Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Photogenic Goma

The war in eastern Congo may not be attracting the consideration it deserves from the media and the upper echelon of the international diplomatic community, but that doesn't mean no attention is being paid. In addition to the dozen or so journalists who are posting regularly from the Kivus, several photographers are documenting the conflicts there. Here are a few recently published photos that struck me.

1) This photo by Dominic Narh of Magnum of a young man mourning the death of his father seems to me to strike the right balance in depicting suffering without being overly intrusive. The man's face is largely hidden, protecting his dignity, even as his drawn-in body evokes the universal language of grief. Note the contrast between the bright red of his sweater and the dark shabby clothes of the people passing on the crumbling cement veranda behind him. The fact that some of the pedestrians are half-turned toward him, while others are simply walking past, provides a useful footnote to usual Auden/Breughel observation. But to me what gives this photo its precise measure of rightness is the caption, which provides the name and occasion for the man's grief, lifting it from the universal to the particular.

Mujinga Lokuli Grace (21) mourns after finding the body of his father who was a DRC
government military doctor who was killed the day before as rebels took the city of Goma.
 Dominic Narh. Magnum Photos. 11/18/12

2) The things they left behind. The Congolese army melted into the civilian population as Goma fell, abandoning their uniforms, weapons, and anything else that might give them away to the Rwandans. I'm wondering if these army boots ever had laces, or if the soldier who owned them took the laces for repurposing on civilian shoes. Yes, it's a little Van Gogh-y, but still.

Items left behind by soldiers who fled. Photos taken in the
neighborhoods of Volcans and Mabanga.
Alain Wandimoyi. France 24. 11/22/12

3) This photo by Phil Moore of AFP of Monusco blue helmets manning a protective barrier near Goma appears at first glance to show two soldiers doing their job under dangerous conditions. But something about their relaxed, almost casual demeanor provides a sardonic comment on Monusco's impotence in eastern Congo. By extension, it constitutes a sharp criticism of the international community's continuing indifference to the plight of eastern Congolese.

Uruguyan United Nations peacekeepers man a defensive position on the outskirts
of Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Phil Moore. AFP/Getty. 11/20/12

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Lifted from the Archives

March 9, 2009

Somewhere The Onion (a satirical news magazine) has a headline that says something like, "Area Asshole Gets his own Blog."

And sometimes, I feel like I'm that asshole. If only I weren't so pessimistic about the latest developments in the Great Lakes! If only I weren't so skeptical of the region's leaders, and believed they actually had their own people's best interests at heart! If only I felt that the new administration was really going to make a difference! If only it weren't staffed by so many former Clintonites! If only I didn't feel the Clintonites had made such a hash of it the first time around! If only I believed in the power of Hollywood stars to change the calculus of nation states! If only I believed that a few, inexpensive measures would make all the difference! 

Instead, I'm always carping about this or that, worrying about the-other-thing, questioning motives, remembering some awkward bit of history, and generally sulking around like the skunk at the picnic. 

So it's nice, every once in a while, to remember I'm not alone.* Howard French, former NYT bureau chief in Africa, chronicled the rise of Kabila and the disastrous Clinton policy of those years. He has an editorial in the Huffington Post about what Obama may mean for Africa, and like me, he retains a bad taste in his mouth from the last Democratic administration:
There is a powerful argument to be made that this disaster [the wars in the Congo], along with the Rwandan genocide that preceded it, is Bill Clinton's most important foreign policy legacy, and an Obama policy toward Africa run by many of the same people and carrying forward Clinton era thinking would be a sign of disdain for the continent and its problems.
The Congo's apocalyptic dissolution began in earnest when Washington gave Rwanda the green light to invade the country, setting off a free for all that sucked in many of the Congo's neighbors.

*And of course, I'm not. While the policy debate in Washington is being led by cheerleaders, the real scholars of the region--and you know who you are--are much less doe-eyed, much more weighed down by the deep intractability of the problems, and much less hopeful about Obama's capacity or political will to bring change to the region.

An Eccentric Little History of Congo

Adam Curtis of the BBC has a strange, entertaining little history of the Congo's early years of independence. He touches on Che Guevara, Mobutu, Mike Hoare, the Sapeurs, and Diane Fossey, and includes several short video clips that I've never seen before. Did you know that Louis Leackey, Fossey's mentor, had an affair with her and tried desperately to convince her to abandon the gorillas to be with him?

Monday, November 5, 2012

My Two Cents

Hope and Change
I'm voting tomorrow for the same guy I voted for four years ago, but with little of the hope and yes--joy--I felt back then. Obama has been a crushing disappointment to me. On Africa, my single issue topic, he has not simply been absent, as several commentators have argued. He has been worse. He has inaugurated a host of militaristic policies in Africa driven by our millenarian wars on drugs and terror. He has welcomed the same tyrannical and bloody kleptocrats to the White House as his predecessors. And while he talked a good game early on about the importance of building civil society and good institutions, he has done nothing to follow up on those words. Nothing.

On the wider stage, he has enshrined a state of more or less constant war against Eastasia--I mean the Muslim world--that normalizes atrocities against the darker-skinned abroad and a permanent abridgment of their our civil liberties at home. He has barely uttered the words "global warming," though he must know that posterity is likely to judge him more harshly for that than any number of sins of commission. On the domestic front he has rescued capitalism for the capitalists (Roosevelt famously rescued it from the capitalists), but done nothing to reverse--or even slow--the entrenchment of our emerging financier-based plutocracy. Dodd-Frank's only real effect will be to enrich a new generation of Wall Street lawyers. He has imprisoned and deported more undocumented people than all previous presidents combined. He has taken every opportunity to invigorate rather than temper the war on drugs. He has pursued quasi-market educational policies based on the lamentably well-philanthrophized notion that testing well is dispositive for learning. He has ignored labor.

His one significant accomplishment is health care: it is impossible to gainsay that, if only because nearly every president since WW II has tried and failed to institute some sort of universal coverage. That it was the worst of the options, that it does little to bend the cost curve, that it came at the cost of bribing off virtually every stakeholder except the sick and those who may someday become sick: Well, perhaps this was the price that needed paying. Or perhaps not: the other options were never tried. In any case, that one achievement isn't nearly enough to make up for him having squandered the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that his election represented. He came in facing the gravest set of problems any president has confronted since Roosevelt; in his biography and rhetoric Obama promised as soaring a set of responses. The achievements he has delivered have been at best Clintonian in their scale and imagination.

But the other guy's worse. And I live in Virginia, where votes count.

Quote of the Day

"The countries in the Great Lakes including Rwanda, Uganda, DRC, Kenya and others have shown a common interest in ending the crisis in the eastern parts of DRC...Although the situation involves complex issues like ethnic identity, transit and DRC's ability, it has been illustrated that no one is willing to support the negative forces operating in Congo and the country's sovereignty will be supported at all times."
                         --US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman