The now eight most Frequently Asked Questions about being an Expatriate Aid Worker (FAQs about EAWs)

If I “am” anything professionally, I am an “Expatriate Aid Worker” (EAW). I live abroad, generally in places for which Lonely Planet has but a few lines and a disclaimer not to go there. I work in a tiny, little way towards alleviating poverty and suffering, two manifestations of injustice. I don’t consider myself to be better than anyone else in the world. I am not a volunteer, and the challenge is as much a factor of motivation as the idealism. Success of an EAW’s work is always debatable, just like the success of an investment banker. But if I did not believe that I contribute in a tiny, little way to  improving the lives of at least some people, I could not put up with many of the less comfortable aspects of the life of an EAW, including malaria, TB, being geographically apart from friends and family, heavy workload, and occasional shelling and small arms fire.

Like all my EAW colleagues and friends, my social reference has become increasingly the EAW world, in which talking about the latest trip to Congo or Haiti feels totally natural. Natural because those in this world have also recently been somewhere similar.
However, fortunately, there are still normal people in my virtual environment, people for which “Abéché” or “Mazar-i-Sharif” may as well be on another planet. For some in that category, the attention span for stories from Dungu or Kenema is around 15 minutes, because it seems so different, and there is no way to relate to it. For others, it is fascinating, wild, mysterious. A path not taken, but wished for… (Oh yes, you would wish to have no house, no car, no wife, no children, at age 39?)
Since these normal people are asking often similar things, I thought I could write up the seven (now eight) most Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) I have received about being an EAW. If you have more, please ask, and I will add the answers.
Q 1: Isn’t this dangerous? Are you dodging bullets when going to work in the morning?
A: In most places it is not that dangerous. Where active fighting is going on, people generally flee. Apart from the evacuation of wounded – often done by National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies and/or the ICRC – there is no particular need to be on the direct frontlines. In conflict environments, EAWs are often based in the next “safer town” into which Internally Displaced Persons (within their own country) or refugees (those who crossed an international border) are fleeing.
Now, that does not mean that EAWs do not venture out with knowledgeable local staff to the direct conflict zones, to evaluate the situation and bring assistance if needed. And conflict travels, even into your base that was not (originally) in middle of a fighting, as happened to me in Monrovia in 2003. Security management is one of the prime responsibilities for any middle manager or senior manager in the aid world. One must always gauge whether the risk of going out is worth what one can potentially achieve for people in need. As one becomes a more senior EAW, one is often based far away from the actual conflict zone, in a capital like Islamabad or Kinshasa, where a relatively normal life can be had, while the worry for your staff remains, of course.
Much of EAW work is in reconstruction and recovery after a conflict, earthquake, or flooding. Then, security risks have often moved towards common crime. And what do you think is the prime source of death for EAWs? Car accidents. So drive carefully with those heavy Land Cruisers.
Some EAWs also do pure development work, for example they try to help improve the health system of a country like Mozambique, and they may never actually feel unsafe beyond the danger of crime, which exists anywhere in the world.
Q 2: What do you eat? Isn’t food scarce in these places?
A: Yes, we EAWs eat, and often the food is decent. Sad to say, but even in famine zones, food is available, for a price. The price is too high for many people to afford it, because of drought, conflict, or a combination of both. This is precisely why we are there. It needs to change. However, we can’t change it if we starve ourselves.
To be sure, often you do have to make some compromises if you have special dietary requirements. Outside Asia, it’s pretty hard to be a vegetarian EAW, for example. I am not a vegetarian, but ironically I found that famine-affected Somalis were particularly into meat. When on field trips in Chad, it happened that I would have to buy some bread in one village and a goat in the next village, and by the time we reached our overnight destination, where we would sleep under a mosquito dome, we would have a decent mix of things to eat together.
Q 3: Where do you get water?
A: There are no stupid questions. But this one comes close. Where there is permanently no water, there are no human beings. Most poor people have to drink water, which is not fit for consumption. If potable water is not on tap, EAWs may carry bottled water, use purification pills, or simply boil it. And yes, they may very well be on a trip to improve the water supply.
Q 4: Who does your laundry?
A: Surprisingly, the absolute most FAQ I had in the past 11 years. So here is the hard truth. Please address all hate mails directly to me, because for some people this is decadence. I will bear the brunt of my profession.
Most EAWs live in houses (either in shared houses or, if they are in a “family duty station”, in their own houses with their spouses and sometimes children), where most employ someone to do cleaning, laundry, and sometimes cooking. That may occasionally mean that your socks come back half the size they were before, or never come back at all. But no, relatively few EAWs buy their toilet paper themselves.
There are two ways to look at it:
1) EAWs invade formerly colonized still poor countries and continue a lifestyle where they are the masters and the locals serve them.
2) EAWs work, depending on the urgency of the situation, between 10-16 hours a day, 5-7 days a week. (Average probably somewhere in the middle.) They are faced with a lot of work stress and frustrations. They travel frequently around the country or the region. Given the circumstances, not having to tend to the daily logistics of life is a huge relief. Plus, it provides employment, generally combined with health care otherwise difficult to get. The salaries are poor by Swiss standards, but way above average for a developing or conflict-affected country. If treated like any human being has the right to be treated, house staff is generally very happy to bring revenue to their often large family.
Q 5: What do you do for leisure?
A: This is a popular question among recruiters, because the danger of burn out is very real in the EAW work and life style. I have seen a few people going over their limits and needing medical and/or psychological treatment. Security permitting (which is the case in most instances, see above), EAWs would do one of the following to get distracted from the eternal internal and external problems they face (80% of the job of an EAW at any level is related to solving problems):
1) Going to restaurants or bars, meeting other EAWs (including VIPs with whom you have failed all week to get an appointment through their Dutch personal assistant);
2) Organizing a party at your house, or (preferably) going to someone else’s house to do the same. Amazing what a few crates of beer (if culturally acceptable), a good external hard drive full of 80ies and 90ies music, two decent loudspeakers, can do to make you forget quite a lot of shit, even if all around you is sand or mud;
3) Watching a movie. That power point presentation in that important workshop was so sharp that the same projector can be used to project a movie, provided you have a white wall or a white bed sheet, and, again, two good loud speakers. I will never forget how we showed the extended full version of “Apocalypse Now” in the desert of Eastern Chad under the open stars on a Friday night. Out of the initial 25 people or so, to be honest, only 10 did not leave before the 3.5 hours were over. But the survivors wanted to see the bonus material until well after midnight. In Afghanistan, I once invited all staff to my home and gave them a choice of movies. They only wanted war movies, so I clarified that war reminds me too much of work, so we agreed on a thriller as a compromise;
4) In some towns or capitals, there are often cultural centers, museums, historical sights (no one knows about), or even beaches.
Q 6: Is it possible to have a relationship?
A: Most EAWs are neither Mother Theresa nor Warren Buffett. They are something in between. They haven’t left other needs behind at home in the store room. Pretty human. Relationships are part of it. Fortunately, in the places I’ve worked, the times where male EAWs would hook up with prostitutes seems over. In many organizations, it is even outright forbidden to exchange money for sex considering the circumstances of those countries and the values at the heart of development work. Some EAWs obviously fall in love at some point with a local man or woman. Most often, however, the relationships are between EAWs. Imagine two relatively idealistic people posted to a foreign country, living under less than ideal conditions and experiencing a lot of stress. The likelihood that you meet another EAW with something to talk about and with similar values is actually quite high.
So yes, it is possible to have a relationship, particularly if both have climbed up the EAW career ladder as far as to be able to live in a capital city for 1-4 years at a time. For most EAW couples, the moment of truth comes when the assignment of one or the other is over. Then it is either the end of what is commonly called a “mission relationship”, or something more. Whereas at home, the end of a contract would not generally mean the end of a relationship, in the EAW world it does, quite frequently so. To find a job for both in Jenin or in Niamey, which satisfies both people’s professional aspirations as well as all expectations on living conditions, can be quite challenging. Often what I observed is that one partner will accept a job, while the other will come along and look for a job while there.
Having real, meaningful relationships in disaster zones is difficult, even more difficult than relationships already are. It is much easier in a Capital and very easy if both can find a job in Headquarters.
Having said this, I have met couples, who are today in their 50s, who have moved around the world for 20 years, often with children, and still seem to be doing  very well. Sometimes I envy them. Having a meaningful job abroad and a family at the same time seems too good to be true.
Q 7: Additional question from reader: Are you getting paid for this?
As with the other questions, the rift between someone with a “normal life” and someone with an EAW lifestyle is so great, that the answer is obvious to all of us working in the field, whereas some people outside the aid world may associate an EAW worker either with a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in Nicaragua, or a decadent civil servant in Bangkok confusing her or his bank account with her/his value as a person.
EAW salaries are somewhat of a taboo subject. So let’s talk about it. I always liked the transparency with which Oxfam is dealing with this. Look at any international job advert and you know what an Oxfam EAW gets.
A: Yes, the vast majority of EAW workers is getting paid, and not too poorly, but that is subject to debate.
The answer varies greatly according to the categories of EAWs. What is true for almost all is that, apart from a salary, there are additional benefits linked to living and working abroad. For example, most EAWs have their overseas housing costs and health insurance covered (incl. for their spouses and children, if it is a family duty station).
Depending on the organization one may work for, allowances for security or hardship, relocation (i.e. moving your private stuff), an allowance for posts hard to recruit, a rental subsidy (in the rare case housing is not included), and either a daily subsistence allowance (DSA) or something balancing out the difference in cost of living between countries; is also part of the deal.
In a sometimes hypocritical way, when this taboo question is asked during an EAW party, some EAWs will mention their USD 1,000/month salary, forgetting that they have few expenses due these add-ons. Some EAWs boast about how little they make; others boast about how much they make. The latter category makes me want to vomit more easily than the first category. However, the proclaimed idealists-only higher moral stance has also serious flaws.
So let’s not talk about salary but about “packages”. 

There is an unofficial hierarchy (from bottom up): 1. NGOs, 2. ICRC, 3. UN; 4. Donors

1. NGOs
1.1 NGOs with international volunteers
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are born out of a revolt in reaction to injustice. Revolts turn into organizations with different policies. For some, being a volunteer is an important part of their identity. For example, the French section of Doctors without Borders, or Voluntary Services Overseas, makes it very clear that they seek motivated idealists. EAWs in these organizations certainly do not make savings, but neither do they have to top up with their private funds what is often their often first international experience.
1.2 NGOs with international staff
That probably accounts for the majority of EAW people out there. Those are the MERLIN‘s, the Oxfam‘s (although they have many volunteers as well), the CARE’s, the Save the Children‘s, the IRC‘s, and thousands of others, you name them. Depending on the EAW’s country of origin of the staff (and, these days, the value of that respective home currency), the package will still generally be relatively OK, though definitely small considering the risks, living and working conditions, and the sometimes immense responsibilities some NGO EAWs have when they have to manage a large number of staff and funds entrusted to them.
The reputed strictly neutral and independent humanitarian organization is still a dream for many an EAW. But not due to the money, due to the experience. The International Committee of the Red Cross offers a good package (growing with higher levels of responsibility and with performance), higher than almost all NGOs, but lower than the UN. The ICRC would like to keep its staff for as long as possible, which is a difficult task given that it is a purely humanitarian organization, where you get that once-per-year Email from HR announcing your next duty station, and – compared to organizations, which also do longer-term development work – relatively few family duty stations are available. Nowadays, the ICRC is quite successful in retaining staff. The sought mix of idealism and competence of its work force seems just about right to me. “It is also a satisfaction to belong to the Red Cross”, I remember an HR executive telling middle managers in a course, saying that upping the salaries would not give justice to the value of the Red Cross Movement, where most people from the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world are indeed true volunteers.
3. UN
The United Nations (UN) comprises the UN secretariat and more than 20 specialized agencies or institutuions. While I was with the ICRC, I found the input-output ratio of many UN workers not in a good ratio, considering that the UN agencies (with variations) offer a better package than the ICRC. The salary scale is publicly accessible; the benefits are harder to find. Many NGO EAW are also disturbed by the discrepancy in R&R (Rest and Recreation) regimes. Those are arrangements, which also exist with NGOs and the ICRC, where one can leave its duty station for a week or so every 6-12 weeks (six being in very extreme situations only) without it being deducted from your leave balance. If you are working in what some describe as a shithole, and you see some people leaving every eight weeks, while you can only leave every twelve weeks, it goes against some fundamental sense of justice for some.
Today, I see this issue more nuanced. The UN is indispensable in the international system, and it’s the closest thing to a parliament of nations. The UN also, believe it or not, has troubles finding competent people and inciting them to stay. While I was amongst the big critics of the UN conditions when I was in Chad, for example, I found myself totally exhausted after nine months, whereas many of my UN colleagues stayed for two years. High turn-over also has a cost. My idealist criticism also further decreased when the American Peso (formally called US Dollar) diminished so much in value against the major currencies that the difference became less in terms of what economists call Purchase Power Parity.
4. Donors
For many an EAW, the big dream, the big price. Those USAID’s, DFiD’s, are allocating funds to all the others down the “food chain” (as a long-term EAW called it). The few donor representatives in the field are topping the pyramid in terms of packages. They are part of their respective government pay scale. There is little criticism to be heard in the EAW world about this, probably because one does not want to have a bad relationship with a donor, and because every tax payer in the developed world would want to be sure that someone competent and non-corruptible makes the right decisions about the use of that humanitarian and development budget for that really complex country or region. The smartest donors increasingly decentralize their staff to be as close as possible to the people in need and the partners of implementation.  
My very personal conclusion is: EAWs all make some money, and why on Earth shouldn’t they? Does the banking system have better managers than the EAW world? Can people affected by poverty count on a bail out in the same way that system-relevant banks can? Also, most organizations, whether non-governmental, governmental, or international, find it hard to recruit and retain competent personnel, who are willing to put up with the realities of the field. Amongst the sacrifices may be your own family.
Some EAWs are able to just get by with the money. Those are likely to be at entry level and stay for a shorter period of time. They are also likely to criticize those in the other categories, who make more, out of a position of moral superiority. Often, they reach those higher categories over time themselves.  Others stay on for longer, see it as a profession as much as a mission, can save over time for a house.

There are still absurdities and injustices, which should be eliminated. Every USD, GBP, or CHF, which taxpayers or individual donors have entrusted to any entity, should be spent in way that is most likely to bring lasting change to the people in need. That includes some experts in the field.

But the bottom line is: If you are not already an EAW and have been reading that far, maybe waiting that finally some figures are posted, and are now continuing with research on sites such as Glassdoors to find out just precisely what will be on your bank account at the end of the month in your dream job, well, stay away from the aid world. The smile of a little girl in a remote village in Afghanistan benefiting from a successful project should always be your first compensation. 

Q 8: How long do you still want to do this?

A: Some people become EAWs for their personal development, for a couple of years. Others seek temporary adventure (often disappointed). Some have become non eligible for any normal job back home, so they stay on a bit longer than most of their colleagues and partners might wish.
And for some, it has become their life, their profession. EAWs often have to manage sizeable teams and budgets. It’s not enough to become a “good doer” after you have watched a really distressful documentary about Zimbabwe. You need to be as much of a professional as when you work in a Swiss insurance. If you do a bad job, people including your staff or yourself may be hurt. If you have some degree of success, you may accompany people in transforming their lives.
My very personal answer is: As long as the annual health checks remain good (I call them “astronaut tests” because of the quantities of blood they take for only-god-knows-what-tests – not unlike astronauts, the assumption is that you may not be within quick reach of a good health facility if you fall ill), I would not know what I would rather do. It’s frustrating. It’s stressful. Your social environment changes too frequently. But fundamentally most EAWs, and I still count myself in, do something they believe in, meet an amazing variety of people, and even if the days are sometimes long, none is ever the same.
There was unexpected interest in this post. Continue to Email me your questions and comments. The content of the answers are my personal views only.

Keeping Hope Alive in Mogadishu – UN News Service

OCHA Humanitarian Affairs Officer Ahmed Farah Roble listens to IDPs at an IDP settlement in Mogadishu, Somalia

23 December 2011 – It is a hot, dusty morning in Mogadishu, the war-ravaged capital of Somalia, and Ahmed Farah Roble is in a makeshift settlement for internally displaced persons (IDPs), listening to a mother tell him about her baby daughter.

Ahmed nods patiently, asks questions and listens attentively. He is in the camp to meet with its representatives, to learn more about their situation. Many have recently arrived from the country’s south, fleeing hunger and conflict. They have very little, and urgently need food and medicine, shelter and health care.

It is hard not to be affected by what he sees and hears, especially as the 45-year-old was born and raised in Mogadishu. As the longest-serving UN humanitarian affairs officer in the capital, Ahmed has heard many similar heart-breaking tales before.
“But it is painful, still. I can say that, before, this was a peaceful city. It was paradise. Now, these people living here have lost everything, their property, opportunities for education. There are not enough health services. There is no safe drinking water in some areas,” he says.

“I’m one of those who was here in the golden days, when the situation was good. These last 20 years, when the country was devastated by endless and continuous conflict, it is really painful for me.”

Ahmed Farah Roble and UNHCR staff see first-hand the conditions at IDP settlement in Mogadishu, Somalia.

For much of the past four years, through some of Mogadishu’s heaviest fighting, he was the lone man on the ground for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – the part of the UN responsible for bringing together humanitarian groups to ensure a coherent response to emergencies.

The situation has been so dangerous that, until recently, OCHA was unable to deploy more staff to join him.

“It was not an easy task to work here then,” says Ahmed. “All of the humanitarian community was targeted, no matter whether they were international or national. You could be targeted, kidnapped and killed at any time.”

“It was a critical time, and even for me it was very difficult to get access to the people most in need.”

National staff members like Ahmed make up more than 90 per cent of humanitarian workers around the world, working on the frontlines. Too often, they bear the brunt of violence, as illustrated today with the deaths of two staff members of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and a colleague working for a partner organization in central Somalia.

The dangers of working in Somalia, and restricted access for internationals, have led to a greater reliance on national staff, as well as local partners.

“International staff bring a wealth of technical experience to this crisis, but the role played by national staff is just as important,” says Marcel Stoessel, the head of OCHA’s sub-office in Mogadishu. “After all, nobody knows Somalia better than the Somalis – and without the local expertise of our national colleagues, international staff couldn’t do their jobs.”

“National staff speak the local language and often some local dialects as well, so they can more easily interact with people. They also understand the clan structure in Somalia, which is important if one wants to be successful in this humanitarian operation. They help us make crucial links with the government.

“Last, but not least, it’s much safer for them to move around Mogadishu than it is for international staff. People like Ahmed are our ‘humanitarian eyes and ears’.”

Ahmed’s family is in a neighbouring country for safety. For much of the time that he has been in Mogadishu, the city has been riven by a fluid frontline dividing the two sides – fighters belonging to the Islamist militant Al-Shabaab movement and troops belonging to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

Ahmed Farah Roble speaks with a Somali NGO representative while in the Mogadishu sub-office.

The violence worsened the already dire humanitarian situation for the city’s existing residents, and well as the many new people who sought help and refuge there after famine struck parts of the south in mid-2011.

Since Al-Shabaab’s withdrawal from the central parts of Mogadishu in August, the frontlines have been pushed back to the city’s outskirts – but the situation is still far from secure. The use of roadside bombs, grenades and suicide bombers is a regular occurrence, and on the rise.

“The scale-up of humanitarian aid has done a lot for the situation here. Malnutrition rates and mortality rates have dropped, and access is better in some places – so I have been able to visit various IDP settlements. But there is a need for more help,” Ahmed says. “I see it and hear it all the time.”

Heading back to his car to make his way to the OCHA sub-office is no easy feat. IDPs try to grab his attention with every step. Finally back at his desk, now populated with two new national colleagues and three international colleagues, Ahmed starts preparing a report on what he has heard and seen during his visit.

The report will inform OCHA and its partners about the humanitarian needs of that IDP settlement, allowing the humanitarian system to direct essential aid to its residents.

“I have the sense of a humanitarian. That’s a real driving force which helps me to forget everything, especially when I feel so far from my family, when I am doing this night and day. I’m just happy that I am doing a good thing.”

Duty station: Mogadishu, Somalia

I don’t know what the hell I thought when I knew I was definitely going to Mogadishu, Somalia, to help the United Nations with the coordination of humanitarian affairs there. I probably did not “think” in Eckhart Tolle’s sense, because at that time I was in the holistic retreat.

Reactions from friends were varied. The more informed ones asked for clarification whether I would be based in Nairobi and rotating into Mogadishu. The answer was: No, my duty station is Mogadishu, Somalia. They said anything from a soft “That’s going to be a challenge” to an outright “You have gone totally crazy”. 

I am now here since 20 days yes, it’s an enormous challenge, but no I haven’t gone crazy yet.

Amongst the unfortunate people of this world affected by conflict and other disasters, Somalis clearly rank last. That is if there is a rank to be found at all. For many aspects of poverty, “Somalia” has simply “no data”, so it shows up White instead of Deep Red on those maps. I have not seen yet a single house with no bullet holes. At least a generation seems lost. The security situation is still extremely volatile. Access to the vulnerable children, women, and men, remains our primary concern.

Coordination between the humanitarians seems like a boring job: Organizing meetings and filling out tables. But it’s far from that. Coordination is saving lives. By trying to ensure that gaps in assistance are filled, and trying to avoid duplication, resources are used more efficiently for those, who need it most. We also work with our partners in order to be prepared and if possible avoid future humanitarian crisis. Presently, for example, the October – December “Deyr” rainy season is a big concern. Disease outbreak is a distinct possibility given the overcrowding of camps, bad drainage, no functioning garbage collection, and sewage, which could infiltrate drinking water. Partners work with high intensity to distribute more plastic sheeting to the displaced people, to do mass health promotion campaigns, to chlorinate water sources, and stock up on medication if worst comes to worst.

 Being involved in coordination also means that you meet people from absolutely all walks of life, Somalis and foreigners.

Whatever you have planned for in Mogadishu, Somalia, your day will be different: Time goes by so quickly that when I look at my watch and its 5 p.m., I am often surprised and feel I have just got started.  Every day humanitarians are working into the evenings.  The needs of vulnerable Somalis are first and foremost in all of their minds. The environment is so difficult that even the basic things take an awful lot of time.

“Duty station: Mogadishu, Somalia”, means working and living under very strict security rules and living in a communal environment. It means I get up early and go to bed late. It means checking my Emails and answering my phones permanently, meeting staff and partners, maximizing the time I can spend on making this operation more effective and inclusive. I cannot overstate how much I admire our Somali staff and partners. For them, it’s not a duty station; it’s their home, their daily life.
Good thing I followed my instict before I went to Somalia. Some long-term humanitarian workers, like all professionals, have a tendency to think “been there, done that”. I will never think that again even when my tour in “Duty Station: Mogadishu, Somalia”, will be finished.

Playing with fire in Congo

The UN has lent its support to government efforts to drive out rebels. But ordinary people are suffering as a result

Furaha, a 40 year-old mother, was working in her field when she was seized by a group of armed men and raped. For the next six months she served as their sex slave and was forced to sleep with around six men a day.

“One day they beat me so hard that I thought I was dead; they left me there and I don’t know how long I was unconscious. The first thing I remember is the peacekeepers rescuing me.”

Furaha’s story shows why 10 years into its mission, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s UN peacekeeping force – better known by its French acronym Monuc – is as vital as ever. She literally owes them her life.

But the UN has taken a wrong turn and Monuc has let down the very people it was meant to help. This year a military strategy, planned by the Congolese government and backed by the UN, aimed to bring peace by aggressive action against a rebel group. But it has gone catastrophically awry.

Since January, 900,000 people have fled their homes and more than a thousand civilians have been killed. Homes have been burned to the ground and women and girls – some as young as four – have been brutally raped.

This violence is the direct result of the Congolese army’s offensive against theDemocratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a group formed by some of those responsible for the Rwandan genocide, who have hidden in Congo since 1994. The highest echelons of the UN security council have given this offensive their backing and the peacekeepers supported it by providing the Congolese army with food rations, fuel and transport, and occasionally fire-power.

On the face of it, support for removing rebels might not seem so bad. But the suffering the offensive has unleashed is disproportionate to any results it has achieved. As of October, for every rebel combatant disarmed during this offensive, one civilian was killed, an estimated seven women were raped, six houses were torched, and 900 people were forced to flee their homes, according to a group of 84 Congolese and international NGOs.

The UN should have realised that this outcome was likely. The Congolese army is poorly paid, undisciplined and known human rights abusers serve in the officer class. As a result, many units have treated civilians as if they were the enemy. Sections of the army have burned, looted and raped wherever they have been posted.

The FDLR has also wreaked havoc and has deliberately responded to this year’s offensive with vicious reprisals against civilians. People in eastern Congo have told us that the operations have “woken a sleeping devil” and the FDLR are now more aggressive. Indeed a report by the UN’s own independent specialists on Congo, the Group of Experts, said that the offensive had failed on its own terms: the FDLR has not been dismantled and is still a threat to civilians.

The “highest priority” of the peacekeepers according to their mandate is protecting civilians. This military misadventure, however well intended it may be, goes completely against that.

After many months of downplaying the stark humanitarian consequences, Alan Doss, the head of UN peacekeeping in Congo, has said that the operation will end on 31 December, to make way for a new phase of joint UN-Congolese operations. The UN is attempting to put in place better safeguards for civilian protection this time around. The people of eastern Congo will be waiting to see if they can make that happen.

Yet there are other ways to weaken the FDLR that are less harmful to civilians. Depleting their ranks through offers of resettlement is one. Likewise, members of the FDLR in Europe and beyond have kept the militia going with funding and advice on military tactics, and need to be clamped down on. Legal action is being taken against The FDLR’s president in Germany but other members overseas are continuing their activities unhindered.

For the sake of Furaha and others like her, the UN security council must learn from the mistakes made this year and start charting a less destructive path to peace in Congo. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

Comments in chronological order (Total 29 comments)

20 December 2009 11:40AM
In a country where rebels are rebels in the morning and the government in the afternoon it will take more than the UN to bring peace.
In Africa maybe a miracle.

20 December 2009 12:03PM
Here’s a novel idea, why not lay the blame fairly and squarely on the individuals who carry out these atrocities. Those monsters who wield the machetes to maim and mutilate their victims. The depaved individuals who rape four year old infants, those who kidnap women in order to gang rape them. The responsibility lies with those criminals, nowhere else. Stop the hand-wringing and cries of mea culpa, it must be the fault of the United Nations or the former colonial powers.
Each individual must be accountable for his or her actions, no-one else forces the to commit these atrocious crimes. I doubt that there is one individual reading this newspaper would be capable of carrying out such deeds and if such a crime where to be committed in this country the person responsible would be held to account.

20 December 2009 12:29PM
To attack/invade a country, in order to give women education and liberate them from an oppressive dress code, seems justifiable.
But in Congo, a conflict where raping women and girls is used as a weapon of war and a death toll that exceeds that of Iraq and Afghanistan combined, we smugly turn a blind eye!
How has happened to our moral compass?

20 December 2009 12:45PM
The UN always has to work with the “official” government, That is why it gets itself into morally ambiguous situations like this.

20 December 2009 1:04PM
“Depleting their ranks through offers of resettlement is one”
This approach has been tried consistently by MONUC and others, and has unsurprisingly resulted in very few FDLR soldiers leaving their safe havens in North Kivu to return to Rwanda – after all, why risk possible prosecution and lengthy jail-terms, as well as giving-up free power, food, money, livestock, sex etc. off the backs of the unprotected Congolese villagers?
Also the article omits to point out other money-generating activities that the FDLR control in Eastern DRC (cassiterite / diamond / gold mines etc.) that help to swell their coffers and sustain the importations of military weapons, aside from the overseas members’ contributions.
Regrettably the situation has become arguably more complex since the start of the combined DRC-Rwandese army military interventions at the beginning of the year, and there are no clear-cut solutions to this problem that the Western powers seem to have forgotten about, more’s the tragedy.
20 December 2009 1:05PM
Lets not kid ourselves people, the UN is in there to keep the region sutiably stable for further extractive mining corporations and the like. The Congo has been one of the darkest most bruatl places on earth for almost 100 years.

20 December 2009 1:55PM
Too bad Bush got swept aside. He was doing great things for Africa.

20 December 2009 2:04PM
“But in Congo, a conflict where raping women and girls is used as a weapon of war and a death toll that exceeds that of Iraq and Afghanistan combined, we smugly turn a blind eye!”
No we don’t. We just know that any action would cause people to take to the streets with signs demanding “No Blood for Coltan”. Millions of them.
How has happened to our moral compass?
Indeed. I often wonder.

20 December 2009 3:02PM
“any action would cause people to take to the streets with signs demanding “No Blood for Coltan”. Millions of them”.
Nevertheless, we can work around that with perjury and deception.

20 December 2009 3:41PM
Well, I really like the fact that the article is bringing much needed awareness to
the one of the conflicts in Africa.
Please do more of that.
I wonder why it takes events of nightmarish proportions to ellicit coverage.
These events highlight the shortcomings of the UN for combat ops.
There has to be more thinking applied to issues like the Congo if we want to see success in nation building.
Unfortunately, the burden will be primarily on African nations (AU)who have some modicum of stability to assume a leading role.
The local politics can be daunting, and I’m not sure if you’ll get anything close to a western ideal in goverance.
The question will really boil down to how willing any group of nations are to get involved and stay involved for a long period of time
20 December 2009 3:50PM
My reading of this article was not that the west should invade Congo to stop these horrific abuses happening, or that the FDLR should be given a free hand. Surely wasn?t it highlighting the hypocrisy and morally bankrupt idea of a UN force with a peacekeeping mandate backing a Congolese army (FARDC) which is raping and pillaging every bit as much as the FDLR.
African Adventurer, the FARDC is made up of many militias who up until a year ago were still active in committing exactly the same abuses of the FDLR. The biggest group the CNDP have been integrated into the army with no additional training and little accountability for past abuses. They have been given positions of responsibility and some of their officers are suspected of war crimes, but they are not handed over to The Hague because it?s not politically expedient to do so.
A recent Global Witness report and the group of experts report as well as the report of the Special Rapporteur on Extra-judicial executions found evidence that certain units of the FARDC have taken control of a number of mines and are involved in illegal mineral smuggling. So in effect the UN has been supporting rape, murder and illegal smuggling. Shame on them and the Security Council members who give political support.
Attention has to be given to real security sector reform in the DRC, better demobilisation, better training and more judges, to ensure that impunity which allows these abuses to continue is challenged. Yes the responsibility should lie squarely with the individuals but with no rule of law this is difficult to enforce. And before we sit here in our western smugness thinking we would never do that, rape has long been seen as a spoil of war, after Germany surrendered in 1945, thousands of women were raped by the Russian army.
20 December 2009 4:04PM
Just a thought.
Ever wonder why African affairs rarely make in on the western medias
I thought at first it was just racism plain and simple.
Nowadays, I’m not so sure.
The west’s national interests dont seem to include very many things African.
North Africa gets attention because of proximity to the EU, besides that,
the central african states are seemingly on their own.
20 December 2009 4:05PM
The UN aren’t a lot of use. I’m not sure why anyone is surprised by this. The conflict will continue until one side wins. But the UN will specifically act to prevent this happening. Both sides will perform what we call ‘war crimes’ as a matter of course. While both sides are deadlocked, struggling for control, neither side seems worse than the other in this respect. But once one side gains the upper hand, then they will clearly be committing far more war crimes, while the other, defeated side finds itself re-cast as a victim. The UN will be obliged to protect the victim and withdraw support for the perpetrators of these war crimes. Then, balance will be restored and the whole sorry business can start again.
The sooner the UN simply withdraws completely, the better.
20 December 2009 4:58PM
fififixit, I agree with your analysis of Congo.
As an aside, I agree too, that Russian forces committed horrendous atrocities as they moved in to occupy parts of defeated Germany. One further comment with regard to that statement. It has become politically correct to accuse Russia as the “bad ally” of rape following the fall of Germany in 1945. I have been an observer of Germany for two decades, and was amazed to learn that prior to the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, and prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germans still feared complaining about allied atrocities for fear that they would be viewed as not-sufficiently-contrite. As a result, many allied atrocities remain unreported. How often is it recognised in the UK, how much worse the fire bombing of Dresden was, than the bombing of London? No, I do not rehash the act itself, but I seriously abhor western ignorance of and idealisation of our forces which resulted because Germany felt it was not in a position to complain.
I am familiar with a town where the occupying forces were French, and where all women of any age were raped. This is not yet politically correct to discuss. Were British, Canadian, and American forces exceptions? I don’t think so. I have a Canadian uncle, who upon returning home to his family, reported that they were told as the occupation moved in, that it was ok to take what they wanted. Did it stop at that? I can not tell you. Would it be politically correct if I did?
20 December 2009 6:37PM
It’s kinda disheartening that Africa just doesnt really interest many people in the west.
Looking at the amount of posts here vs. other threads, it doesnt look good.
Nobody is really picking up on the fact that we need the “5 asian economic tigers phenomenon” to happen in Africa.
There are many good reasons why the central African countries need economic prosperity. I’m just not very hopeful they’ll get the opportunity without some concerted effort on our part.
21 December 2009 12:24AM
At some point people are going to pay attention.
If nothing else because of the sheer amount of corpses.
21 December 2009 1:18AM
four, or five, or six million deaths in eight, or nine, or ten years. unimaginable suffering.
remember that after the event and despite the illegality iraq and afghanistan occupations have been signed off.
for eff’s sake don’t be daft – remember guantanamo, bagram &c, and as the old nixon-kissinger phrase goes, ‘follow the money’. cassiterite has a highest price in the london stock exchange.
if you don’t want to read ft reports, listen to a bit of keith harmon snow on the net. but do read the above newsclip from channel four. probably better to go direct to their site and search ‘congo cassiterite’. it doesn’t come from anywhere else yet…
21 December 2009 1:21AM
on the newsclip point i should’ve said ‘watch’.
21 December 2009 2:14AM
Central Africa needs more than just western outrage because Uganda passed some homophobic laws. Cental Africa is much bigger than just Uganda.
The atrocities in the Congo, Rwanda, Cote d’ivore, etc..even Sudan are the stuff of nightmares.
The western left has more than enough blustering indignation on any given subject, like Uganda, Iraq, Afghanistan, Copenhagen. Where is this outrage in the face of the mass slaughter and torture of average Africans?
21 December 2009 2:27AM
What will come back to haunt the western sphere of influence is that at some point the cental African nations or coastal African nations will find an equilibrium. This will not be a western friendly influence.
Somalia is lawless to be sure, BUT the groups most dedicated to stability and most capable of providing it are not pro-west. In fact, many are fundamentalist muslim in nature.
The west doesnt have to do a thing now.
Just sit back and see what will emerge out of all this
21 December 2009 2:30AM
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21 December 2009 2:35AM
The west doesnt have to do a thing now.
Just sit back
as it has been doing during successive empires, then. as it has done during the structural adjustment programme period. as it is doing from the uk with the cdc, formerly commonwealth development corporation.
genned up, madjack, or only prepared to eke out your piratical glee via your screen name?
21 December 2009 4:01AM
genned up, madjack, or only prepared to eke out your piratical glee via your screen name?
I’m thinking in this case “genned up”.
Its great that there are NGOs, the UN, CDC and other folks providing relief.
Its not working.
Other parts of Africa who have established ties with the west are doing better.
Central Africa and alot of coastal African nations are in tatters.
The UN has screwed up and mismanaged what should be an example of what it can do.
I dont mean to single out the UN, because there is ALOT of missed opportunity from many sides.
I feeling a rant coming on so I’ll stop with the example of Rwanda.
We in the west should have learned something from this and didnt really give a crap.
21 December 2009 4:13AM
Ok I lied about stopping…..
It should offend western sensibilities that people on the continent are mangled, killed and sold into slavery but we could care less.
Apartheid, Darfur and now nothing…..its sad.
21 December 2009 5:54AM
Yep, keep up the coverage on this area. We want to know what is going on.
We can at least, ask to know what is going on there – not remain ignorant.
& who knows, if some opportunity comes along – we’ll be able to recognise it and take it.
21 December 2009 6:31AM
I think one reason why the Congo gets less attention that Israel is that the problems are incredibly complex and there are no goodies or baddies to side with. Nobody comes out of this well.
I am pleased to see nobody (so far) has blamed the UN for the chaos. The UN has neither the resources nor the authority to impose a solution on a war-torn nation- that was never its purpose and it does not have its own army. Long ago the UN decided to mainly use local, regional and second-rate armies when peacekeeping for political reasons and the results are inevitable; they often do no help at all (but lets not forget the UN does do good work with aid, education, healthcare etc).
Whilst I do not deny for a minute the responsibility for Belgium which abandoned Congo totally unprepared for independance back in 1960, the Congolese have had 50 years to sort themselves out, but they have never found an effective stable leader (let alone a democratic one).
They must take some responsibility for themselves. “They” does not of course include the hundreds of thousands of innocent victims.
21 December 2009 7:43AM
Keo2008, when the Congolese did choose a leader, whom they felt would represent their interests in Patrice Lumumba, the west backed Mobutu and had him executed. Thus ushering in years of a dictator who raped the countries resources for his own personal wealth and the “everyone for himself” policy that we still see in action in the DRC today. Who knows if Lumumba would have been the great liberator, I suppose the track record of many of leaders of his time wasn’t great, but he may have been the Congolese Mandela, but we will never know.
An army which doesn’t get paid takes what it wants/needs from the local populace, in exactly the same way that the many militias do. The few judges….who don’t get paid, extort money for preferential sentences, gaolers who don’t get paid…free prisoners who can pay. Everyone is in it for himself. This could also extend to the endemic levels of sexual violence.
The Congolese people need our support, need positive international community engagement to help to build their infrastructure, but not uncritical support. It is not acceptable for the UN or Western governments to turn a blind eye to abuses because of geo-politics. There is a lot to be said for the influence of the regional actors in the conflict in the DRC….
21 December 2009 1:13PM
@Mildubmeo ”Here’s a novel idea,why not lay the blame fairly and squarely on individuals who committed these attrocities.” ”Stop the handwringing cries of Mea Culpa.”
There is no debate about the Congo and it’s FIVE MILLION dead because no one cares about the Congo.27 comments on CIF threads speaks volumes.As Johan Hari reported last year: The deadliest war since Adolf Hitler marched across Europe and YOU are certainly carrying a blood soaked chunk of slaughter in your back pocket.When you look at the Congo and the cliches of Africa reporting tumble out, ‘Tribal Conflict’, ‘Heart of Darkness’,It isnt.United Nations investigations found it was a war of ‘Armies of Business’, seizing metals that make our 21st Century zing and bling.The war is about you. The UN names the international cooperation involved, Anglo American,Standard Chartered Bank,Deer Veers, and one hundred others, But our governments told them to stop criticizing the coorperations. Meanwhile a pathetic UN force of 17,000,fails to protects civillians from slaughter’.

21 December 2009 3:26PM
If people dont care, they cant be made to care.
We care more about African wild life populations.
The slaughter will continue unabated.

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Will Hillary speak out over mass rape in Congo?

As Congo’s rape crisis spirals out of control, Hillary Clinton’s visit must help urge the international community to rethink its support for an offensive that has forced more than 800,000 people to flee their homes, reports Oxfam’s Marcel Stoessel. 

This afternoon I’m supposed to be attending a meeting with the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who flew into Congo last night. She’s here to meet victims of sexual violence from the conflict in the east of the country, and to work towards solutions for ending Congo’s rape crisis. She couldn’t have picked a more appropriate time. Rape is widespread here, and cases have increased dramatically in the past few months.

I remember a woman I met in the remote Lubero territory of North Kivu Province. She told me she witnessed a gang rape of another woman by three armed men. It is almost impossible to describe the scenes she told me, but she was so brutally raped that she later died of internal bleeding. The witness, the woman I talked to, fled the area in terror. So did thousands of other unnamed victims in the past few months.

This terrible story happened in a very remote area of eastern Congo, an area Hillary Clinton will not visit today, and an area where UN-backed military operations are ongoing. The perpetrators are often part of an illegal armed group, but equally often they are part of the Congolese army, supported by the UN, which is in turn supported by the US government. They are likely never to be punished. I wish I would be able to relay that story directly to Hillary today, and I am sure she would be as revolted as I was and think the same as I do: that men who commit such abuses, whether they are the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels or members of the Congolese army, should not get away with it. They must know that one day they will be punished and that justice will come to Congo.

Oxfam staff recently conducted a survey of almost 600 civilians in North and South Kivu Provinces. Every single community we spoke to was terrified, and more than half said rape has increased since January, when new military operations began. Thousands of women have been raped since, civilians told us.

The recent phase of these operations, known as “Kimia II”, is now being supported by the UN Security Council and MONUC, the peacekeeping force, which is deployed to protect civilians. Kimia II was supposed to target the FDLR rebel group – which has been responsible for horrific attacks on civilians – and make life better for these communities. But so far, the offensive has had the contrary effect, and rape has surged as a result. Villagers have told Oxfam staff of children as young as four, and even men, also being raped. Many of these rapes are committed by the FDLR, but more than half of the rapes reported in North Kivu were attributed to elements of the Congolese army.

If Hillary Clinton asks me what she can do to reduce rape in eastern Congo, I will tell her first of all that the US government, and the rest of the international community, needs to urgently rethink its support for an offensive that has – according to UN figures – forced more than 800,000 people to flee their homes, and has resulted in rape cases spiralling out of control. The military option must not be the only strategy. It is always the civilians – the women, children and men of Eastern Congo – who pay the highest price for any military operation.

But ultimately, the thousands of rape cases in Congo are symptomatic of wider problems: years of conflict; an undisciplined national army which has not been paid for months; and rampant impunity which sees rapists and attackers rarely if ever brought to justice. The US and others must help establish a political process to address the root causes of the conflict. They must also pressure and support the Congolese government to comprehensively reform its army, police and judicial institutions.

I had the privilege to meet the DRC President, HE President Kabila, in March. He was very open to hear the stories of ordinary civilians, stories that are possibly not always reported to him through his own channels. The President seemed thoroughly committed to ending impunity in his security forces. He told our delegation about the new “zero tolerance” policy for any kind of sexual violence in the ranks of the security forces. Hundreds of thousands of people hope that this policy will turn into reality, although so far only a handful of perpetrators have been arrested. But a long way starts always with the first steps.

I hope that Secretary Clinton will support President Kabila in the implementation of this policy. I hope she will also make sure that the UN Security Council, of which the United States is an important member, will not endorse any support to military operations, which make things worse rather than better for the women and girls of eastern Congo. High-level politicians told me in recent months that “things have to get worse before they get better” in Congo, that the humanitarian fallout of the current operations is the “price for peace” to be paid. Nothing is further from the truth.

The ordinary civilians in these remote and forgotten areas tell us that things have indeed got much worse, but they have little or no hope that they will get any better. The “price for peace”, as the international community seems to want to call it, is too high for them.

Congo: If only the world would not look away

Marcel Stoessel’s journey through war-torn eastern Congo reveals desperate need on a huge scale that the world must not ignore.

Congolese soldiers patrol in eastern Congo, January 2009.
Congolese soldiers patrol in eastern Congo, January 2009.

It was in late March that I started receiving increasingly worrying reports about alleged atrocities in remote areas of North Kivu. Military operations by the Congolese army against the FDLR rebel group had continued (Rwandan troops deployed in a joint operation with the Congolese army withdrew in February); and reports suggested that the offensive was likely to expand to South Kivu.

I heard about reprisal attacks, the burning of houses, sexual violence, looting, and people being prevented from accessing their fields, their only source of food. Many of these reports were coming from areas where Oxfam teams had begun carrying out life-saving work with a local partner, helping to provide safe drinking water, clean latrines and public health education.

I could not believe what I was reading: up to 250,000 people reported to have left their homes since January; 40,000 families said to be seeking safety in larger towns. Congolese families are big – that would mean up to 200,000 people.
Some of our senior staff, as sceptical as me, went to the field and came back with a clear report: it is true, they told me, it’s just not on TV yet.
Our immediate response was to decide to scale up our emergency operations in South Lubero. Water trucks were sent to provide clean water to the displaced and the families who hosted them. Hygiene items were distributed, and health promoters were deployed to help avoid the worst: the outbreak of epidemics, which could kill thousands.

We also decided to open an emergency response office in the neighbouring province of South Kivu where we were getting reports of another military build-up, indicating that a similar tragedy could happen there.

A few days later, I was on a plane crossing this vast country towards the conflict zone to support our field staff and to get a first-hand view of what was happening on the ground. After two flights and a trip by road I finally arrived in Lubero. The government representative there told me the situation was dramatic and people needed urgent help.

I continued by road southwards, into what the United Nations called the “red zone” – not to be used without military escorts. Oxfam refuses such escorts, due to concerns that we may be perceived as supporting a particular side in any conflict. It was one day after an attack on the town of Luofu, where 255 houses were deliberately burned to the ground.
We met some displaced people on the road, who were just fleeing from the fighting, carrying what little possessions they could with them. They were exhausted and desperate.

They were heading to a town called Kirumba, which was also our destination. Several thousand people had gathered there for an Oxfam emergency distribution of essential hygiene items. Two days later, we would start trucking 60,000 litres of clean water to Luofu.

Through an interpreter, I heard some of their stories. One woman witnessed another being gang-raped by three armed men. The victim died later, the witness told me. The witness – an old woman – ran away from her village with her children; but had become separated from her husband, who fled in another direction. She told me the few items she had managed to carry with her were taken away by soldiers.

I have been to places like Afghanistan and Sierra Leone and thought I had seen the worst of what human beings were capable of doing to others. But the stories of these displaced women, children, and men made it difficult to hold back tears.

As the Oxfam distribution of hygiene items continued, we travelled further south to a town called Kanyabayonga, where Oxfam was carrying out water distribution. The town’s population has more than doubled during the recent fighting, and Oxfam is trucking in 180,000 litres of clean water every day.

Traditional village chiefs from this vast remote area gathered to tell me their stories. Since the start of the military operations, the population here has been caught between a rock and a hard place. Civilians are seen with suspicion by both warring sides, and accused of being collaborators. People had no choice but to leave their villages – but also had nowhere really safe to go.

They arrived in Kanyabayonga, they said, terrified, tired, and in need of protection and help. The fighting had not stopped. One day before we arrived, the FDLR rebels had attacked Kanyabayonga itself.

People were living with host families – in some cases, up to five other families in a house. I tried to imagine how it would be – no clean water, only basic squat latrines, with little money and a war going on around me.

But what really broke my heart was to hear about the systematic burning of houses in these remote areas of North Kivu province. Villagers reported that many thousands of homes had been burned to the ground.

There are around 17,500 UN peacekeepers stationed in Congo – but with little visible presence here to give these vulnerable people any sense of safety. People I spoke to wanted to see UN peacekeepers patrol on foot, to be present in their communities. To protect them.

Now I’m back in the eastern provincial capital, Goma, where Oxfam co-ordinates its emergency operations in the DRC. I am happy that we have managed to scale up our emergency work in South Lubero. More help will come, if the security situation permits. If only the world would not look away.

One Response

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