THE WORLD’S MOST NEGLECTED EMERGENCY
keith harmon snow
5 November 2006
Josephine Aoka Bikenge is a widow who lives along the remote Lopori River, a major tributary in the Congo River Basin. Josephine and her three daughters tied their pirogues, dugout canoes carved out of massive trees, alongside my jungle raft and together we floated for three hours while I interviewed her about life and death in rural Congo. She had never spoken to a white person.
Josephine has never used a telephone—not even the hard-wired kind—or a computer. She has never been in a car, doesn’t own a bike. No radio, no T.V. The boats are rented: she owns the paddle in her hand and one dress, she says, which she is wearing, and one pan. Before she left her home she borrowed her neighbor’s only shoes. She has a kerosene lamp. “I don’t have anything else,” she said.
She has a mud and grass hut, in a mud and grass hut village, where children die from malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhea, and malnutrition. She lost two children, one to measles, one to tetanus; her daughters have lost seven children between them. Rwandan troops (1996-1997) butchered thousands of refugees, “like chickens” she said. Soldiers raped her daughters; one was shot and can’t walk. There is no clinic. No school, no medicines, no books, no cellphones…no reporters, no human rights investigators, no goodwill ambassadors, no Bob Geldorf.
She and her daughters worked for half a year to grow crops to take to market, 300 kilometers downriver, where she was going. She set off three weeks ago, and she was halfway there. They lost some of their goods as they journeyed along the river. She would have to borrow money to get home from market—so ruthless were the taxes and thefts, so hungry her family. But there is no one to borrow money from.
The World Wildlife Fund works nearby, they have their office in the logging company compound, and they are “certifying” the company trees as “sustainable,” before the trees are shipped to Europe and the U.S., and the WWF’s connections to the BBC—who publishes their press releases verbatim—insure that no one will know the truth of the suffering and plunder, or WWF’s acquisition of land, to the exclusion of the people who live(d) on it. Medicins Sans Frontiers had a program here, but one young, bright, caring MSF doctor realized they were doing more harm than good, and she resigned, and MSF, anyways—ignoring their own report qualifying the scale of the catastrophe—pulled out.[i]
Western plantations cover vast territories here, and Josephine believes that people who work for “the company” are better off. According to a World Health Organization study done here, plantations mean slavery, extortion, despair and death—worse than areas absent of all “development” or employment “opportunity”—and workers, trapped in an indenturing system, are paid less than three dollars a month. (That is not a typo.)
According to Nicholas Kristof, the Pulitzer winning columnist at the New York Times, what Congo (Africa) needs is for multinational corporations to flock to Africa to set up factories and exploit the people. Kristof has been campaigning for sweatshops to be set up in Africa on the premise that the “only thing worse than exploitation is no exploitation:” people will take whatever they can get. But Kristof does not report in the exploitation and slavery that exists there now, and the multinational corporations and their people who profit from Africa’s misery. Kristof is peddling misery and exploitation under the banners of humanitarian concern; the New York Times loves it, because it supports the interests of the corporation, and all the directors, and all their affiliated businesses, and all their advertisers. The New York Times is, after all, a multinational corporation selling a product.
It was bad during Mobutu’s time, Josephine says, getting back to reality in Congo, but now it’s worse. As her boat drifted off she said: “Since I started talking to you I am taken into paradise.” Why? “Because I am happy. I am happy about the questions you ask me, and the way you are.”
As Josephine and her family floated away, drifting down the vast Lopori River, I tried to imagine the hardship of the past decade and the war that these people have seen, and the unspeakable traumas.
In 1996, Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni, with the Pentagon behind them, launched their covert war against Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko and his western backers. A decade later, there are six or seven million dead, at the very least, and the war in Congo (Zaire) continues. Both Kagame and Museveni shot their way to power in bloody coups, but we are never told such things. Instead, we hear about the horrors under Idi Amin in Uganda–who killed far less than have died under Museveni’s policies since–and the so-called “genocide” in Rwanda. Museveni rescued Uganda. Kagame rescued Rwanda. The IMF, World Bank, USAID… rewarded their men.
Here is the sound-bite, the chorus line, the constant refrain of the propaganda system: “In just 100 days the Rwanda genocide, led by the brutal Hutus, claimed some 800,000 to 1.2 million Tutsis.” Here is the truth: powerful interests from the U.S., U.K., South Africa and Belgium launched a covert war from Uganda, destabilized the legitimate government of Rwanda from 1990 to 1994, assassinated the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, and installed the Pentagon’s man, Paul Kagame. It was a coup d’etat. The Kagame machine did most of the killing, not the Hutus, as they tell us in the Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda. And we won—because no matter how you look at it, Americans benefit. Now, the battle rages on for control of the Congo.
The William Jefferson Clinton Foundation is allied with the defense establishment in Uganda, Rwanda and South Africa. But they deploy the Pangaea Aids Foundation, partnered with the San Francisco Aids Foundation, and they call it AIDS/HIV relief, and humanitarian aid, and their press releases slide unchallenged into the New York Times. The National Geographic reports on the wonderful new health programs, and the lasting traditions of savage societies, suffering from the AIDS pandemic, and so we can all pat ourselves on the backs for helping those poor, hopeless, Africans.
Here is the soundbite: “AIDS is the number one killer in Africa.” Here is the truth: high salaries and fancy SUVs for western relief and human rights workers; academic papers and tenured professorships; billion dollar university research programs; pharmaceutical profits and biopiracy; while depopulating Africa as fast, and as quietly, as possible. Here is the truth: the AIDS “relief” benefits the US military interests, and military partners, like the Ugandan and Rwandan soldiers, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (involved in Darfur). Here is the truth: malaria is the number one killer in many Sub-Saharan countries, with tuberculosis, measles, typhoid, tetanus, diarrhea, and malnutrition fast on its heals.
Adastra Minerals, now in southern Congo, was once based in Hope, Arkansas. It’s connections to friends of Bill Clinton are never exposed. Instead we have the Clinton AIDS foundations and charities saving lives in Africa.
Maurice Tempelsman, a director/trustee of the Harvard AIDS Institute, is the Congo’s premier diamond kingpin (diamonds leave through Rwanda) but Samantha Power did not interview Tempelsman when she was at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights, and that is why she won a Pulitzer for her book, A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide. This, indeed, is a problem from hell.
Here is the soundbite: “We (USA) were bystanders to genocide.” Here is the truth: General Romeo Dallaire, the UN ‘hero’ who ‘tried to stop the genocide,’ reportedly played a decisive role in the unraveling of Rwanda. It is no surprise that he is now part of UN Secretary general Kofi Annan’s special panel on “genocide.” Shake hands, indeed, with the devil.
The failure to bring to light the slaughter in Congo is due to powerful interests that connect to or permeate all levels of our society, from Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch; from the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding to the World Policy Institute; from Conservation International to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund; from student groups at Smith and Dartmouth Colleges, to the American Friends Service Committee.
Pfizer is in Uganda, and Chevron, and Goodworks International, but people have read the New York Times for so long, and Newsweek, and the New Yorker, and the Nation, that we no longer know what questions to ask, or even that we should ask any questions at all. And because we are so busy talking on our cell phones we can just donate a few dollars to CARE, so that we can say that we do, and never ask where our money goes, or why it is mixed up with funds from Lockheed Martin, a major supporter of CARE, and we thank God that we do not live in Congo, or Darfur, or, worse, under the guns of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Joseph Kony—after all—is the devil himself: he captures children, and uses them as soldiers—imagine that—and maybe he eats them. Vanity Fair reported it, so it must be true. Scant is the attention to the brutalities committed by the Ugandan government forces, or the injustices of the Museveni regime.
AIDS trials on live human beings? In Uganda? Well, those Africans have no other options, so why not. And if there is oil under Lake Albert, and under Josephine’s land—the heart of darkness—and under Darfur, and if there is so much natural gas under Lake Kivu, well, wouldn’t this undermine the whole PEAK OIL scenario?
Here is the soundbite: “Peak Oil.” Here is the truth: The vast oil fields and deep reserves of Sudan, Congo, Uganda, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea (Afghanistan, Tajikstan, Kazakhstan, Uzebekistan, Tibet)…have yet to come on line. All of Sudan is one vast conglomeration of oil concessions.
Chevron, Shell, Exxon, Mobil, Andarko, Heritage… they better get at that oil, anyways, and the sooner the better: drop the prices at the pumps, so we can all get to the airport, fly to Rwanda, see the gorillas, before they are all eaten. Africans eat monkeys. I heard it on National Public Radio, right after that Archers Daniels Midland story about the “supermarket to the world”… Of course, one Archer Daniels Midland director is also a director of Barrick Gold. And ADM makes sure that Bob Dole is elected, and re-elected, and re-elected, and Dole makes sure that the World Food Program doles out its cash to ADM, and that is why people are starving to death.
Not only is there a Pangaea Foundation, there is, curiously, also a Pangea Minerals Ltd., a subsidiary of Barrick Gold, and both are connected to families named Bush and Clinton. Pangea (Barrick) works in Tanzania, and that—like Rwanda and Uganda—is where some of the weapons in Congo come from, and the minerals from Congo go. Barrick is mining in Congo too. But let’s forget such dirty details, because we’re going to see the gorillas, with Sigourney Weaver, Leonardo DiCaprio, Pierce Brognan, Angelina Jolie, and Daryl Hannah, at $4000 a pop, and maybe we can get an autograph in the process, and visit Dian Fossey’s grave, and sleep for a night in the Hotel Rwanda, or spend A Day by the Pool in Kigali, watching Curious George on our laptop (made with coltan).
What? They have closed the Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda New Times, 23 May 2006) and are building a fence around it? With security sensors made by the Department of Defense? Oh, well, WE can still go: the park’s only closed to starving Rwandans. Indeed, US soldiers (New Times, 15 May 2006) have been taken to see the gorillas, in that very same closed park, but let’s not confuse gorillas with guerrillas, because US soldiers are training their protégés from Rwanda, and together they support the African Union “peacekeeping” forces in Darfur, and so it must be a good thing. And they are trained by the National Defense University (USA), which also places U.S. military officers in corporations like Oracle, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrup, Grumman, Lockheed Martin and CNN—under Donald Rumsfeld’s Corporate Fellows Program—and so it must be a good thing. And these corporations are funding the gorilla conservation, or they are allied with the conservation organizations, and their directors sit on conservation boards, and it must be a good thing.
Here is the soundbite: “Arab Janjaweed on horses are committing genocide in Darfur.” Here is the truth, a battle for control of Sudan and its oil, a covert war in Tchad, another in Ethiopia, in Somalia, in Niger, a regime change in Khartoum, all backed by the Pentagon and multinational corporations. Anyways, U.S. soldiers only torture people in Guantanamo, or Abu Graib, or Bagram or, well, it wouldn’t happen in Africa, what with all those savage Mai-Mai and Mau-Mau and Tutsi and Hutu and Interahamwe and—Inshullah—Janjaweeds.
Weeds are something you have to get rid of—making us all into constant gardener’s—and there’s too many Africans anyways, so the average age of women at death in Rwanda (40) and Congo (38) might just be nature’s way of telling us. Fortunately, everything goes better with Coke, another benign sponsor of Rwanda and Uganda, who, like Pfizer, is looking out for our (white) interests. Coke and Pepsi are hungry for Gum Arabic, another prize from Darfur.
The ICG has published over 40 opinion pieces on Darfur, and more on Congo, in major newspapers around the world. They write reports, they pressure, they lobby…they indoctrinate. The ICG and International Rescue Committee directors and trustees are defense and intelligence policymakers, plus some people from think tanks and newspapers (as if there is any real distinction): Henry Kissinger; Morton Abramowitz; Zbigniew Brzezinski; Wesley Clark; William Taylor. The IRC also has a director named Vanden Heuvel, whose daughter is editor at the Nation.
Ugandan President Museveni is today Co-Chair of a euphemistically named Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa, along with Bob Dole, and George Rupp, the President of the IRC, and two directors of Conservation International (CI)—one of the big NGOS manipulating the situation in Congo. CI directors also include Northrup Grumman director Lewis Coleman, and Louis Cabot of the coltan Cabot Corp. CI chairman Gordon E. Moore is the co-founder and Chairman Emeritus of Intel Corp., another coltan beneficiary supplying aerospace, intelligence and defense technologies. Moore is also a director of Gilead Sciences Corporation, whose directors include, or have included, Donald Rumsfeld, former US secretary of State and long-time Bechtel ally George Schultz, and Belgian business mogul Viscount Etienne Davignon. (Recall that Congo is a Belgian colony.) Gilead Sciences Corp. turns out to be the license holder of the TAMIFLU vaccine for bird flu. Bechtel provided the satellite maps for the US-backed invasion of DRC (Zaire) by Rwanda and Uganda in 1996, when the current war in DRC began.
It is all about access: timber, copper, cobalt, coltan, niobium, diamonds, gold, oil, natural gas, Gum Arabic, primates—six US zoos this spring paid $400,000 for endangered primates from Congo. Access to raw materials; access to a cheap, replenishable, eager (read: desperate) labor pool; access to blood pools; access to biodiversity (piracy); access to game parks (tourism); access to markets for currency speculation; access to white sand beaches; access to desperate females; access to research subjects (animals, tribes, plants, blood, development failures, bones); access to artifacts; access for museum and zoo stocks.
And access to suffering, because humanitarian relief is big business (and there are never any lasting results to show for it). As Paul Farmer points out, and Noam Chomsky before him, the problem is structural violence, and the system that perpetuates it, and that system is not African. Access is gained through elite networks, involving Presidents and Lords and CEOs and actors, whose modus operandi is—by any means necessary. Organized crime, extortion, bribery, theft, corruption, privilege, white supremacy, total information warfare.
It always starts out as some kind of psychological operation, or perception management or, well, propaganda. But in the end it is about our collective amnesia. To Josephine, in rural Congo, it’s all the same in the end: she has nothing, she has always had nothing, and she will always have nothing. The bottom line, after the profits, and the comforts, and the privileges, and the excuses, and the denial, is the hard, brutal truth that the U.S. public simply does not care about people like Josephine.
[i] See: MSF, Access to Health Care, Mortality and Violence in Democratic Republic of Congo, Results of Five Epidemiological Surveys, March to May 2005, Medicins Sans Frontiers.