Goma To Rutshuru - A Trip Into The Field

I have made it to Rutshuru from Goma. Vijaya wanted help assessing a new region to potentially branch out into for Resolve Network and the first step is assessing the condition of the community. That means we needed to go to the field to meet NGOs currently operating there, elected government officials and locals and talk to everyone. The questions and outcomes differ based on those three constituencies but overall the conversations are based around what poverty alleviation or conflict resolution programs are currently being offered, from those programs what is working, what isn’t working, what successes are happening and help us understand the big challenges.

Since the Resolve approach is based around peace building and conflict resolution through community-based dialogue, it’s critical to understand the community, their needs, and what Resolve can bring to the area to make a sustainable and meaningful impact. There are NGOs and UN agencies offering many services and while our focus is on those that work directly in communities with families, there are others we didn’t target to speak with this time that focus on human rights abuses, health services and food distribution. Since all of these issues are so tightly woven together, it’s important to know they are all operating, sometimes separately and sometimes together.

Many people in these areas are IDP’s (Internally Displaced People) so we need to understand any community issues around people who have returned to the area since the fall of the locally-dominant rebel group, or any people who have ended up here due to the conflict and want to stay. This area also has a high rate of children who were abducted and forced to become child soldiers and are in the process of being returned to their families and many women who have experienced sexual abuse. Both groups are in need of healing and have their own issues that are important to understand before going in and immediately offering Resolve’s programs.

Vijaya set up meetings in advance so that our schedule is fully maximized. Her network is absolutely incredible. She has been traveling to the Congo since 2009 and living here full-time since 2011 and her dedication and solid relationships show. She knows all of the major and minor players, she knows who is doing good work and who is not, she knows within organizations who is good and who is not. She knows which government officials are serving the community and which are corrupt and filling their own coffers. She knows who works well together and who is difficult to work with. Each region of the Congo has its own complexities and that is part of why this field mission is critical. But she has done her due diligence and amassed an abundance of institutional knowledge. She is well respected in the community here and since Resolve Network became a UNICEF implementing partner this year, there is additional validity to their programs.

To get to Rutshuru from Goma, we went in a convoy with IRC (International Rescue Commission) who currently have programs here. The trip in total took just over 2 hours. Convoys can be big or small but it’s the idea of safety in numbers. The IRC team travels to Rutshuru often so it’s wiser to travel this way. In our truck we had Vijaya and I, the drive and Passy who is Resolve’s program coordinator for the region. Passy is also a former journalist in the Congo and fluent in Swahili so she can translate when talking to many of the women who don’t speak French. All of the conversations here with NGOs and government officials are in French but the vast majority of the poorest of the poor don’t speak French.

This entire region was controlled by M23 in recent years and since their fall in October, 2013 it’s now safer to travel around and night curfews have been lifted in some places like Goma to 11pm but along the road to Rutshuru the curfew is still 6pm as rebel troops are still fighting nearby. However, it’s required to travel in daylight hours only, preferably first thing in the morning. You have to get where you need to go with plenty of daylight left and you have to leave time for breaking down, checkpoints along the road (real or fake) or any other potential delays. So even though our trip was only a few hours, we left around 8AM. In a country without a solid infrastructure (roads, electricity, running water, internet) daylight is king so by 8AM most Congolese have been up for a few hours anyway.

The roads are unpaved and wildly uneven with big rocks and big dips so the entire way we could only drive at max 20MPH, but usually around 10-15MPH. It’s not a passive travel experience! All of the jostling, bumping and moving around is hard on the body. Vijaya is used to it by now, but I most certainly am not! I held on for dear life a good part of the ride and every once in awhile let out an involuntary squeak or yelp when we went over a dip and it felt more like we were on a roller coaster that riding in a truck.

There was only one checkpoint along the way, just outside of Goma. Vijaya said there can be fake checkpoints set up by local police or other rebel groups but we were lucky and just had the one. To get through they check your plates (I think they just check that you own plates) and charge $4. This is a dollarized economy so they accept dollar bills but they absolutely have to be 2006 or 2009 issued without any rips or tears. The first $5 we gave them, they rejected for a tear so slight you could barely see it.

When I asked Vijaya why she wanted to see Resolve expand into this region she explained that prior to the fall of M23, these areas were completely cut off from the world and from the international humanitarian community. There are IDP camps but beyond that, services are extremely limited.

It’s not easy to travel to the DRC. In order enter the country right now from most countries you need a visa. To get a visa you need an invitation letter from an NGO or MONUSCO (the UN Mission), which means you must be on official business. When we left Goma and started on the road, there were only three types of transportation/people I saw for the whole ride. First were NGOs. Almost all of them are marked with the NGO they represent - IRC, WWF, IEDA Relief,. Second are United Nations vehicles. We saw some one set of tanks, but mostly land cruisers - these are white with “UN” on the side. The third are the local transport which are trucks with the most stuff loaded onto them I have ever seen. If it can be tied down, it’s on there. Sacks of flour, palm oil containers, water, fuel, people, animals, furniture, you name it. Some of these trucks are big, some are no bigger than cargo vans but they are overloaded to 150% capacity. We did see the local military, sometimes along the side of the road, sometimes riding in the Congolese public transportation. They all have guns, sometimes RPGs - that is what I saw the most of as we passed.

I was advised that I could take photos as we drove along the road but that I should not take photos of the military. That sounds like good common sense that I easily followed.

As we drove, the landscape opened up and much of it was absolutely stunning. I don’t know what I expected exactly of entering an area so affected by war, but I don’t think I really prepared myself for the landscape. Gorgeous lush green rolling hills, mountains and volcanos in the distance, blue skies and big white clouds. We passed farms with the majority of the crops being bananas and some other crops like coffee. As we passed through small villages, kids would yell out “Muzungu!” which means foreigner. Some people would wave. Vijaya said an interesting thing is that most of the Congolese in poverty can’t visually tell the difference between her (Indian) and me (white). We’re all foreigners to them.

We passed a few IDP camps. These are run by MONUSCO. I heard that the UN spends more on MONUSCO per year ($9billion a year) than any other UN mission but I need to verify that when I can access the internet.

Driving along the road, the poverty is simply shocking. I wrote in my first Congo post that this country is ranked 187th of 187 countries in poverty according to the UN global development report and I don’t know how else to say it other than to say it’s the most abject poverty I’ve ever seen. I haven’t been everywhere in the world but other countries where I’ve been in the field and seen poverty first-hand include Haiti, Guatemala, Mynamar, Philippines and Ghana and this by far is much much worse. The poverty we can see with our own eyes is only a fraction of the actual poverty.

For example, I might be basing this observation in part on their housing structures - mostly made of mud and thatched roofs going up to mud/stone and corrugated roofs - and in part on what we could see and what I heard about their access to a water source and then their physical appearance. There is a stream that I saw in a few spots, a few others appeared to have somewhat standing muddy water. You can usually tell which villages have access to water by if there are clotheslines to hang clothes. If there are not, they likely carry their clothes to wash them in the water and lay them to dry there.

In the case of chronic malnutrition, often it’s not visible to the naked eye. A child might look fine, albeit small, but it could turn out that a child that looks 7 is actually 10, or look 13 and be 17. A lot of the visible health issues are skin-related but that doesn’t take into account the high rates of cholera, TB, typhoid, HIV, malaria, worms or other parasites and other highly fatal illnesses. Vijaya has told me these are all huge concerns for people in Resolve programs and also infant and maternal mortality. Most if not all of the women involved with Resolve give birth at home in their remote villages with a midwife and lack any prenatal care or medical help around childbirth. Therefore, if there are any complications they likely result in death for the mother and/or the infant.

We’re in Rutshuru for 1 or 2 nights and then traveling onwards. The hotel (or maybe a better name is lodging place) here just re-opened about a month ago, it’s an old (old) building owned by the local evangelical church. It’s simple and $5-10 a night depending on the room. There are malaria nets over the beds and the electricity seems to work and there are flushing toilets and running water. Vijaya is shocked by how nice it is, and says that the running water here is better than at her house, and she can’t believe there is electricity at all, again because her own house frequently doesn’t have power. Of all of the regions where Resolve works and she has visited, this is the first place with these “amenities.” I rubbed my face with a wet face cloth and it was covered in dirt from the ride here so basic water is most welcome! Every office, hotel and basically all structures where any international citizens might be are behind gates with barbed wire along the gates and so this lodging place is no different.

That’s my update for the day. I covered a lot, but a lot has happened and I wanted to get it all down before I forgot anything. It’s the field experiences, actually meeting people and spending time with them that most often affects me the most and the stories that stay with me, so I’m anxious for the next few days. Until my next update!

Please see my disclosure for all Congo-related posts.

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