“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Martin Luther King, Jr

Monday, November 17, 2008

Congo's poor lose their last possessions

It was her favorite dress, a pretty, long one with a wild pattern of colorful flowers. By her calculation, Anastazi Mahano saved five years for the small luxury, keeping the dress from the mud that stains everything here brown, wearing it only for weddings and Sunday church

When rebel fighting engulfed this area recently, she padlocked it inside her mud-walled house and fled empty-handed, along with thousands of others, into the rolling green hills. Arriving back home Wednesday, however, she found the padlock smashed and her belongings looted — perhaps by unpaid rebels, or unpaid government soldiers, or even neighbors more desperate than she.

As panicked thousands have abandoned villages across eastern Congo in recent months, the scale of looting that has followed has been massive, a crime reflecting the predatory culture pervading Congo since the Belgian colonizers perfected it decades ago.

The millions of minor thefts may pale in comparison to the more professional looting of eastern Congo's vast mineral wealth, which is helping to finance the conflict.
Collectively, though, the thieving soldiers have set back an already economically marginal population by years, if not decades, making it even harder to reverse the effects of a conflict that threatens to destabilize the entire Central African region.

As the rebels advance, the nature of the looting here indicates how desperate Congo has become. Humiliated, retreating government soldiers, hungry rebels and other opportunists have wrestled chickens and cellphones from fleeing villagers and smashed the doors and windows of abandoned homes, making off with mattresses, goats, pots, clothes, radios and TVs.

The road that leads north from Goma has become a long, pathetic tableau of government soldiers leaning in doorways or in front of houses they now occupy.
A bit farther north, rebels have set up a roadblock where trucks heading to Goma heaped high with cabbages, charcoal and other goods must pay an astounding $500 tax or be turned back. Some drivers park there for days before managing, somehow, to get the money.

"I have lost my appetite," said Jean-Marie Kabale Kapitula, 42, describing his devastation when he found two of his three saws stolen, along with three goats and his only pig, belongings representing years of work.

He was among a few dozen people who returned Wednesday to this village of thatched-roof mud houses in a cool grove of banana and mango trees. Like Kapitula, most of them have lived their entire lives here, getting by throughout the notoriously kleptocratic rule of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, when some earned a decent living, the rebel invasion that ousted Mobutu and the decade of civil war that followed.

"How can we start again?"
People here said they had never been forced to flee during previous conflicts. But when rebels loyal to Nkunda advanced through the area two weeks ago, the fighting was so heavy the entire village joined the mass exodus toward Goma.
Kapitula left in a hurry, padlocking the wooden door of his house and hoping for the best. When he returned, he found a village of smashed doors and broken windows.
The two stolen saws had been "a remembrance of my father," he said, touching his heart.
His father had worked 30 years on a Belgian-owned coffee plantation, making $1.50 a day in the end. Before he died in 2006, he had bought the two $90 saws with what amounted to his life's savings and given them to his son.

In some houses, it seemed that the thieves did not so much go looting as go shopping, taking the best items and leaving the rest.
Mahano, who has lived in Nyongera for six years, was at first afraid to go inside her house. When she did, she found her newest blankets stolen along with her favorite dress.
"It took so long" to accumulate her things, she explained. "I go to the field and plant, and wait for reaping. Then I go to the market and sell a small quantity for money, and then wait for the next time of reaping, and then wait again. I'd say it took five years to buy the dress. Even more than five years."
Her neighbor Leonard Hangi pushed his door open.
Besides a suit and other clothes, his radio had been stolen, he said. Like Mahano's dress, it was a small luxury, a prized possession that represented a degree of simple, humanizing pleasure in a life of mostly unrewarded hard work.

"It had a cassette player, and it used batteries," Hangi said, explaining the radio's practical features. "It was just for my spare time. I liked to listen to the news and to African music."
He has worked for 24 years as a security guard at the Belgian coffee plantation, making about $1.50 a day. He was one of the few people in the village who had a radio, which had cost him $15; he saved for two years, he estimated.
But there were others, he said, who were worse off.

With nearly 30 years of work behind him, Huzumutima had amassed a small rural empire of goats and chickens, dishes and cooking pots, a radio, a few suits. "I even had a mattress," he said.
It was all looted when a militia group passed through his village.
But he started over.
After a few weeks living in the camp here, he had managed to build a banana-leaf shelter and had acquired some pots and pans, partly through the kindness of strangers.

It was all wiped out again when Nkunda's rebels came through. Now Huzumutima is facing retirement with nothing.
"I have no hope to recover all my properties," he said. "I had a very nice life before, but I don't hope to have that life again."


Relax Max said...

So sad. It seems like we use those words over and over again. Just when one place starts to calm down a little bit, another country has a ervolution or something, and the people are always in the middle.

ettarose said...

Max,I'm so glad to hear from you. Do you think the "people" should rise against their tormentors? Even at the cost of life? Just asking.

Relax Max said...

The people are constantly rising up against their tormentors, at great cost of their lives. The tormentors call them "rebels." Sometimes they win. Mostly they don't.

Relax Max said...

What I mean to say, is that that is exactly what is going on right now in the Congo - one faction of "the people" have had enough and are fighting back. Mostly, the other people just want to be left alone. Sorry. Sometimes you can't just pull your head into your shell. You must take a stand and back it up with your life. I can't think of any successful country, especially the USA, where that hasn't been historically true. Time after time after time. Fact: bullies won't just "leave you alone." They must be confronted.

My opinion, of course.

Relax Max said...

I don't mean to take over your blog here, but something else needs to be said of what is going on in the DRC right now. It is much more than a simple case of rebels trying to throw off tyranny as you mentioned. Here, it is more than just a rebel uprising. The devastation against the civilian population is appalling, especially against women. Neither side is in the right here, and if ever there was a time for the UN to stand up and do something, it is now, in this wretched country. Never have so many innocents been victimized. I wonder if the world realizes that only WWII took more lives than have been taken in this conflict so far?

ettarose said...

Max, I asked the question because I argued with someone who insists that these innocents should stand up for their rights at the cost of death. Yes the rebels are a big part of this, but he means the people who have been forced from their homes. The men who have been killed and the women who have been raped. I wonder if we as a people in our own country would all rise as one against a tyrant?


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