Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Images from Mogadishu

Some more photos from the NYT Sunday article on life in Mogadishu and changes since the takeover by the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).

The former Mogadishu municipality buildings built by Italy in the late 1920's are now destroyed and riddled with bullet holes.

Military recruits jog in formation during an exercise. Former fighters allied to the warlords who previously ran Mogadishu now train at a military camp run by the Islamists.

A boy lays out in front of Mogadishu's largest mosque, The Islamic Solidarity Mosque, seen in the distance.

Photos: Jehad Nga for the NY Times

This BBC map shows UIC areas of control after the taking of Kismayo, and the enclave that remains of Baidoa, where Ethiopian troops are currently coming to the aid of President Ghedi, who was chased from the capital earlier this year.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Somalia: Islamists pacify Mogadishu; setbacks in Kismayo

It may be premature to pronounce on 'peace returning to Mogadishu', but the recent gains in territory by the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC--yes, they're on the US terrorist list) are offering enough stability for local commerce and schooling to resume at a level unseen in years. Primary schools are mixed gender, and soccer is allowed--not what anyone expected from the UIC, who were tagged with the Taliban label early on.

Yet extremist elements are still prevalent in areas under UIC control. Witness the murder of an Italian nun in a Mog hospital last week, an apparent retaliation for the Pope's citation of a 1500 year-old quote about Islam.

Yesterday the NY Times covered life under the UIC:

"... It is hard to imagine that this is Mogadishu, the same Mogadishu of “Black Hawk Down,” and clan against clan and 15 years of anarchy. But over the past three months, the Islamists in control here have defied international expectations — in many ways. Not only have they pacified one of the most dangerous cities in the world, they also seem to have moderated their message."

“Nobody knows where we’re headed,” said Ahmed Mohammed Ali, chairman of a Mogadishu human rights organization. But, he added, the Islamists “pacified this place and brought the clans together. Whatever you think about them,” he said, “you can’t overlook that.”

This morning in Kismayo, the second largest city about 500km south of Mog, UIC troops entered and took the town unopposed. Civilians gathered to welcome their arrival, but well-armed local khat traders organized a protest, which turned violent.

UIC plans to ban the lucrative khat trade, and the daily supply flights from Nairobi that keep the population munching on the bitter green twigs. The US military tried to shut down the khat trade when they arrived in 1992 (setting fire to tons of the stuff) and triggered the hatred of Somalis that would ultimately drive them from the country in shame. Perhaps the Islamists will offer some sort of compromise.

Also this morning, dozens of trucks carrying Ethiopian troops rolled across the border towards Baidoa, the residence in exile for the beleaguered Somali President who suffered an assassination attempt last week. I'm very curious to see how the region would respond a possible confrontation between Ethiopian troops and the local Islamists. My Somali taxi drivers here in Washington are already seething with rage at the audacity of their Ethiopian neighbors.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

From life to death: the visual contrasts of Darfur

Here are some photos from Darfur by Michael Wadleigh that juxtapose 'before' and 'after' to capture the brutality to which civilians are subjected by their government.

Aerial view of villages burned and spared ...

Faces of assorted combatants...

The emptiness of Darfur and the vulnerability of its inhabitants...

The AU forces scheduled to leave end September...

Monday, September 18, 2006

Darfur: the politics of mortality figures

The politically-charged and potentially lethal business of putting an exact figure of the number of victims in Darfur has raised its head again. Reuters just ran a story on some new mortality figures released in the academic journal Science, in an article called "Death in Darfur."

"We conclude that the death toll in Darfur is conservatively estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands rather than tens of thousands of people," John Hagan and Alberto Palloni write in their report. "There is no census data, there is no counting of the bodies and so we use surveys to try and set our foundation of the knowledge," Hagan said.

"What we have done is to take seven of these surveys, five of them done by the Medecins Sans Frontieres ... two done by the World Health Organization," Hagan said. "By spreading them out, initially you can get very good information on one of the three (affected) states, West Darfur, for the 19-month period. "So that's the foundation of our initial estimate. And then we build out from that to 31 months by using additional survey information from last or most recent WHO surveys."

Hagan said in West Darfur, 1 million displaced people represented about 65,000 deaths. "We figure out a ratio of displacement to death, we apply that to three states and that gets us to the estimate of about 200,000 who have died in 31 months across the three states," he said. "A similar process is occurring in each of the three states."

The timing of the report is poignant, coming at a time when the world is unifying to pressure Khartoum into accepting UN peacekeepers into Darfur to replace the AU troops departing end September. As has happened in the past with previous mortality surveys in Darfur, one can be sure that death threats will ensue--Khartoum's preferred disincentive for anyone daring to quantify cumulative mortality in Darfur.

This morning, BBC reported on the Vigils held for Darfur in over 30 cities across the planet yesterday. Khartoum of coursed dismissed the cacophony of international condemnation as media-inspired mass hysteria, clearly out of touch with the 'reality on the ground'. The truth of the matter, according to Khartoum, is one of a rebel insurgency requiring a forceful riposte from government military. What they consistently fail to answer, let alone address, is why so much killing and raping of civilians at the hands of government soldiers and their paramilitaries, the Janjawid?

As someone who has visited all three Darfur states extensively, I dont know if I'd call it genocide, but it definitely qualifies as a state-sponsored war on civilians.

No possessions / Marian Mohamed Ahmed
"I arrived here two months ago with only the clothes I was wearing. We fled when the government troops and Janjaweed killed some of my relatives. They took our animals. I think they attacked because of the colour of our skin – only black tribes are attacked."

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

DRC election showdown beckons foreign leaders

In a country where inflammatory reporting rules the day and the veracity of print media is sold to the highest bidder, I was surprised to see a surprisingly balanced article appearing in yesterday's Le Potentiel, the premier Kinshasa daily. It described the recent arrival of a slew of international bigwigs to reinforce the tenuous truce holding between vice-president Bemba and President Kabila as they await the final electoral showdown of October 29.

RSA's Thabo Mbeki, the EU's Javier Solana, the UK Development Minister Hilary Benn are just a few of the well-intentioned notables taking time out from their hectic schedules to personally visit the two candidates, and make a final plea for a peaceful outcome.

An extract from Benn's speech to the press:

« Au cours de mes entretiens aujourd’hui avec le président Kabila ainsi que le vice-président Bemba, je leur ai dit qu’en tant que dirigeants potentiels de ce pays, qu’ils devraient démontrer les mêmes engagements pour la démocratie que le peuple. Le verdict des urnes et non la violence, constituent l’unique voie par laquelle chacun de deux hommes se passera pour un dirigeant crédible de la RDC. »

Nothing could be more clear or true for the two leaders, in whose hands lies the future of the Congolese people. One can only hope that, for once, Bemba and Kabila were actually listening, as they sat sharpening their knives.

Monday, September 11, 2006

A lethal vacuum: AU peacekeepers leave Darfur

From today's NY Times:

“What happened in Rwanda, it will happen here,” said Sheik Abdullah Muhammad Ali, who fled here from a nearby village seeking the safety that he hoped the presence of about 200 African Union peacekeepers would bring. But the Sudanese government has asked the African Union to quit Darfur rather than hand over its mission to the United Nations. “If these soldiers leave,” Sheik Ali said, “we will all be slaughtered.”

An IDP settlement called 'Rwanda', after the AU Rwandan contingent who've now departed, leaving a potentially lethal protection vacuum.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Signs of hope for Burundi

A lot is happening in Burundi these days. At least, recent events are offering some respite from the daily grind of poverty, joblessness, mind-numbing hunger, the pageantry of inept and paranoid politicians, a muzzled press... the list of untold joys goes on.

On the political front, an unexpected truce was signed this morning in Dar es Salaam between the government and the last remaining rebel group, the Forces de liberation nationales or FNL. Brokered negotiations have often looked too tenuous to ever succeed, and with arrests and detentions of suspected 'coup plotters' and FNL sympathizers dramatically increasing in recent months, it seemed clear that the FNL was better off continuing its struggle than surrendering to a government that has lost all popular credibility since winning national elections in August 2005. All the new government's promises of restored security, free education for Burundi's children, a reinvigorated economy and good relations with international donors, particularly the IMF and the World Bank--not one of these has been realized.

Former President Ndayizeye was
arrested on allegations of a recent
coup plot
Inside the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD--which portrays itself as a popular movement addressing the needs of the poor--fissures of discontent are beginning to show, hopefully resulting in better governance for Burundians. On Monday, in a clear vote of no-confidence that initially frightened then emboldened my Burundian colleagues, Vice-President Alice Nzomukunda resigned over corruption and human rights abuses that she claimed are hampering the nation's progress. The move was initially worrisome because of the 'sky is falling' reactions it triggered in this nation of hardened political skeptics. After the dust settled, however, political commentators and commoners alike were expressing support for the resignation as the first official recognition of the administration's illegitimacy.

Nzomukunda summarized her decision:

"My decision was motivated by numerous political problems which Burundian people are undergoing - problems of security, of not respecting the law, the management of state finances and of human rights laws which are violated. The country was on a good path to overcome all these problems, but corruption and economic embezzlement are undermining it," she said.

How the country is crumbling

I'm presently working here on child rights violations committed by the government, its various bodies--particularly its forces of order--and by insurgent groups. The sheer quantity of documented violations boggles the mind, and are enough to declare the prospect of childhood in Burundi a lethal undertaking. If the man in blue isnt raping or killing the little folk, they're dying from diahrrea or a fever for lack of basic health care.

Independent experts appear to agree that Burundi is a tragic place. The Happy Planet Index, published by the New Economics Foundation, an economics thinktank in the UK, recently rated Burundi 176 out of 178 of the world's (un)happiest countries. Zimbabwe and Swaziland took the last two spots.

Yet the country is ravaged in seemingly countless other ways, many of which are undocumented by the national press, local human rights bodies or their international equivalents. This week, however, Human Rights Watch and the Burundian Association pour la Protection des Droits Humains et des Personnes Détenues (APRODH) released a 75-page report, “A High Price To Pay: The Detention of Poor Patients in Hospitals,” documenting how Burundian hospitals detain hundreds of indigent patients, sometimes in inhumane conditions.

Many of those detained are women giving birth who unexpectedly needed caesarian deliveries. In some cases, hospital authorities refused further medical care to those who could not pay their bills and forced them to vacate their beds for wealthier incoming patients. For an excellent slideshow of conditions in Burundi's abysmal health system, where indigent patients are detained until their accounts are settled, click here.

A young mother and her newborn baby, detained at Prince Louis Rwagasore Clinic in Bujumbura following a caesarean section.
© 2006 Jehad Nga

Friday, September 01, 2006

Burundi: False coup claims will extend conflict

Burundi's newly minted leaders celebrated their first anniversary in power last week here in Bujumbura with long-winded speeches at a reception for the diplomatic community. Despite clear blue skies and warm breezes off Lake Tanganyika, there was little to celebrate. With the harsh return of political intolerance and repression in recent weeks, Burundians again face an uncertain future despite a near end of over a decade of vicious civil war.

The East African reported last week that International Crisis Group (ICG) officials had called for Pierre Nkurunziza's government to produce evidence for the alleged coup plot that has resulted in the detention and torture of some of the most powerful politicians in the country. The government is saying nothing, while it is busy intimidating and detaining its critics. Hundreds of suspected FNL collaborators (the remaining rebel group) including children as young as 12 years old, have been arrested and paraded publicly at a local stadium. Many are still detained and reports of torture from human rights groups allowed to visit their prison cells are surfacing in the local media.

Days ago, the acting Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, in country for over five years, was called upon to leave Burundi by the government, who gave no public reason for the demand. Burundi's leaders are clearly sore over the UN's recent questioning of the alleged coup plot and the government's crackdown on critics and adversaries.

In the present climate, however, it is certain that regional mediation efforts, particularly by South Africa, to broker a government deal with the FNL will go nowhere. Why would they want to surrender now when leaders from every other former rebel group are being rounded up, arrested and tortured? As one Burundian friend told me: "Former friends make the worst enemies." Peace talks with the FNL in Dar es Salaam broke down in July, the alleged coup plot was declared "foiled" on July 31, and the arrest of supposed coup plotters and FNL sympathizers began shortly thereafter. Many of those initially arrested were involved in FNL peace talks in Dar the month before. Rabid paranoia can eat up the minds of the craftiest former rebels, it seems.

As a backdrop to all this, the UN peacekeeping mission in Burundi (ONUB) is scheduled to withdraw in December 06 but with the FNL continuing to recruit youth to expand its troop numbers and continue attacks on government and civilian targets, Burundi may not be ready to return to its own devices.