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December 3, 2008
Giving a human face to Congo’s conflict

Displaced children in eastern Congo. Photo: Michael J. Kavanagh

Michael J. Kavanagh is a journalist with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. He recently reported on the crisis in eastern Congo for Worldfocus: The story of Pascal and Vestine. Here, he writes about his experience covering the conflict.

The conflict in Congo is too complicated to explain in a five-minute video, so we’ve left most of the context out in order to focus on Pascal’s story.  For more background on the recent fighting, check out my Q&A on history, rebels and crisis in eastern Congo.

I’ve been reporting on DRC for five years now, and there’s nothing that frustrates me more than the dismissive comments I often get about how conflict in Africa is endemic.

Violence is rarely irrational — it almost always has root causes that can be addressed. We’re often just too busy or lazy to learn enough about a situation to figure out how.

Given the extent of the outside world’s involvement in Congo over the last century, I am of the school that says we owe it to Pascal, Vestine, their two children and the millions who are suffering in Congo to try.

As Taylor Krauss and I filmed in these camps, people were saying they hadn’t eaten in days and they hadn’t received food aid from humanitarian groups in months.

And then there’s the violence. It sometimes seems that every other woman you interview is a victim of sexual violence (we’ll air a piece about this in the coming weeks); an equal number of men have been tortured, killed, or forced to fight in armed groups.

These conditions make reporting in eastern Congo extremely difficult — read Taylor’s account of our detention by Congo’s notorious secret police.

We couldn’t have done our work without the help of many brave and generous Congolese citizens, United Nations staff and humanitarian workers. The International Rescue Committee — in particular, Danielle de Knocke van der Meulen, Lia Pozzi, Fidel Bafilemba and Elinor Raikes — were hospitable and patient with the sometimes burdensome requirements of television.

IRC is one of the few aid groups that consistently sends aid workers into the most dangerous places in the world, even when the danger is most acute. They save hundreds of lives every day.

We also need to thank the people at Virunga National Park who gave us the footage of the fighting in Rumangabo. Virunga is home to an extraordinary array of wildlife — from gorillas to gazelles to hippos. It’s also one of the main centers of war.

The Virunga rangers are the bulwark keeping armed groups from completely overrunning the park; over 100 rangers have been innocent casualties of the fighting over the years.

When the war ends and Virunga is again a naturalist’s paradise (it seems crazy even to write about that possibility at the moment), we’ll have the rangers to thank for preserving it.

– Michael J. Kavanagh

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November 28, 2008
Two guys from Queens trace Marco Polo’s path

Web producer Stephen Puschel has been mesmerized by the travels of two guys from Queens, N.Y., who traced Marco Polo’s journey across the world. Stephen reviews the documentary “In the Footsteps of Marco Polo,” which was co-produced by WNET.org.

At Worldfocus, we cover the world. But Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell literally covered it — on foot. Here’s a preview:
[MEDIA=247]
In celebration of Marco Polo’s 700th anniversary in 1993, Denis and Francis were inspired to walk in the explorer’s footsteps — a mere two years and 25,000 miles — through war zones, vast deserts and across mountain ranges.

Fast-forward 15 years later, and their epic journey is packaged in a 90-minute film that’s a hybrid experience of adventure, culture and camaraderie.

They crisscrossed through some of the most remote places on earth, traveling by boat, camel, horse, truck and on foot.

In a Tajik village, they met residents who had never seen westerners. In Sumatra, tribesmen wore tattoos as clothes. In Iran, anti-U.S. protests filled the streets.

Perhaps the most memorable moments are the anecdotes that would be monumental lifetime stories for many. For Denis and Francis, those moments were incidentals along the way.

While in Afghanistan, Denis and Francis ask a warlord for help when crossing the most dangerous region in the country. The general says, “This part of the country is very dangerous. I’m going to give you a helicopter and you can pick up Marco Polo’s trail after that.”

Denis and Francis kindly decline the offer. After all, Marco Polo didn’t fly in helicopters. The general furnishes the duo with 25 bodyguards and eight jeeps to make the trek “safely.”

My only complaint is the tone of the narration, which sounded suspiciously similar to my Kindergarten teacher — a little spoon-fed and unnecessary at times.

Other than that, I highly recommend it. The people they meet along the way remind me of all the voices and places I don’t hear about on a daily basis.

So, at Worldfocus.org, we’re searching for bloggers who are writing and talking about these places.

– Stephen Puschel

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November 24, 2008
Sacred cow commune clogs Indian superhighway

Producer Ara Ayer reported on India’s outsourcing with Mary Lockhart and Daljit Dhaliwal. Along the way, he encountered many roadblocks. Below is an example.

Words may be the building blocks of television journalism, but image is the mortar.

Cows resting on a superhighway outside New Delhi. Photo: Ara Ayer

When I saw the above scene of cows literally blocking a four-lane superhighway outside of New Delhi, as if in protest for some insult, I had to capture it.

As our driver, Ashot, narrowly bypassed the bovine congregation, he was met by screams from the back of our van to pull over. My screams came first, then a chorus from colleagues Mary Lockhart and Daljit Dhaliwal.

Jumping out of the vehicle, I popped off a few still photos while condensation dissipated from my wide-angle video lens. I knew we could use this moment as a metaphor to help describe India — a nation of great contradiction and promise.

A slice of this sacred cow commune will be included in tonight’s feature story on India. We probably won’t use the bit where an amorous cow gave me lick and tried the same on our Indian fixer Mahima.

Or, when Mahima cajoled the horned heifers’ advances with a heavily accented: “Chill OUT, Chill OUT, just Chill OUT!?”

Enjoy.

– Ara Ayer

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November 21, 2008
The Yugo is now Yu-gone

  

Once marketed as a cheap alternative in the West, the last Yugo rolled off the assembly line in Kragujevac, Serbia on Thursday.

For Serbians, the Yugo is a rusted symbol of Yugoslav socialism, but to Americans, the hatchback car is more the brunt of a joke. Anchor Martin Savidge writes about a story that didn’t make it onscreen this week — and provides a few punchlines to boot.

Here’s a story we at Worldfocus actually had to drop from Thursday’s program simply because there was too much other bad financial news to tell.

But it’s worth mentioning here. I’ll start with a joke:

What do you call a Yugo at the top of a hill? A miracle.

Yes, the Yugo is probably the worst car ever exported to the United States. And it has finally come to the end of the road. On Thursday, the last Yugo — once the pride of Yugoslavia’s auto industry — rolled off the assembly line in the Serbian town of Kragujevac. Well, more than likely, it had to be pushed.

Why does a Yugo have a defroster on the rear window? To keep your hands warm while you push it.

If you remember the 80s, you’ll more than likely remember the Yugo. It hit our shores in 1986 at the bargain price of $3,990. Car magazines said it barely qualified as a car, calling it “an assembled bag of nuts and bolts.”

What do you call a Yugo’s shock absorbers? Passengers.

Yugo owners complained of engine failures and transmission problems. Some said the manual stick shift would break off in their hands. Doors and trim were also a problem. Where I was living at the time, Cleveland, you were lucky to make it through a single winter without the car rusting through.

How do you double the value of a Yugo? Fill the gas tank.

Government crash tests in 1986 found that of 23 compacts tested, the Yugo came in dead last. A slow speed crash produced $2,197 dollars worth of damage.

Even with all of those seeming detractions, more than 100,000 Yugos were sold in this country before Yugo America went bankrupt.

A proud Serbian owner of a Yugo claimed Americans simply didn’t appreciate the car. Said Momcilo Spajic, “This is driving in its most natural form. You feel every bump, squeak and jolt, and one can enjoy the sweet smell of gasoline and exhaust fumes.”

So take a moment to mark this automotive milestone. The Yugo is now Yu-gone.

Man to car dealer: “I’d like a gas cap for my Yugo.” Dealer: “Sounds like a fair trade.”

Thanks very much — I’m here all week.

– Martin Savidge

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Björn Söderqvist under a Creative Commons license.

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November 19, 2008
9/11 impacts Muslim immigrants in Italy

A mosque in Palermo, Sicily.

Editor Lisa Biagiotti researched Muslim immigration trends in Italy on a Fulbright grant in 2001. She recalls the post-9/11 climate in Italy and touches on the heightened immigration debate in Italy today.

As I read the Italian headlines these days — the government’s declaration of a state of emergency because of the immigrant influx, the proposal of special tests that could potentially segregate immigrant children and the general xenophobia toward immigrant groups — I remember the row of armed Italian policemen lining the U.S. embassy gate in Rome.

When I got off the plane in Rome a week after 9/11, I was ready to research Muslim immigration in Italy. I was prepared to link current Muslim immigration flows into Italy to colonialism under Mussolini, when Italy overthrew the Christian Coptics in Ethiopia and placed the Muslim minority in power. In typical Mussolini style, Italy built mosques and sent Ethiopian Muslims on pilgrimages to Mecca.

Actually, the connection between Italian colonialism and the rising tide of Muslim immigration was not significant. The immigration boom was due more to Italy’s geographic position — dipping down into the Mediterranean. People from Muslim countries in northern African and eastern Europe filtered through Italy. Today, there are just under 4 million immigrants (about 6 percent of the total population).

In the once-homogeneous country known for its emigration, I saw Filipino women pushing baby carriages and wheelchairs in Rome, African men hawking CDs on the streets, immigrant prostitutes hanging out behind the ruins along the old Appian Way, a bustling Chinatown in the Tuscan countryside and boats of refugees washing up on Italy’s shores.

After 9/11, as an American — and I don’t mean to be dramatic here — I couldn’t help but feel a bit uneasy not knowing when the next attack might strike. Muslims were not only affected in the U.S., but also in Italy where the immigration debate turned against them. Muslim immigrants faced Islamophobic blame and pressures. My research took on unexpected meaning.

Seven years later, the election of Barack Obama as the next president of the U.S. has seemingly erased much negative sentiment toward Americans — but the same is not true for Muslims and other minorities in Italy. Nonetheless, there are signs of hope for easier relations.

This year’s report on immigration statistics and trends seems at odds with newspaper headlines. Caritas di Roma reports increased integration — one in 10 marriages is between an Italian and an immigrant, and in some northern regions that percentage spikes to 25 percent.

As Martin Seemungal’s video shows, anti-immigrant sentiment still churns, but I guess I’m a little optimistic when I read about the Italians and immigrants rallying together to protest the murder of a Burkina Faso native or the Catholic-Muslim interfaith talks that took place in Rome earlier this month.

In some ironic way, maybe Mussolini’s vision and outreach of a predominantly Catholic Italy joining forces with Muslims could somehow play out peacefully today.

– Lisa Biagiotti

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Andrew & Suzanne under a Creative Commons license.

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November 14, 2008
Who’s up for a road trip?

Martin Savidge reporting on location in Mexico. From left: Ara Ayer, Martin Savidge and Rebecca Haggerty pose with an interviewee and a fixer.

Worldfocus anchor Martin Savidge responds to viewers and talks about his hopes for the future of the program.

I don’t know if you caught the show Wednesday, but if you did, you would have noticed we were on the road reporting from Houston. I went down there for a gathering of PBS station managers from across the country, mainly just to say thanks for running the show.

The most common conversation was people telling me the timing was right for Worldfocus. A sort of common sense that America is ready to start talking and engaging with the rest of the world. Of course, the election has a lot to do with this new attitude — that whole change thing.

Change is good.

Doing the show from some place else was a bit of an experiment. We knew we could do it…but until you actually do, well, it’s just a theory. So, Houston — we have landed.

Once the show gets a bit more established we’d like to head out on the world’s highway and go places. Not all the time, but a couple of times a year. Maybe do a week reporting from different parts of the world…India, Columbia, Kabul, Tehran…spend some time talking to people, trying the local food, seeing the sights, learning the customs and getting to know folks a bit.

In a way, that’s one of the ideas behind Worldfocus — even when we’re not on the road. Last week, we saw the coronation of the new king of Bhutan — I didn’t see that any place else. Tuesday, thanks to our (dare I say the word) partner Dubai TV, we saw the Atlantic coast of Morocco and learned how Juniper trees are turned into treasures. Dave Marash led us back behind the old Iron curtain to see what folks have done with the place since the fall of the wall.

Thanks to our bloggers you can also talk with the “locals” in other places. Since we’ve now added “Talk to US” we can even all chat face-to-face.

This is as much your show as it is ours.

We listen to your thoughts and even act on some of your suggestions. If you don’t like something, tell us.

We will and have changed some things and others we won’t, but that’s life. Nobody in this country is doing this kind of program. So let’s kick the tires, light the fires and head out there. It’s time. Let’s engage in a nightly venture into the world, let’s learn, let’s understand, let’s talk.

Who’s up for a road trip?!

– Martin Savidge

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November 10, 2008
Probing behind the Obama photo ops

A Chinese worker on a crane in Tanzania.

Worldfocus anchor Martin Savidge writes about the importance of multi-layered coverage of Africa and elsewhere.

Last week, the world celebrated the historic election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States. But now that the votes are in, the party is over.

The economic crisis has returned to the headlines, the war in eastern Congo has intensified and the cameras have even left the Kenyan villages that marked the occasion with a national holiday.

Last Thursday, I interviewed Sarjoh Bah of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation about the desire from Africans to change the existing humanitarian relationship between the U.S. and Africa, expanding into more of a strategic partnership.

As a foreign correspondent, I reported from dozens of countries, but never once stepped foot on the African continent. The networks just didn’t cover it.
And when they did, the images that dominated the news were war, poverty and hunger — not all too different from today.

But as Bah explained, there are enormous amounts of opportunity in Africa — an expanding middle class and increased trade and investment from China and India.

In 2007, the U.S. imported more oil from Africa than the Middle East. By 2015, it is projected that 25 percent of U.S. oil will likely come from Africa.

Obama’s familial roots in Kenya are significant, but coverage shouldn’t stop there. And while hunger, poverty and war are serious challenges in parts of Africa, there’s also another world embodied within the continent — an emerging global presence.

I think it’s important to sometimes go beyond tired images and photo ops — they’re helpful, but as entryways and opportunities to look deeper.

– Martin Savidge

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November 4, 2008
Brazil privatizes its roadways

 

An overturned bus alongside the BR 101 in Brazil.

Bryan Myers reported with Megan Thompson from Brazil on a story about roads and infrastructure.

Read Bryan’s other blog posts from the field: Truckin’ through Brazil and Brazil plans to improve highways.

As part of its plan to enlist private companies, the Brazilian government has leased several of its major highways to private companies, making those companies responsible for maintenance and repairs and, in return, allowing them to collect tolls. Currently, seven stretches of Brazilian highway are in private hands, and that number is expected to grow.

The tolls aren’t cheap. We took a drive on a highway that has already been privatized, the Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo highway. We paid $20 (U.S.) for the privilege of driving about 175 miles. That amounts to the daily take-home pay of the average Brazilian.

We also visited a highway that was being repaired in anticipation of being privatized — a highway running north from Rio de Janeiro to the town of Campos. A road crew was busy repaving the roadway with a soupy mixture of oil and stone, not the dense macadam Americans are accustomed to seeing on their highways.  The crew’s foreman told us that once his bosses put their toll booths in place, some members of his crew probably wouldn’t be able to afford to drive the very road they were helping to fix.

The debate about turning highways over to private hands mirrors one happening in America. Here too, some state and local governments are trying to privatize roads. A recent effort by officials in Pennsylvania to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike — the first major road ever built in America — to a consortium led by banking giant Citigroup has been met with stiff resistance.

In America, at least, many believe the push to privatize flies in the face of the concept of “public works.”  Last year, a poll of Pennsylvania drivers showed the majority opposed to the idea. Many of them seem to agree with Adam Smith, the man who first articulated the concept of free market capitalism, when he wrote that governments should provide some things to all its citizens — public works like roads being one of them.

Back in Brazil, we asked a contractor in charge of work on the BR 101 near the port of Sepetiba about all of this. He told us that even if the poor can’t afford to pay tolls, they would still benefit. The poor, he said, don’t even own cars, so for them, the issue of tolls was moot.  However, he said they do take buses and that bus accidents are a big problem in Brazil.  So, he said, anything that makes the roads safer will also help the poor.

After we finished our interview, we hopped into our car and drove off. About five miles up the road we saw a bus overturned, lying in a ditch on the side of a road. The passengers had already been evacuated and the bus didn’t appear to be heavily damaged, but it served as an eerie reminder of the contractor’s words.

– Bryan Myers

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November 3, 2008
Q&A: History, rebels and crisis in eastern Congo

Michael J. Kavanagh reporting from The Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: Taylor Krauss

Michael J. Kavanagh is a journalist with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. He returned from The Democratic Republic of Congo last week and answers questions from Worldfocus viewers on the crisis in eastern Congo.

A lot of really interesting questions, I have to say — thank you. It makes me feel really hopeful that people are starting to understand DR Congo more and more.

I’m going to group questions into three themes: History of the conflict, rebel fighting in Congo and the humanitarian crisis.

HISTORY OF THE CONFLICT

Q. Is this a Hutu/Tutsi conflict spilling over from Rwanda?

Michael J. Kavanagh: Let me start by talking about group identity in eastern Congo, which is incredibly difficult to wrap one’s head around.

This is not a Hutu/Tutsi conflict, per se. This is a political and economic conflict in which group identity is manipulated by opportunistic politicians and military leaders for their own political/military/economic ends.

There are at least a dozen tribal groups in eastern Congo, and even among those groups, there are local/regional differences that cause people of the same group to support different sides in the conflict (or none at all).

In Congo – like anywhere in the world, including Rwanda – identity is a fluid thing and at any one time a person might choose to ally himself/herself to any group that is part of his/her identity. This includes church, party, family, clan, tribe, village, profession and any other number of things that have a purchase on how we conceive of who we are.

For the last 15 years, Congolese Tutsis, the Tutsi-led government of Rwanda, and a group of other Congolese allied with these two groups – mostly Congolese Hutu but also supporters from other tribes – have had an enormous amount of power in eastern Congo. They own vast amounts of land, they own mines and cattle and hotels and are captains of industry. Some of this wealth came legally over decades, some of it came extra-legally during the wars that started in 1996 when Rwanda invaded Congo.

For many years, these men (they’re mostly men) were backed by the significant military might of Rwanda and their allied army in eastern Congo, the RCD (don’t worry about the name – it doesn’t exist anymore). But in spite of their enormous military and economic power, they make up a very small part of the Congolese population. So when the war ended and elections took place in 2006, Congolese Tutsi and their allies essentially lost all their electoral power.

There was legitimate fear that much of their economic power might be at risk, both because of the corruption of the Congolese government and lingering animosity towards Rwanda and its Congolese supporters in the east after years of war between the two countries. Seeing no political avenues to ensure their power, these men instead chose to exploit legitimate grievances – the continued presence of Rwandan Hutu génocidaires in Congo (FDLR), 40,000 Congolese Tutsi refugees in exile in Rwanda and anti-Tutsi sentiment – as a justification to taking up arms and force their way into politics to protect their interests.

This is a thumbnail sketch of why war continues in the Kivus.

Q. Who’s supplying weapons?

Rebel leader, General Laurent Nkunda. Photo: Michael J. Kavanagh

Michael J. Kavanagh: The Congolese government has typically supplied FDLR (the Rwandan Hutus), though it’s no longer overt (the FDLR are considered a terrorist group by the U.S.). The government of Congo also works openly with many local militia groups.

Interestingly, General Laurent Nkunda also gets most of his weapons from the government of Congo – by stealing them.  There’s some evidence that some supplies come from Rwanda as well (or at least Rwandan sympathizers.)

Q. Most often in Africa, extractive resources are being fought over. Is that a factor here?

Michael J. Kavanagh: You can never reduce any conflict to one variable but you’re right that many conflicts in Africa (and elsewhere: e.g., Iraq) have a component that is related to fighting over an extractive industry or other natural resources. In this case, Congo is full of minerals and fertile land and economics plays a huge role in the perpetuation of this conflict, even if we’re not always talking about an extractive industry.

Q. Why would the Congolese government support Hutu militias?

Michael J. Kavanagh: The best way to answer this question is to begin by clarifying it: Why is the Congolese government supporting Rwandan Hutus? Because the FDLR are primarily Rwandan Hutus who came to Congo as refugees after the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

The alliance is more political than tribal – the FDLR were important allies of Congo in the second Congolese war (1998-2003), which pitted Tutsi-led Rwanda against the Congolese government led by current President Joseph Kabila’s father, Laurent Kabila.

For the time being, Congo’s government and the FDLR have similar interests: Certain economic ventures and diminishment of Rwanda’s power in the region. If their interests diverge, the alliance between Congo and the FDLR attenuates quite quickly.

But to expand, there are many Hutus in eastern Congo who are not Rwandan – they are, in fact, the largest single identity group in the conflict zone in North Kivu. Some have joined the FDLR or sympathize with them. Many, if not most, have/do not.

Congolese Hutu identity is complicated by several factors – on the one hand, they’ve been historically discriminated against by the Congolese state as foreigners who speak Kinyarwanda (the language of Rwanda), just like Congolese Tutsis. As a result, there have been important ties between Congolese Hutus and Tutsis and there are many Hutus who are fervent supporters of Nkunda.

On the other hand, many Congolese Hutu were killed by the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan army in the Congo wars starting in 1996 in reprisal for the genocide. It’s a part of the Rwandan genocide story that has yet to fully be documented, but it’s part of the historical memory of many Congolese and Rwandan Hutus.

In part because of their alliance during those wars, many eastern Congolese feel affinity for Hutus and vice versa as their tribal brothers, and they say Tutsis are from a different tribal lineage.  This is genetically and historically very dubious, but many Congolese believe it.

My most interesting conversations in eastern Congo are often with Hutus explaining why they support whatever group they support, because it’s often a decision grounded in a very personal – not group – history.

REBEL FIGHTING IN CONGO

UN vehicles patrol the streets of Rutshuru. Photo: Michael J. Kavanagh

Q. Who are the rebels? Are they primarily educated members of the middle class, like the mujahideen in Afghanistan? Or are they victims of economic devastation?

Michael J. Kavanagh: The CNDP rebels are a mix of dairy farmers/cattle herders, hardcore believers in combating Tutsi oppression, demobilized Rwandan professional soldiers, and forcibly recruited cadres from Congolese Hutu communities and from Rwanda’s working class. They primarily speak Kinyarwanda and the leaders are generally Tutsi (who fought with the Rwandan Patriotic Army in the 1990s).

Many of the leaders are relatively well educated – like RPA, CNDP has always stressed education, training, discipline.  Are they middle class?  It’s hard to say if there is such a thing as a middle class in Congo – even those who aren’t subsistence farmers aren’t particularly well off.  However, many of the CNDPs most fervent supporters are extremely well-off Tutsis who own a lot of land and cows and see the CNDP as their protectors.

Q. What is the involvement of Muslims in this conflict? Which of the protagonists are primarily Muslim?

Michael J. Kavanagh: Very little/none. Congolese are mostly Catholic and Christian. Nkunda himself is Christian. When I was last with him in late February he was wearing a pin that said “Rebels for Christ.”

Q. I’ve read that one of the big issues being contended is a big deal to give China mineral access in return for transportation systems. Is this cause related to those of groups like MEND?

Michael J. Kavanagh: Yes – Congo’s president Kabila has sold off huge mineral contracts to China in exchange for infrastructure construction.  This is one of the topics that Nkunda wants to discuss with the president directly, if he ever gets that chance (I’m not sure what he wants to say, however).  There’s an impressive Fast Company article, China Invades Africa, that talks about China’s influence in Congo if you’re interested.

As far as I know, there are no links between CNDP and MEND.  CNDP and MEND come from slightly different places politically and economically – some Tutsis already have a lot of economic power and they’re protecting it; MEND is trying to get Nigeria and the oil companies to redistribute economic power more equitably.

Q. Who benefits from the situation over there, and are the mobs being manipulated to anyone’s advantage?

Michael J.Kavanagh: A lot of people.  Some Congolese and FDLR rebel commanders and some Congolese army commanders have stakes in mines.  Anyone who trades on the black market in minerals benefits.  Businessmen who are exploiting the national park that CNDP controls benefit.  Rwanda benefits to some extent though less so than in the past – they have proxies in eastern Congo in the mines and many Rwandans keep cows in eastern Congo.

Finally, yes – the mobs are manipulated by the government against the UN, against the CNDP, and against Tutsis.  It’s a dangerous game, since MONUC is supposed to protect the population and genuinely tries to, and one of the main justifications for CNDP’s continued existence and Rwanda’s interest in the region is exactly this anti-Tutsi sentiment.

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

A medical center in Kashuga, which was ransacked a month ago. Photo: Michael Kavanagh

Q. What are the conditions of the hospitals/medical centers like? Are they being ransacked as well? I imagine with the current health condition, it would be important for medical help to reach into the villages/homes. Is any of that going on?

Michael J. Kavanagh: I’ve traveled throughout the region with doctors from Heal Africa and Doctors Without Borders. Health centers in North Kivu are horribly equipped – they’re located in remote areas that are hard to access and supply.  They often don’t have electricity or running water. When you hear about 5 million people dying in the Congolese wars, most of those deaths are a result of inadequate medical care.

Armed groups often ransack medical centers immediately – they need the supplies for their troops. There are a few decent hospitals in Goma, and a few others staffed by Doctors without Borders in North Kivu.  There’s also one in the heart of Nkunda’s territory run by a doctor and his wife, who is also a doctor – both are extremely influential in Nkunda’s movement.  Nkunda’s soldiers also get medical care in Rwanda.

Q. Is sufficient food still available to families in South Kivu? And, please estimate how much basic food costs have increased in South Kivu in recent months.

Michael J. Kavanagh: I’m less familiar with the situation in South Kivu – I haven’t been there for an extended trip since 2006.  The leaders of the peace process are much more optimistic about peace holding in South Kivu.  In terms of food availability and pricing: food prices have gone up in Congo as they have everywhere in the world, and that’s been very difficult for Congolese families. A lot of food for the region comes from North Kivu, and the fighting there has made prices rises more than normal.

I can’t give an estimate on costs — sorry!

Q. What can ordinary people here in the U.S. do to give support? I read recently that the UN was likely to send 17,000 additional peacekeepers. I also read a conflicting report which seemed to indicate that the UN was not decisive. Will you be going back there soon?

Michael J. Kavanagh: There are already 17,000 peacekeepers throughout Congo, so the UN mission in Congo is asking for more.

As for what you can do…keep reading – forward stories around to your friends. Write two lines to your congresspeople saying you care. Donate to organizations that do good work there – in North Kivu there are the Congolese organizations Heal Africa, SOPROP, Synergy des Femmes – these all deal with human rights and health. Internationally, International Rescue Committee and Doctors without Borders (MSF) do fantastic, brave work in Congo.

Finally, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, click on every single Congo story you see and email it to friends. Editors notice how many hits different stories get, and that’s what will let me go back there –- if editors realize people actually care, they’ll shell out the money to let journalists like me cover this disaster with the depth it deserves.

Thanks all.

– Michael J. Kavanagh

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November 3, 2008
In Brazil, no excuse not to vote

People lined up to vote in São Paulo, Brazil.

Associate Producer Channtal Fleischfresser discusses the voting process in her native Brazil.

Brazil likes to keep things simple. None of this “get out the vote” business.

That’s because voting is mandatory for all citizens over age 18. In fact, even people living abroad are subject to fines if they do not report to their local Brazilian Embassy on election day to explain their absence from the polls.

To make sure no one has an excuse not to vote, elections are held on Sunday, when people have the day off. But that means you have to spend the weekend in town during elections. Many of those who live in big cities and like to skip town on the weekends have developed an unusual compromise. Instead of registering to vote in the city where they live, many people – my parents, for instance – register in the community where they retreat on the weekends.

In a sense, their vote counts more than it would in the big city, but on a decidedly smaller scale. Last Sunday, rather than vote for Gilberto Kassab, the incumbent mayor of São Paulo, my parents helped elect Filipinho, an agricultural consultant in the town of Cunha, nestled in the coastal mountain region between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro states.

While this mayor may have less influence, their vote in this town of about 23,000 people counted much more than it would have in São Paulo, a city of roughly 11 million people.

Compulsory voting presents its own set of obstacles, such as campaign corruption and candidates paying for votes, and it contrasts with the American notion of optional political engagement. But in a country plagued by a limited public education system and where, on average, students don’t stay in school past age 14, an optional voting system would ensure that only the most educated – and most wealthy – made their way to the polls.

This way, democracy is the job of the many, not the few.

– Channtal Fleischfresser

Photo courtesy of R. Motti under a Creative Commons license.

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