work Heartland is doing in countries like Ethiopia, Iraq, Haiti, Sri Lanka and Nigeria, all of which I am still learning about). The rate of expansion is dizzying; thankfully, the organization’s infrastructure is improving at a similar rate.

July 28, 2010. Sange, South Kivu Province, DRC.

This past Thursday presents a good example of how our model works. On July 2, 2010, there was a devastating explosion in the town of Sange in South Kivu. Sange is an important transit point about 30km north of Uvira, where we have our office. A truck carrying petrol crashed and overturned on the side of the main road, next to a bar filled with people watching the World Cup. A massive commotion followed with many children rushing toward the truck that was now belching out petrol from a broken valve. Even soldiers got in on the act and started filling  tins with the spilled gas and stashing them in their guardhouse a few yards from the truck. What happened next is not entirely clear. I first heard it was a man flicking a cigarette but more reliably, some of the people in the area said it was the fuse of a motorcyclist kick-starting his engine. What is clear is that in the ensuing explosion, a motorcyclist was launched into the air by a mushroom-flame cloud and never came back down. The final death toll is not yet known but it is well over 300 now.

Heartland Alliance’s mental health staff, led by Molly Firkaly, our Mental Health Program Manager, responded three days later, setting up counseling services for burn victims and community members before any other humanitarian aid organizations had arrived. The need was critical; our mandate was vital in meeting that need and recognizing that it was a disaster for the entire community, not just individuals. Heartland Alliance staff were given a list of 285 victims, whose families our counselors visited at their homes. The other organizations that arrived focused on medical and psychological services to direct victims of the fire but for some reason, this coverage did not extend to family members who had suffered loss. At least in this context, they lacked the flexibility to ensure reaching as many people in need as they could have, so I think we filled an important gap there. The politics and motivations behind the situation’s coordination structure could fill a book – not that I’m writing one. And I won’t write one now.

Last Thursday, I visited Sange for the first time since my return from Chicago. We are a team of three: Molly, our Program Manager, Arisitide, our Project Coordinator and me, the Driver. We are there for some meetings with the local hospital’s doctors and administrators. At Sange we encounter disturbing realities about medical care in eastern Congo. If you read the papers, you might think the only thing doctors do in eastern DRC is treat rape victims. That might be partially true, but only because there is no funding for anything else. So the Sange hospital treating the burn victims has to depend on an international organization to provide a vehicle for an ambulance service because the hospital does not have money for fuel for its one vehicle. The ambulance has to first travel to Sange in order to transfer severe burn victims a few hours away to Bukavu or about an hour away to Uvira (during one of our meetings, we learn that of the 33 who had been transferred, 27 had passed away, including two that morning). Doctors have had to be flown in with tons of their own equipment to perform delicate surgeries.

After our meetings, I took some photos of the truck, which is still there, and the surrounding area, which is kind of still there.

I swear, the next post will be more uplifting. It’s really not my fault.


A couple of policemen survey the wreck. All of the rubber has burnt away from the tires, exposing the metal treads.

The ground is scorched far away from the truck. An enormous amount of fuel had spilled out prior to the explosion.

This small guardhouse was gutted because soldiers allegedly stored spilled petrol from the overturned truck in tins here.

Lime traces mark two spots where two soldiers perished (below). At least four were crammed into this space when the explosion occurred. The odors are awful.

Some children tagged the truck with graffiti. Most are directed at the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC). “Stop.”

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August 2010