Thursday, June 30, 2011

Day 3: Bukavu

It's day three and only our first full day in Bukavu but we are already so amazed by how things have progressed. Two chance meetings have already begun to help our project take shape.  

Last night we met Christine, the hotel manager's wife (we should pause here to say that we're staying at a Gorilla Safari camp that in the absence of tourists is now filled with humanitarian aid workers and mining industry folk). She also happens to be the President of Eve Ensler's City of Joy outside of Bukavu. We've been trying to connect with this organization since April and last night she came over to our table to say hello. Welcome to Congo! 

We also spent this morning and part of the afternoon chatting with Janny (a mental health advisor working with John's Hopkins in conjunction with the IRC - International Rescue Committee). We need to pause here, yet again, to note that we've been trying to contact the IRC for months. We were literally picked up this morning and told that there was a woman who was willing to chat with us about her work here. The meeting could not have been more successful in helping us achieve our goals. 

As we sat in Janny's apartment overlooking beautiful Lake Kivu (which is strangely reminiscent of Lake Cuomo in Italy!) we talked for hours about the realities of the conflict, the violence, the stakeholders, the failures of intervention and possible ways forward. Janny spoke honestly and openly speaking outside of her official capacity as a representative of the IRC with us, pushing the conversation far beyond the official rhetoric. It turned into a real dialogue about her observations of the sexual violence and its effect on cultural and state structures. 

We plunged into the depths of the violence and the the broader conflict fueling it. We also began to dissect the failure of both the UN missions and massive NGO presence to bring an end to the violence (we'll follow up with a longer post giving our thoughts on the peacekeeping mission etc. and also try to convince Janny herself to write a guest post). While Janny said many things we had not heard or thought of before, her one word response reenforced our own thoughts on what continues to fuel the violence,  "greed". She told us to "look around, the opulence is everywhere". And she's right there are multimillion dollar homes intermixed with hovels at every corner. 

When we came back to the hotel to debrief and film, we sat down with a sheet of paper and started to map out the complex web that is the conflict in the DRC. We came in thinking we were armed with all of this knowledge and had all this research under our belts. But now we feel like investigative journalists in search of the truth, the full story. Because of the nature of our project we have a freedom not enjoyed by many people working in the NGO/UN community. The freedom to peel away and uncover the real forces at work here.

As the day winds down we wanted to share a final thought sent to us today by a dear friend. He said, "You are on a great journey of not only adventure, but of the heart and human spirit." We couldn't have said it better ourselves!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Scarred but Surviving

Today has been an adventure I'm sure we will never forget. Our original plan was to travel across Rwanda to the border of the DRC in  a bus, but due to scheduling issues and an excellent price, we took a private car instead. We were able to cross the border into the DRC and it was surprisingly uneventful. We'd heard such crazy stories and yet here were are, safe and sound in Bukavu writing our loved ones and telling you our story. I'm telling you, you have not LIVED until you've driven across Africa on some of the bumpiest roads with the craziest drivers in the world, listening to a mix of traditional African music, soul, and boy a Toyota that was NOT a typo our car was indeed a Toyota...Corona!! 

I wrote some thoughts down as we drove and thought I would share some insights.
Rwanda is an INCREDIBLY beautiful country. There are green rolling hills, majestic mountains, and tea and rice fields as far as the eye can see. We have passed mud homes, huts with tile and tin roofs, countless churches, and town after town filled with bustling people and colorful markets. There are so many children playing by the road, waving and smiling at the cars, while we saw others playing soccer in the mud (when in rains in Africa it POURS). 

Sitting here as we watch this breathtaking country fly by it's hard to come to grips with the fact that less than 20 years ago, Rwanda was a country whose horrific violence against hundreds of thousands had shocked the world. It's a scar that although it has now become a healed wound, is nonetheless still a difficult reminder. These are the crippled we see along the road, men and women missing limbs that are a stark reminder of Rwanda's dark history. Yes these people are permanently scarred but some carry bundles, others hobble on. They are survivors and are pushing toward a better future. This is Rwanda...scarred but surviving. I can't help but think that this could be the DRC too. There are so many seemingly insurmountable problems but to the naysayers I would point to Rwanda and say "it CAN be done"! Maybe one day the children in the DRC will feel safe enough to stand along the side of working roads to smile and wave at the passing cars. This is my hope for my father's country!


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Evil, Indifference and Fear

So, we're all safely in Rwanda now. You'll hear more about that and our anticipated border crossing tomorrow, but I wanted to quickly share a blog I wrote earlier today from the Dubai airport. My computer died before the post was finished, but enjoy it now instead! (My apologies in advance for the run-on sentences and chaotic thoughts. The time-changes have not been kind).

... It's a little past 11:00a.m. and I find myself sitting in the Dubai airport- showered, refreshed and anxiously awaiting the next leg of my journey to the Congo. This leg will take me to Doha, Qatar, then to Nairobi, Kenya, and ultimately to Kigali, Rwanda where if all goes as planned Mara and Jesse (our filmmaker) will be there to greet me. As I write I am contemplating some questions that often weigh heavily on my mind--today their burden is particularly strong.

In one of our very first IR theory classes Professor Klarevas engaged us in the great Machiavellian debate by asking us these questions: Is man inherently evil? And is the nature of our humanity to tend to our own individual look out for our own interests above everything else? Our class was divided, but I seem to remember myself (the eternal optimist) saying something along the lines of "well, an evil-natured humanity is just not a world I want to believe in" (Lou and Scott insert eye roll here). But, in all seriousness, what of this question? It's easy to be an idealist when you're debating grand theories in the safety (and often naivety) of the classroom. But what does idealism look like when it's put to the test in the real world? After all, am I not venturing to one of the world's great killing fields as we speak? Isn't this a place where evil has been the dominant player?

The truth is that there is a lot of evil in the world... a lot of hurt, a lot of suffering. But there is also a lot of good in the world. Already on this journey I have been reminded of how much good there is. so many have offered to point me in the right direction, help me find a phone, kept me from getting in the wrong line or on the wrong shuttle bus. One woman in Richmond, VA offered to give me her seat on the plane when it looked like I wasn't going to make my connection. I am certain there are more people who are good than people who are evil. So then, there must be a whole lot of something else in the world, as well. That something is indifference. I'm reminded of a quote I heard once that said, "The only thing worse than evil men is the indifference of good men." So many tragedies and injustices are allowed to happen because the majority of us pretend it's not happening. Or we hear a story that makes us feel for those it's happening to, but then we simply switch off the news and continue on with our daily routines. I'm not trying to say that everyone has to travel personally to war zones or be labeled indifferent, but I am sending out a challenge to you to fight for something you believe in... and fight against the things you don't. That's the way you make a difference; that's the way the world is changed: ordinary, good people refusing the path of indifference and instead choosing to speak up.

Maybe I'm right and the classical realists were wrong... maybe humanity is inherently good, but evil often speaks with a louder voice and we need to fight harder to silence it. I hope that as Mara, Jesse and I continue on our journey to into the DRC, we will be able to bring you stories, not just of the brutality there, but also of all of the good happening there-- the countless men and women who are fighting for what they believe is good and true and right. We hope to bring you stories of hope along with the sobering realities of conflict.

Lastly, I am thinking honestly about another question as I'm getting ready to board the plane. It's probably the question I've been asked more than any other surrounding this trip: "Aren't you afraid?" I guess the only way to answer it is with a yes and a no. Nelson Mandela once said that "true courage is not the absence of fear, but inspiring others to move beyond it." Like indifference, fear creates an environment that allows for the evil of men to take space. Often, politicians and leaders fail to do the right thing because they are afraid of losing their power, nations fail to intervene where they can because they're afraid of public opinion, people fail to see beyond stereotypes because they are afraid of people and places and things that look different than themselves. People fail to take risks because they are afraid of the unknown. I can't say that I'm not afraid, but it's more like I have a peace about where the journey will lead... to a greater understanding, to a great adventure and to a life-changing moment that will unfold somewhere along the way. In moving beyond and through my own fear, I hope you will be inspired to step outside of your comfort zone-- because that's where life's most remarkable moments are found.


Friday, June 17, 2011

The Adventure Begins

We're Mara and Liz, two graduate students at NYU's Center for Global Affairs. We met on the first day of our very first class, and quickly realized we shared a heart for Africa and a passion for transforming lives. Our work surrounding development, human security, peace-building, and international relations sparked our discovery of the world's deadliest conflict since WWII. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been deemed one of the "world's worst places to be a woman or a child" ( The most commonly cited figures put the death toll between 5 to 8 million Congolese over the past 13 years. The conflict has been characterized by disease, malnutrition, and systemic sexual violence against the people of the Congo. The violence is fueled by complex motives and funded by an enigmatic web of national armies, rebel groups, and regional alliances - all possessing an insatiable thirst for Congo's vast and valuable natural resources. As we began to focus our own individual research, (Liz in Development and Humanitarian Assistance and Mara in Transnational Security) we made the decision to coalesce our work into a single capstone project. The goal of our blog is to take you all on an adventure with us. To give you insight into our thoughts and fears, and along the way, introduce you to the story of the Congo and the Congolese people. We hope this blog becomes a place where you can not only experience our adventures with us, but also a place where you can come to get information and an understanding of the conflict and what you can do to help. 

This is our journey.....