Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Saving the Rospuda Valley

Małgorzata Górska / Credit: John Antonelli

Last week, I’ve interviewed Malgorzata Górska, a Polish environmentalist who managed to save one of Europe’s last remaining great wildernesses from a giant motorway project.

She has won the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest prize for grassroots environmental activism, for her campaign to save Poland’s Rospuda Valley. I’ve interviewed her in London on her way to San Francisco to receive the prize.

With its pristine primeval forest, ancient intact peat bogs and wetlands, the Rospuda Valley in North Eastern Poland serve as flora and fauna reservoirs for the rest of Europe. It is home to lynx, wolves, otters, elk, eagles and 20 other endangered bird species. Scientists say the area gives a pretty good idea of what Europe must have looked centuries ago

Yet, as Poland began to grow economically, developers in 1996 began plans to route one of Europe’s most ambitious highway projects, the Via Baltica Expressway, directly through the Rospuda Valley, linking Helsinki to Warsaw.

Górska, a conservationist with the Polish Society for the Protection of Birds (OTOP), launched a campaign with a coalition of activists, scientists and NGOs to fight the road project, propose alternative routes and raise public awareness.

When their efforts to persuade their government failed, Górska and her coalition harnessed European Union legislation to help save the Rospuda Valley.

This led to the first ever successful intervention by the EU to obtain an order from the European Court to stop a member state from breaching environmental regulations and damaging a protected site. This court ruling now has the potential to strengthen the legal framework for EU environmental regulations across Europe.

I’ve written an article for the Economist's paper/webiste European Voice about Górska, which was published yesterday. Read it here.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

DRC - hasty UN peacekeepers' withdrawal puts women in danger

From the statistics in my last posting – about 160 women raped every week in the Kivu provinces and more than 8000 cases of rapes reported in 2009 – you wouldn’t think that Congo has laws against sexual violence. On the books the laws are there though, but the country’s capacity to implement them is near zero.

Since 2003, no more than 50 soldiers have been convicted of sexual violence, although 20 were convicted in the first quarter of 2009 alone, according to Human Rights Watch, so there is slow progress.

However, this progress might be short lived if the U.N. peacekeepers are withdrawing from the country at the demand of the government, as the humanitarian news network, Reuters’ AlertNet, reports. This obviously would make the struggle against endemic rape "a lot more difficult", the United Nations has said. Margot Wallstrom, the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, is at the moment visiting Congo, as the world body tries to persuade the government not to demand a hasty withdrawal of the U.N. force.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Ruined - Finding Mother Courage in DRC

Photo Hugo Glendinning

I went to see the European premiere of Ruined by American playwright Lynn Nottage at the Almeida in London on Friday. The play, presented in partnership with Amnesty International, is gut wrenching but gripping – and a powerful way to bring the huge problem of the DRC civil war and its impact on women to wider audiences. To research Ruined, Nottage travelled to East Africa three times to hear the stories of Congolese women brutalised by the war. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for the play.

“In Ruined,” says Nottage, “Mama Nadi gives three young women refuge and an unsavoury means of survival. As such, the women do a fragile dance between hope and disillusionment in an attempt to navigate life on the edge of an unforgiving conflict. My play is not about victims, but survivors. Ruined in the story of Congo.”

According to the International Rescue Committee, nearly 5.4 million people have died in that country since the conflict began and every month, 45,000 Congolese people die from hunger, preventable diseases and violence related to war. It is the deadliest war since World War II, yet it is still largely ignored by the media and the international community.

In “Finding Ruined,” her account on how the play came about, Nottage said she travelled to East Africa because she wanted “to paint a three dimensional portrait of women caught in the middle of armed conflict.” And she wanted to understand who these women were beyond their status of victims. She writes:

“I was surprised by the number of women who readily wanted to share their stories. One by one, through tears and in voices just above a whisper, they recounted raw, revealing stories of sexual abuse and torture at the hands of both rebels soldiers and government militias. By the end of the interviews I realised that a war was being fought over the bodies of women. Rape was being used as a weapon to punish and destroy communities…”

In the Kivu provinces, where the play takes place, about 160 women are raped every week, mainly by armed men, according to the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs (9 February 2010). That is an astounding number. Ruined gives a face and a voice to the real women beyond the grotesque statistics. Like Sophie, many of the women are subjected to horrific injuries and mutilations and will have severe long-term internal vaginal and anal injuries. These women are “ruined” and will often be rejected and ostracised by their husband, family and community.

“When I was writing the play I wanted the audiences to get to know the characters well and empathise with them, so that when they leave the theatre they feel compelled to act rather than feel angry at humanity,” wrote Nottage in the March/April issue of Amnesty Magazine. She says that for her the biggest challenge was "finding hope, humour and optimism where there should be none".

If you would like to read more about the DRC or want to take further action, please visit the Ruined mini-site. Ruined is at the Almeida until 5 June 2010.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

The World Most Dangerous Place for Women – Sexual terrorism in the DRC

I’ve watched “The World’s Most Dangerous Place for Women” a couple of days ago and cannot shake it from my mind. It left me deeply moved and unsettled. In this powerful BBC3 documentary, we follow 23-year-old Judith Wanga, who grew up in London as she returns to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she was born. Two decades after she was sent to Britain by her parents, she's returning to Congo to meet them for the first time.

She wants to understand the childhood she missed and the country she was forced to leave. After reuniting with her parents in the capital, Kinshasa, Jude heads east to Kivu, an area of the country that's been devastated by war.

It is the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman, where rape has become a weapon of war – rape with the intent of totally destroying women and through them their families and communities. Jude meets survivors - women and children - as well as perpetrators, and finds out what is partially driving this brutality - the precious minerals that make our mobile phones and laptops work.

We follow Jude as she is trying to make sense of the often blurred line between perpetrators and victims and the awesome beauty of the landscape and the horrors it holds. In a war that has already claimed over 4 million people, women of all ages continue to be the victims of sexual terrorism. “Mass rape. It was like a virus,” writes documentary director Fiona Lloyd-Davies in a blog post on her film.

In Shabunda, a town deep in the forest, I found that nearly 70% of the women had been raped. Since then I'd gone back to DRC on and off over half a dozen times to write articles and make short films. But I'd never been able to secure a commission to make a whole film about what was happening to these women. It was as though they had been forgotten by the world. The women had totally captured my heart. I felt I couldn't let them down.

The sexual violence has now become generational. Women are being raped for the third or fourth time, and their children who they conceived through rape, are themselves being raped too.”

In most cases, women who have been raped are rejected by their husbands, families and communities because they bring shame and because of fear of HIV and other diseases. There is also the huge question of what is going to happen to all the children born as a result of rape…

In this terrible place, Jude also meet some amazing women, like 24-year-old Delphine, a final year law student who is going out to villages to record survivors' testimonies; Merveille a teenage former child soldier; Masika a survivor who has set up her own support network for other women, and Christine Schuler Descriver, a human right activist and director of V-Day Bukavu. V-Day is a global movement to stop violence against women and girls. It acts as a catalyst that promotes creative events to increase awareness, raise money and revitalize the spirit of existing anti-violence organizations.