“I set out from Goma, in eastern Congo, with Oxfam partners Eudoxie Nziavake and Jean-Pierre Baludi for the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. It wasn’t a promising start to our journey. The road that traces the hills between the Congolese border and Kigali airport is a bendy one, a tough test for the strongest stomach – I won’t mention any names but the going was tough and breaks had to be frequent. But we made it to the airport in time for tea and cake before boarding the flight to Addis Ababa.
We arrived safe, sound and healthy at our Addis hotel that night to join forces with Oxfam advocacy and policy advisor Jean Bonheur Kongolo who had travelled from Kinshasa to meet us. Our mission was to launch Oxfam’s protection report – it’s a paper that our team has worked on for the last year. It is based on a survey of communities living in remote areas of North and South Kivu, the Oxfam report documents how they are faring in the face of various human rights violations carried out by armed groups and the state. We were launching it in Addis Ababa in the lead-up to the summit of the African Union, which brings together power-brokers from all over the continent.
On our first morning we met up with Oxfam colleagues at the African Union. The shiny building has a tower to one side of a dome – in the middle of the dome is the general assembly, you can walk around the outside of the building, taking in the AU’s solar panels on one side and a skyscraper hotel under construction on the other.
Inside the building, on the curved walls of the general assembly are works of art donated by all the member states.
Although we couldn’t find DRC’s artistic representation, we made do with the national flag – it was a proud moment as we took it in turns to be photographed holding it.
The next day, we were ready to launch the protection paper. Copies in French and English were delivered to a hotel in downtown Abbis Ababa – we had booked a large conference room for the day. At the back of the room we set up a table with all sorts of publications relevant to the DRC, at the front of the room, we set up a screen on which we projected images of communities in eastern DRC, interspersed with quotes from our protection report.
‘I can’t say things are good or bad now. We are just balanced in the middle, as there are two forces in charge in this area. I am worried that things will get worse because they want to fight again. But who will be the victims? Ordinary people.’
‘What use is it to go to tend our fields when only a small portion of what we harvest goes to our families, and the majority goes to soldiers and the Mayi-Mayi?’
I was getting jittery, as I practiced my brief presentation. Oxfam’s African Union liaison office reassured me and our partners by providing top notch support. They are so used to launches that they didn’t indulge in my fears – that no-one would show up, that no-one would be interested in what we had to say. As it happened, we had more guests than expected and copies of our report flew out the door.
After Desire Assogbavi and Muleya Mwananyanda from our African Union office briefly introduced the team and the report, it was my turn. The plan was to briefly cover the key messages of the report and leave most of the time to our partners who have first-hand experience of the protection threats in the Kivus.
I’ve presented live current affairs programmes to millions of listeners on BBC World Service; I’ve spoken to large, formal gatherings in the past – but for some reason my nerves kicked in at the last minute that day. My mouth was so dry I was sure that the guests could hear a cracking sound as I opened it.
I got through the nerves and the key messages – that in some areas violence has gone down, while in other areas, communities are even more vulnerable in the lead-up to military operations; that coordination meetings on security issues can help to prevent further protection threats; that the Congolese government urgently needs to expand an accountable state representatives to remote areas in order to serve its citizens. Then it was the turn of Oxfam partner Jean-Pierre Buledi.
Jean-Pierre works in civic education and human rights training in South Kivu, for an organisation called CEDAC. He explained that, unlike North Kivu, South Kivu was not directly affected by the armed group M23. However the lack of state presence in certain areas of South Kivu creates a void where extortion and other protection threats such as looting are rife. Jean-Pierre explained the process of extortion that dominates so much of the Kivus – how illegal checkpoints are set up in order to force passers-by to pay illegal levies; Jean-Pierre explained how women, in particular, are victims of these illegal practices as they need to go to the fields, to the market, the burden of paying these illegal levies often falls on them.
Eudoxie took the microphone next, she is from the ‘Marche Mondiale des Femmes’, an agitator and women’s rights activist from Goma – often to be seen at the forefront of sit-ins. ‘La femme est le champ de batail,’ announced Eudoxie to the 60 or so people were gathered in front of us. In other words, women are the battlefield in eastern Congo, attacked when they go out to collect firewood for their families. Eudoxie spoke passionately about the vicious circle of violence in the Kivus, how communities are forced to pay illegal levies which then go to the fund the prolongation of the conflict – in one community, she tell us, there are 4 checkpoints over a stretch of 40 kilometre road.
A series of questions and answers followed, we covered a great deal of ground – from progress on the Peace and Security Cooperation Framework (the latest accord to promote peace in the Great Lakes region) to questions about men as victims of rape, to ethnicity and its role in the conflict.
The launch lasted about an hour and a half, it was followed by a sociable lunch in the hotel where partners, diplomats and analysts mingled. That afternoon, the same room where we had launched Oxfam’s DRC protection report was taken over by the Special Envoy of the United Nations to the Great Lakes and the DRC Mary Robinson for a dialogue facilitated by Oxfam with civil society organisations from the Great Lakes region. Our partners got to ask her lots of questions and a lively discussion on the future of peace in the region ensued.