Archive for the 'Congo' Category

01
Aug
14

if you know something, do what now?

August 1, 2014

Even the New York subway ads get it: “If you see something, say something.” Of course, it’s implicitly clear what you are supposed to say (and to whom). You’re supposed to find MTA personnel or someone in uniform and inform them a suspicious package was left behind. And that simple ad works because of these two steps: 1. Stay informed and alert; 2. Take appropriate action. Clear enough.

And therein lies the problem with our relationship to international news.

Even as we realize, especially over the last two decades, that what happens abroad can bring back consequences, and even as information sources become more mobile and more diffuse, we are actually doing less to resolve these problems. As Lauren Wolfe points out in an excellent new Foreign Policy article, we seem to have an attention deficit disorder with important events abroad. We tune in for a bit, we get all riled up, wave our phones like lighters at a concert or a candlelight vigil – in solidarity – and then, nothing. Wolfe, taking a collective psychosocial perspective, suggests that we lose steam because we do not fully identify with the parties involved. She quotes Gloria Steinem:

“’If we knew even one of these girls,’ she says, ‘empathy would follow. One person would stand for many more.’”

But that view sort of contradicts what is happening, because we are already empathetic – that’s how we know about the Nigerian girls in the first place. It may be that more empathy is needed to sustain momentum longer, but I think the problem is that empathy is not enough.

Take this quotation from a Time Lightbox article talking about two photographers one covering Israel’s view of the ongoing conflict and the other Palestine’s.

If the media “cover this story long enough, there will be a solution,” said Andrew Burton, the photog covering Israeli soldiers. But there is that disconnect – “long enough” suggests we build up great reserves of goodwill and empathy, but then magically a solution will reveal itself?

We do not hear what exactly is that solution, and by corollary, no one actually knows how to get there (or we might be making some progress by now). Alongside the information overload at moments of crisis, we have fewer signposts for concrete steps to make a meaningful difference. So we pick up our phones. It is no surprise then that hashtags and manipulative videos resonate – that’s what we would do. That’s all we know to do.

Another example: a week ago, there was an article about why “All You Need to Know” is the worst cliché in journalism. Not just bad, but harmful, because it sets a low common denominator for understanding a given topic and creates the illusion that we can stop learning more at a certain point.

That article hits at the same problem from the other direction: because we don’t really know what to do anyway, because it is unlikely we will actually change the way things are, here’s all that you need to know to satisfy your curiosity.

To get back to Wolfe’s article, complexity is a major stumbling block. As soon as we learn more, information comes pouring in, passion, opinions, propaganda – all of that leaves us not sure where to go next or what to do with our hard-earned information. Take Syria, already a distant reality. Now add on that the U.S.’ interests in that conflict might align on some level with Iran’s, and there is instant cognitive dissonance. And that’s just one potential relationship. Or the Israel-Palestine saga: we feel for the Palestinian people and their mistreatment by the IDF, but Hamas is also part of the problem, and didn’t the Palestinian people vote them in? And Israel – how to square its policies and ongoing atrocities with its own history, its own perception of itself as an oppressed people fighting for its survival, when it is Gazans’ survival at stake? In other words, if I did want to empathize in this situation, it’s not easy to pick whom.

But above all, once I figure out where my principles should place me, I have no idea to whom I should reach out with my desire for action. Domestic issues have that advantage – maybe I take to the streets, or organize, or write some letters. But where international affairs are concerned, it is leaders and multilateral agencies that pull the strings. Even if we wanted to help the girls in Nigeria, ultimately, we have to count on the Nigerian government to take that action – and how is that working out?

I will bring up one other article that has been circulating recently: “We’re Missing the Story” in the New York Times. It is actually a preview for an upcoming book (which in itself is a strong statement about the market dynamics underpinning journalistic articles). The author Anjan Sundaram makes the point that international news reporting is declining. He laments that foreign correspondents keep their distance in cushy hotels and rarely get the real story. He says he really tried to get real story by living as the Congolese did. Yet, that doesn’t add up – if the content was of local interest and required living amongst the Congolese, then why not just hire a Congolese reporter? And if the information is meant for an international audience, are we surprised that audience would focus on topics that pull them in for their own reasons?

Sundaram switches to an economic argument: there is money for international reporting, he says, it’s just allocated elsewhere. But if you make that kind of argument, then you have to acknowledge that these news outlets are businesses, and if the audience does not see a need or use for Congolese electoral politics, then naturally, the supply will be squeezed. Because what can an American citizen really do about Congolese politics? (Nothing, I hope.) Nor will they see the aftermath, because they won’t have to live under the elected official.

And that’s what it comes back to. Empower people with the news, we say. Inform and engage, we say. But to do what? We need to be clearer about pathways toward solutions so people can use the information we throw at them.

At the end of the day, it’s like learning a foreign language, if I don’t see the need for me to actually use it, there’s little chance I will retain what I learn, so why would I bother sticking with it?

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11
Jun
14

why i might watch the 2014 world cup

june 11, 2014

I am a tireless football-lover, so I’ll talk about it any way I can. I’ll happily trot out the psycho-cultural stereotypes to pontificate why the Dutch will lose again, ready some Kleenex (or mugs) for the Brits and their post-Empire tears, wiggle my hips to imitate wiry South American dribblers. My credentials include two World Cups and my brother who was ball boy for the German team in 1994’s opening match. But the World Cup that is starting tomorrow?

Enh.

If you ask me why I was going to tune to this year’s edition in Brazil, I would say it’s because I am a consistent football fan. Now there’s an adjective to stir passions – “consistent.”

Having watched more and more football in the last couple years, and having learned more about economics, human rights issues, and international politics, I realized the sport itself – the on-field product – has shrunk into the least compelling part of the tournament.

Maybe that’s the stage this romance was always supposed to reach. For me, it started in 1986 when I was living in Hong Kong. I remember unfurling a sleeping bag at the foot of my parents’ bed so I could wake early each morning to flip on the TV. The tournament was half a world away in Mexico so I would watch with my dad while he dressed for work. That tournament was about one player: Diego Maradona. He quickly attained hero status with me. With a thrill, I thought, my tie-clad dad and this Argentine, the only one I knew, both were 5’5”. And both men had black hair – but that is definitely where the similarities ended.

In that tournament, I also remember a game of outrageous skill played between Brazil and France. I remember all the different flags and wondering why Italy wore blue. But always, Diego Diego Diego. Those baby blue and white stripes. The mediocre team around him and Maradona’s singular brilliance – which only stood out more for the contrast. I thought, some day I, too, could be 5’5”.

But that kind of devotion couldn’t last. My parents wanted their floor space back.

Since then I’ve discovered that I remember each tournament according to where I am in life, and maybe there is something to that. Sure, there is drama with goals and heroes and scapegoats – there has to be a winner every four years, after all. But something melds the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups in my mind into one thick gray personality. In terms of the football, the drama, and, most importantly (or vaguely), the feel, there’s a worn selfsameness that makes those three. So what happened?

On my side, it’s probably life-changes and increased awareness. In 2002, I had just graduated from college and was too impoverished financially and socially to transform the games into an event. I watched broadcasts on Spanish-language channels at home alone before waiting tables in the evening. In 2006, I had both of those missing cards: income and a diverse social group. The result was morning revelry at a local bar with many friends and more depressed Brits, my photo in the paper (online version), and a culminating event where we served fresh crepes and Spaghetti-O’s in martini glasses to celebrate the finalists. As an overall package, I had the most fun with the 2006 tourney.

But 2006 was also when my worldview started to broaden. I worked for the next two years interviewing political asylum seekers. I would then spend four years living and working in East Africa on human rights-focused aid projects while launching a radio show about life in Burundi. I would attend the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. In the last couple years, I pursued Master’s degrees at Columbia in journalism and international affairs. And it would not be a stretch to say those experiences have ruined the World Cup for me – yes, including my attendance at the 2010 tournament.

For that tournament, I flew down from Burundi to South Africa to watch some games with my brother and my dad. It was great – it was like old times attending sports events in Chicago. And then I realized – that’s exactly what it felt like. Crowds filling up fast food joints before the game (we went to a KFC). Stadia hunkered in urban settings like Chicago. And the corporate sponsors. Most of all, that’s what made it feel like a typical commercial mainstream sporting experience. The sponsors were the same you find anywhere, like this (with a white picket fence!):

2010WorldCup_Budweiser

And they mandated that only certain foods could be sold or certain brands advertised, in effect, implying that only certain fans could attend to bankroll all this glitz. So that whole part about hosting the tournament in a brand new continent? New cultures, new fans, new foods, new everything? Marketing tools, no more.

Football has become, to me, a true commodity. The harder question was who gets to consume it? And more importantly, who or what is consumed?

This is what the past few years have taught me: There are issues larger than the game but they influence the outcomes disproportionately. Economics, human rights, inequalities – these things all matter.

Greed is winning over the game’s soul, says Nick Hornby, as players, agents, gamblers, and networks see gold. Owners smash and grab revenues and bribes (No hands, remember? It’s football.). It’s about rotten institutions run by rotten men. It’s become a shady shady enterprise where articles like this Economist piece deploy business-speak to describe FIFA, the football governing body (interestingly, the article’s print edition was “Beautiful Game, Ugly Business,” but online it’s now “Ugly Politics.”) We talk about sex workers, mostly young women, preparing for the spike in demand for their services, right alongside the young men preparing for the games – as if those are the respective roles. To some, they might be. And, most of all, it’s about inertia that helps perpetuate these problems.

The game feels that way, too. It’s not that there isn’t delicious football on offer. But since the late 90’s, European football has received so much coverage, from domestic leagues and tournaments to the Champions’ League, there are few major discoveries. Sports medicine ensures we watch the same players for at least a decade, so we’ve come to know every star intimately. Some surprises like North Korea’s promising start in 2010 gloss over the fact that most of their players played abroad in Europe and in Japan. The question was no longer whether we would be dazzled by new stars and playing styles but whether those brand names would meet expectations.

In this tournament, the sporting worries are already clear: too many injured players. Fatigue after long domestic seasons – by players and fans. Scorching humid conditions. The on-field product turn out kind of bland.

But all of that ignores the mass Brazilian opposition raging against the tournament for this extravagance that only enriches sponsors. Brazilians launch protests daily, some violent, some creative. They demand education and public investment, not just international prestige.

So when the cameras zoom out to a shot of the stadium and the surrounding bustle, I’ll be looking in the corners of the cityscape, wondering what happening in those margins. Sure, I’ll watch the games and what happens on those pretty manicured fields, but my thoughts may turn elsewhere between passes. I never thought I would say this, but football may have become a bit boring.

 

Oh, and Argentina will win.

 

06
Aug
13

there needs to be an app for that

August 6, 2013

My article about mobile technologies assisting the fight against sexual violence in conflict zones ran in the Global Post a couple days ago. Here are a couple links that I wanted to attach to the article to give it more context.

First, about Syria, there have been two major features of the international community’s (lack of) action that I wanted to highlight: political gridlock and weak leadership. These factors exacerbate or even sustain the ongoing violence against civilians, largely committed by the ruling regime.

On the political gridlock: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=42513

On failed leadership: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/07/2013717163831228330.html

The other two links elaborate on the “problematic” U.N. mission in the Congo with specific case examples. The second article cites a damning case of the U.N. not even aware of a mass atrocity 2 km from its base, highlighting a total disconnect from the community it purports to protect.

Peacekeepers gone wild in the DRC: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/second-reading/peacekeepers-gone-wild-how-much-more-abuse-will-the-un-ignore-in-congo/article4462151/

Report of mass rape near U.N. base: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2010/08/201082402724259229.html

I think it’s important to emphasize my article for the Global Post is not a technology-will-save-us-all piece. Rather, this seems a case where technology can and must come in to compensate for larger institutional failures. Ironically, technology could potentially provoke those institutions to act, as with documentation of rights abuses, but its nature as a citizen-driven informal method also guarantees it will encounter major obstacles before it can considered useful to those institutions, either as data or evidence. The fight against sexual violence, especially in conflict zones, can use all the tools and ingenuity it can find, but really, civilians shouldn’t have to resort to that, and agencies like U.N. bodies should consider bolder, even forceful approaches if it wants to really “fight” sexual violence. Smartphones have so many less productive applications that people should be enjoying.

25
Jan
11

jefferson mok in the congo

One of our beneficiaries in the Congo was pregnant and decided the best way to show her gratitude for our help was to name her child after one of us: if it was a boy, he would be Jefferson Mok, if a girl, Molly Firkaly, my colleague. First name, last name – the whole deal, there was no family name to pass on. Well, guess what? It’s a boy!

Jefferson Mok with Jefferson Mok - the Original meets the New.

I even have the birth certificate to prove it – just no scanner to scan it. Some expats have a child in the Congo; probably a lot fewer are a child in the Congo.

16
Jan
11

border crossing series, pt. 389

13 January, 2011, Burundi/DRC Border at Kamivira

This region plays tricks on my concept of time. Increments of fifteen and thirty minutes feel qualitatively the same. I am continuously calculating how much time I need to accomplish a task and then reducing those calculations little by little while still telling myself that the task can be accomplished. It’s like I believe infinitely in the possible, in being able to meet deadlines, reach a destination, mediate an argument, no matter the reality of my circumstances. Often, this thinking is endlessly optimistic, even more often it is abetted by a lack of structure that makes those gaps exploitable; everything is negotiable. At the highest levels, you might call it corruption, but it’s a spectrum; at the lowest levels, it’s called being resourceful or “getting shit done.”

So on my colleague, Molly’s last visit to Uvira on the other side of the border with Burundi on Lake Tanganyika, we had planned to head back to Burundi at 5:30 p.m. Goodbyes, handshakes, hugs and photo-taking mean we actually left at 5:46. And suddenly, even by my calculations, it strikes me that it was a ridiculous amount of time to drive back out of the NGO quarter, weave our way through town, connect to the road that leads to the border, get our passports stamped and cross no-man’s land back to the Burundi side – this was 14 minutes after all, not 15; the whole process usually takes about an hour. Any one of those parts could take at least 20 minutes. And even though there were several announcements during the year with much fanfare about the relaxing of border regulations and longer opening times, we checked and found out the border still closes at 6 p.m. There might be no negotiating on that point, I think, which then might lead to serious “negotiatin’.” Belt, ignition, lights, gas!

The drive is a blur – a rambling, muddy, splashy “pole pole!” blur. I’m one hand on the horn the whole time, the other all a-flickin’ the brights, spinning the wheel, eyes scanning for every possible danger. Bicycles, motorcycles, carts, policemen, UN vehicles, trucks, buses – who knew there would be rush hour in Uvira!

It is exactly 14 minutes when we crossed the first gate into the Congolese immigration section. Beyond the second gate is no-man’s land, the strip of fertile emptiness that divides Burundi and the Congo in our little corner of the world, and beyond that, the gate back to Burundi. Home. We are still in our car and it looks like we have just entered the parking lot from Hell. The last herd of vehicles crossing back after a day of commerce in Burundi has spilled over from the other side. The cars  and buses are so solidly arrayed, there’s only enough room for humans to wriggle by. I find a narrow path for the car but there’s no room to park the car to the side and walk to the row of immigration offices on our right. At the same time, I am scheming, thinking of things to say to shorten the immigration process. I’m amazed I even think this is possible, and I feel a bit guilty but I couldn’t worry about that then; this is the context in which I live and work.

I haven’t rolled up ten meters when all of a sudden I hear, “Jefferson, traverse directement le frontier!” This is like “Advance to Go” in Monopoly, but better. Skip everything and just go. At an international border. I turn my head in time to see my old friend and immigration officer, Fazuli, both arms stretched out toward Burundi, pointing frantically, face full of concern. He’s hatless, has no time for another word and runs off somewhere. It’s just chaos. I do what he says and drive right up to the second gate. An incoming car gets the gate up and just as I’m about to blow through to the other side, a sharp woman’s voice yells at me to stop. I step on the brakes. Another immigration officer. The game is up; she scolds me and demands our documents. Surely, she is going to take them to the immigration office to log by hand and then stamp. “Immigration Procedures – Lose 15 Minutes. Go back three spaces and spend the night in Uvira.” This would be a disastrous result because Molly leaves Burundi for good the next day and there is a ton of wrap-up she needs to do. The loss of an evening and morning would derail the entire process. So it is pure honey-colored joy when the officer glances at our passports, doesn’t even try with my inch-thick document and hands them back to us with a smile. I shake her hand at the same time I step on the gas. We’re off! Home!

Home. But they locked the door. Figuratively. More accurately, they tied the string. When they tie a string across an opening, like a bridge, that’s the warning – the way is closed. In this case, some random non-uniformed person unties it for us to pass. We get on the short narrow metal bridge and travel the 20 meters across only to be halted by a real gate. The officer manning the gate is in a blue beret and matching poncho and he is doing his best to nonchalantly ignore us. He would turn away, stare briefly past our car and then look at the ground again. Another officer, a big fella, in light blue shirt sleeves has come out of the immigration office to watch. I haven’t been in a situation quite like this one. Sort of a half-hearted farce coupled with willful inactivity. Something needed to give. I hop out of the car, and ask Molly to move to the driver’s side, just in case.

Poncho quickly moves toward me and gives me a firm “The border is closed, you can’t cross, etc. etc.” I don’t really hear him because I can quickly see he’s not the problem. Poncho takes his orders from the Big Guy. I ignore Poncho, swing my legs over the gate and head straight toward Mr. Big.

I start walking toward the large officer with all the deliberateness of someone approaching a hibernating bear. In a steady straight line, concentrating. Except, he’s not hibernating – he’s in full-blooded anger mode, yelling at me to turn the car back before I’m even within 10 meters of him. I get closer. For some reason, I believe if I can get near enough to this raging hulk, I can explain to him exactly why we have to cross and he would listen. At this point, I have to believe in something, I tell myself. Now in front of the still blustering officer, I imagine myself standing in front of a roaring lion, fangs bared – probably not open to reasoned dialogue. I wonder if he is going to eat me.

“TURN AROUND!!! YOU ARE NOT ENTERING THE COUNTRY! YOU WILL TURN AROUND AND LEAVE RIGHT NOW! RIGHT NOW!!!”

But it’s all a show right? A show of authority, a show of power, a show. So I can show no weakness, no uncertainty, no grammatical errors, and to an extent, no emotion: no sarcasm, no indignation, no fear.

I direct a string of soothing declarations at him. “We are aid workers. We were told to cross the border. My colleague needs to catch a flight (tomorrow). I understand we are a minute late. That is why I got out of the car to speak with you. I don’t understand your anger.”

The point is not content – like so many things in this region, it’s about style, appearance. By this point, his objections were verging on the bizarre.

“YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO COME BACK! WHY DID YOU LEAVE THE COUNTRY?”

What? Why I left has nothing to do with me coming back. It’s not a ‘why’ issue. I say, “You are right – I should have never crossed the border!” It’s turning into a farce, and it would have, except at that moment as the conversation was descending into nonsense, we both catch a surreal sight in our peripheral vision. Slowly, as if it were the most normal and cordial thing, Poncho gently lifts the gate and Molly guides the vehicle at a slow soft roll in front of the immigration office.

We’re both gawking with our eyes, Mr. Big and me, but our mouths are still churning out bullshit. I think it’s at that moment that he realizes he has lost. Somehow, he loses his communication authority over Poncho who, perhaps in a moment of civility or weakness, decides to let Molly just enter. I thought they had worked this scheme out, but whatever, we are back and there is no point in delaying the inevitable. Mr. Big thinks the same, grabs our passports and stalks off into the immigration office. I join him after a few moments and find Mr. Big at his desk in the now very dark office. (Electricity at an international border post? Nope!). He is holding his cell phone up as a light to the passport registry to fill it out. “Take,” he says and I hold up the light. I’m amazed to see my hand trembling a little. No one likes getting yelled at, no matter how calm you try to be. I close my eyes and tell my hand to stop. I reopen my eyes and the hand isn’t shaking anymore – I think – it’s too dark to tell. When the officer is done recording our info, he folds up the passports and hands them to me with a faint smile. We shake hands. The joining of hands – symbolic applause. The show is over.

I take our passports back and move back to the car. I love their weight in my hand.
In the last three years, I have added pages to my passport three times, the last time incurring a stern warning that I would have to get a brand new passport next time. My passport has graduated from being a pass’port’ to being a pass’book’. “Is that your passport in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” Well, both.

I am still moved by the “Welcome Home” the U.S. immigration officer inevitably offers before spending several moments locating a spot to stamp my passport. I still want to respond with a robust “Thanks!” but now I feel guilty, like I can see the doubt in their eyes. Welcome home, they say (pause, looks at all the stamps), but what the heck were you doing abroad?

It’s a somewhat cliché device, but after all the trips to the Congo, each one memorable and recorded with a stamp, the one I’ll never forget is the one I didn’t get.

A part of me is still there.

Officially.

05
Aug
10

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.

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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.”

02
Aug
10

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.

“IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, CALL +254…”

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.”