In Congo, a Disabled Peace

Security is improving in the eastern part of the country -- so why are many refugees worse off than before?

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Maria crosses what is left of her legs and leans back against the wall of her UNHCR-issued tent. She is tall -- before she stepped on a land mine in 2008, she was probably close to six feet -- with dark, searching eyes and a chin that looks as if it were carved out of granite. She scarcely moves when she speaks. "Life was never easy here," she says, while her 4-year-old granddaughter bounces quietly beside her on a thin mattress. "But now it is impossible."

In April, she tells me, the World Food Program (WFP), the United Nations' humanitarian relief arm focused on hunger, stopped issuing her food assistance: the 12 kg of maize, 1.5 liters of cooking oil, and 4 kilos of beans that once provided a monthly lifeline for everyone in the refugee camp where she lives. "Now I have nothing," Maria says, running her hand over the swollen nub that dangles below her right kneecap. "Sometimes the missionaries bring us something, but it's never enough."

Aid workers call this the camp of the vulnerable people. Baked, windswept, and sprawled over several acres of jagged volcanic rock, the Mugunga III settlement six miles west of Goma is home to roughly 10,000 Congolese who have been chewed up and spit out by two decades of near-constant fighting. There are women and children, and the occasional able-bodied young man, but most people over the age of 10 are like Maria: disabled, sick, or elderly. Many were relocated to flimsy tents here after nearby camps were closed down and their residents dispersed; those too frail or mangled to make the journey back to their home villages settled at Mugunga.

And now, almost all of them are hungry. 

"The food assistance was cut off without any warning," explains Juhudi Muhira, the president of the camp's committee for disabled people. "Now less than 20 percent of people with disabilities are receiving anything." The rest, he says, are forced to beg, forage, or look for work in Goma -- a virtual impossibility for amputees and others with serious physical disabilities. "The reality is that these people are stuck. Nothing here is handicapped-accessible," Muhira says.  

The situation in Mugunga strikes a dissonant chord with the emerging narrative about Congo. By many measures, things are actually better now in the country than at any point in the last two decades. Between 1996 and 2013, eastern Congo was the site of a devastating but largely invisible conflict that claimed the lives of roughly 5 million people, mostly from war-related starvation and disease. Rebel groups proliferated, and, at the height of the conflict, armies from nine different countries were fighting in eastern Congo. The human cost rivaled that of the great wars of the 20th century -- but the world scarcely batted an eye. 

The region broke into the headlines briefly in 2012, when Goma, the provincial capital, fell to a rebel group known as the M23 while the U.N. mission in Congo, the largest peacekeeping operation anywhere in the world, stood by. Since then, the authorization of a special U.N. Force Intervention Brigade with an offensive mandate, heightened international engagement -- including the appointment of Russ Feingold and Mary Robinson as U.S. and U.N. envoys, respectively -- and a so-called "framework agreement" between Congo's government and its traditionally meddlesome neighbors have together improved the security situation dramatically. (Signed in February 2013, the agreement requires the Congolese government to carry out security-sector reform in exchange for pledges of noninterference by the other 10 signatories.)

While Congo is still very much at war -- just ask any of the inhabitants of Mugunga III, the vast majority of whom are too afraid to return home -- it appears to be moving in the direction of peace. The new Force Intervention Brigade, fighting alongside Congolese troops, routed the M23 last year and has started in on other armed groups, such as the Allied Democratic Forces. Meanwhile, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu rebel group that includes former soldiers and militiamen who participated in the Rwandan genocide, seems to be at least flirting with the idea of voluntary disarmament. "All in all," says human rights activist and former Clinton administration official John Prendergast, "the trend line in global engagement for peace in Congo and the Great Lakes is improving."

Positive macro-level trends, however, can feel very distant to those still caught in a daily struggle for survival. And for the residents of Mugunga, the improved security situation has actually made things worse.

After the defeat of M23, the U.N. began to implement a mission that involves projecting state authority into what are called "islands of stability" in remote areas recently cleared of armed groups. According to Christoph Vogel, a Congo-based researcher and a lecturer in African studies at the University of Cologne, this has meant a curtailing of funds for the WFP, as well as other large, donor-dependent nongovernmental organizations working with displaced populations in the eastern part of the country.

The "post-M23 political window-dressing," Vogel explains, led to food assistance being diverted away from camps in and around Goma, as "both the Congolese government and international stakeholders were interested to display a picture of complete peace and stability."

Marring that picture are the many thousands of white tents dotting the outskirts of the city. So incentivizing refugees to return home, in some cases even when the villages they had fled are not yet safe, has become a top priority for the Congolese government and international donors alike. According to Ayako Tsujisaka, until recently the project coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) -- Doctors Without Borders -- in Mugunga, "More and more humanitarian aid is being oriented toward the areas of return, while less and less aid is being allocated into the displacement sites around Goma." 

The reshuffling of priorities left the WFP with a $21 million funding shortfall, and in April, it was forced to move to targeted food provision -- that is, helping those people deemed most in need -- in camps for displaced persons and refugees. This despite the fact that 64 percent of families living in camps in the province of North Kivu, where Goma is located, are vulnerable to food insecurity, according to a joint assessment carried out in February and March by the WFP and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. 

"Food insecurity is widespread and increasing" in the country, concludes another report, published in May by WFP. (Overall, roughly 6.7 million Congolese live in a state of acute food insecurity.) Rates of hunger and malnutrition are climbing, according to the report, because of low social spending by the Congolese government, ongoing conflict, and declining foreign aid.

For roughly 10 percent of the country's population, the situation has reached a "humanitarian crisis level."

In the Mugunga camp, the desperation is palpable. Tired women rest among empty pots and water jugs. Children with distended bellies roam in search of distraction. "There is no hope," Muhira says. "No one has promised us food. Not for tomorrow and not for the next day."

The WFP is still providing food rations to the 30 percent of North Kivu's displaced people it has deemed most vulnerable. But many aid workers say the so-called vulnerability survey the WFP conducted before it shifted its strategy was far from foolproof. For instance, it did not reach many people with disabilities who, according to NGO workers in the camp, were never registered as residents of Mugunga in the first place because of mobility issues.

"The process was a bit of a mess," says Tsujisaka. "There are so many factors that can make people vulnerable ... but it was not clear how they arrived at the final determination."

A spokesman for the WFP, Djaounsede Madjiangar, disputes this notion, saying that handicapped people who are no longer receiving assistance have some other "coping mechanism." Yet he admits, "With the reduced level of funding, it is difficult to adequately respond to the needs of food-insecure people." 

The outlook is increasingly grim for those with serious disabilities. The government wants them out of the camps as another step in closing the book on 20 years of war, but in a country that offers virtually no services for its disabled, the NGO-packed environs of Goma is one of the only places where it is possible to live with some dignity. There is no good data on the number of disabled people in Congo, but after such a long period of war, it is almost certainly higher than the 10 percent figure that is the norm in most societies. "You can see for yourself that it is way higher, not just because of weapons, but because of disease," says Aurélie Viard, a project manager for Handicap International in Goma.

Every day, more Congolese join the ranks of the disabled: Land mines, unexploded ordnance, and sporadic fighting are just a few of the drivers. In the first half of 2014 alone, the International Committee of the Red Cross's surgical team in North Kivu carried out 36 evacuations for war-wounded and completed more than 500 surgical procedures on 160 patients. It also furnished 60 new prostheses and 24 pairs of orthopedic braces to patients in Goma. 

That said, without a reliable source of food, services such as physical therapy or fitting for a prosthetic limb are quickly becoming afterthoughts. "If people are starving," Viard says, "it is hard to work with them on their other needs."

Peacetime, such as it is, is shaping up to be a battle for Congo's disabled population. And in the dusty quadrants of Mugunga, it is a battle that will be difficult for the weary to wage. "I have fled home twice because of fighting," says Maria, extending a slender arm to reassure her granddaughter. "I am tired of all this. I just need a place to live and the means to survive."



Dirty Old Town

In eastern Myanmar, just a stone's throw from the Chinese border, lies a den of drug smuggling, gambling, and vice. 

MONG LA, Myanmar — At first glance, it could be any dingy border town in China. Much of the population seems to speak Mandarin, the currency of choice is Chinese yuan, and it runs on Chinese cellphone networks. The kitschy, neon clock tower in the center of town even shows Beijing time -- an hour and a half ahead of Myanmar. But it isn't long before Mong La's "special" features become apparent. At the Caixin Hotel, the stained hallways are littered with plastic cards advertising the services of prostitutes, some as young as 15. The cable connection features round-the-clock Japanese pornography, while bedside advertisements hawk sex workers billed as "Burmese girls" and "Vietnamese younger sisters." While vice is not uncommon in China, Mong La makes little attempt to hide it. At one bustling eatery in the center of town, a Chinese madam in a tight, brown dress approached my table and offered me two shy-looking women who appeared to be in their early 20s. "Do you want younger?" she asked. "I have younger."

Mong La is the largest town in Special Region No. 4, a 1,910-square-mile crescent of autonomous territory in Myanmar's eastern Shan state. For more than two decades, the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), the militia that runs this tiny Golden Triangle fiefdom, has survived by creating a settlement of gambling halls, low-rent hotels, and brothels. Mong La's biggest draw is its 24 nearby casinos, which operate 24/7, attracting a steady stream of visitors from mainland China, where gambling is banned, and from the rest of Myanmar -- where gambling is also against the law.

Abraham Than, 88, a retired bishop who lives next to the Catholic church overlooking town, first moved to Mong La in 1969 from Taungoo in central Myanmar, and has seen it transformed into a Chinese satellite. "When I arrived here it was all Shan farmers," he said. "There were no houses, no buildings, nothing. During these last four, five years it has become a Chinatown. Mong La, Chinatown!"

The anything-goes ethos of Mong La hints at the broader challenges Myanmar's government faces in securing its borderlands -- a patchwork of ethnic rebel zones and warlord statelets that have eluded central control since the country's independence in 1948. One of the smaller of Myanmar's estimated 30-plus ethnic armed groups, the NDAA is led by the warlord Sai Leun (aka Lin Mingxian), who broke away from the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) when it collapsed in 1989. Like other factions of the CPB, the NDAA cut a deal with the military junta in Yangon, promising to end the insurgency in exchange for autonomy and lucrative business concessions, including control over the opium trade in the region of Mong La, where many of his fighters settled.

In the mid-1990s, after coming under strong Chinese and U.S. pressure to stem the flow of drugs from the region, the NDAA announced a crackdown and in 1997 declared itself "opium-free." That year it even built a museum in Mong La to commemorate the achievement, a musty building featuring photos of the drug-burning ceremonies and other anti-narcotics propaganda. In March 2000, the U.S. State Department was satisfied enough to report that Leun had "successfully rid his area of opium cultivation." One senior NDAA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, "There is no more opium; it is guaranteed." The official said that most of the region's revenue comes not from drugs or gambling, but from Chinese plantations of banana, rubber, and corn. "Go around and see," he said, "it's all green, all rubber plantations up to the Mekong River."

But some observers remain less convinced. Paul Keenan, a researcher at the Burma Center for Ethnic Studies in Chiang Mai, Thailand, said that while opium cultivation may have ceased in Special Region No. 4, it was hard to believe that there were no other drugs coming from the area, especially given the boom in methamphetamine production in eastern Myanmar over the past decade. "It just makes a lot of sense that they would continue to do it, because it's the most lucrative thing," Keenan said.

Special Region No. 4 has its own military force, a 2,500-strong army of ethnic Shan and Akha youths, but it's unclear exactly what laws apply in the area. While Beijing has pressured the NDAA to shut down the casinos and crack down on illegal border crossings, businessmen and county-level authorities in China's nearby Yunnan province also profit from Mong La's gambling and black marketeering and do little to enforce Chinese laws, said Wang Bangyuan, a public health specialist with extensive experience working in the Myanmar-China border region. "It's like a vacant place for law enforcement, so you can basically do anything," Wang said.

There have been challenges, of course. A decade ago, Beijing intervened and forced local authorities to shut down the casinos, turning Mong La into a ghost town overnight. In response, the NDAA shifted the casinos to a village 10 miles to the south, and to evade Chinese border checks, many gamblers now cross into Mong La illegally, via dirt tracks that connect it to the Chinese village of Manzhang. (A return trip by moto-taxi cost me about $30.) In the casino area, behind the blazing neon facades of establishments like the Royal Casino and Le Lisboa, hundreds of Chinese gamblers crowd around smoky tables, some wagering thousands of dollars on every turn of the cards. Other players with headsets place bets on behalf of gamblers watching via video feed from Kunming, Guangzhou, or Beijing.

In addition to drawing probably thousands of gamblers per month, the region's porous border with China has created lucrative smuggling routes for drugs and endangered animals. At Mong La's open-air market, an asphalted expanse ringed by palm trees and Sichuanese restaurants, traders openly sell freshly killed muntjac deer and the pelts of endangered small cats. Restaurants on the main dining strip specialize in rare wild animals -- owls, monkeys, and pangolins -- which are displayed in a miserable-looking caged menagerie on the pavement. At Xingshi Restaurant, endangered soft-shell turtle was available for just under $80 a pound; a waitress offered me the more budget choice of a small water monitor lizard for $48. Across the road, upmarket wildlife boutiques staffed by chain-smoking Chinese men sell tiger and ivory products -- including entire elephant tusks -- to cashed-up gamblers. Based on the high turnover, business does seem to be thriving, said Vincent Nijman, a zoologist from Oxford Brookes University who has conducted extensive fieldwork in Mong La.

The challenge in stemming the region's sanctioned lawlessness, analysts say, is that unlike most of Myanmar's armed groups, the NDAA has no discernible political agenda, nor any aspiration to ethnic self-determination. "They don't really want any political gains," said Keenan. "At this moment, it's about business, and survival." In this, the NDAA has a powerful ally in the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar's largest armed rebel group, whose main territory borders the Mong La region to the north. Led by Bao Youxiang, another reclusive former CPB commander, the UWSA maintains a standing army of at least 20,000 men and has long been considered one of the largest drug-producing syndicates in Myanmar.

Since 2009, when the Myanmar military dispatched troops to occupy Kokang, another "special region" in northern Shan state, the UWSA has stationed more than 1,000 soldiers in the Mong La area, as a hedge against any armed challenge by the Myanmar military. In late 2011, the UWSA and NDAA renewed their cease-fire agreements with Naypyidaw, cementing the autonomy they have enjoyed since 1989.

Even as the Myanmar government pushes forward with negotiations for a nationwide cease-fire with the country's ethnic rebel armies -- the second draft of an agreement was finalized during talks in May -- in places like Mong La a lucrative status quo persists. David Mathieson, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the current situation in Mong La was a perfect example of what writer Kevin Woods has described as "ceasefire capitalism" -- the Myanmar military's strategy of turning restive rebels into pliant businessmen. "They don't have the capacity to control all these borderlands, and so they need to cut deals with local strongmen," he said. "Strongmen with large armies that are engaged in business are more predictable than rebel groups fighting for political reasons."

Mathieson said officers in the Myanmar military, like local government officials in China, also benefit from this organized chaos by levying lucrative taxes on the flow of goods throughout the border region, and even getting involved in business for themselves. As long as this political and economic logic prevails, Mong La's casino barons and rebel leaders, as well as the Myanmar military, will all continue to turn a steady profit. "If they weren't benefitting financially, then it wouldn't be an acceptable situation," Mathieson said. "They benefit from that kind of disorder."

Photo by Sebastian Strangio