Monday 29 June 2015

Karongi: Kiziba Refugee Camp


Our next stop was Kiziba refugee camp. A bumpy ride in a small bisi along mountain roads.

Kiziba Camp
Stopping for a Security Check

The camp is home to around 17,000 Congolese refugees and has been in existence now for twenty years. Many of the refugees were born there and don't remember the DRC. It's a very difficult situation. One refugee told us that when they ask what will happen to them, they receive three answers:

  1. Go back to Congo. Which we know, from Mugunga, isn't safe, and many who were born at Kiziba don't have anything to go back to.
  2. Nationalise - become Rwandan. But this is not supported by the Rwandan government. Rwanda is very stretched for agricultural resources at the moment, and there is high unemployment. Refugees aren't allowed to work in Rwanda and the fear is that there is nowhere for them to live, and no jobs, that wouldn't take land and jobs away from Rwandans. It also sets a difficult precedent for the thousands of refugees pouring into Rwanda from Burundi at the moment.
  3. Seek resettlement in a third country. Many hold out hope of going to the US, and the US does have a scheme of resettlement, but less than 2% of refugees ever get resettlement. As the US State Department later told us, there isn't room to take all refugees.

So, the camp has sort of reached a stalemate. 

The visit brought out understandably strong emotions in the group, but it was interesting to see the difference between international and local opinions. Whereas everyone was upset by the conditions (especially having one doctor working three days a week for 17,000 people), the locals, like myself, were quite impressed that everyone was living in houses rather than tents. The conditions did look better than DRC, and there was a fully functioning market and school. What's quite impressive is that the Rwandan government are already building semi-permanent houses for Burundian refugees, perhaps because they understand that this is likely to be a long-term issue.

School Building

Participants Running a Workshop with Refugee Youth
As we walked through the camp, our Kiziba participant, Nadine, pointed to a hill and explained that this was where the Hill of Resistance was, at Bisesero. If you have read something like Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform you that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families, you will know the story of the brave people of Kibuye who tried to organise a resistance against the massacre and ran to the hills to defend themselves.

(panoramic, click to enlarge)

Whilst at Kiziba, I got talking to the head teacher and he told me about a school building project they want to undertake. The parents of students had managed to raise enough money to buy a small area of land on which to build. Now they need help raising the funds. I've taken this project to an NGO I work with in the region and we're going to see whether there's something we can do to help.

(panoramic, click to enlarge)
Plot of Land for School
It was an interesting experience. Our group had split into two. I went with the group exploring education, whilst the second group went to visit the hospital. They were stopped by an administrative assistant working at the camp who for some reason saw a group of people all wearing the same T-shirt and decided they must have broken into the camp without permission. She proceeded to call camp security, and was very apologetic when she realised all of our paperwork was in order. She said sorry by staying to answer some questions. But it did little to foster good relations between the camp's youth (who we were working with) and camp officials.

Things took a turn for the worse when UNHCR, who was due to come and answer questions from the youth, decided they weren't coming after all. The youth regularly complain that UNHCR never meet with them or talk with them, and our visits to the camp often help to facilitate meetings that don't seem to happen otherwise.

When the youth heard that UNHCR had stood them up, a group of young men started to get quite agitated, to the point where my colleague warned me that there might be trouble. She told me that the men had threatened to storm out and refused to participate any further unless we could get the camp official to talk to them.

Thinking on my feet, I asked my colleague to translate for me and called a huddle with the young men who were upset. I told them that we shared their disappointment with UNHCR for not attending the meeting, but told them that if they were willing, we would be happy to listen to all the points they wanted to raise with UNHCR, and that we would put this in a letter and send it. So, that's what we did. We held an open forum, and a group of participants offered to write up the letter which we're now planning to send to UNHCR at local, national and international level, plus MIDIMAR and the Minister for Refugees. It allowed the refugee youth to be heard, and at least made them feel as though someone was listening. It will be interesting to see what sort of response - if any - we get.

This is just a random picture of wood piles. I think they're so pretty, but they underline another problem concerning natural resources. NASA photos reveal destruction of 99% of rainforest park in Rwanda. One of the reasons Rwanda is reluctant to nationalise refugees.

Before leaving the camp we stopped off at the camp shop where refugees sell some of the crafts they make. I satisfied my love of Congolese masks.

Then it was back to Bethany for a well-earned beer and a beautiful sunset.

Sunday 28 June 2015

Karongi: Nyange School

Team Turikumwe T-shirt
We Are Together
Next few days of the program involved a comfy coach ride to Kibuye (now called Karongi - many areas have changed their name since the genocide).

We stocked up on snacks for the bus and it was really lovely to get out of Kigali again. I don't get to do that very often and I forget how beautiful Rwanda is. Only thing is that it's the middle of the long dry season at the moment. Temperatures regularly rise into the 30s. Lot of dust. Most of the participants (including myself) were battling a nasty cold.

Our first stop en route was Nyange Secondary School. This is the location for a short film (below) called We Are All Rwandans. Three years after the genocide ended, bands of militia were still roaming the country. On March 18, 1997, a group of Hutu extremists entered the school and told the students to separate into Hutu and Tutsi, so that they could massacre the Tutsi students. 

All of the students bravely proclaimed Ndi Umunyarwanda - I am Rwandan.

Seven of the students were murdered, but many more likely survived because of their refusal to separate. 

We Are All Rwandans from Catsiye on Vimeo.
If Vimeo is down, try YouTube.

We were lucky to have Ayuub, the writer of We Are All Rwandans (he plays the night guard) come to talk to us during the showing the night before we left. In a weird twist of events, I'm good friends with Viateur, who played Valens. He organised for the participants to go on a trip to Akagera National Park on safari.

The girl second from the left is apparently sitting exactly where one of the victims sat when she was shot.

The guy standing here is the teacher from the film (the real teacher, not the actor).

He still lives close to the school and comes to talk about it when groups visit. I have to say, I'm pretty relaxed about most things, but this trip disturbed me somewhat. Before delegations arrive we have a discussion about voluntourism, what it means and whether people consider themselves to be voluntourists. It's a long discussion with many avenues. But for me, this particular visit was uncomfortable. 

It's known that the teacher likes a tipple, and who can blame him? Every time a group arrives, he comes and stands before them, holding the images of his dead students in his hands. Invariably, someone asks 'where were you when it happened?' and he has to reply 'running for my life.'

He's been doing this for eighteen years now. I'd be surprised if he didn't drink.

It felt a little unkind.

Afterwards, we went down to Chantal's grave. She is the only student to be buried there as her family couldn't transport her the long distance home. As a place to be buried, it overlooks a beautiful view.

After that, it was on to happier times at Hotel Bethany. I hadn't been there since the ill-fated monkey attack with D the last week before I left Rwanda. The prices have trebled, but they have major water problems - as in, there wasn't any. It's still a gorgeous place to hang out though, right on the shore of Lake Kivu.

View From My Room

View at Breakfast

At night the traditional wooden fishing boats drift out into the water and you see their little lanterns glowing between the islands. It's truly magical.

Saturday 27 June 2015

Bad to be British

Here begins a mammoth catch-up of the past month. Been so busy.

Things kicked off after my last post with all the internationals arriving on 22nd. They're all from the same school in New York, but within that we had representatives of Germany, Netherlands, Poland and Zambia. I went to the airport with my team, and Senga, the best taxi driver in the whole of Kigali.

Kigali International Airport
Not one of our participants...

Managed to lose one of the participants in Bujumbura. Plane took off from Nairobi and had a technical fault. How it ended up in Buj, no one's entirely sure as that's not exactly between Nairobi and Kigali. Kigali airport looks pretty, but in terms of customer services it's pretty bad when things like this happen. There's no arrival/departure boards on view for people waiting, and airport staff, in my experience over the past few months, are fairly unhelpful when you ask for assistance or information. Nobody picking up the phone at Kenya Airways either. When a plane goes missing, the least you'd expect is an announcement. 

Thankfully the participant managed to get hold of my number from her pre-departure information and we hooked up via Whatstapp. They put her up in a hotel for the night and she arrived next morning. A little hairy as things in Bujumbura have been deteriorating over the election period and we advise against all travel there.

Meanwhile, at the British Embassy up the road from my house, massive protests against the British after the arrest of Rwanda's intelligence chief Karenzi Karake at Heathrow on a Spanish warrant. I won't go into this too much. You can Google it to get up to speed, but a good way to understand the sort of anger here is to imagine the head of America's CIA, or the UK's MI6, travelling on a diplomatic passport, getting arrested in Rwanda on behalf of Uganda. Could you imagine the outrage that would cause? They'd call in the marines, there'd be economic sanctions and 24-hour media coverage. So you see the sense of double-standards, that the west can do exactly the same thing and Rwanda has no means of recourse. 

It's a continuation of what happened to Rose Kabuye back in 2008. Whilst travelling on a diplomatic passport to Germany, she was arrested on behalf of France. I was here during that, too.

This time, there has been a large rally for several days outside the British Embassy, which is close enough that I heard the music from my house. It's also right next to the place where I was going to withdraw money for the program. The main road was closed, so I had to rough it off-road with a moto down the back streets. On one occasion, the moto stopped at the blockade on the main road and I decided to walk, right through the heart of the protest (picture at top of post). I was a little bit nervous, but the alternative was taking another bike all the way back through the side streets.

Deep breath. Started walking.

I can honestly say, I was impressed by the peaceful nature of the protest. The music and dancing was pleasant, and nobody stopped me to ask my nationality like they did with the Germans in 2008. I was free to wander through, no hassle, felt very safe.

A few days later the government asked the protest to disband. It was right outside one of Kigali's large hotels and the road closure and noise were causing a disturbance. It interfered with our program a little as we were due to have an NGO come to talk, but on that day they had received orders from local community leaders to go and protest, so had to cancel. It reminded me of the time I turned up to work after Kabuye's arrest. I was working for a disability organisation. When I arrived, everyone was painting banners and informed me that we were going on a 'disability march.'

"Where are we marching to?" I asked.

"The German Embassy."


We drove through the protest during the orientation day city tour, so participants got to see human rights and politics in action.

Anyway. All very peaceful. 

The night before they all arrived, we went out for a team dinner. The team comprised of myself, Maja, my Bosnian Program Assistant, Rose, Vincent and Gilbert, Program Manager, Program Assistant and Acting Country Director respectively from our local NGO partner, a legal aid organisation that helps deliver the program. We had Chinese at Bamboo, which is on the roof of a supermarket called T2000 with an incredible view of the entire city. Perfect for watching the sunset.

Over the next couple of days we ran orientation for the internationals and the local participants. We match the number of international participants with the same number of local Rwandans, and include two refugee participants, one from Gihembe camp and one from Kiziba. The idea is to explore all aspects of Human Rights together for three weeks - go talk to ministries, site visits, NGO volunteering and homestays. It's pretty intense.

Bus Tour Around the
Back Streets of Kigali

Ineza Cooperative

Nation Building Exercise

That last one is us participating in Umuganda. Every last Saturday of the month is community service day throughout Rwanda, when neighbourhoods get together to repair roads, build things and clear land, like we did. Well, the participants did, I was quite naughty and stood chatting to a fascinating IT Consultant about his work. He's invented survey software for a tablet or phone, which means you can take a survey into rural areas and the data will immediately be transferred via GPS/internet to a spreadsheet in the office. I was considering the possibilities of this for NGO monitoring and evaluation. 

It's probably a good thing I held back. Towards the end, people cottoned onto my Britishness and apparently told my colleagues that I should stand up and account for my country's actions. Vincent didn't tell me this until we were safely out of there. I'm not really sure what I would have said, other than 'Yes, the situation sucks. Sorry.'

Instead, we found a lovely woodcraft shop down the road. Some really beautiful items, including this statue, apparently carved from Jacaranda.

We returned to our hostel in town and undertook a number of Human Rights workshops and discussions. I'd put together a day on Human Rights, Monorities and the Media, which included the deputy editor of New Times coming to lead a discussion on freedom of speech, which was extremely interesting. When we asked participants to rate the perceived level of freedom of media in their country, the Americans went for around 7/8 and the Rwandans 4/5. When asked if 4/5 was a bad thing, Rwandans mostly said 'no', that it was necessary to maintain peace whilst their country developed. I expected the Americans to have a strong reaction to this line, but they mostly ended up agreeing and saying that sometimes they felt there was too much freedom of media in their countries - that anyone cold say anything. 

Drama Presentation on LGBTI Rights by
Pride Ark Association

We also had a lengthy debate with Pride Ark Association, one of Rwanda's leading LGBTI rights organisations, plus HDI, a progressive health NGO, plus CHABHA on HIV/AIDS and the National Paralympic Committee on disability rights. It was great to see Celestine again, having worked with NPC for two years on the Disability Coalition.

Minor logistical issue. Damascene only comes to do my dishes and laundry once a week. Working every day I was getting through twice as many clothes, so had to knuckle down and do some washing myself for the first time since being a VSO. This is my laundry corner at 6PM in the evening after a long day, note the bottle of beer? 

In between all of that, I did manage to escape for an afternoon to attend my friend Patrizia's leaving party. So sad about this. Met whilst doing the AVSI contract last year, and bonded over horror movies. After something like six years in-country her organisation terminated her post. She's gone back to Italy with her son and husband for a rest.

I helped out in the kitchen and the food was spectacular.

Managed to get home from our trip to Kibuye in time to race to the airport and see her off.

Farewell Patrizia, you will be missed.