Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thoughts on Mumbai from Sydney

I woke up today to blue skies in Sydney and rolled out of bed with a receive-and-transmit section for my new Australia book already in my head. After a bit of writing, I logged on to the internet to find that unspeakable horror had been visited upon Bombay, known better known as Mumbai, while I slept, with places that I knew intimately targeted in an apparently tightly-coordinated series of terrorist attacks that at this writing have killed at least 80 people.

I lived in Mumbai - which I always preferred to call Bombay - for the first few months of 2007, and became quite fascinated the city, which was at once engaging intellectually and visually even as its pollution was often wretched for the health and the grinding poverty on display often brutal to the soul. Yet I have such fond memories of my walks around my old neighborhood of Colaba, of the chai I would have at a Parsi café in the Fort Area, with it great book stalls, and of strolling through the always-crowded Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus) as I would head to visit friends out in Bandra, or to the Dharavi slum for reporting work. Despite my keen awareness of the inequalities in India, and the not-infrequent scapegoating of religious and ethnic minorities that the chauvinistic Hindu right often engages in, I was never made to feel anything less than welcome there, and was greeted with great warmth and hospitality by my friends in the city.

And now I read that the Taj Mahal hotel, which I frequently walked by and in whose lobby I paused from time to time, has been turned into a place of slaughter, that, in Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, where I remember poor families with their belongings tied together with rags waiting to take a train and beggars asking for alms, people have been mowed down for some sort of obscene motive, for some absurd political or religious end. Could the weathered pages of the Koran or the Ramayana or the Bible or the Talmud ever condone such actions of cowardice? Is their God so feeble that he would approve of leveling an assault rifle at a defenseless person? Would anything that cowardly be worth worshiping?

I think of these questions, having confronted religious and political fanaticism in various forms in various countries throughout my career as a journalist. Though it is still early, I wouldn’t be surpired to find out that the perpetrators of this crime are cut from the same cloth of those who often (though not always) commit extreme acts in this context: impoverished, disenfranchised and poorly educated, heads filled with visions of glory and martyrdom by someone who always remains in the shadows, and does well to protect his own family from either slaughter or martyrdom.

I think of the people in the city - that panoply of faces from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Sikkim, Kashmir and elsewhere that I met - as I sit here on this sunny morning in Sydney. I can still smell the channa masala and hear the clink of the glass of cane juice as a vendor scoops it out for a street boy to slake his thirst.

Bombay, meri jaan, I hope that you recover.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Plea from Local Organizations and Civil Society in North Kivu, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

A Plea from Local Organizations and Civil Society in North Kivu, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, to the United Nations Security Council and Other International Leaders

Goma, November 18, 2008

Dear Excellencies,

As the representatives of Congolese non-governmental organizations in North Kivu, we come before your authority to request an immediate reinforcement of peacekeeping forces for the Democratic Republic of Congo, reinforcements that would be capable of protecting us. This would help to prevent the atrocities that continue to be committed against civilians on an ever greater scale here in North Kivu, on the border of Rwanda and Uganda.

This letter presents a sad, cynical, tragic and very frustrating situation, which reveals the misery in which the population of North Kivu are immersed. We are anxious, afraid and utterly traumatised by the constant insecurity in which we live. We don’t know which saint to pray to; we are condemned to death by all this violence and displacement. We have been abandoned. Who will protect us? Who will help us? The United Nations says that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, but our dignity and our rights are violated every day with hardly a cry of protest. Do we not deserve protection? Are we not equal to others?

Since August 28, fighting has intensified in many areas, causing deaths, rapes, lootings, forced recruitment and further displacements of civilian populations. The population has thus been immersed in unspeakable suffering. In the last few days, fighting has drawn closer to large populated areas, such as the town of Goma. Fighting has also invaded and torn apart the region of Rutshuru, particularly in the town of Kiwanja, where hundreds of civilian deaths have now been recorded.

The suffering has gone on too long for the population of North Kivu. It is time for the government and the international community to protect the civilians who have fallen victim to the atrocities of the conflict.

We are aware that during several high-level visits to eastern Congo this year, you and your representatives heard many firsthand testimonies which could not have left you indifferent to the tragedy facing the population of our region of the DRC.

The various diplomatic and political meetings held over the last few weeks have demonstrated your commitment to finding an immediate and sustainable solution that would establish peace in North Kivu and thus bring stability to the Great Lakes region. Among the most remarkable developments, we note Rwanda’s direct involvement in the search for a sustainable solution to the crisis.

While we wish to thank you for these supportive visits and for your concerns about the tragedy here in eastern Congo, we also urge you to move from theory to practice, by transforming your kind speeches and messages into action. Diplomacy always takes time, and we understand this, but unfortunately we do not have time. The population of North Kivu is at risk now; with each day that passes, more and more people die.

For more than three decades, eastern Congo has been at war, and those who suffer most are civilians, especially women and children. There have been many attempts to resolve the crisis in the east, but none have succeeded. The most recent initiative to date was the Goma Peace Agreement (the Act of Engagement], signed by all belligerents in January 2008. But today this is no longer respected. Instead of peace, we are witnessing the continuation and exacerbation of the conflict.

In the past several days, the region of Rutshuru has been in the grip of hostilities. The town of Kiwanja has been taken and re-taken by the CNDP, and the population is paying the price. We are witnessing tragedies on a scale never experienced before in history, in which civilian populations are being summarily executed by bullets or blows from machetes, knives, hoes and spears. Corpses line the streets of the city and the odour of decomposing bodies greets passers-by. Indeed, the number of corpses already found is not conclusive, as searches continue, and, according to the latest reports, even more dead bodies are locked inside houses or thrown down latrines.

As the conquering army of Laurent Nkunda gradually takes new areas, the Congolese army takes flight. As they flee, they end up killing, pillaging, raping and stealing, leaving chaos and total disorder in their wake. This is the case in Goma, where more than 20 civilians were killed, several women were raped, and valuable goods were stolen on October 29. Since last week, the towns of Kanyabayonga, Kirumba and Kayna have been invaded in almost the same way as Goma by FARDC soldiers fleeing the fighting.

Forced recruitment has also intensified. In several areas of Rutshuru and Masisi, armed groups, the CNDP in particular, go from door to door to force young boys and adults – aged between 14 and 40 – to go to the front, without any prior military training. Last week, reports documented the recruitment by force of hundreds of civilians by the CNDP, especially in Kitchanga, Kiwanja, Rutshuru and Rubare.

In all of these cases, we, the civilian population, have been held hostage and caught between many lines of fire.

Women are among the first victims. Sexual violence has become dramatically worse since the end of August, as military forces and armed groups have reduced women to a battlefield.

Faced with a sense of abandonment, the people’s reaction has become one of self-defence. We do not know the limits of this. This has been the case of Mai Mai in Kiwanja and in the Kanyabayonga area.

MONUC has fallen short of fulfilling its mandate to protect civilians, openly and publicly, but no concrete action has been taken. Powerless, MONUC witnesses all the atrocities committed by the armed forces and groups. At times, its interventions are delayed, if not ineffective. We can therefore no longer continue to rely on MONUC to protect us. The case of Kiwanja, where civilians are massacred daily near the MONUC base, is a striking example.

We ask you urgently to assist us at this most difficult time. It is absolutely clear to everyone that we need reinforcements of troops capable of protecting civilians effectively and efficiently, with the means to deal with any kind of attacks. This must be done quickly.

We therefore urge you to:

  • Immediately send EU troops which can deploy quickly to provide protection and security for civilians as you did for our brothers and sisters in Bunia, Ituri, in June 2003.
  • Increase the number of troops for MONUC and provide them with a mandate that allows them to sufficiently protect civilians and to do so as their top priority.

Your Excellencies, you must save our lives now; otherwise it will be too late.

Yours sincerely,

The representatives of 44 Congolese NGOs in North Kivu:

  1. Action de Promotion et d'Assistance pour l'Amélioration du Niveau des Vies des Populations (APANIVIP)
  2. Action Paysanne pour la Reconstruction et le Développement Communautaire Intégral (APREDECI)
  3. Action pour la Promotion de la Participation Citoyenne – Nord Kivu (APPC/NK)
  4. Action pour la Promotion et la Défense des Droits des Personnes Défavorisées (APRODEPED)
  5. Action Sociale pour la Paix et le Développement (ASPD)
  6. Africa Justice Peace and Development (AJPD)
  7. Blessed Aid
  8. Bureau d’Information, Formation, Etude et Recherche en Développement (BIFERD)
  9. CADRE
  10. Campagne Pour la Paix (CPP)
  11. Centre d’Observation des Droits de l’Homme et d’Assistance Sociale (CODHAS)
  12. Centre de Recherche sur l'Environnement, la Démocratie et les Droits de l'Homme (CADERCO)
  13. Centre de Recherche sur l'Environnement, la Démocratie et les Droits de l'Homme (CREDDHO)
  14. Centre pour la Paix et les Droits de l’Homme – Peace and Human Rights Center (CPDH-PHRC)
  16. Change Agents Peace Program (CAPP)
  17. Coalition pour mettre fin a l'utilisation d'enfants soldats en RDC /Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers in DRC
  18. CODHOP
  19. Collectif des Associations des Femmes Pour le Développement (CAFED)
  20. Collectif des ONG de Droits de l'Homme (CODHO)
  21. Collectif des Organisations des Jeunes Solidaires du Congo (COJESKI)/ Nord Kivu
  22. Conseil Régional des Organisations Non Gouvernementales de Développement (CRONGD)
  23. COPADI
  24. Encadrement des Femmes Indigènes et des Ménages Vulnérables (EFIM)
  25. GAMAC
  26. Group d'Etudes et d'Actions Pour un Développement Bien Défini (GEAD)
  27. Human Dignity in the World (HDW)
  28. Platform des Femmes du Nord Kivu pour un Développement Endogène (PFNDE)
  29. Programme de Lutte Contre l’Extrême Pauvreté et la Misère (PAMI)
  30. Promotion de la Démocratie et Protection des Droits Humains (PDH)
  31. Promotion et Appui aux Initiatives Féminines (PAIF)
  32. Réseau Congolais d’Action sur les Armes Légères et le Petit Calibre (RECAAL)
  33. Réseau d’Organisations des Droits Humains, d’Education Civique et de Paix (RODHECIP)
  34. Réseau Femme et Développement (REFED)
  35. Réseau Provincial des ONG de Droits de l'Homme (REPRODHOC)/Nord Kivu
  36. SAMS
  37. Société civile Territoire de Rutshuru
  38. Solidarité pour la Promotion sociale et la Paix (SOPROP)
  39. SOS/Grands-Lacs
  40. Syndicat des Associations Féminines pour un Développement Intégral (SAFEDI)
  41. Synergie des femmes pour les victimes des violences sexuelles (SFVS)
  42. Synergie des ONG locales pour les Urgences Humanitaires dans le territoire de Rutshuru
  44. Villages Cobaye (VICO)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Adieu, Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba, the great South African singer who chanted in the key of resistance against the apartheid regime in her native land, passed away today while doing what she did best: Lending her luminous musical gifts in defense of liberty and in defiance of tyranny.

The 76 year-old Makeba passed away from an apparent heart attack while performing at a concert in Italy in support of Roberto Saviano, an Italian journalist whose exposé of the Camorra organized crime syndicate in Naples in his book Gomorrah has earned him death threats and worse.

Coming only a year after the murder of South African reggae legend Lucky Dube, it may seem another terrible blow to the music scene in that country, where I first ventured in a very moving visit that brought me face-to-face with Robert Mugabe's brutality and South Africa's own tortured history earlier this year. But like all eternal voices, such as those of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Woody Guthrie, the music of Miriam Makeba will continue to give succor and sustenance to oppressed and downtrodden people the world over. Amen, Miriam, and ayibobo.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Thoughts on Obama from Japan

The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski once wrote something to the affect that foreign correspondents who cover the far corners of the earth are a cynical lot used to overcoming obstacles that most people can’t imagine just to do their jobs, and that little can excite them.

That may be so to a large degree, but for my own part I have rarely been as deeply elated or moved as I have been by the election of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States, and the scenes that followed it. Obama’s acceptance speech before a crowd of over 200,000 at Chicago’s Grant Park, the scenes of Americans - young and old, rich and poor, black and white and Latino and Asian and Arab, male and female - embracing, cheering and weeping, and the outpouring of emotion in scenes broadcast from around the globe was as resounding message as any imaginable about the ability of the United States to change and that the eight year nightmare of vainglorious militarism, disastrous economic irresponsibility and plain and simple mean-spiritedness was coming to an end.

Having supported Barack Obama in the primaries in my native state of Pennsylvania and written about his presidential campaign frequently in recent months, and having early-voted for Obama in the general election in Pennsylvania this past October, I found myself in Japan during actual election day. I watched as the returns began to come in with my girlfriend in the exquisite city of Kyoto and then raced to the fishing village of Obama, Japan, where banners bearing a manga-influenced drawing of the new president proclaimed “I love Obama.”

The United States has been through so much in the last eight years, from the attacks of September 11th and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the destruction of Hurricane Katrina and the economic meltdown that occurred this year, which further impoverished a population already beset by often non-existent healthcare, stagnant wages and/or disappearing jobs, and an ever-diminishing international reputation as the windshield cowboy and his cohorts mistook truculence for statesmanship and attempted to set regions of American against one another in a miserable scramble for ever-more power. One of the phrases that most stuck in my mind from Obama’s speech before the throng in Grant Park the other nights ran as follows:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

Tonight, as I strolled under a sliver of autumn moon through the old Higashi Chaya quarter here in Kanazawa on the Sea of Japan, my thoughts were with my native land, and a feeling of deep pride for what has come to pass this week, and deep responsibility for all that remains to be done. I have a year ahead of me working and reporting from Asia, but I think that, after that, I just might head home to record how this new chapter is being written in this new day.