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I first arrived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in early 2006, deployed as a child protection adviser to the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission. Having just completed a posting in war-ravaged Liberia, I had already witnessed the impacts of terrible violence and destruction. While I had experienced the positive potential of international aid interventions in conflict zones, I had also been confronted by their failures. My faith in the capacity of an individual to "do good" in the world was slightly shaken, but I was not yet ready to surrender it. Still hopeful, I was intent on continuing my quest into the darkness of humanity, trusting that, in the end, light would be found, and good could be done.
If any country needed good, it was the DRC. It had just emerged from a devastating war fought on a continental scale. Millions of Congolese people had died directly and indirectly from the violence. Following more than a century of misrule and violent exploitation, the DRC was one of the poorest countries in the world. When I arrived there, life expectancy at birth was barely fifty years, while health care and other basic services were almost entirely absent throughout large parts of the country. Atrocious human development indicators belied the DRC's extreme natural resource wealth.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the DRC hosted the world's largest international peacekeeping mission. My rapid indoctrination to UN peacekeeping started in Kinshasa, the vibrant but decrepit Congolese capital. My early days in the DRC were a blur of meetings, briefings, and security orientations, as I navigated the bewildering administration that churned behind high white-and-blue, barbed-wire-topped walls. On my third day in the country, I was informed that I would be dispatched to Kisangani to manage the UN mission's child protection mandate in the two eastern provinces of Orientale and Maniema. I took to peering at my freshly printed maps and to burying myself as deeply and quickly as I could into the available history of eastern DRC.
Through this early orientation, I learned that the city of Kisangani, nestled in the vastness of the Congo Basin forest, had been administratively established in 1883 as a trading hub under Belgium's King Leopold II. Before independence from Belgium in 1960, Kisangani had served as a center of Patrice Lumumba's anticolonial resistance movement. In 1964, the Simba rebellion against the Western-supported government in Kinshasa — one of the many Cold War transpositions on the African continent — based its military operations out of Kisangani, drawing on reserves of soldiers and mercenaries of all nations and presaging the entrenched internationalism of Congolese wars. In the post–Cold War era, Kisangani would again witness catastrophicviolence. During the 1996–2003 wars — what Gérard Prunier would term "Africa's World War"— thousands of civilians perished as Uganda and Rwanda fought for control of the lucrative eastern region. The UN peacekeeping mission that I had just joined was still endeavoring to piece the country back together after those wars.
It did not take me long to appreciate how such a violent history becomes manifest in the present. In places so destroyed by war, so cut off from any prospect of economic development, people were left to fend for themselves as services and support systems decayed all around them. With their poverty constantly closing in, people had little recourse but to express fury. Quick eruptions of mob violence occurred regularly in Kisangani. More than once, John — my long-suffering, devoted, and now departed Congolese colleague — would save me from a rock-throwing crowd poised to hijack any passing white UN Land Cruiser, shouting at me to close my window, lock my door, and drive through the crowd or make a quick U-turn to escape.
By 2006, the front lines of conflict had at last receded from Kisangani's sprawling streets. In their place, urban misery had encroached, appropriating any hope for peace and bringing chronic desolation. Destroyed by the war and asphyxiated by the absence of infrastructure that could sustain legitimate trade, the local economy of Kisangani was devastated. Consequently, the social supports that had held life together so precariously during the many decades of extreme hardship were now barely holding on.
One obvious indicator of this failing social system was the rapidly rising population of street children. By 2006, their numbers in Kisangani had swelled, as children living in households on the furthest edges of precarity were pushed out of their homes, blamed by adults for all possible household hardships, from AIDS to the breakdown of families, to the suffocating impossibility of meeting daily survival needs. With no recourse but to their own capacities to navigate the streets of Kisangani, these children would become an important focus of my child protection efforts there. I followed them into the depths of postwar misery, where accusations of modern witchcraft flourished. I convened meetings with parents, pastors, and community leaders; organized radio awareness campaigns; mobilized lawyers; and conducted countless visits to church compounds where extreme torture was being sold as exorcism by profiteering pastors.
I exhausted all available possibilities to convince those I met that children must not be sacrificed in reaction to all that had come before them. But the tides had long since risen, and I could not help these children. In my personal journal, I documented one of uncounted moments of hopelessness I confronted in the streets of Kisangani:
19 November 2006: Sunday night. I light a candle in honour of La Vie, the corpse of the boy we uncovered this morning. His body, mutilated by the black-gray scars of a hot iron, was already starting to swell in the heat of the midmorning sun. How old had he been? Maybe seventeen? No one knew. A child of the street, mourned in trembling wails by his street sisters, by the angry tears and clenched fists of his street brothers — to everyone else, his was a life worth nothing. Shuttling between the morgue, the mayor, the funeral procession, through the Kisangani streets down to the river, we laid his body in a pirogue to cross the river Congo — to the home of a father who had so long ago abandoned his son — to its final resting place.
Within me, such poverty and helplessness transformed into anger and an overwhelming sense of defeat. My time in Kisangani was hot and hard and left me without any feeling of satisfaction in a job well done. But before these grim expressions of humanity's hardship could extinguish what was left of my faith, UN human resources took over. I was to be urgently redeployed to Goma, where emergency child protection support was needed in response to the resurging conflict there.
DOCUMENTING VIOLENCE: AN INTRODUCTION
My first glimpse of North Kivu came through the small, round window of an Antonov aircraft. We landed with a jarring bump, not far from the active Nyiragongo volcano. A rainstorm had just passed, and the mist rose from the warm earth in a prism of late afternoon sunlight. The erupting landscape of Goma was unlike any place I had ever been. Its penetrating natural beauty had — I would learn — humbling power over life and death. A land of extremes, the Kivus would reveal to me the very worst and the very best of the human experience. There, I would learn the limits of my own capacity.
Minutes later, I arrived at the UN base, just across the street from the airport. The tension and uncertainty were palpable; it was 22 November 2006, and Goma was very close to being seized by the current main rebel force. Although various peace deals had been negotiated to end the war at a national level by 2003, the incredible natural resource wealth of the Kivus meant that there remained too much to gain from conflict and too much to lose from peace. The logics of violence thus continued to govern, as armed groups served local, national, regional, and, above all, commercial interests, while the languishing population fled, submitted, and sank deeper into its misery.
Walking across the volcanic gravel toward my assigned container-cum-office, I was met by Luis, the head of the UN human rights section, as he emerged from his dust-covered Land Cruiser. He and his team of human rights officers were just arriving from the small town of Rutshuru, where they had traveled to document a recent massacre. Exhaustion grayed their faces, but they incarnated a bound-up energy and a clear-sighted sense of purpose. "Ah, Claudia! Welcome to Goma. We're glad you're here." Luis took my hand in his with warmth, then continued in his next breath: "We're just back. It was horrific. Women, head first in latrines, stomachs lacerated. We need to go write this up. Let's talk later?"
I had arrived in Goma. Like the colleagues I had just met, I would very soon become mired in the dark extremes of human possibilities. My own work would focus on grave human rights abuses against children. The gruesome potential of what people can do to each other would become the substance of my days. The suffering and pain I would witness were beyond anything I had ever fathomed. I would document these atrocities until late at night, then send my reports on to Kinshasa. Sometimes, some of the details I had written would be included in the daily dispatches to New York, to be read as part of a morning briefing over coffee.
I quickly immersed myself in the pulsing beat of the Kivus, and it was only a matter of days before I was consumed by the same agitation, rage, and focus that I had sensed in my first meeting with Luis. I became absorbed in the terribleness of it all. There was no time to think, only to react, to decry, to move faster, to try to stanch the endless flow of abuses. Another journal entry, written two months after my arrival in Goma:
19 January 2007: How to wash away the pain? Her tears? The memory of her smell, a rank mix of blood, urine, semen. The odor of her fear that still hangs everywhere around me — I can taste it. Helpless but trying to help, I bring her to the hospital, and finally leave her there. Later, I recount this day to [my supervisor] in Kinshasa over the phone. She hears and advises, and then suggests that I take a shower once home, "not a bath. You cannot sit in this," she says. "You must wash this day off so that you can keep going."
Of course, my supervisor knew that such feelings never wash off, not really, that the only way to continue to do this kind of work is to be fully steeped in it, to embody it, to work harder and more extremely, to push all possible limits.
My days in Goma were incredibly intense, but also uniquely fulfilling. Working in a zone of active conflict made every action — and nonaction — seem consequential. Each day was so full of new emergencies: forced child recruitment to armed groups, sexual violence, abductions. Each violation was to be investigated, referred, then documented. The frenetic energy made it feel like I was doing something, that my actions were making a difference.
But even as I pushed through each day, each report, something began to nag at my conscience. My professional title was child protection adviser, yet I was increasingly unable to deny just how little "protection" I was providing. I could not stop the terrible acts of violence, only document them. I could advocate and follow up, but I could not prevent the abuses from happening in the first place. While I understood on a conceptual level that there was a role to be played in making such terrible abuses known to the wider world in the hopes that this knowledge might one day generate enough political will to end them, I was mostly overwhelmed by a sense of defeat. I often felt like an accountant, enumerating violences, counting horrors that I could do nothing to stop. I held on to a belief that writing down this human suffering would somehow contribute to its end. Later, I would read the work of political economist David Keen, who described the futile and dehumanizing act of amassing "catalogues of human rights abuses" and who noted the inconsequential change that usually results.
My discomfort grew, and once I allowed myself to examine my unease more deeply, I began to understand that there was something wrong about the fight in which I was engaged. The stark contradiction between the absolutist discourse of "inalienable rights" and the daily reality of abuse experienced by most people became too much for me to ignore. The more carefully I listened, the more I could hear the historical depth, political complexity, and global interdependence of the violence against which I was so desperately trying to protect children.
Yet in a context of "humanitarian emergency" and "rapid response," there was no time for reflection, for questioning, or for understanding. There was no space for complexity. Another journal entry, a month later:
20 February 2007: Last night, shots fired off again, this time in quick succession, somewhere very nearby. Silence. I turned off my light, then laid, taut in attention, ready to flee, white currents pulsing in the arches of my feet. I searched the shadows then realized that it's the shadows I don't know enough, that I must learn to know if I am to survive here. Sound, sight, then smell. ... I could smell another body, but then nothing, then realized it was the smell of my fear, clad in fetid army green, unwashed and overused and dangerously powerless. Finally, eventually, I fell asleep, and now I wake to this new day, not with courage, but exhaustion. I'm not on solid ground anymore. Nothing is as it first seems.
Even as the battles continued to wage never very far away, I was reasonably safe. Just like the thousands of privileged others endeavoring to "do good" in the DRC, I lived behind high walls, was escorted and secured. Unlike the millions of Congolese who welcomed us, we could escape when the situation became too difficult or too compromised.
Eventually it was time for me to leave, but even as I boarded my outbound flight from Kinshasa, I was already planning my return. I was heading to London, where I would begin doctoral research under the supervision of Dr. Zoë Marriage at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Zoë quickly became my guiding light, and with her I began sorting through my experiences in the DRC, trying to make some theoretical sense out of what I had seen and lived. Many of my early hours with Zoë involved her listening deeply and questioning patiently. From my mind-set of impassioned reactivity — This is terrible! We must do something! — she steered me toward a more reflective mode that would instead wonder: Interesting, why does this keep happening?
I considered the questions I wanted to answer and then elaborated the research methods that would guide my fieldwork. I immersed myself in the literatures of anthropology, political economy, psychology, and sociology as they related to violence across time and geographic space. I was influenced especially by the ethnographic work of Philippe Bourgois, who showed through his research — decades earlier and continents away — that violence does not simply disappear, is not merely survived, but is transformed and incorporated into our ways of perceiving, being in, and re-creating the world. Eventually I decided that the goal of my research would be to understand young people's experiences not just of the terrible violences of war but also of their everydays, of their processes of coping and ways of simply getting on with life, despite the violence everywhere around them.
Over the course of the following decade, I would return to the DRC in varying professional and research capacities. In 2009, I served with the UN Security Council–mandated Group of Experts on the DRC to support investigations into grave human rights violations. Beginning in late 2009, my focus turned to ethnographic research with young people. I alternated between periods of fieldwork as a student and — to pay for my studies — as a researcher commissioned by various international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including Save the Children UK, War Child Holland and War Child UK, and Oxfam GB. Later, I would travel to the DRC as a researcher with the Small Arms Survey, and then for the USAID–Education in Crisis and Conflict Network.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Myth of International Protection"
Copyright © 2019 Claudia Seymour.
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