Dec 30, 2009

Batwa: Still Waiting For Compensation

Sample Image Over a decade since the Rwandan genocide and the massive dsiplacement that followed, Batwa people still wait to receive the compensation and land settlements that will allow them to try and rebuild their everyday lives

Below is an article published by the Sydney Morning Herald:

The road from the Rwandan border to north Kivu province in Congo is serpentine, a sinuous climb around hundreds of emerald hills farmed and tamed into a fecund patchwork. All manner of crops flash by: corn as high as a man, maize, avocado, beans and potatoes in flower.

Men and women, children and elders traipse along the roadside, usually in single file, their heads laden with water cans, bundles of firewood, leaves, freshly harvested crops.

Congo, or the DRC, is Africa's third-biggest nation. More than 60 million people live in its vast, resource-rich lands. An astounding 5.4 million have died violently or as the result of hunger and disease caused by war in the past decade alone. In the DRC, agony is etched into the faces of its people, terrorised by brutal internal conflict and violent incursions from its neighbours - Rwanda, Uganda and southern Sudan.

The last conflagration, known as the five-year war, officially ended in 2003 but here, on the eastern borders of the nation, the UN's biggest peacekeeping force, 17,000-strong, has struggled to provide security to the people. As the convoy of vans bounces its way towards the township of Kimoka and Shasha refugee camp, children smile and shout a chorus of ''good morning'' from the roadside.

In Shasha, a refugee settlement surrounded by an amphitheatre of unforgettably green mountains and hills, Ndchaya Adolphe Bonane, the camp leader, is dressed for visitors in a black, fluoro pink and yellow shirt that would stop a road train.

He is a small man, like his people, known as the Twa or Batwa, a pygmy group who are widely accepted as the oldest known inhabitants of the Great Lakes region. Populations are found in Congo, Uganda and Rwanda, and were subjugated first by the Tutsi 500 years ago. Ever since, they have been a relatively voiceless minority regarded as inferior by both Tutsi and Hutu.

During the Rwandan genocide, up to 30 per cent of the pygmy population died in the fighting. Now, about 80,000 are believed to remain, semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers who have been driven away from their land not only by encroaching agriculture and logging but evicted from the last remaining forests as they were annexed into national parks.

Bonane says that even if security and peace can be returned to the region, his people have nowhere to live. They have not been granted land rights and the domain lost has not been compensated. At Shasha, the 300 or so inhabitants are part of an innovative project to try to find alternative, non-traditional livelihoods.

''If we get some land we would do agriculture,'' Bonane says. ''We could be self sufficient, not have to go out to work for others.''

The UN says that like Bonane, 1.4 million people in DRC are refugees in their own country. A vast majority, 68 per cent or about 847,000 people, are scattered in these areas of north Kivu province. Giovanni Zanelli, a veteran of East Africa who arrived in Rwanda with the UNHRC in the wake of the 1994 genocide, has seen the very worst that humanity can wreak on itself.

Zanelli observes that hope needs to be measured against what has passed, not just on what Western eyes observe without the context of history. The very fact that people have returned to Goma and towns like Kimoka is a sign that life has improved.

''The Congolese are open, fatalistic, they love life, music, singing, dancing. They drink, celebrate … live by their wits, doing a bit here and a bit there to survive'' he told the Herald.

In French, he says this way of life is debrouiller, which literally means to untangle. In the vernacular, it describes finding ways out of life's problems. At Kimoko, this is in evidence everywhere: women, many of them widows, have returned to their own land to rebuild their huts. .

One mother smiles gently, saying her house is on ''her land'': the poignant message is that she believes herself to be lucky to be safe where she is.