Amid Congo chaos, rights groups form a vital safety net

Underfunded and often threatened, local civic groups monitor abuses and provide help.

Hunched over a table in the barren offices of Haki Za Binadamu - literally, "Human Rights Organization" in Swahili - Emile Asani Miango thumbs slowly through a battered blue school notebook. Inside, is a list of the dead; a dangerous thing in this rebel-held city.

Antionette Kandolo was hacked to death by rebel soldiers with her two daughters while returning from their fields. The same happened to Veronique Lusambo and a woman named Mrs. Gerard. Apollonaire Kubabezaga's goats cost him his life. The soldiers he encountered shot him and his son for six or seven scrawny animals.

"It's a genocide here," said Michael Katshindja, president of another small human rights organization in Kindu. "But no one is paying attention."

Here in Eastern Congo, torn by civil war for the last four years, civilians are dying in far greater numbers than soldiers. Disease and starvation have taken the vast majority of the estimated 2 to 3 million people who have died here since the war's beginning in August 1998. But thousands, in all likelihood tens of thousands, have become victims.

Left to count the dead are organizations like Haki Za Binadamu. Beleaguered and isolated, the Congo's small army of human rights organizations battle to bring international attention to the plight of their country.

In this country where the state has all but disappeared and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reach only a handful of places, a network of local civic organizations fill the gap. Everything from hospitals to schools to feeding programs for the hungry are shoestring projects run by churches, civic groups and the occasional resourceful entrepreneur.

Gone too are the courts and the police. In their place are only human rights groups. Often they can do little more than monitor the abuses, hoping the information will pressure the armed groups. When possible, they offer counseling or assistance to the victims and their families.

"The paradox of civil society in the Congo is that these groups often have almost no money and work in incredibly dangerous conditions, but they find ways to do what they have to," says Learned Dees, head of the National Endowment for Democracy's Africa program, which funds more than two dozen Congolese NGOs. "The civil society here is one of the most advanced in Africa." Often the most difficult job is finding the victims. While every side of this war is guilty of horrible crimes, the rebel Rally for Congolese Democracy-Goma [RCD], which controls most of the area's major cities, is becoming more sensitive about accusations that its unpaid soldiers are guilty of rape, pillage, and murder.

Human rights activists have been beaten, detained, and killed, and families of the victims terrorized into silence. Even funerals for those killed by the RCD have been banned, leaving many to mourn their dead in secrecy.

Fifteen-year-old Kaozi Ki-bamba says he heard the shots that killed his father and four of his brothers and the memory haunts his sleep.

Kaozi and nine siblings were visiting their farm outside the city when RCD soldiers rounded up everyone in the village and took them to a small island in the middle of the Congo River. After days of waiting, the men and teenage boys were taken away by the soldiers. Kaozi, who looks much younger than his age, was spared.

"Twenty minutes later, we heard the sound of machine guns and I knew they were all dead," he says, drawing circles in the dirt with a stick. "Everyone was afraid."

Kaozi's story could not be independently corroborated. The boy's oldest brothers have gone in search of their family members, but fear they will be punished if caught. In this climate of fear, much of the work done by Haki Za Binadamu and other human rights groups takes place secretly. The group relies on a network of informers who investigate alleged human rights violations.

"We must be very careful about what we say and do," says Raphael Upelele Lokenga, president of Haki Za Binadamu. "But it must be done."

Here in Kindu, the situation is particularly tense. Local military commander Bernard Biyamungu, a tiny man who prefers T-shirts to military fatigues, was recently cited by Human Rights Watch as one of the leaders responsible for civilian massacres in another eastern town, Kisingani, earlier this year. Angered by the charges, he reportedly threatened to kill anyone from Human Rights Watch who comes to town.

Faray Selenge, the local RCD governor, denies his group is responsible for human rights violations. Mr. Selenge, a well-spoken young man with horn-rimmed glasses, says the RCD are the protectors of the people.

"Why would we kill innocent people?" he says, growing angry at the question. "We are here to protect them."

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