We should know: #FreeNadjo #FreeSolloh

Pondering…
Sonja Barend, the celebrated host of Dutch TV shows until 10 years ago, has written an honest memory of her youth, in which the search for her father and his Jewish identity is central. This father she never knew is one of the many Jewish men who disappeared during the second World War in the Netherlands. Her mother was the one to open the door for the policemen and answered yes on their question if her husband was in. They brought him to the Scheveningen prison in June 1942. He would stay in this prison for radicals and resisters of the German regime during 6 months, before being deported to the concentration camp Auschwitz where he died on an unknown day in 1943. Why this happened and how it happened – all not known. In her intimate reflections on her imagined father Sonja wonders about the people who then lived next to him and who should have known about these deportations, and on that moment that her mother said ‘Yes’. The main question in recent autobiographical literature memorizing WW II is: ‘should we have known?’. In a publication of 2012 Bart van der Boom raises the question if ‘ordinary’ Dutchmen in the war could have known. And if so, were they able to understand the severity, that was unimaginable. People lived their lives based on experienced history and this was simply too strange. The book led to fervent debates. The end of WW II is 72 years ago. The ‘not seeing’ has become a collective traumatic memory.

This part of Dutch history comes to my mind when reading the comments of the Chadian diaspora on the situation in Chad. We live in 2017 in a world full of communication technology, that allows us to see more than 72 years ago, but do we really see what is happening under authoritarian regimes, or maybe a better question: do we want to see?

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Symbol of the resistance movement Iyina in Chad as it appeared in whatsapp and messenger pictures

Arrests of young leaders
The arrests in Chad of youth leader Palmer Nadjo Kaina on 6 April and nine days later of Bertrand Solloh are not widely known to the world. These are just examples of many other arrests in Chad and elsewhere. Who notices these arrests? Why are they relatively silenced? Nadjo is leader of the youth movement Iyina (meaning ‘we are tired’ in local Arabic) and Solloh is responsible for Iyina’s communication and a member of ‘Tournons la page pour la démocratie en Afrique’ (Let’s turn the page for democracy in Africa). Both are civil society organisations that have become active (again) around the presidential elections of April 2016. The reasons for the arrests are vague. Nadjo, who was arrested two times already in 2015 and in 2016, has been accused of a possible disturbance of the public order by organizing a manifestation on the 10th of April, the day of the severely criticized elections in 2016. Iyina invited Chadians to remember this day and to wear the color red. Solloh was accused of participating in this organization. Other members of Iyina subsequently went in hiding or even left the country. For more than two weeks nobody knew where Nadjo and Solloh were. Even the Minister of Justice responded that he was not aware of the situation of these young people. Their lawyers had no access to them. Only on the 24th of April they reappeared in the capital city’s prison with the announcement of their possible judgment the day after. On the 27th they heard a requisitory of 5 years against them; the verdict will be on 4 May.

Were they detained in the prisons of the ANS, the secret police, or in the new prison Amsinéné in N’Djamena?  The conditions in these prisons are not well known. The last reports of Amnesty on these conditions date from 2012. A recent master’s thesis of the University of N’Djamena from 2016 reports about injustices. Isn’t it ironic that this happens when a new film on the prisons and actions of the DDS (former secret police) under the previous president of Chad, Hissein Habré, has just been released, and whose creator, the well-known Chadian cineast Mahamat Haroun Saleh, has been nominated Minister of Culture? Nadjo and Solloh are part of a new generation of political detainees in Chad.

(Not) knowing
News about the young men is not part of daily talk in N’Djamena. Those who open their mouth fear to be arrested. ‘They all left, I might be arrested’ is one of the comments of a friend and member of Iyina. Spreading fear is one of the results of the attitude of the government who also arrests, interrogates and sometimes then liberates, like the 60 youngsters who protested/manifested on the 10th of April acting in answer to the call of Iyina. These are brave actions ending in intimidation and I can imagine that it is difficult or even impossible to escape feelings of fear. As some Chadians claim: we are living the horrible times of the DDS again. Many people prefer to keep silent.

The only sphere where it seems possible for Chadians to comment and denounce acts of the Chadian government is on social media. The blog forum Yadaari and Makaila-blog posted a few blogs about the situation. Sporadically Twitter refers to the situation in Chad: the hashtags #FreeNadjo and #FreeSollo, or #FreeSolloh were born in the tweets of Laurent Duarte, coordinator of the international movement ‘Tournons la Page’. But it is especially on Facebook that comments and actions are announced. These Facebook Posts are mostly from the hands of diaspora activists, who also organize manifestations in Paris and elsewhere. Screenshot_20170422-155902The content of their posts is not only about facts, but as well about the laxity of the Chadian population who they urge to take their destiny in their own hands. A regular commentator is the Strasbourg based journalist Tahirou Hissein Daga. Although the frustration of these Facebook users who find themselves outside the country and feel something needs to change is understandable, the question is if they are  justified? What would they do in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation? But also if you live your daily life, does one really see? They are probably not right in the accusation of people who live in difficult circumstances in Chad. Being inside and act is not easy and reminds me of the situation during World War II, with which I opened this blog post. But those who are outside, like the diaspora and hence the international actors, they can see!

We should know
It is only after a long silence that the international community picks up this news, though still sporadically. To find their announcements and articles one has to be interested in Chad. The action that has become somehow public was the request and short report of Amnesty International and some publications on RFI (French news agency). Recently there was a denouncement of these arrests and a call for liberation in a common call. Why is the world not more active in denouncing these human rights violations? Did we not learn from our WWII history? Must we wait, like then, for 72 years to analyze an authoritarian rule and its atrocities? This, while there is enough information to know that there is clearly a violation of human rights? In this case we cannot argue that we did not know, on the contrary: we should have known.

And Chad is just an example. It is part of a larger tendency of authoritarian rule in different countries in the world. Some cases are well known and widely discussed, others are relatively silenced as is the case for Chad.

It is important to alert the international community by revealing the facts, and also by recalling the collective memory of WW II; by realizing that similar things are now happening in the world; realizing that we might be able to play a role to diminish the misery of the people in Chad, to diminish the risk of traumatic collective memories. We live in a global world, the realities of Chad should also be ours.

Cameroon Alert!

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Text from a Facebook post 23 June 2016: Common lawyers rubbish new penal code Bill: A penal code that says ministers cannot be arrested or tried (immunity). A penal code that says any judge who tries  a minister and sentences him will be sent to jail. Wonders!!

Gradually we’re starting to get more information from West Cameroon, where a strike by lawyers has been evolving into a general strike among teachers and finally protestsscreenshot_20161212-085944 in several towns in this part of Cameroon that were met with violence by the State. Today, 12 December: A call is being made on the internet for declaring a Ghost Town in Southern Cameroon (see Facebook post); what will be the response? The essence of the argument in the protest is the imposition of the Francophone laws, teaching etc. on the Anglophones, a discourse that stands for so much more.

Common Lawyers strike
It started with the strike of the Anglophone Common Lawyers. I witnessed through the eyes of a former student from Leiden the long process leading up to the strike: the first steps were made this summer. It went from a peaceful protest to a harsh and violent encounter between the lawyers and the government. On Thursday 10 November 2016, several lawyers in Buea were beaten, and their wigs and gowns seized.

From a Facebook Post summarizing the process, beginning December:

Hello Prof. Mirjam! The Common Law Lawyers of Anglophone extraction have been on strike across the entire Common law jurisdictions of the North West and South West regions. This is on account of the systemic extinction of the Common Law principles by officials of ‘La République’. Prior to this strike action we had tabled a series of demands to the head of state. It is a shame that instead of responding to our demands, the government turned a deaf ear and instead employs its traditional policy of divide and rule as a means of frustrating our cause.
Consequently, we have resorted to remain resolute, determined and steadfast to our cause. We are henceforth synergizing with other unions to advance the cause.

Cameroon on fire?
Are the protests that we are witnessing today an outcry over years of neglect and oppression? And will they finally lead to change in Cameroon? For long, journalists and academics have been wondering why there was not more protest in Cameroon. I asked this question several times to my Cameroonian friends whose answers would vary; from ‘we do not like conflict’ to ‘oppression is too harsh’. Are today’s protests a turn in Cameroonian history? Will the Anglophone grievances be picked up by the Francophones who suffer similar marginality, who are also neglected by the state and have a ruler whose family has been bathing in wealth for the past 34 years? The splitting of the country in Francophone and Anglophone parts at independence (1961) has ever since served as a language to formulate anger and to search for justice.

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@From the blog post of Vera Bakker

I cite from a friend’s detailed report to me (in the week of 12 December). He was writing this in a cybercafé while the protests were ongoing on 30 November 2016:

But the unique aspect of the union of French speaking and English speaking Cameroonians is that it was not one through a formal union treaty. It was an informal arrangement between the peoples of the Cameroons who only share the commonality of German colonization from 1884 to 1916 who decided to cohabitate from October 1961. That is why the union has been described as a ‘Tontine Union’ in reference to the commonly found informal associations which function on the basis of unwritten agreements.

We preach no violence. At least not before peaceful options have been exhausted! But it was high time we got Yaoundé to understand that we have inalienable rights. It was high time we got Yaoundé  to understand that we are all children of God, made in his own image and lines. That we have been recognized by the international community as a people; and so we stand side by side with them as two peoples equal in status. That, flowing from that, we shall never again glorify the status of second class citizens.

Deep roots
Walter Nkwi, University Professor in Buea,  shared his analysis with me per e-mail (12 December 2016):
‘(…) Of course the problem of Bamenda [the anglophone capital of the North West Region, MdB] cannot be explained in a single email. It has deep historical roots and cannot be separated from the political upheavals of the 1990s. Over the years, the city has been abandoned by the ruling government to the extent that there is virtually no road.fb_img_1481529808525
This time around the story started with the lawyers who insisted that the government should translate the OHADA Law, which is a business law for the whole of French Africa. Interestingly this law has been there since 1999 or so. Apart from the translation the lawyers also demanded that the government should withdraw all the Francophone magistrates, who cannot pass and write judgment in English, from the Anglophone courts. This was also because the government had been insensitive to the fact that while the Francophones are trained in civil law the Anglophones were trained in common law. After a persistent plea to the government and the government stubbornness to listen to their plight they now called a strike.
In the midst of the strike, Anglophone teachers of secondary and higher education called a strike, firstly, in solidarity with the lawyers and also because the francophone had adulterated the English education; University of Buea [the capital of the anglophone South West Region, MdB] and Bamenda joined and all now are asking for a federal system of government while others are asking for complete secession with the francophone government. An attempt to diffuse this problem by the Prime Minister in Bamenda failed. This led to a rally in Buea to preach national unity by the CPDM [main political party, of president Paul Biya, MdB] stakeholders. This was happening just after Frundi [opposition leader, central in the riots in the 1990s] had visited Buea to attend the students who had gone on rampage on 28 November demanding for their bonuses, also known as the Presidential excellent award. Their names were omitted at the level of the Ministry of Higher Education and the university authorities were still in the process of getting the problem resolved. However, in Buea the rally “went well” but the attendance was very timid.
The CPDM delegation left for Bamenda where they met stiff resistance from the population, mostly the youths who put up barricades, blocking all the entrances into the city. The military replied with grenades and life bullets and in the confusion some youths were killed. The other youths resorted to burning down the electric and telephone poles as well as the police station at the Meta quarters and military cars. CPDM vote holders were even taken hostage at Ayaba hotel, one of the big hotels in Bamenda.
Bamenda, Buea and Cameroon at large are very tense. Anything can start at any time. The personnel of the University of Buea has been on strike for one month now and nothing is moving. Administrators have abandoned their offices and once in a while the police, in full combat gear, comes round. Nobody can say what will happen next. Like during the French revolution of 1789.  All the ingredients for a great outburst in Cameroon are present. There is an inefficient and corrupt government; a dismembered civil society; a very high level of unemployment; an efficient military; popular masses suffering from the main base of the state; a lousy 300 parties democracy; inadequate health facilities; inadequate portable water; very poor road infrastructure etc. All need a single spark to set everything alight. The conflagration can come at any time.

I have told you in trust my mind.’

Walter permitted me to publish this text that hardly contains his anger but is also an analysis that needs to reach the eyes of the readers.

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UNHCR in Congo Equateur, layered Counter Voice ‘effect’

(travelling with Catherina Wilson, June 2014)

The small rond point just at the market of Libenge has received a new painting: the logo of the UNHCR to announce a new phase in this small town’s existence. Libenge is a small town in Northern Congo, Province Équateur. It is just a small town, like so many others, so it seems at first sight. But underneath this ‘normality’ the hidden histories of promises and projects that have never come through make Libenge a very emotional and disturbing place. Will the invasion of the UNHCR, the United Nations agency for Refugees, be another white elephant, adding to the experience of lost hopes?

DSC05313-2Why a blog about UNHCR in a counter voice narrative? Because what we have seen needs to be shared; but also because this type of organization functions as a Voice. The UNHCR as an organization makes in its actions a call to the World for the refugees. However, at the same time this Voice and the actions of the UNHCR generate and annihilate individual counter voices, by creating hope but humiliating these at the same time. Can we analyse this as a layered Counter Voice ‘effect’?

White Elephants
Libenge is situated in the homeland of Mobutu and the recently arrested ‘rebel’ leader Bemba. Bemba waits for his trial at the ICC in the Hague. Both Bemba and Mobutu have not lost their hero status for many people here. Some of the youth do not reject Mobutu’s DSC05292-2authoritarian regime, but instead compare it with the present-day situation, concluding that it was better then: anything is better than the rule of Kabila. Many of these young men and women do not have jobs. They try to make a living by being a taxi-bike (that is not their own) man, and do some farming, although they have no real clue to how to create a successful harvest. We visit some of the white elephants; an empty sugar factory, a huge construction that had to become the Panafrican University, and the airport where – until the arrival of the UNHCR – planes were only sporadically appearing.
UNHCR’s arrival in the region dates from the time before the first refugees from CAR arrived in the camp. If the information of the sisters (Filles de Saint Joseph) is correct the UNHCR knew long before the conflict in CAR started about the need for refugee camps. They were preparing in 2012. The sisters therefore believe that this is all a set-up. We could not verify this early preparation. Was the influx of refugees foreseen? And what has been the role of international politics and interests? Answers will never be certain. But the presence of the UNHCR and many other Humanitarian NGOs in Libenge (and the region) is a fact. They create jobs, new public spaces, make prices of food and shelter rise, and introduce cars, improve roads, in short create another reality. And everybody knows UNHCR will not stay forever.

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Travelling the road between Gemena and Libenge and between Libenge and Zongo (about 260 km) by motorbike, we meet fourwheeldrive cars from the UNHCR only, we see piles of wood, we meet the UNHCR sign boards. The fourwheeldrive cars can travel these bad roads, except for the bridges that were reconstructed recently by the UNHCR, as a ‘gift’. The big trucks that pass with a lot of trouble (often 14 days on the road) profit from these bridges. But there are no other cars. Only motorbikes help people from one town to the other. The piles of wooden planks along the road are now mainly bought by the UNHCR to create the camps. Building 25,000 huts and all the rest demands a huge amount of wood. Houses in the villages wear signs of the UNHCR, the UNHCR brand on the cloth that covers some of the hangars, but also the announcements of their good work: rehabilitation of a school, the reconstruction of a bridge, and the many t-shirts. And of course the big refugee camps along the road; one near Libenge (Boyabu) and the other nearZongo (Molè). The colours of the UNHCR, blue-white, are the marks of new buildings, new projects and aid money.

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The presence of the UNHCR is part of the war economy/situation that we observe in this region; a war that this time comes from the Central African Republic. It is not the first confrontation with war in this region, coming from different sides, and stories of displacement are normal. This last conflict is considered the expected next. In the small towns offices of the UNHCR and the national refugee organization CNR (Congolese Council for Refugees) are the busy headquarters of the organizations. Decisions are taken here about the set up and regulations in the camps, and where the new refugees and displaced will go. Can Chadians join the camps or should they be sent to Kinshasa? These fleeing people who have left their homes and beloved ones behind obtain another identity here. Entering the registration procedure means that one becomes subject to UNHCR policy, applying juridical formats to these people’s identity; from which there is only a very difficult return. The refugee who was a free person becomes a ‘prisoner’ of humanitarian aid. The aid is attractive and hard to refuse, as there is no alternative. For many newly arriving refugees receiving 15 dollars a month per head is enough to survive. Though there will always be hunger and need for care. The decision to give money instead of food was based on a protest in one of the camps. The refugees did not like the distributed food. The other (probably outweighing?) reason was that the UNHCR could not organize the provision of the huge amounts of food, simply because of financial and infrastructural problems.

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The UNHCR, their sub-contractors (like the CNR) and humanitarian NGOs thus install yet another dynamic in the region that will certainly direct people’s lives, for refugees and autochthones, and for the employees. It is remarkable that many of the higher cadre employees are from other regions in Congo. We meet quite a number of people who are from the East. Their explanations reveal that they have become part of the humanitarian circulation that started in the East of Congo, where the UN has been present for many years. It appears that the East was a ‘school’ for humanitarian aid practitioners. The equatorial province offers a new job market for these humanitarians. Perhaps such machinery of humanitarian aid is unavoidable. The world has no other model to care for people in extremely difficult/disaster situations. However the dynamics we observe are also counter-productive and double sided. Both the employees and the refugees are ‘victims’ of the organization. Although the employees are of course happy with their jobs, they do realize that life is not that easy as their families are elsewhere and they are confronted with misery on a daily basis; on the other hand the DSC05357-2refugees become a kind of prisoners, with a subject identity. They will also be grateful for the help they receive. But is there not another way? Many lives are ‘crushed’ and will not be the same after calm has returned. The materials used by the UNHCR will not stay for long after the operation has stopped, the wood and batches will just perish; but the organizational and social structures they created and the mentalities put in the minds of many young and old people will stay, and it is not certain whether this will bring a durable future of peace. This time the white elephant is leaving its marks in the mentalities, and although material structures might not be left behind, it is as well enduring especially for the creation of sentiments that make the population anxious for their historical leaders; a returning sentiment that overrules these leaders’ terrible and violent deeds.

The UNHCR has a message to the world and is a Voice for a better world; but its existence is also based on this Voice. The model of the UNHCR has been developed on the basis of humanitarian models that unavoidably change people’s identities and create a reservoir of ‘refugees’, with another mentality, and ideas about the world. It creates people who will not be the counter voices of the future, but instead dependent and traumatized forever.