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My Journey to Report on the Horrors and the Hope in the Congo (Part IV)

There are spies among us --

I have an admission. I have a little crush on Georgio Trombatore. Georgio works for International Medical Corps. IMC is a not-for-profit organization that brings emergency medical care to global crisis situations. And Georgio Trombatore is IMC's Field Coordinator. He will be giving us our security briefing before visiting The IMC medical center in Kirotshe, and then Mugunga III, the last remaining IDP camp in Eastern Congo.

Georgio worked in Afghanistan during the fall of the last Taliban (along with his amazing wife). He has also been called to Pakistan, Iraq, and now the Congo. His wife works in Eritrea with an organization that creates initiatives to help promote sustainable peace in the region.

Georgio is like James Bond. He is charming, handsome, daring, and a great storyteller. But the thing I love most about Georgio is the way he talks about his wife. "I was in Afghanistan during the fall of the Taliban -- the first time -- you know when it was dangerous. I tried to blend in -- I grew a beard, wore the traditional clothing, learned Pashto. Then my wife decides she wants to come stay with me for a year and when she gets there she refuses to cover her skin," he says pulling his hair in frustration. "Then a few weeks later she tries to start a feminist movement in one of the most repressive and misogynistic societies!" Georgio leans back, shakes his head in disapproval, and lets out a big sigh. "She almost killed me this woman." A few moments later a smile creeps across his face -- a smile of reverence and love. "I love the woman." It's clear he does. It's this quality in Georgio that makes me swoon.

Then there is Dr. Denis Mukwege, the director of Panzi Hospital. Dr. Mukwege has seen first hand the devastating consequences of the war on the women of Eastern Congo. He tirelessly repairs the reproductive organs of women who have been attacked from the inside out, raped with guns, and assaulted with chunks of wood by their attackers. He has had his life threatened, his hospital raided, and yet he vigilantly continues to speak out against the war and its reprehensible repercussions on Congolese women and girls. "Women do everything here. They are the lifeblood of the Congo. We would be nowhere without women." He receives awards for his tireless and brave work but has been known to hide them away, or tear them off the walls. Recognition does not motivate this man. Healing, and advocating for Congolese women, is his calling.

There is Bernard Kalume who risks his life taking documentarians like Lisa Jackson into the bush where she interviewed rapists for her consciousness-raising film, The Greatest Silence, or smuggling Frank Piasecki Poulsen into the illegal militia-run mineral mines to expose child exploitation. Bernard has made it his life's vocation to expose the truth and end the war. "What is happening here to woman is not right. Not right! Why isn't it stopping? Tell me why?"His eyes tear with anger. There is little that is more appealing than a man who understands and appreciates a woman's value. "One day maybe I'll meet a man like Georgio, or Dr. Mukwege, or Bernard Kalume," I tell myself.

During the briefing Georgio informs us that there has been a slight change in plans -- I hate changes in plans -- That we will first visit the area of Kirotshe where IMC has rehabilitated a remote medical center, then we will visit Mugunga III IDP camp on our way back to Goma.

Jan, the IMC Security Advisor informs us that there are still some security risks in the North and South Kivu provinces -- that even humanitarian workers have been targets for attacks.

I no longer have my sites on Georgio, I look to the OTHER WOMEN we'll be traveling with from Jewish World Watch (JWW) for reassurance and strength. We all exchange a look of, "Oh well," then gather our resolve and head for the vehicles.

Joseph, Diana (from JWW), Fernando (IMC Program Director), and I are assigned to vehicle 2. Our four Land Rovers are equipped with four-wheel drives and the most sophisticated communication equipment. A long antenna is posted on the hood of the vehicle -- It's so big I am sure we can communicate with Mission Control at NASA.

Our convoy rolls out.

On the drive up Joseph, Diana, Fernando, and I have an intense discussion about the recent, and forceful, closing of eight IDP camps.

Last year the camps were shut down without any warning as 'proof' that there is finally peace in Eastern Congo. Rwanda's President Paul Kagame played a powerful role in this decision citing that there were FDLR in the camps. The accusation according to most NGOs here were groundless. But with no IDP camps in Eastern Congo there would be fewer complaints by the International community, particularly US politicians, and less of a focus on Rwanda's participation in the rape of Congo's most precious resources -- its women and its minerals. It is no coincidence that this move happened directly after the visit of US Secretary of State Clinton. Tens of thousands of people were forced to go back to their unsecured villages -- villages with no infrastructure whatsoever. Only Mugunga III, the IDP we will visit later, remains open.

Kirotshe --

The area of Kirotshe is stunning. Endless green, lush, rolling hills dotted with groves of Eucalyptus trees. Long horn cows graze in the lower regions. It reminds me of Switzerland -- truly one of the most breathtaking places I have ever seen.

Kirotshe is rich in gold, diamonds, and coltan, a mineral used in manufacturing electronics, it's also the area where Laurent Nukunda and his Rwanda backed CNDP army maintained their two-year stronghold. Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi, is Congo's most notorious warlord. His history of violence in Eastern Congo includes the destruction of entire villages, the sanction of mass rapes, and the reason for hundreds of thousands of Congolese to flee their homes.

In 2004 Nkunda led a Tutsi backed rebellion in North Kivu near the Rwandan border. Nkunda and his army were eventually defeated, but fighting between rebels and government forces continue to promote ethnic tension in Eastern Congo, including widespread atrocities against women. In 2005 the UN estimated 45,000 women were raped in South Kivu alone.

Then in the Fall of 2008, Nkunda -- with the Kagame's encouragement-- led a new offensive of Tutsi rebels in North Kivu that uprooted about 200,000 citizens and threatened to take over the city of Goma.

In January of 2009 however the Rwandan government made a shock decision to apprehend Nkunda. Kagame's move against Nkunda appears to be motivated by the increasing international scrutiny of Rwanda's meddling in Eastern Congo. The arrest took place just after the release of an UN report documenting Rwanda'a close ties to the warlord concluding Nkunda was being used to advance Rwanda's economic interests.

Once at the med center Christopher, a nurse, introduced us to the Kausa Health Center. Our translator, a Rwandan, interpreted. He said, "The health center serves a population of 16,178. Before the center, some patients were treated under trees."

Christopher then mentioned that six hours ago the center had received a 13 year-old rape victim from a nearby village. We were close to something sinister. I wanted to grab the young girl and get the hell out of there.

On the drive back through the beautiful woodland hills on our way to Mugunga III I thought about the thirteen year-old girl. Thirteen years old. She will probably not be accepted back in her village and will have to find a way to make it on her own. No money. No shelter. No family. I imagine myself at thirteen trying to find my way under the same circumstances. My thoughts aren't pretty. I hold back my tears. We are headed to Mugngua III and Mugunga III will shock me to my core.

Mugunga III --

The stench of feces was the first thing I noticed, then the flies. Then the children.

Three thousand people etching out some sort of life under white tarps supported by sticks built on top of black volcanic rock. The living conditions here are unfathomable. Certainly living under a green tree would be a better option.

Joseph, Adil, IMC Program Finance Manager, and I walk around the camp while the rest of group takes a tour of the medical facilities. Mugunga III is for the most part populated by disabled and other vulnerable people (children). Entering the camp, kids flock to me wanting me to take their picture. "Photo!" Photo," they shout. I happily oblige. Before I know it about 30 kids are pulling on my camera strap and clothes. Soon I am on my knees as they fight to see themselves in the viewfinder.

Later a tough young girl asks me for money. I tell her I don't have any. She scowls then pulls my pockets inside out just to make sure. I have brought beads, clothes, candy, bubbles, and balls for about 100 kids, never expecting a thousand. I was afraid to bring out the loot thinking it would cause a frenzy and someone might get hurt.

One of the guys working at the camp throws the remnants of a bag of mints into the sea of kids. The kids dive in a pile onto the sharp lava rock tackling each other for a piece. It makes my stomach flip. I think of the alternate choice, the choice I made to withhold my goods, worried someone might get hurt or left out, but no one getting anything. I'm unsure who made the better decision.

Before long the tough young girl who had asked me for money walks up to me again with a hard look on her face. Dragging her comb across her neck, she threatens to cut my throat if I don't give her a dollar. It was a symbolic gesture -- life is cutthroat in these camps. Life is hideous here.

On the ride back to our hotel Joseph and I are told that a CNDP commander and a few CNDP soldiers dressed in civilian clothes were at the med center in Kirotshe, listening, and observing everything that was taking place. We were also told that CNDP soldiers are not far over the hills.

Later we are informed that the translator works for the Rwandan government to "control the message" and report back his findings.

Tonight I am to meet someone at the hotel. This person asked if I could tape their testimony about the war -- its beginnings, and the political underpinnings of the current situation. This person fears for their life. After hearing about the CNDP spies and our translator working for the Rwandan government I am a little freaked out. But I tell myself, this person is just telling me their story. I want to hear this person's view. Later that night we taped.

A couple days later in Bukavu I run into my friend Naama -- we are staying at the same hotel -- I ask her if she had heard about the CNDP soldiers among the crowd at the med center. She nods. A second later the translator materializes out of nowhere. "Catherine," he interrupts with a big grin, "How are you," his eyes not leaving mine. I get the message.

Today is the first day I've been scared.


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