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RPCV Scott Campbell reports on Hutu refugees in Zaire
RPCV Scott Campbell reports on Hutu refugees in Zaire
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The human rights worker clings to the back of the motorcycle as it bumps into the dusty Kindu school yard. Out front, someone has written on a chalkboard: Hakiza Binadamu (Rights of Man-Meeting Tonight). They've set up some benches, now occupied by about 100 people-mostly men (young men, old men, boys), very few women. The leaders of the club sponsoring this meeting are happy to have people from the United States with them; it makes them look more professional. It is also a form of protection.
As soon as they open the meeting for questions and answers, there's invariably one guy toward the back whose hand shoots up, "You said you're from America. We know a lot about America-Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and all those guys. It's real funny to see you coming here from America to tell us about our rights when you people have been backing the dictator here since before 1965. You've got a lot of damn gall, to come here and say you're supporting our human rights!"
It isn't the first time this human rights worker, Scott Campbell '86, has been obliged to separate himself from his government and its policies. "The first thing I usually explain is, 'Actually, I don't work for my government. I work for a nongovernmental organization (NGO), not unlike your own assembled here.' I go on to explain that while I do believe in some of the principles my government is based on, like the constitution and its guarantee of basic rights, some of my government's policies have, indeed, been detrimental to the Zairian people, to many people in developing countries for many years. However, there are people in the United States who don't know that and actually do care about their fellow human beings."
Kindu is typical of many Zairian "villages at the end of the earth," hungry for political and economic change. "Mostly, they're just plain hungry," Campbell says. "Hunger is a good motivating force." As Zaire's colonial infrastructure rotted from Mobutu Sese Seko's neglect, the Kindus of the country disappeared into the rain forest. Formerly paved roads had been reduced to foot-traffic-only lanes by May of last year, when the leopard-skinned despot fled Kinshasa with his graft and delusions. But ideological change was also afoot. Many of the basic democratic rights we take for granted were being rediscovered at more than 100 newly created human rights "clubs" across the country.
Enter Scott Campbell. Few Americans would characterize finding themselves in Goma, Zaire, in the midst of a brutal war and catastrophic humanitarian crisis as "a stroke of dumb luck." But Scott figures he couldn't have been in a righter place at a righter time. His bittersweet love affair with Goma began 11 years ago while on a Peace Corps assignment in the Central African Republic. Perched on the northern shore of Lake Kivu, Goma was then a scenic destination, gateway to the famed volcanoes and mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park. While finishing his master's degree in international policy at Columbia, Scott returned to the region in the summer of '94 on the heels of the Rwandan genocide to work for the international relief agency Doctors Without Borders. Various assignments have spun him through Zaire's revolving door a dozen times since.
"I was pretty overwhelmed at the human rights violations. I don't know how much people really want to know. The things that stand out in my mind? I think they'll blow people away."
Scott humbly describes his position as Goma coordinator of the Zaire Empowerment Project of the International Human Rights Law Group (IHRLG)-a project that sought to empower Zairians to promote and protect their own rights and work toward a democratic state-as "very low profile work." "We weren't writing big reports, making statements on the radio . . . more building confidence and rapport on a day-to-day basis: Let's get you a computer, train you how to use it, train you how to do a human-rights report or how to write a letter to your governor. How do you write a letter to that general . . . without getting yourself killed?"
Originally, the project's philosophy was "to shame governments into behaving themselves." For years, IHRLG personnel would simply "go to strange lands and find out what was wrong there," who was violating whose rights and who was killing whom or repressing political opposition. Then they'd return to write reports and tell on them.
By the time this lanky, former cross-country captain sprinted into action in Goma, the group's philosophy extended well beyond tattling. "My boss understood that change comes from within a society, not from without," Campbell says, "and that it's useful to tell on the outside what's happening. But that's the outside. If you really want to make lasting change, people must take matters into their own hands. So we would go in and live with them, build up trust until we were able to assess their needs and exchange ideas with people, learn from them. We were pushed every day."
Initially, Campbell spent most of his time in Goma's notorious refugee camps interviewing Hutu propagandists who'd conducted the mass information campaign of anti-Tutsi hate-speech back in Rwanda. "The radio announcers, media people, journalists-the people who'd said horrible, horrible things, inciting people to kill their neighbors-they started publishing their own newspapers. They would run into town to make photocopies. There were rumors the 'government' in the camps had satellite phones. At first I didn't believe it, but now I'm sure they did."
Distinguishing civilians from the military/government element responsible for the genocide presented an ongoing moral dilemma to international nongovernmental organizations mandated to help those seeking relief. "The first thing you are confronted with is a mass of people. A couple hundred thousand people, a lot of kids and women. You're not wondering who's a former government official or who's military. Then some young men give you a nasty look, one wearing boots and an olive-green sweater, and you scratch your head and think he could've been involved in something. That is one of the trickier things-separating the lambs from the wolves. You can't, or you couldn't, or you could've, but nobody wanted to. . . that's now been done by their successors killing them. It was interesting to interview those nasty people . . . right next to perfectly nice and needy Rwandan villagers who didn't know what the hell had happened, except they were in a refugee camp in Zaire and wanted to go home."
Last spring, he took a job with the United Nations and began to scrutinize more closely the failure of the international community to respond to the genocide and recent rebel reprisals against Hutu refugees in Zaire. "People always ask me, Why is the U.N. so inefficient? Well, how efficient is your government? Not very. Well, neither is mine. And you put the two together with 183 other governments. How efficient are they all going to be together?
"The spirit of collaboration and international brotherhood, working for peace and security is there, but it's always secondary to each country looking out for number one. So the question is on the table: It looks like there's mass killing in Rwanda; shall we do something? Each country asks itself the question. 'Well, we should do something, but I'm not going to do anything. What's in it for me? What do we have to lose in Rwanda? What do we have to gain by going in?' After Somalia, the United States in particular said, 'Politically, at home, this will cost us-big!' It usually boils down one of three possibilities: 1) Business-Rwanda struck out. 2) Security-the country is not really a key player in terms of our security or strategic interests (no petroleum, no mines). 3) The moral factor-whether there's a moral impetus and whether the American people will be outraged enough by what they see on TV to say, 'Look, we should do something.' That takes time, it usually takes time for people to become informed about what's going on. I think that was the only factor pushing people to get involved in Rwanda. Call it racism, there's less interest in Africa."
The Press tended to lump all refugees together: a refugee who fled was a killer; therefore we were feeding the killers.
The press didn't exactly help mobilize countries that could play more active roles. Since it was virtually impossible to televise the atrocities of genocide, and since in contemporary Western society events not seen on TV do not exist, the story was left primarily to newspaper journalists. Although many journalists put forth a wholehearted effort to distill a convoluted set of social and historical circumstances, they essentially reduced the turmoil to an ethnic conflict-Hutus killing Tutsis. "The media boil things down for us, to make an article coherent and understandable for mom and pop back in New Hampshire. Talking about different 'tribes hacking each other to death in tribal warfare in deepest, darkest Africa,' makes it sound like there are primitive people killing each other, and it's not our business, and since it's not our business and we can't stop them from doing it, then we don't have to worry about them."
A more egregious error, according to Campbell, was the media's sweeping indictment that all refugees participated in the genocide. "There were many articles that spoke about the Hutus getting aid from the international community, including some of our tax dollars. People were saying, Wait a minute, these people just committed a genocide; we've heard all the horrible stories. The press tended to lump all refugees together: a refugee who fled was a killer; therefore, we were feeding the killers. There was even a cover story in Time in the fall of '94, called 'Feeding the Killers.' Aid workers were confronted with this. People from Doctors Without Borders would go to the camps and give out five Band-Aids, knowing that two of the Band-Aids were going on the wounds of some nasty military guys. But the other three were going to children. The situation was grossly simplified by the international press, saying we should not be in these refugee camps. Some people felt we should simply pull out. Of course, then, the military and the strong in the camps would have further exploited the weak in and around the camps.
"So the problem was to separate these nasty people from the rest. And that's where the international community wasn't ready to do it, to go in and separate the lambs from the wolves. There were some aid groups in '94 that didn't even want to talk about it. They were there to help the people. They weren't even going to talk about determining who deserved the help more than whom."
There are, of course, innumerable episodes that Campbell would prefer not to revisit. "I was pretty overwhelmed, even after living in the region for several years, at the quantity and the quality of the [human rights] violations. I don't know how much people really want to know. I mean, the things that stand out in my mind? I think they'll blow people away." Despite these harrowing images, Campbell's undying faith in humanity rises to the surface. Speaking with him two weeks after narrowly squeezing out of Kinshasa ahead of Kabila's rebels, one gets the impression his work in central Africa remains unfinished.
"It was a privilege to work with these people, learn from them, hang out with them, encourage and argue with them . . . it's incomparable. There are great leaders within this country, within and outside politics. There are plenty of Hutus and Tutsis who preach peace and reconciliation. Many Rwandans will tell you there are things that they didn't talk about much before the colonial era-their ethnicity. Colonials brought that out within them, and they want to get back to the way they were before. Hutu, Tutsi-it doesn't matter. The lines between the two were always very vague."
At the time this article was written, Scott Campbell '86 had returned to Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as a consultant to Human Rights Watch. Partridge Boswell '86 is executive director of the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H.