Author: Guardian Africa Network

Part war crimes trial, part performance art: tribunal investigates Congo conflict

People displaced by fighting between the Congolese army and M23 rebels in Bunagana in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, make their way home. (Pic: Reuters)
October 31 2013: People displaced by fighting between the Congolese army and M23 rebels in Bunagana in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, make their way home. (Pic: Reuters)

Theatre director brings together mining companies, government officials and local residents to try to unravel one of the world’s most complicated wars.

No one knows exactly how many people have died in the past two decades in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but Milo Rau, a Swiss theatre director and journalist, puts the figure at six million.

No one is quite sure why conflict has raged either, thanks to the labyrinthine complexity of the region: the alphabet soup of armed groups, the seeming lack of ideology and the shadowy involvement of neighbouring countries and multinational corporations.

But Rau is determined to unravel at least some of these tangled threads. On May 29, he will begin staging an unprecedented event – part political inquiry, part verbatim theatre – in eastern Congo itself, hearing evidence from players on all sides of the ongoing tragedy.

“There are no huge battles, there is no Stalingrad,” he says, explaining why Congo defies the single story that headline writers crave.

“Instead you have massacres – like the one in Mutarule in which 35 people died last year – but they happen every day and, after 20 years, you have six million people dead and you don’t even have a trial. Through the tribunal we hope to simplify it and give it a human face.”

Costing 900 000 euros (£643,969), The Congo Tribunal will take place across six days starting on May 29, first in Bukavu, then later in June in Berlin, where in the 19th century the colonialist empires infamously gathered in a “scramble” to carve up Africa.

‘Nothing has changed’

It took a year to put together a “cast”, including Congolese government and opposition politicians, military officers and rebels, UN and World Bank mandarins and major mining companies, as well as ordinary Congolese citizens, philosophers, economists and lawyers who will all appear before an international jury.

Rau, 38, is determined that it will not merely be an exercise in western corporation-bashing, and should differ from the Russell Tribunals on Vietnam and Palestine – organised by Nobel-prize winning philosopher Bertrand Russell, and hosted by Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1960s.

“It’s not only leftwing people,” he continues, speaking from Bukavu via Skype. “We have an advocate of a huge mining company and an advocate of the government. We also try to see it from the neoliberal side. It’s necessary to have these minerals to produce the computers we’re talking on. But the most important people are the miners and the citizens to tell what has happened.”

Among these is Théophile Gakinz, a pastor from Bukavu. “The resources are badly divided,” he told Rau’s researchers. “A small group of people takes it all. The rest struggles in misery.”

The tribunal will grapple with the region’s ethnic, political and economic dividing lines. It will look at the implications of assimilating former rebels into the Congolese government army, whether the UN and NGOs in the region have become a “peacekeeping industry”, and what impact, if any, American legislation against conflict minerals has had on the ground.

Prince Kihangi, a civil society activist who will be on the jury in Bukavu, said: “The US wants to appear righteous to the rest of the world. Officially they say, hey, we need a law that shows the world that we impose a ban. That we are not involved in this mafia. But because at the same time we need those minerals we must find other ways.

“For us, all these initiatives are fit for nothing. Absolutely worthless. Nothing has changed.”

The investigations

This weekend the tribunal will first hear evidence about three local cases. One concerns the discovery of cassiterite [tin ore] on a hill in Bisie in 2002 that attracted numerous armed groups as well as the Congolese army, who walked away with most of the profits. Four years later a company acquired an exploration licence for the mine from the government, which led to an open conflict with the miners on the site.

A key question for the tribunal will be: “Does the industrial mining of the raw materials in Bisie contribute to the security and economical development of the region, or are the foreign mining companies the only ones who profit?”

The second case examines what happened when a Canadian company bought a gold mining licence and wanted the local population to be relocated, causing conflict.

“Has Banro profited from the political instability during the war in order to plunder the natural resources of eastern Congo, or are they pioneers of the industrialisation of the region?”

Peter Mugisho, a local activist, says in a promotional video for the tribunal: “After the re-localisation they find themselves in a situation with no access to running water, no access to health services and no access to food. This is a method to exterminate the population.”

The final case concerns a massacre in the village of Mutarule in June last year, resulting in 35 deaths. Although local authorities had repeatedly warned about increasing insecurity in the region, neither the nearby UN peacekeeping mission nor the Congolese army prevented the atrocity.

“Key question: Is there no end to the insecurity in eastern Congo because too many local and international players are involved in the numerous conflicts and profit from them, or do they in fact prevent something even worse?”

‘It’s up to us to protect ourselves’

The tribunal – backed by sponsors including the German and Swiss culture ministries – moves to Berlin from 26 to 28 June, where it will examine the involvement of the European Union, the World Bank, the international community and multinational corporations.

It will be filmed and turned into a documentary that will go on general release next year after a premiere at the Tata Raphael Stadium in Kinshasa – where heavyweight boxers Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fought the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974.

The project is a natural successor to Rau’s masterpiece Hate Radio, which reconstructs the broadcasting of a Rwandan radio station that combined pop music with propaganda that fuelled the 1994 genocide.

Sylvestre Bisimwa, chief investigator at the Bukavu hearings, says on the video: “People say to themselves: the state doesn’t protect us. It’s up to us to protect ourselves.

“The victims are left with their pain. They carry their burden alone,” he said.

“This tribunal will lead to a totally neutral and independent prosecution, and will form a base to fight exemption from punishment in Congo.”

David Smith for the Guardian

One year on, jailed Ethiopian bloggers are still awaiting trial

(Pic: Flickr / OER Africa )
(Pic: Flickr / OER Africa )

In 2012, nine Ethiopian men and women came together to create a blogging collective known as Zone 9. In an autocratic country rife with political corruption and where state-run media is utterly dominant, this was a bold move.

Writing in both English and Amharic, the bloggers covered some of the country’s most pressing social and economic issues, giving life to stories all but absent from local media.

Zone 9 believed it was imperative to speak publicly about the national constitution, which claims to protect freedom of expression and the right of assembly, and which demands elections every five years. The bloggers thought that if citizens could hold their government accountable through a free press, the country’s civic fabric could become stronger. Citizens could have some say in how the country was run.

On April 25 2014, the writers were taken from their homes and detained by police. After 11 weeks behind bars, they were charged under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism laws.

Nothing new
Ethiopia currently ranks fourth on a list of the world’s most censored countries, according to a Committee to Protect Journalists report released [last] week.

In the run-up to elections in May, the report found that the government had filed lawsuits accusing six publications of “encouraging terrorism”, forcing 16 journalists to flee into exile, while the sole internet provider, Ethio Telecom, stand accused of routinely suspending critical news websites.

This is nothing new: over the last 24 years the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has fine-tuned its social and political control, whilst simultaneously being credited by western governments for transforming the once poverty-stricken country into a rising, dynamic and stable one.

They weren’t the first. A series of Ethiopia’s successive and diametrically opposed regimes – from the military regime under Mengistu Haile Mariam (ousted in 1991) and the imperial rule under Haile Selassie before him – have had one thing in common: all have jailed and killed opposition activists, journalists and dissidents.

The Zone 9 name is in part inspired by this history. Kality, a prison on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, is divided into eight different zones, and it’s the last which has gained infamy – zone eight – home to journalists, human rights activists and dissidents.

Endalk Chala, one of the three Zone 9ers who remains free today, said that when the group formed “we decided to create a blog for the proverbial prison in which all Ethiopians live: this is Zone 9.”

The Ethiopian government accuses the bloggers of attempting to “overthrow, modify or suspend the Federal or State Constitution; by violence, threats, or conspiracy”.

The bloggers are expected to face trial later this year. If convicted, all of them face a minimum of eight years in prison.

Ethiopia is the beneficiary of significant flows of foreign military and humanitarian aid, largely intended to bolster and maintain the country as a security stronghold in the Horn of Africa, where levels of ethnic tension, corruption and crime are high.

With a genuine terror threat emanating from neighbouring Somalia, the government has developed sweeping anti-terrorism laws with the blessing of the international governments. But these laws are frequently used to suppress any hint of dissent within its own population.

From late 2005 until 2012 there were no major public demonstrations from the political opposition. There was also little critique: Ethiopia does not have a single independent daily newspaper, only a handful of state-sanctioned FM radio stations, and one government television station.

After the 2005 national elections, the regime banned opposition groups and labour unions, including religious groups, and imposed state control over their websites.

After the following 2010 election, where the government claimed to have won 99.9% of seats in parliament, the regime took control of all of the country’s major institutions including the courts, the media, mosques, churches, schools and universities. By 2012, the internet became the sole option for public communications and discourse.

‘Freedom of expression is considered immoral’

In 2013 amidst a climate of mounting intimidation and surveillance the Zone 9ers let their blog go quiet for six months.

They were unnerved by the treatment of award-winning journalists such as Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and Wubeshet Taye who had been, along with nine others, sentenced to between eight and 18 years in prison.

All had written columns criticising the anti-terrorism laws, the very same legislation they were later charged with violating.

But in 2014 the bloggers decided they could not remain quiet any longer. They published a letter explaining their silence.

“Last time we published a piece on our collective blog was about six months ago,” they wrote. “We know that Ethiopia is a country where freedom of expression is effectively repressed … Our rulers consider freedom of expression as something immoral.”

“When we became quiet, we thought we would be at least forgotten.” But they weren’t.

On April 25, just a week after posting the letter on Facebook, six members of the blogging team and three journalists apparently “affiliated” with them were arrested.

One year on they still await trial. The charge sheet accuses the bloggers of having received training in communication encryption in Security-in-a-Box – a digital security toolkit to help human rights groups protect themselves from surveillance, which is widely available online.

It also highlights their efforts in organising social media campaigns to engage more Ethiopians in conversations about human rights and national law.

In a letter about his experiences in prison and his hopes for the future, imprisoned blogger Natnael Feleke recently wrote: “To be honest, how much time I will be spending in prison is not the most pressing issue on my mind right now. Rather, I am worried about what will happen unless the international community assumes a firm stance on Ethiopia, demands progress with democratisation, and halts the millions of dollars pouring the regime’s way.”

“But ultimately,” Feleke writes, ‘it is the willingness to suffer and sacrifice [for our cause]’, in the words of Nelson Mandela, that will determine our fate.”

Ellery Roberts Biddle and Endalk Chala for Global Voices, in collaboration with the Guardian Africa network

#147notjustanumber: Humanising the victims of Kenya’s Garissa attack

People hold roses and wooden crosses at freedom corner in Uhuru Park during a candlelight vigil in Nairobi on the final day of mourning for the 148 people killed on April 2 by Somalia's al-Shabab Islamists. (Pic: AFP)
People hold roses and wooden crosses at freedom corner in Uhuru Park during a candlelight vigil in Nairobi on the final day of mourning for the 148 people killed on April 2 by Somalia’s al-Shabab Islamists. (Pic: AFP)

Determined that the students killed in the terror attacks in Garissa not be reduced to a number, a Kenyan social media campaign has set out to tell the story of each individual victim.

Using the hashtag #147notjustanumber and #theyhavenames, friends and families of the victims, journalists and others on Twitter have begun to honour the lives of those who died – sharing the photographs, names, ages and character portraits as the details become available.

Each tweet paints a powerful portrait of loss.

They include tributes to Leah N Wanfula, who at 21 was the first of nine siblings to go to university. There’s Gideon Kirui, 22, whose entire family saved up for him to continue his education; and Selpher Wandia, 21, who was studying to become a teacher.

They record small details that will be remembered by those closest: Beatrice Njeri Thinwa, 20, was a fan of Kenny Rogers and Mildred Yondo loved theatre, music and mangoes.

Official reports say that 148 people died when al-Shabaab gun men stormed a university in eastern Kenya seeking out Christians last week. Most were aged between 19 and 23. Some of the victims honoured on Twitter were also featured in Kenyan national newspaper the Daily Nation on Monday.

Ory Okolloh Mwangi, also know as @KenyanPundit, started the campaign on Sunday before the official death toll had been raised to 148.

She told the Wall Street Journal that the initiative was “an effort to humanise victims of terror”. According to social media monitor Topsy, the hashtag #147notjustanumber has been mentioned 52 000 times so far.

In an effort to make sure each student is honoured a public Google document has been created “to ensure we never forget the names of victims of internal and external acts of mass violence”. It also contains tabs for other al-Shabab victims, including the ones on Mandera Quarry in 2014 and the Westgate shopping mall in 2013.

Coordinated by a Kenyan blogger known as Owaahh, the document is acting as an open-source database. The public are asked to add any information they have about the Garissa students, including quotes from family members and personal Facebook pages.

Owaahh’s team is also asking for links to source and verify the information collected. It currently lists the details of 71 victims, not all of them are verified.

Kenyans on social media have also started to share details of a vigil “to remember and mourn the Kenyans who lost their lives”, which will be held in Uhuru Park, Nairobi. People have been asked to volunteer at the event and those attending to bring handwritten tributes.

Robert Mugabe: Man of the people?

Robert Mugabe (Pic: AFP)
Robert Mugabe (Pic: AFP)

Africa’s leaders have appointed Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe to the largely ceremonial role of chairman of the 54-state African Union.

Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, is still respected by many for leading his country to independence from Britain. But critics believe the ‘president for life’ is out of touch with the people the African Union claims to represent.

Age is not a factor is the selection process for position for chairman of the Africa Union, but Africa is the world’s youngest continent, and at 90 years-old, Mugabe is among the estimated 5% of Africans who manage to live past their sixtieth birthday. In 2012, 85% of the population was under the age of 45, and life expectancy across the continent was 58 years.

Wealth Mugabe’s government has been widely blamed for mismanaging Zimbabwe’s economy, plunging the country into desperate times. Though the extent of his personal wealth is not known, his penchant for expensive and “insensitive” parties is well documented. Lavish celebrations for the leader’s 90th birthday were said to have cost Zimbabwe taxpayers $1m, despite around 70% of the population living in poverty.

Rights The African Union’s main objectives include the promotion of good governance, democracy and human rights. Under Mugabe’s rule, Zimbabwe has consistently ranked as one of the worst countries in the world for civil liberties. “The police use outdated and abusive laws to violate basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly…” according to the Human Rights Watch 2015 World Report. “There has been no progress toward justice for human rights abuses and past political violence.”

Democracy Africa is home to half of the world’s longest serving leaders, including Mugabe, who was sworn in as Zimbabwe’s president for the seventh time in 2013. Protests against veteran leaders have recently flared in Democratic Republic of Congo and Burkina Faso, when president Blaise Compaore was forced to step down after a failed attempt to extend his 27-year rule. Zimbabwe’s first lady, Grace Mugabe, has indicated she may try to succeed her husband as leader one day.

Resources In his acceptance speech for his new role as chairman, Mugabe spoke of the need to guard Africa’s resources against foreign exploitation. Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF party was accused of siphoning millions of dollars in profits from state-owned diamond mines to finance Mugabe’s re-election campaign in 2013. Officials deny the claims.

Women’s empowerment is the theme of the African Union summit being held in Addis Ababa. In an interview with Voice of America, Mugabe said it is “not possible that women can be at par with men.” It was unclear whether he was endorsing the status quo, or lamenting the lack of opportunities for African women. Either way, in a continent where gender discrimination remains widespread, it’s not the best choice of words.

Conflict Another of the African Union’s vows is to promote peace and stability across the continent. Mugabe and his associates are subject to EU and US sanctions following Zanu-PF’s victories in the 2002 and 2008 elections, which were marred by allegations of vote-rigging, violence and intimidation. Mugabe denies any wrongdoing, and accuses the west of trying to encourage regime change.

Families left haunted by Liberia’s Ebola crematorium

Bystanders watch as a suspected Ebola victim waits to be transported from Devils Hole North, west of Freetown. (Pic: Reuters)
Bystanders watch as a suspected Ebola victim waits to be transported from Devils Hole North, west of Freetown. (Pic: Reuters)

Brian Lomax (26) sleeps on a pile of bones – the remains of cremated Ebola victims whose relatives may never get the chance to collect.

He was hounded out of his community by neighbours who feared his work at the Margibi crematorium in Boys Town, Lower Margibi county, was helping to spread the disease rather than contain it. This is the only place he has left to go.

Lomax is just one of many Liberians whose lives have been altered by the cremations at Margibi, which came to an end in December after a burial site was found for new victims.

For authorities and health workers, who believe they are now beating back the virus, the cremations – an alien and unwelcome practice in Liberia – were a successful measure that helped contain the disease.

“Cremation is not our culture. It was due to necessity that we had to cremate people, but it worked very well,” said Tolbert Nyensuwah, head of the government’s Ebola task force.

However, over the past four months, waves of protests have taken place against it. Those who worked at the facility are left facing stigma, and the relatives of those who were cremated have no graves for their loved ones.

Liberia was the country hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak, which has now claimed over 8 500 lives. In the midst of the crisis, disposing of the bodies of victims quickly and safely had been, and remains, paramount, as the bodily fluids from the corpses can still transmit the virus.

By August last year, Liberia’s government was struggling to keep up with the rising death toll. Underpaid, under-equipped and overworked burial workers couldn’t cope. When teams clad in space-man like protective suits came to collect victims, terrified residents often chased them out.

‘Nights of terror’
When members of Margibi county’s Indian community, which ran the Margibi crematorium 50 miles from the capital, offered to help, it seemed like an obvious solution. A group of Liberians were quickly taught how to carry out the Indian cremation method to dispose of the bodies.

Sometimes up to a hundred bodies were burned at once. Members of the community living nearby reported huge explosions as it burned with smoke rising through the air. Disturbed by the process, they called it ‘nights of terror’.

The burial process and honouring deceased relatives is an important tradition in Liberia, and often involves touching the body of the deceased. On decoration days, crowds visit cemeteries to clean and decorate the graves of relatives. The cremations, which were often rushed and en masse, left many relatives alienated, and often unable to locate and identify the remains of their loved ones.

Lomax, a student who had never worked in a crematorium before, was one of those who volunteered to work at the crematorium. “[We] opted for it because we had to do a service to the country because no one wanted to do such a work,” Lomax said.

“When they [the government] got here, they put us together and told us that this issue was an emergency issue, so we did not discuss anything with them,” he said. “All of a sudden they started the method that the Indian people taught them. They started training us on the method to carry out the cremation.”

The process of cremation burns corpses, but the bones then have to be ground to a powder afterwards – a stage that was neglected in the Margibi crematorium.

“All these containers are filled with human bones and because we have nowhere to go, we sleep with the bones [inside this] fence,” Lomax said, pointing to a row of steel drums which he and his colleagues were placing wooden planks over to form makeshift beds every night.

In August 2014 President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf decreed that the bodies of Ebola victims be cremated: “this measure is intended to avoid tampering with the dead and contaminating water sources”, she said.

But promises that the ashes of Ebola victims would be handled respectfully and returned to family members quickly unraveled. The overwhelmed workers at Margibi didn’t know what to do. Some days, dozens of corpses arrived. Hundreds are thought to have been cremated at the site between August and December.

“This is the largest altar where we burned 145 bodies. The ashes were too much, and we had nowhere to put them. [Back] then we had no knowledge of bringing in drums,” Lomax explained, referring to the steel drums brought in by the government when they decided to preserve the ashes.

“So we just wasted [dumped] it in these holes. Later they decided that we use the drums,” he said. For those whose bones and ashes could not make it into the zinc containers, their bones are all dumped in a pit resembling a mass grave.

“This is how people who died from this deadly disease were treated here,” said Lomax.

Bones lie waiting to be claimed
The Boys Town community called for all cremations to stop, and eventually a new burial ground was found on Disco Hill, also in Margibi County, where Ebola victims will be interred from now on.

Bone fragments are seen in a barrel of the cremated remains of Ebola virus victims in Boys Town on January 9 2015. (Pic: Reuters)
Bone fragments are seen in a barrel of the cremated remains of Ebola virus victims in Boys Town on January 9 2015. (Pic: Reuters)

The bones now sit in silent rows, unmarked for any relatives who might want to claim them back. The only clue to the identity of those who remains are stored inside are the dates scrawled on the side of each container.

Lomax has been outcast for his work at Margibi, believed to be the country’s only crematorium for Ebola victims.

“My father has his house right behind here but he told the children I shouldn’t go there because I am working here and burning Ebola bodies. He said he does not want me to carry the virus to his house,” he said quietly.

Just over a month ago, their bosses stopped coming to work and he worries about money. He and his colleagues fear they may never reintegrate into society.

“For the past three weeks we have not seen our bosses. After all that we have done, at least we should have been settled [paid].”

Tibelrosa Tarponweh, a local resident, called for counselling services to “ be provided to members of the community, including a select few that were hired without proper guidance to perform such an abnormal task.” He said the lack of training for Lomax and his colleagues had led to a “sloppy and harmful” process.

He called for the government “to secure and preserve the now-defunct crematorium for use as a shrine in memory of our fallen compatriots.”

Wade Williams and Monica Mark for the Guardian Africa Network