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A survivor: Rose Mapendo tells of the horrors she lived through in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

PHOTO: Shannon DeCelle

Alive to Tell the Tale

Survivors of the Gatumba massacre gather to remember lost loved ones and the horrors of tribal warfare

 

Nangabire Sideriya, a Tutsi, listened as the Hutu rebels approached the outskirts of Gatumba. It was nighttime, around 10 PM, and many of her neighbors were sleeping. She was with her family in a shelter on the edge of the Burundi refugee camp and could hear her attackers laughing, singing, calling upon God to assist in the imminent slaughter.

“They came,” Sideriya said, “and started killing people.”

Just months earlier, Sideriya and her family had escaped the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. They fled across the border to Burundi, settling in Gatumba.

“We thought we were safe,” she recalled (through an interpreter). “We thought we were lucky. We thought it was a safe haven for us.”

Hundreds of people pressed into a sweltering Voorheesville barn at Camp Pinnacle Sunday. They were there to honor the third anniversary of the Aug. 13 tribal massacre that claimed 166 lives, most of them Banyamulenge Tutsi’s from the eastern region of Congo, and left more than 100 critically wounded and crippled. Many in the audience were survivors of this massacre, and others were Banyamulenge refugees of the tribal warfare that has plagued the Congo for more than a decade.

“They threw grenade into our shelter,” Sideriya said. “I lost six children and my husband. Even myself, the grenade was thrown on my leg. It is horrible, my leg.”

Video, silently projected onto a screen in the corner of the barn, lent visceral power to her words. Charred bodies of infants. Smoke swirling from razed shelters. Blood-soaked corpses, covered in blankets or bare, laying face down in the dust or necks stretched against the sun, arms and legs splayed unnaturally, with black pits where eyes used to be.

“After killing people,” she said, “they put fire on the shelter.” Her son dragged her from the blaze to safety.

In another part of the camp, Philippe Mukwiye recalled, he lay face down in the dirt. The killers had mistaken him for Hutu, and ordered him down to the ground to avoid their bullets.

“I heard the scream of my own children,” he said, “and the sound of people being killed with knives. I thought I was losing my mind.”

After two hours, the killing was done. He raced toward the aftermath.

“Some were shot in the leg, and they poured gasoline on them,” he said. “We spent the whole night taking some to the hospital.”

He lost a brother and a son that night. Sideriya still carries shrapnel, lodged in her body, from the grenade that ripped her family apart.

“You see, some of these people are handicapped,” she said, pointing into the audience to a young boy whose leg was damaged beyond repair, and to a little girl in the front row, her curly black hair brushing across a shoulder deeply scarred with burn tissue.

Three years after the massacre, 525 survivors have been relocated to the United States. Three of these families live in the Capital Region. On Sunday, nearly 60 survivors traveled from all across the country to take part in the memorial in Voorheesville. Similar memorials took place in Burundi and Congo.

“It is hard to acknowledge what happened,” Sideriya said. “But it is important for us who survived this to give testimony and to honor those who passed away.”

Other speakers Sunday helped flesh out briefly the recent history of violence in the Congo-Rwanda-Burundi region of Africa.

The Banyamulenge Tutsis have been living in the Congo region for more than 200 years. In 1993, the parliament of Congo decreed that the Banyamulenge were no longer citizens, but instead refugees from Rwanda.

After the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which the government-supported Hutus hunted down and butchered Tutsis, the perpetrators of many of those atrocities fled to Congo, and started inciting violence there against the helpless Banyamulenge.

In 1998, the Rwandan Tutsi military invaded Congo, and the Congolese president heightened his rhetoric against the Banyamulenge, declaring that all Tutsis were an enemy of the state. He referred to them as vermin and snakes, and called for them to be hunted and killed. The Banyamulenge, many of whom live on the border of Congo and Rwanda, were caught helpless in the midst of violence that would go on to claim nearly 4 million people.

Gatumba was the not the first such act of violence, stressed Olivier Mandevu, a refugee who found shelter in the Capital Region. He runs the Gatumba Refugees Survivors Foundation.

It was just one particularly bloody expression of a genocidal philosophy.

There had been human-rights violations way before Gatumba, he said, with atrocities being committed to this day.

“Our people are dying in the east of Congo. Seven villages have been burnt. I can even name the names of the villages,” he said. “It is happening right now.”

Mauro De Lorenzo, a resident fellow with American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, agreed that such acts of violence were all too familiar for the Banyamulenge. He was in Gatumba days before the massacre, and arrived the day after, in time to see that “the bodies had been laid out in a row.”

“There is nothing special about Gatumba. There is nothing special about Gatumba. Who here has not lost a member of your family?” he asks the gathered Tutsis. “All of those people died of the same cause. And that is the sickness inside the politics of the Congo. The Banyamulenge have known the exact same kinds of problems for the past 40 years.”

“And no one is going to help except the Banyamulenge themselves,” De Lorenzo said. “And I don’t say that to discourage you, but to keep you focused on what is most important. And that is the unity in the Banyamulenge community.”

One way to understand the massacre of Gatumba, he said, was as a message sent from the government in Kinshasa, the Congo seat of power, to the Banyamulenge people that they would never be welcome back into Congo.

There are forces inside the Congo government who want to drive all Banyamulenge out of Congo, permanently, he said. And this year, with the unexpected help of political infighting within the Banyamulenge community, it looks as though these extremist factions might achieve their goal.

“I am sorry I don’t have a message of hope,” De Lorenzo said, “but the situation is quite serious.”

—Chet Hardin

chardin@metroland.net


What a Week

Journalism 101: Questions Now Inappropriate

It was a tender moment between President George Bush and his top political advisor, Karl Rove. At a press conference on the lawn of the White House this week, they announced together that Rove would resign as the president’s top advisor. The two men both read brief statements and embraced. The press had been briefed beforehand that they were not to ask questions, but that didn’t stop CBS reporter Bill Plante. Apparently unmoved by the solemnity of the moment, Plante shouted: “If he’s so smart, how come you lost Congress?” Neither man responded. But Plante’s colleagues in the press corps certainly did. This unbridled outburst of journalism has been characterized since in the mainstream press as unprofessional and inappropriate.

Ratcheting Up the Rhetoric

President Bush warned Tehran this week that any effort to assist anti-American forces in Iraq would be dealt with with force: “. . . There will be consequences for people transporting, delivering EFPs, highly sophisticated IEDs that kill Americans in Iraq.” Last month, London’s Guardian newspaper reported that Vice President Dick Cheney appeared to be winning an internal White House battle against Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is calling for restraint, over waging war against Iran. To many insiders, the president’s recent public comments signaled his alignment with the vice president’s ambitions.

Terrorists By Any Other Name

Further signs are emanating from the White House of an impending war against Iran. The Washington Post is reporting that the United States will now designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a “specially designated global terrorist.” The 125,000- member force is Iran’s elite military force. It is the first time, Fox News reported, that a foreign military force has ever been designated as a terrorist organization.

Get Ready, Kids

During an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, the Bush Administration’s war adviser, Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, said that it only makes sense to consider a draft now that the Army is under so much strain. Lute suggested that more soldiers were needed for operations overseas and on American soil.



Darkest Before Dawn

As throngs of unsupervised children try the patience of some Park South residents, hopes are hung on the Knox Street revitalization

Barrie Burlingame sent out a distressed e-mail earlier this month to her neighborhood association listserv, Albany County legislator, city councilman and assorted neighbors. The subject header: “Park South - Worst. Summer. Ever.”

In the e-mail, she detailed how quality-of-life issues, such as noise pollution and littering, and legions of unsupervised children were making her and her neighbors absolutely miserable.

Burlingame has lived for many years with her husband at 84 Morris St., and has seen it go through good times and bad. But this summer, she said, it has reached a new low.

“It is now a daily occurrence to find many children (not always the same ones) between the ages of infant and ten playing on and around my front porch when I get home from work,” she wrote. “Tuesday, a six year old girl was changing an infant’s diaper there. Last Thursday, there were two tiny children sitting on my steps with Pit Bull puppies tied to my railing. Every day I ask them to please get off and to not play there. Every day they are back.”

Further, she noted that unsupervised children of all ages run the streets late into the nights, sometimes throughout to morning.

Her e-mail inspired a flurry of similar complaints.

Julie Maynes, who lives on Madison Avenue, but whose property extends to Dana Avenue, has seen the neighborhood deteriorate as well. For her, much of the current quality-of-life concerns began with Albany’s change in policing strategy.

“We used to have a beat cop, who used to know the people, places, families. Now it is just happenstance if you ever see a cop,” she said. “I grew up around here. It used to be a family-oriented neighborhood. Now I lie in bed listening to the children running up and down the streets screaming. I think it trickles down to the parents who let their kids run around all night long.”

“I don’t know what the solution is, except that when we had a police officer around, it seemed like it was under control,” she said. “Now it seems like there is a notable police absence and not a police presence.”

“I think that there are certain neighborhoods, and I think Park South is one, where that kind of beat cop, having someone that you know, there is value to that,” said Richard Conti (D-Ward 6). Albany Police Chief James Tuffey’s reenvisioning of the department’s policing strategies last year, which included shuttering the Arbor Hill and Pine Bush stations, pulled many familiar officers off their beats. Beats, as was the case with the officer in Park South, that they had been walking for years.

The revamped strategy has been to put more cops on the streets, Conti conceded, “But the question is: Is that aspect of the recognizable beat cop in certain neighborhoods in some way something we should look back at again?”

“The people in the neighborhood are not as bad as they are seen to be,” said Michael Barber, a committeeman for the Sixth Ward, Seventh Election District. Barber has lived on Madison Avenue for four years.

“I think that some of it may be, I don’t want to say that it is hyped up, but some people around there, they hear a sneeze and they think that it is a gunshot,” he said. “That is how extreme they are about it.”

Though Barber said that he personally knows of two people who were jumped recently, and also he is aware of some minor drug dealing occurring, he sees the problems as generally quality-of-life issues, such as littering and noise.

“You have people who lived in Park South for years. They have seen a downward spiral over the years. So they are less comfortable with the neighborhood the way it is, ’cause their frame of reference is different. Some folks are agitated to the point where they are hypersensitive. Everything is magnified by 10. Some of the complaints are legitimate. But some of it is a lack of understanding.”

Many efforts to help curb some of the negative aspects of Park South have been initiated. Soon, Conti said, the Albany County district attorney’s office and a representative of the police will open an office at 14 Dana Ave.

It is always darkest before dawn, said Andrew Harvey, president of the Park South neighborhood association. It is a line he said he has been using for “far too long” to describe life in Park South.

“But dawn is when the Knox Street project gets under way,” Harvey said. As Winn Development prepares to take ownership of 18 buildings on Knox Street at the end of this month, he said that many people hope the positive effects of the rehabilitation project will radiate out into the surrounding neighborhood.

“At that point we will see a lot of efforts that have occurred over the last four years bear fruit,” he said. “Hopefully, this will be a part of a transformation for Park South.”

Barber also is working with Sarah Reginelli, a senior planner with the city of Albany and pointwoman on the Park South revitalization project, on developing programs for the neighborhood youth.

There was a neighborhood cleanup a few weeks ago, Reginelli said, starting on Dana Avenue. A bunch of kids came out.

“The kids were so excited and happy to be around that,” she said. “Kids obviously contribute to the litter problem and we wanted to show them that they are part of the neighborhood. There is a misunderstanding about how all these problems come up. We are trying to get people more understanding of the kids in the neighborhood and get the kids more active in the neighborhood as well.

They are looking at strategies for starting programs this fall and next summer. Outreach programs, after-school activities.

“You can go in there, and you can put new buildings up,” Reginelli said, “and you can rehab old buildings and that is wonderful and it is absolutely necessary. But there are a lot of other things you have to tackle at the same point or there aren’t going to be any real changes.”

—Chet Hardin

chardin@metroland.net




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